Well, friends, there was no way tonight’s episode of 30 Rock could not have registered as more than a little anti-climactic following the seismic cultural, national, global and even world-historic event that was Community’s return to the airwaves following 40 years in exile, or at least a couple off months off the air.
There was a time when 30 Rock occupied a similarly central existence at the white-hot epicenter of the pop-culture universe, or at least the portion of it we obsess about unhealthily here at A.V Club. There was a time when 30 Rock could seemingly do no wrong, when it could get seemingly anybody to do just about anything for the sake of a throwaway gag.
30 Rock is, and has always been, just a TV show but there was a time when it seemed to be something much more than that, when it had a cultural currency wildly disproportionate to its fundamental nature as 22 minutes of entertainment designed to sell ad space and various consumer goods and products.
There was a time when 30 Rock inspired the kind of Jonestown-like devotion and dedication (no wait, that’s unfair, let’s instead compare the fanbase it inspired to something more positive, like the Manson family) that Community does now, when it was the kind of show viewers used to define themselves, their sense of humor, sensibility and worldview. It used to mean something, man.
Or maybe it didn’t. What would TV Club, or The A.V Club be, after all, if we didn’t take all of this foolishness way too fucking seriously? So without any further preamble or ado, let’s dig into the third holiday episode of the past month or so of 30 Rock’s sixth season on the air.
To rank “St. Patrick’s Day” arbitrarily, it wasn’t anywhere near the unforgivable travesty that was the Valentine’s Day episode, but it wasn’t in the same league as the delightful Leap Day episode either. Rather, it occupied a middle ground between the two extremes.
The law of diminishing returns set in on 30 Rock a few years back. The show has always been unusually joke-dependent and joke-heavy. In the glory years, that was part of its genius. It threw so many jokes of such high quality at audiences that it was damn near impossible to process them all at once. In that respect, it was exhausting in the best possible way.
These days, however, it’s reduced to exploring an endlessly repeated series of tropes and conventions it handled with much more aplomb earlier in its often glorious run. The return of Dennis Duffy, The Beeper King, used to be a cause for jubilation and dancing in the streets. But when Dennis shows up at Liz’s door on St. Patrick’s Day as a sort of sentient plague/ghost of St. Patrick’s Day past, he feels more than a little bit like a human rerun.
Oh sure, Dennis had his share of funny moments and clever dialogue tonight, like when he tells Liz’s painfully nice and accommodating boyfriend Criss that he’s had a business burning old DVDs onto laser discs, a nice callback to his famous declaration that, all evidence to the contrary, technology is cyclical. And I dug that the “les” movie he wants to watch with Criss is The Kids Are All Right, but mostly his character seemed to be on hand for a cheap if potent jolt of nostalgia (it is St. Patrick’s Day, after all, so it makes sense that the Beeper/Rat King would put in an appearance) and to spur Liz to exhibit some rare character growth by prompting her to finally confess her feelings to Criss.
Dennis’ return appearance wasn’t the only element of the show that felt like a hackneyed rerun. 30 Rock has managed to squeeze some new life into the increasingly dire Jenna-is-horrible conceit by pitting her against adorable children (adults terrorizing youngsters equals consistent comedy gold), but tonight, it took a big step back by having Jenna and Tracy once again fruitlessly face off against each other to determine who occupies the higher spot atop the entertainment pantheon when they’re paired together to announce the St. Patrick’s Day parade.
Kristen Schaal continues not to impress as a scheming, evil page mad with what little power she has inexplicably been given, and Tracy Jordan is a much funnier character when he’s not mugging uncontrollably or constantly on the verge of tears, as he was tonight.
It almost feels unfair to single out jokes for not working, since 30 Rock has so many of them, but there were some real groaners tonight, like Jack’s contention that Liz must have some fondness for the Irish since he’s her mentor, she dated Dennis Duffy against her better instincts and she gave money to the IRA. When Liz replies that she thought she was donating money to a retirement account, it seemed to cry out for either the gong or the sad trombone.
30 Rock generally lives or dies on a gag-by-gag basis, yet a thread involving Jack taking on the writers in an Irish-themed board game was suspiciously joke-lite. Like the Dennis Duffy plot, it seemed designed primarily to inspire character growth as Jack comes to realize that the game, and also the plight of St. Patrick, are essentially elaborate metaphors for his own struggle to find and distinguish himself in the vast wasteland that is NBC after the Kabletown takeover.
“St. Patrick’s Day” ended on a sweet and inspired note, with Liz finally mustering up the courage to put her anxiety and uncertainty aside and profess her true feelings to Criss, and I loved the sight gag of Liz expressing tender emotions while wearing the only green in her possession, an innately hilarious pair of Hulk hands.
As Tracy relates in a line that puts a shiny little bow on the theme of the episode, “It sure is rewarding when a character you’re invested in shows growth.” It sure is, but it's not quite rewarding enough to compensate for an episode that, while certainly funny and clever in spots, nevertheless felt a little tired. 30 Rock may want to lay off the holiday episodes for at least the next couple of weeks.
- Though I’m less enamored of the writers by the week, I did like Frank’s line about them all having faces people just want to punch. It’s funny because it’s true!
- On a similar note, I enjoyed the incredibly effete way Lutz declared he was going to be wearing his glass baubles at the “pirate’s ball”
- Criss is a very sweet and endearing character, even at Burning Man.
- Hoo boy, that Ira Glass voice cameo was a real missed opportunity. He should be a perfect 30 Rock guest, but I was disappointed the show couldn’t think up anything more clever for him to do than get bullied by drunk dudes on St. Patrick’s Day
- I wasn’t able to watch, since I was preemptively freaking out about my 30 Rock review, but how was Community tonight? Did it cure cancer and bring about peace in the Middle East as we all imagined its return would?