By this point, Jack Donaghy isn’t the only one who knows Liz Lemon better than she knows herself. After all this time on the air, the characters of 30 Rock have precious little mystery left. So the long-delayed premiere of the show’s much-hyped sixth and potentially final season switches things up a little by having its two most important characters behave in radically different new ways: Liz gets happy and Jack gets sentimental.
But before venturing ever so slightly outside its comfort zone, “Dance Like Nobody’s Watching” brings back some of the show’s most ubiquitous and popular (not to mention successful) comic tropes. 30 Rock has seldom been able to resist the low-hanging fruit of reality television shows, especially competition shows seemingly designed to bring out the worst in humanity, so it introduces Jenna as the Simon Cowell of America’s Kidz Got Singing!, an American Idol knock-off that fulfills the dreams of some singing children and pisses all over the aspirations of other tots.
America’s Kidz Got Singing! proves an enormous hit and Jenna throws herself into the role of reality television’s preeminent dragon lady with abandon; she may be reviled for terrorizing the fragile psyches of children but she is at least receiving the attention and validation she desperately craves and that’s all that really matters, to her Jenna and to Jack. At least initially.
This is followed by one of the show’s trademark joke structures: Jack describing the tragicomic (but mostly tragic) details of Liz’s personal and family life (in this case her Christmas break) back to her in excruciating, extensive and humiliatingly accurate detail. He’s right of course—he nearly always is, that’s why he’s Jack Donaghy—but nothing can get Liz down.
Liz begins the season with a song in her heart, a spring in her step and a sense of positivity and optimism that bewilders, confused and upsets her co-workers. Tracy is particularly apoplectic, since Liz’s new laissez-faire attitude towards her suddenly fancy-free existence prevents her from fulfilling what Tracy sees as her primary job on both The Girly Show and life: holding his hand and patiently helping him through an endless series of crises of his own reckless devising.
Tracy may be a forty-two-year old man but he never stopped being as pathologically needy as a small child. The newfangled Liz Lemon however no longer feels obligated to mommy Tracy; she’s uncharacteristically and unabashedly pursuing her own happiness, much to the suspicion of Tracy, who follows her and thinks she’s gotten hooked on “Bandido Blanco”, a name for cocaine he just made up.
The truth is much more humiliating. Liz’s new joie de vivre is attributable to her clandestine gig as part of the WNBA’s most popular dance team, an aggregation of clumsy middle-aged men and women clad in the least flattering attire this side of a Snuggie.
Liz isn’t the only one undergoing a change of heart. After a conversation with a fellow father, Jack Donaghy comes to see Jenna’s smash-hit tribute to decimating the self-esteem of pre-pubescents in a more negative light. Fatherhood has changed him, but not to the point where he can’t willfully and purposefully misinterpret his daughter’s first words as “money” rather than “mommy.”
A leopard can only change his stripes so much but it was both poignant and funny watching regal Jack Donaghy hold an animated conversation with a daughter he clearly adores. Jack tries to get Jenna to take it easy on the children she witheringly critiques but he forever serves two masters, and the bottom line of shareholders ultimately trumps the dictates of his thawing but still relatively icy heart.
In a C-story that never takes off, Kenneth’s Reverend cheerfully announces that the Rapture is nigh so his flock has roughly one day to do everything they’ve always wanted to do, within reason. Kenneth being Kenneth, his bucket list consists largely of conducting chores and errands he might not have been allowed to otherwise.
The Kenneth-as-rube trope has been beat to death and Kenneth seems too fundamentally sweet and considerate to be so glib about the eternity of torment and hellfire awaiting pretty much all his friends. That plot thread wasn’t funny enough to be so mean-spirited and involved the writers in a fairly arbitrary fashion.
If the writers-razzing-Kenneth plot felt groaningly familiar it was refreshing to see how Jack’s new conscience as a father complicates his shark-like instincts and the sequence at the WNBA radiated a weird kind of nerdy, unabashed joy. “Dance Like Nobody’s Watching” ends strongly with a montage set to one of the episode’s funniest running jokes—all the children are forced to screech their way through public-domain songs so NBC won’t have to pony up money for royalties. I have a weakness for episode-ending montages and there’s something agreeably perverse about having the emotion of the final minutes scored to a moppet singing “Camp Town Races.”
Oh, and it turns out that good old Liz Lemon’s wild burst of contentment may be attributable to more than just regular workouts at WNBA games; she might just have a beau as well, another secret she’s so far succeeding in keeping even from the man who knows her better than she knows herself. So maybe Liz Lemon isn’t so knowable and predictable as previously imagined and maybe there’s a whole lot of life—or at least one more really solid season—left in these characters after all.
—“Being a parent is like wearing your heart outside your body.” Both that line and Baldwin’s delivery of it were disarmingly sweet.
—“I like the third one for me and her crying on the second one.”
—“1 across, 5 letters. Jenna Maroney’s first name. “
—“Did you know both her parents are serial killers?”
—I groaned a little at Kenneth having 72 virgin—margaritas! Waiting for him in heaven.
—“I took a real age test. It said I’m dead.”
—Desperationships.com made me laugh
—“Order snack table by food Jewishness”
—“Super-gay horses are a sign of the apocalypse!”
—“Being the nice one is McEnroe’s thing.”
—“We could make even more money by pretending to be nice. Look at Betty White.”
—“Women’s hell is the same as aroused dog heaven.”
—"Variety called it “boffo” and they don’t throw that word around lightly.”
—“I know because my friend goes there. His name is Tracy.”
—Welcome back, y’all! Something tells me this is going to be a very good year.