Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Jack Juggles, Liz Returns To Doing Her Thing And 30 Rock Season 4 Moseys On.

The Good: Moments of real humor, Guest performances are convincing and good, Jack's character growth.
The Bad: Not as memorable as earlier seasons, No impressive, Most of the characters do not grow.
The Basics: After watching 30 Rock Season 4, I find I have shockingly little to say about it. The season is amusing once, but lacks a resonance that makes me want to watch it repeatedly.

Last year, after much initial resistance from me, my wife and I started watching the DVD sets of 30 Rock. My resistance was an old grudge and a silly one at that. The year 30 Rock made its debut, there was a similar show also on NBC, Studio 60 On The Sunset Strip (reviewed here!) and I fell in love with that. When it was canceled, I blamed, in part, 30 Rock for filling the same niche, but with more of a pandering to the half-hour sitcom crowd than the thinking person's dramedy audience, which Studio 60 On The Sunset Strip was geared for (yea Aaron Sorkin!). But last year, I came around and my wife and I watched the first three seasons of 30 Rock and I found there was a lot to enjoy. So, it was with a great amount of enthusiasm that my wife and I devoted a whole weekend during my recent government training to watching 30 Rock Season 4 on DVD.

And I wish I could say it was worth it.

I cannot, though. In its fourth season, 30 Rock is not superlative in any recognizable way and the death knell for the show from this reviewer's perspective is this: I watched the final six episodes of the season four times each and I had been real excited about watching this DVD set and yet, nothing sticks out in my mind about the season. In fact, when I thought about a gag I particularly enjoyed, I realized that it was not from one of the episodes in 30 Rock Season 4, but rather from the episode my wife and I randomly caught on television last Thursday night. My point here is sadly obvious: 30 Rock may have lost its mojo in the fourth season. More precisely, while I enjoyed watching the episodes once, they left me with no lasting impressions and less desire to watch them a second time than with prior seasons of the show. In fact, the episodes I did watch multiple times did not make me laugh the second (or more) time.

In its fourth season, 30 Rock embodies part of the worst of network, ratings-driven sitcoms. While the show is fairly heavily serialized, it is not building a larger motif or a more meaningful net product or story. Instead, with 30 Rock Season 4, NBC seems obsessed with keeping the ratings high with celebrity guest stars whose appearances are less about creating a meaningful narrative and more about generating Nielsen ratings and thus advertising revenue. After the initial humor of a joke or episode passes, there is nothing that encourages viewers to return to these episodes and ultimately, that is why it continues its downslide into mediocrity.

The exception to all this is in the character of Jack, the head of NBC in 30 Rock, though notably not in Alec Baldwin. But I get ahead of myself.

With Liz Lemon riding high on her new television show based upon her bestselling book Dealbreaker, everything seems to be going well for the executive producer of T.G.S. With Tracy Jordan. But Liz's ineptitude in front of the camera quickly lands her back at her writing and management desk, running the writer's room and marshaling the celebrity stars of her weekly sketch comedy show. While Liz returns to her normal rut, dreaming of a romance with Astronaut Mike Dexter, her subordinates and manager go on their own adventures.

For Tracy, it means trying to make good with his wife, especially when it becomes public knowledge that he has never cheated on her. He begins his dimwitted quest for an EGOT (Emmy, Grammy, Oscar and Tony) based upon a necklace while Jack finds himself in a relationship with a girl from his hometown. But when she is hesitant to end her marriage and run off with Jack, Jack turns to Avery Jessup, a whip-smart financial reporter who delights him and stimulates his ambitions. When Jack's mentor, Don Geiss, dies, Jack is left crippled by an inability to make the hard choices, most notably between Nancy and Avery.

30 Rock Season 4 seems incredibly familiar for a sitcom and most of the surprises - both in physical and verbal comedy - fall short, becoming less than what one might expect. There is a lack of originality to much of the season, so those in tune with the show are less likely to laugh. Take, for example, a gag when Liz and Kenneth attempt to get Jack out of his funk following his mentor's death. Kenneth tells Jack that the peacock Jack was bequeathed made a sound much like the nicknames Jack and Don used to have for one another. When he leaves Jack's company, he calls Liz and speaks in code, referring to all of the subjects (Kenneth, Liz, Jack and the peacock) all as "badger," making for an almost incoherent message. When Liz calls him on this, Kenneth says he thought Liz told him to use "badger," but she flippantly admits "I said I didn't care." What was once fast wordplay on the show has devolved into a strangely obvious series of exchanges. In this case, viewers who "get" Liz figure she is indifferent and when Kenneth begins to confuse her, she has an antipathy toward him and his plans, even if she was in on them at the beginning.

Unfortunately, while I usually love serialized shows, 30 Rock Season 4 does not add up to anything extraordinary. From early in the season, Liz learns her ex-boyfriend will be getting married and she will be reading at his wedding, but because he is a peripheral character, the impending wedding is a non-event and as Liz gets roped into other weddings on the same day, the viewer cares less about her struggles and more about those of the characters around her, most notably Jack.

This is, arguably, Jack's season as he wrestles with dating two different women, one who represents his past, another that represents a potential future to him. Other main characters seem to work in his orbit. Kenneth works as his lackey, from breaking into Nancy's house for him to trying to help him get out of his funk. He also continues to be a part of Tracy's entourage, but he does not have any memorable moments of his own. Instead, he is relegated to a support character, though he is given more airtime and one-liners than Pete or Frank. Jenna is also downgraded for much of the season, though she enters into a bizarre romance near the end of the season that gives her a few good moments. Even Tracy in his quest for the EGOT is not nearly as vital or crazy as he was in earlier seasons.

Tina Fey does fine as Liz Lemon, but "fine" is not a strong, defining performance. With this season, the viewer has the sense that she just stayed in her role from Date Night (reviewed here!) and isn't even stretching for more versatility now. Similarly, Alec Baldwin plays the dry humor of the first three seasons exclusively and his performance does not give the audience anything new.

On DVD, 30 Rock Season 4 has minimal extras, including a few commentary tracks and featurettes on the season. Like the primary programming, they are stiflingly average.

For other seasons of 30 Rock, please visit my reviews of:
30 Rock Season 1
30 Rock Season 2
30 Rock Season 3


For other television DVD and episode reviews, please visit my index page by clicking here!

© 2011 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.

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