Howdy, 30 Rock viewers! Whew…busy week for me. After filling in for a vacationing Claire Zulkey on American Idol, I got the call from Noel Murray, who has apparently been smote by a tornado, to stand in on 30 Rock, which Noel was going to cover for Nathan Rabin, who is, I dunno, in jail for assassinating the President, let's say.
A friend and I were discussing the differences between 30 Rock and The Office — two of our current favorite comedies — a few weeks back, and we each stood up for our show of choice. I'm a big Office fan, and I said I preferred that show because it was willing to make you work a bit harder for a laugh, relying on fairly subtle reactions and slow character developments instead of big broad gags. He countered that what he loves about 30 Rock is that, unlike the writers on The Office, Tina Fey and her staff are totally unafraid of making Liz Lemon pitilessly unlikable, and pulling the rug out from under even her noblest moments, while The Office's writers always seem to offer a hint of redemption for Michael Scott. 30 Rock, with its less realistic, more overarching comedic style, can afford not to do that.
Tonight's episode, for both better and worse, proved my friend correct. It was broad as hell, with three incredibly whoopsie plot threads all driven by one of the most venerable office sitcom tropes (budget cuts threaten the solidarity of our beloved heroes), but it was redeemed not only by being funny as hell at its best, but by letting the unlikability of some of the main characters — sometimes inadvertent, sometimes not, provide some of the strongest laughs in "Cutbacks".
The show opens on a high note: TGS With Tracy Jordan is celebrating its 50th show, and, celebrating over a bunch of empty winebottles, Liz congratulates them on their many accomplishments, including an Emmy (magazine cover, commemorating "The Death of Comedy"). But in steps Jack Donaghy to ruin their fun, informing Liz that, since Sheinhardt Wigs is facing its first unprofitable quarter since the Civil War, there will be across-the-board cutbacks.
After a couple of predictable gags in the open, it's off to the races with the three main plots, each set in motion by the one before: Liz has to protect her staff from cuts against a corporate hatchet man (Brad Hallster of the Himmler Group); Jack, who — faced with cuts of his own — had to fire Jonathan, recruits Kenneth to be his new executive assistant; and Kenneth, swamped with work, asks Tracy to feed his pet parrot, but not to go into his bedroom when he's at his apartment, sparking Tracy's fears that Kenneth is a serial killer ("Why would you not want Tracy Jordan in your bedroom unless it's full of dead nurses?")
Since Liz is unwilling to make any budget cuts (especially to the food budget), she decides to wow the management consultant with a presentation, which starts as a pretty nasty parody of typically padded PowerPoint-speak and then blossoms into a review of TGS' greatest hits, including President Flava Obama and the Fart Machine. (More of Jenna's Rappin' Suri, please!) But when this fails to sway the stone-faced corporate goon, she considers seducing him to save the show.
Kenneth, of course, botches his job as Jack's new assistant with his poe-faced sincerity and utter inability to prioritize; most of the laughs in this plot thread come from his accidentally tipping people that they're about to get canned. I've also always dug the idea that General Electric, in 30 Rock-world, functions sort of like a big Radio Shack, and so I loved to see the head of the Boom Box Division getting laid off (and protesting that his staff aren't behind the times — "We're groovy!")
The is-Kenneth-a-serial-killer plot, despite a few pretty funny lines (like Jenna's refering to the staff as "non-specials"), is pretty much a non-starter, redeemed largely by how deeply unnerving Jack McBrayer behaves when he turns off the energetic, optimistic demeanor he usually sports. We also get one of those occasional hints that there's something profoundly wrong with Kenneth, as he mentions, after Jenna and Tracy accidentally kill his parrot, that he's had it for over 60 years.
The denoument, though, is a perfect realization of my friend's observation that one reason the show works so well is that Tina Fey is almost superhumanly non-protective of the Liz Lemon character: after she spends a little quality grope time with Brad Hallster, she assumes that it's with the understanding he leaves TGS alone; when she returns the next day to find the studio gutted and the staff in tatters, she confronts him — only to learn that he took the dallience all too seriously: it was his first intimate moment with a woman after the death of his wife. Not only does it make Liz look absolutely awful, but it also sets up circumstances so that Jack can step in and save the show, in a breakneck turnaround in mood that's almost ruthless.
"Cutbacks" wasn't a perfect episode; there were more than a few dud jokes, a pretty stock premise, and no real moving the ball forward in anyone's characterization. But it ended with a great example of the show's willingness to go for the throat for that big laugh, and this is, after all, a sitcom, so who can fault it for that?
—“Okay, last verse, Jonathan.”
—“That's the bar we all go to after work in my dreams.”
—“It's Tergis! With Tracky John John and Jimmy Moh!”
—Apparently, the official beverage of TGS with Tracy Jordan is Delaware Punch.
—Oh, Seattle's Richard Sackmuncher, BURN ON YOU!
—“Those girls pretend they're not women yet, but they are.”
—"If we find any human remains in there, I'm going to throw up all over your face."
—"Birds are like little dinosaurs, so what I'll be doing is both pretty cool and brave."