30 Rock is a brilliant show, but that doesn't mean that it's dependably hilarious or even watchable from minute to minute. On all but the very greatest episodes, the show has a thrilling, unstable quality reminiscent of an early Woody Allen movie or one of W. C. Fields' vehicles: The moments that tax your capacity for amazement and leave you flattened on the canvas from laughing help to carry you past the ones that just leave you flat. Under normal circumstances, turning on the TV and seeing Jane Krakowski dysfunctionally romanced by Will Forte in funhouse drag would be as good a reason as any to pitch the set out the window, but when it's balanced by something like Liz and Matt Damon telescoping the breakup process while trapped together on an stalled airliner or Tracy Morgan's parody of the media blitz for Precious, it suddenly seems like a small price to pay.
"Plan B" was an unusually consistent episode, though that doesn't mean it didn't have a patchwork quality of its own. It had one of those premises that use a satire of how the business of network TV works to tap into the larger anxieties that we, the little folks watching at home, can relate to. (In a nutshell: The network shuts down production on Liz's show until Tracy can be lured back from "Africa", causing everyone to contemplate their next career move—including Liz, who, of course, is the last one to grasp the situation and the one who goes the farthest off the deep end when she does.) It had good gags for Krakowski, Morgan, Jack McBrayer, Judah Friedlander, and Scott Adsit to do, in what mostly amounted to token check-in appearances, a cunningly restrained use of talented people who have all sometimes been known to grab too much rope and run with it. (Well, except maybe for Adsit, who has sometimes gone whole seasons during which the writers seemed to forget that he was still on the payroll.)
It had virtually context-free gags about psychic detective thrillers for that touch of media hipness and about the L.A. riots and the right-wing conspiracy against Obama for Blue State cred. It had one brief foray into full-blown surrealism, when Liz suffers a nightmare vision of what she faces as an unemployed writer in a post-print world, where someone explains that an empty newspaper box is "a toilet, or a woman. It's whatever you need it to be." It had a surprising piece of stunt casting—well, you may have been surprised if you missed the advance hype—by Aaron Sorkin, as Aaron Sorkin, who turned out to have a deft way with his lines as he spoofed his own trademark walk-and-talk style and executed a sweet in-joke about Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip, the show about the making of Not-SNL whose dust Tina Fey's little sitcom was widely expected to eat five seasons back.
Mainly, though, it had the long-awaited rematch of Alec Baldwin's Jack Donaghy and his bete noire, Devon Banks (Will Arnett), now out of the closet and richly qualified, thanks to his status as "the gay Jack Donaghy," to be brought on board to shore up Jack's latest faltering broadcast acquisition: Twinks, described by Ken Howard's folksy tycoon Hank Hooper as "that fellas-that-like-fellas network." Howard, who's inflated like a Macy's balloon since his White Shadow days and whose face is decorated with a little mustache that makes him look even bulkier, has turned out to be a prime acquisition himself. I don't know how many times I've seen him in movies or on TV, but I've always thought of him as the kind of pleasant, modestly likable theater school grad who casting directors stuff into underwritten roles in the hope of at least classing up the joint a little. As the helplessly genial Hooper, he's tapped into a vein of insanity that, looking at him, I never imagined was in there.
Just as age and physical heaviness seem to have somehow made Ken Howard lighter on his feet and in the head, Arnett appeared here as a man giddily liberated by getting to be a special guest viper again, after playing the likable leading man on Running Wilde, a gig that he made look like mining coal. Like W. C. Fields himself, Arnett tends to be effortlessly likable so long as his motives are suspicious at the best of times and, at other times, grounds for convening a tribunal at the Hague. It's only when he tries to be a nice guy that he disappears into the wallpaper. And he and Baldwin, who, for his part, used to be the kind of Hollywood leading man who could make you wonder how much longer it would be before this donut hole got killed so the real hero could show up and avenge his death, crackled together. Arnett, seducing Howard with a demonstration of his skills as a new-traditionalist sort of working baby daddy, got to unfurl a stroller as if he were Sherlock Holmes whipping out a walking stick with a sword inside it, and Baldwin, standing on the sidelines watching this twit get between him and another employer-godhead figure, got off reaction shots that could have found a place in either a Three Stooges movie or the storm scene in King Lear. There was a story arc in there, too, but at a certain point, I let it roll past me like a runaway train. I was having too good a time just watching their hostile smiles interlock.
At one point, I did catch myself wondering if maybe the relative smoothness of this episode had been achieved by taking five scripts that focused on five different characters, skimming them for their cream, and using it to plug the cracks and pad out the Jack-Devon showdown. Whatever works. But at the risk of sounding ungrateful, as much as I enjoyed "Plan B," I don't think it'll make the cut of my desert island episodes of 30 Rock. It just didn't peak as memorably high as some of the ones that have dipped a good deal lower. Maybe to hit the wild highs that 30 Rock has hit at its best, you need the danger of threatening to go off the rails.
- "I'm doing God's work in Africa. Just yesterday, I kicked two naked people out of a garden."
- "Would you buy a show about a girl television writer trying to make it in the city, and, also, she's a vampire, I guess?" "I like the end part."
- Wow, remember back last fall, when there seemed to be a feeling that Black Swan deserved to at least be treated respectfully? By my count, it's about three jokes away from becoming the new Gigli.
- Oh, and it turns out that Tracy isn't really in Africa but is only pretending. I'm genuinely not sure: Did we know this already because he'd actually been shown faking his video chats, or because it was just so obvious a story development that we didn't need to see it? Either way, it was hard to tell just how much of an inside joke Kenneth's admission that he should have seen it coming was meant to be.