Friday, January 13, 2012

Liz Lemon is back, and she's... changing?

The TGS writers watch the sun rise in the sixth-season premiere of 30 Rock.

I don't watch 30 Rock for the same reasons that I watch a show like Community. I watch that particular NBC sitcom for the sheer audacity of the storytelling, the brilliance with which Dan Harmon and the writers appropriate and subvert cliches while simultaneously revering the shows that have come before. From Community I get shock, delight, and pathos.

30 Rock, however, is a show that I watch to hang out with the characters, which is one reason I missed it so much in the fall. This isn't to say that Community doesn't have great characters, because it absolutely does, but watching that series is all about seeing how the characters' relationships with each other will change. 30 Rock, however, remains in a state of stasis. Stasis isn't a bad thing; it's just a way of saying that I tune in to see what Liz, Jack, Tracy and Jenna will be up to this week. The core characters of 30 Rock do things and have adventures, but they remain fundamentally the same in their relationships with each other, and that's the way I like it.

That expectation is why I was so surprised by last night's premiere, "Dance Like Nobody's Watching." Specifically, I was surprised by my own reaction to it. I found myself getting emotionally invested in the stories - in particular, in Liz Lemon's tale of newfound love and happiness, and in Kenneth's awe at seeing the sun rise over the ocean for the first time. I was even moved by these moments despite the fact that they were accompanied by an overwrought reality-show version of "Camptown Races" (which was itself the result of a hilarious parody moment). I realized that, like Jack, I want to see Liz Lemon in a happy relationship, and that, like Pete, I want Kenneth to actually experience life. The show might not be around much longer, and dammit, I want everyone to ride off into the sunset (or sail off into the sunrise, as the case may be).

This isn't to say that there weren't problems with the episode. In particular, the scene where Jack, torn between the joy of making boatloads of money and the pain of watching Jenna viciously demolish kids, asks his baby daughter for advice and then interprets her cry of "Mommy" as "money" seemed weirdly off. Possibly the moment seemed entirely too callous on Jack's part, particularly given that Liddy's mommy remains trapped in North Korea; possibly I just didn't like the talking baby. Whatever it was, it was an off-note in an otherwise solid (and very funny) episode.

Outside of this scene there was plenty of stuff that worked, even beyond the unexpected emotional moment at the end. Jenna as the "mean" judge on the brilliantly titled America's Kidz Got Singing was the kind of pop-culture dissection that 30 Rock does better than anyone else; the combination of the "adorable kid" phenomenon and the Simon Cowell-esque viciousness was absolutely spot-on, and the inclusion of John McEnroe as the nice judge was a perfect, absurd touch. I also really liked the fact that as the episode progressed, Jenna's critiques got meaner and the kids got younger.

The Rapture story, while not exactly timely, generally worked well. I really like the Pete/Kenneth pairing when it comes up because of the way that Pete really tries to help Kenneth, which is very different from his relationship with any other character. Plus, Scott Adsit is a master at saying bizarre things in a matter-of-fact way - one of the reasons that, even Pete slowly goes insane, he remains a likable character - and he got to show that off tonight with gems like, "If it was my last day on earth, I wouldn't be here. I'd be with Paula, admitting I'm in love with her twin sister."

The best moment of the episode, though, was the aforementioned final scene. Finding out that Liz has a love interest was good; finding out that she has one after Jack has spent the entire episode repeating that he knows everything about her was great. And not getting to see the face of said love interest was fantastic. (Personally, I'm really hoping that it's Carol. I loved that relationship, and I need some Matt Damon in my life.) This move changed up Jack and Liz's relationship, which had been falling into a groove in which Jack is always there to help Liz through her personal problems. The fact that she's decided strike out on her own and enter a relationship without his help adds a new dynamic to the series' central pairing. Of course, it could all go back to normal by the end of the next episode, but I'm hoping that it doesn't. At least not until I find out who wins America's Kidz Got Singing.

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