The most important thing to know going into NBC’s “30 Rock: A One-Time Special” is that it is, first and foremost, a means to a promotional end. Yes, it’s an outside-the-box approach to the network’s annual upfront presentation in this climate, but it’s still the network’s annual upfront presentation. With that in mind, “30 Rock: A One-Time Special” absolutely excels at what it is and does. It is a perfect commercial for NBC Universal, a perfect commercial for television, and a perfect commercial for people who believe they are too cool to watch commercials but not too cool to watch television reunion specials.
If you want to get pedantic about it, in some ways, “30 Rock: A One-Time Special” is even more “real” television than other “real” television shows, because it’s completely upfront (no pun intended) about its function as a gateway to advertising—even before Kenneth Ellen Parcell’s soul literally leaves his body. While the actual advertisement for this special wasn’t as upfront, the original announcement about the special was, and as is the special itself, from start to finish.
The circumstances that have led to NBC thinking outside-the-box and spending money on a 30 Rock reunion—which must have cost considerably less than the Friends reunion they’re not doing—certainly aren’t great. But in a way, they’re also just perfect for 30 Rock and everything the show chronicled in its version of NBC, which just so happened to perfectly paint a picture of real-life NBC, then, now, and forever. A blatant hour-long commercial for television is technically the natural progression for the story 30 Rock told, which allows the special to somehow reach an even higher level of meta inception than it already had. After all, it would take the desperation of a pandemic for 30 Rock’s version of NBC to actually call for TGS to return.
From the show that gave you NBC attempting to make it 1997 again (or in this case, 2006 again) “through science or magic” and the network that gave you former Chairman Bob Greenblatt constantly asking creators of former NBC hits (and low-rated, critical darlings) to just keep making those shows comes “30 Rock: A One-Time Special.” (Greenblatt is now the Chairman of HBO Max, the streaming service that got Friends and the Friends reunion, by the way.) As jaded as one can be both as a 30 Rock fan and a person living in 2020, there is a comfort in seeing those opening credits and hearing the show’s score again, in addition to the obvious joy of the cast getting back into their characters. Even if it’s just for the smallest of bits. As an episode of television and not just an hour-long commercial, “30 Rock: A One-Time Special” does function as a solid addition to the 30 Rock canon. With other social distancing-based episodes and Zoom reunion specials (and everything in between) popping up during this time, guiding everyone involved regarding what to do and what not to do, this special is able to show people what’s possible in storytelling right now. And in advertising, of course.
30 Rock always winked at and mocked the fourth wall, but this special takes that fourth wall and obliterates it, to the point where even attempting to literally wink at it causes blowback. “Can we have our money now?” isn’t uttered, but with the way the cast rattles off the catalog of Peacock or journalists working in NBC Universal’s news departments or the point of upfronts, it doesn’t need to be. The same goes for going from a few real-life NBC cameos over the course of seven seasons to having a Zoom game call with NBC Universal personalities ranging from Andy Samberg to The Miz to Al Roker to Ted Danson and Mary Steenburgen. These aren’t just cameos from people who think 30 Rock is cool: The Rock and everyone else is just as much here to sell NBC Universal to advertisers as Liz Lemon and the gang are.
Plotwise, “30 Rock: A One-Time Special” focuses on telling a post-series finale story about friendship and television, especially NBC Universal-based friendship and television. As the series ended with Kenneth Parcell becoming NBC President, we see now that seven years later, he’s has risen to the top of the television world and is NBC Universal Chairman… while the rest of the TGS crew is pretty much broken and separated, as that is a classic reunion story trope and also necessary during a pandemic. (Pete and Lutz are doing well, though they’re both upsetting to look at in different ways.) Liz Lemon is struggling as a a full-time mom who is married to a beautiful man,* Jack Donaghy is struggling with retirement after making the clear dishwasher, Tracy Jordan is in Canada, and Jenna Maroney has, of course, been “canceled” because she “pooped in Mandy Moore’s thermos.” Jenna’s also spiraling over not being the center of anyone’s attention, which is perhaps the truest aspect of this whole special.
* An unseen James Marsden does get credited for recording a single sentence.
Because it’s going for the standard reunion show premise, the whole point of the actual plot is to get the band back together. It’s unsurprising that the TGS crew would all ignore Kenneth’s Zoom calls, just like it makes sense that everyone else would be yes-men to someone in Kenneth’s position of power (especially as he was succeeding at his job). And with those points combined, you’ve got conflict in between commercials.
Arguably, the most impressive thing about the special is how relatively seamless the social distancing component is. It acknowledges up top that 30 Rock still exists within the world we all live; so it is during these quarantimes, but that’s not the focus. Video calls being the current default for group and work meetings mean it’s not a stretch to have those for the fake TGS reboot meeting and the ad sales presentation at the end. Phone calls, in general, simply make sense for humans.
Perhaps one day, a “real” 30 Rock reunion can exist, with the cast all being on the same sets as each other. But today is not that day, and given the context for that, it works. Saturday Night Live director Oz Rodriguez directed this episode, a hiring choice that most likely stemmed from his experience working on this season’s SNL At Home episodes early on in these quarantimes. In the case of SNL At Home, the production quality clearly increased with each episode, and as the new normal of the social distancing era continues on, it continues to quickly evolve. That evolution is still very much on display for this special, despite the main reason for its existence.
Now, is “30 Rock: A One-Time Special” the best episode of 30 Rock? Well, it is and it isn’t. It isn’t, because it’s not even technically an episode of 30 Rock. Plus, episodes like “MILF Island” and “Queen of Jordan” still exist. At the same time, it kind of is, because it takes the culture of television and NBC that 30 Rock depicted and makes it even more of a reality than it already was and still is. The fact that the story in between the ads actually works as a passable episode of 30 Rock only helps the special to do the job it’s really supposed to be doing: selling NBC Universal to advertisers (and viewers, as a distant second).
- Long story short: Take the Verizon product placement bit from Season Two’s “Somebody to Love,” make it the whole episode, go full NBC and supersize that episode, and that’s what “30 Rock: A One-Time Special” is.
- After all the fuss that local affiliates—luckily, not mine in Los Angeles—apparently made about this special promoting Peacock too much, it honestly ends up being essentially a small amount of Peacock promotion, especially compared to the rest of NBC Universal’s products. It’s really more like a quick bite of Peacock, if you will. So even when it’s technically not NBC doing something dumb, it still comes across as NBC Peacocking things up for no reason.
- That every member of the TGS family would actually quarantine and practice social distancing is a stretch, but come on: If you’re already bummed out that this is just a commercial for television, imagine how you would feel if Tina Fey and Robert Carlock accurately depicted just how dangerous these dummies would be in real life.
- Honestly, seeing so many NBC Universal commercials—to the point where, by the time the 30 Rock bit introduces the Law & Order: SVU 2: Just The Paperwork, it took me a beat to realize wasn’t one of the real commercials—still trumps seeing the commercials from all the advertisers NBC Universal is courting with this special.
- I hope that someone is able to screencap them all, but here are some highlights from the magazine montage of Kenneth’s meteoric rise: Vanity Fair (“Exclusive: JENNA MARONEY GIVES BACK ORPHAN,” “Oh, Baby! CATE BLANCHETT’S TALLEST ROLES”), Exposition Weekly (“‘FRIENDS’ NOW STREAMING ON FACETIME,” “CINEMAXMAX NOW STREAMING ON COMMODORE64,” “WATCH TV, a new streaming platform for your watch and Fitbit”), TV Profiles Daily (“CELEBRITY BOOK LISTS that’ll have you saying there’s no way Julie Bowen read that”), Daily Voracity (“MANDY MOORE’S THERMOS TELLS ALL: ‘Therapy was the only way forward.’”). There’s also a headline about Kenneth’s corn diet… right before the montage ends with Kenneth eating out of a can of corn.
- 30 Rock never shied away from racial jokes—until now—so it makes the obvious one immediately, with Toofer not wanting to be called “Toofer” anymore. It works, considering the climate, but it also worked originally because of how terrible it was and what it said about the kind of work environment that would allow and encourage it in the first place.
- Fun fact: There are now torrents that are just of the “banned” episodes of 30 Rock. I’ll chime in to say I’m actually opposed to the removal of those episodes.
- Tracy: “You know what my secret to race-walking is, Liz Lemon? I just run as fast as I can.”
- Pete: “Wow! I can get all those Frasiers?”
Frank: “Will the films contain all their original nudity?”
Jenna: “I’ll play a sexy serial killer on any of those. Including the news and European soccer.”
Kenneth: “Yes, yes, and no thank you.”
- The Vivica part of this—and yes, that is Jack McBrayer in drag—is perhaps the one aspect of all of this that doesn’t quite land. It would probably work much better—though there’s still a chance it wouldn’t work at all—in the actual show as a recurring presence, just not in this Very Special Commercial.
- Todd Chrisley (of USA Network’s Chrisley Knows Best) being Kenneth’s cousin makes more sense than anything about Todd Chrisley (and Chrisley Knows Best) ever has. And in terms of synergy, what timing for Kenneth to bring up his hair twin, Ellen.
- As the point of all of this is to make money, there is a bit where Liz almost sings “Night Cheese” again, only to get cut off and note how it would’ve been expensive. For reference, it was $50,000 last time, for reference.
- “Mandy Moore forgives me / Mandy Moore forgives you” The fact that Jenna’s plot ends with her singing an original song about NBC Universal with both Mandy Moore and Gwen Stefani means that I can finally ascend. As does the fact that The Miz has now technically been on 30 Rock.