30 Rock is in an unfortunate position this season. It comes on right after Community, which is strutting like the fresh, funny second-season champion that it is, and it precedes The Office, a long-running sitcom trying to shine in its star’s last season on the show. 30 Rock doesn’t have any such incentive to be great this year, and it certainly doesn’t have any of that new show smell left. Really, the only undeniable advantage it has this year as a Thursday night NBC comedy is that it isn’t Outsourced. All that considered, it’s been a decent season for Tina Fey & Co., but it’s becoming clearer and clearer every week that this is not the 30 Rock of old. The writing is still sharp – not “as sharp as ever,” but sharp – but a lot of the most interesting plots have already played out, and a lot of the new plots aren’t interesting.
With the exception of Kenneth’s continued (and already tiresome) quest to get rehired at NBC, none of tonight’s subplots had been previously introduced. Jack is trying to create a GE monopoly through vertical integration and is forced to square off with a Congressman played by Rob Reiner and a Congresswoman played by Queen Latifah. Toofer is made co-head writer to combat charges that NBC doesn’t value diversity. Liz gets jealous and says racially insensitive things on a black talk show. Jenna trains Kenneth to impress the NBC hiring guru with a pageant show. Tracy, Dotcom and Grizz work on a new black show for the network. Even reading these doesn’t seem to leave a lot of room for potential, but they actually managed to execute them even less impressively than I expected. There’s a few big laughs – every 30 Rock episode has them – but they’re assembled so haphazardly and put into such a bulky framework that the train just never gets enough steam to salvage the episode.
I’m not here to try and bury 30 Rock in criticism. I still think it’s one of the best comedies on TV, and I thought this season’s first episode was one of the better ones the show has ever done. But when you create expectations for yourself and don’t meet them, it’s naturally going to be a little disappointing. The season is still young, and at this time last year, I thought The Office was going great and Parks and Recreation was totally unfunny. I think we all know how that ended. Here’s a hint: It was the opposite.