“30 Rock” has always been the most unhinged of NBC’s Thursday-night block. At its best, the show veers toward the cartoonish, throwing out one-liners and ever-escalating farce with abandon. After a weak season four, “30 Rock” recovered last season, developing its voice while still maintaining the laugh-a-minute, frenetic energy that makes it so great. The season six premiere continues along the same lines.
Season Six Premiere
Thursdays at 8 p.m.
Everything “30 Rock” does well is on full display in the premiere. Appropriately enough for a show about a show, “30 Rock” has always been on-point yet over-the-top hilarious when it takes on current television forms and tropes. Last season’s high-concept parody of Bravo shows was funny, but most of its jokes were too specific to the language and form of that particular subgenre. Season six’s first episode returns to the low-hanging fruit of reality television, and its take on competition shows hits the mark. Jenna (Jane Krakowski) is brilliant as the Simon Cowell character, telling characters to jump back up their mothers and demanding multiple takes to get the best shot of crying children.
The reality-show-within-the-show is tonally perfect. The kids singing are vaguely creepy, and John McEnroe’s effusive delivery of lines like “this will just make us better friends” is strangely convincing, considering his former life as a combustible tennis star. “30 Rock” is always great at coming up with titles, (“The Rural Juror”; “Werewolf Bar Mitzvah”) and it strikes again with “America’s Kidz Got Singing.”
When “30 Rock” nails its central conceit, the supporting elements flow much more smoothly. Because of this, the premiere is able to venture outside the show’s comfort zone. The writers have gotten a lot of mileage out of humiliating Liz Lemon (Tina Fey), but they take a step back this time — she shows up with a song in her heart and a spring in her step. It’s not like this kind of thing hasn’t happened before, though the show has usually handled Liz’s potential for self-actualization by having a hobo spit in her mouth or sending her to unknowingly make-out with her cousin.
Jack Donaghy (Alec Baldwin) narrating Liz’s pathetic life in painstakingly accurate detail is one of the show’s most familiar joke structures, but, unprecedentedly, he misses the mark this time — Liz is uncharacteristically pursuing her own happiness. Of course, it wouldn’t be “30 Rock” if her happiness didn’t involve regular workouts as a part of New York Liberty’s middle-aged dance team, and the show is better for subverting this kind of character development.
Part of Liz’s newfangled contentment also involves ignoring Tracy Jordan’s (Tracy Morgan) fantastic whims, and Tracy handles this in classic Tracy fashion: He follows Liz and becomes convinced that she’s hooked on “Bandito Blanco,” a name for cocaine that he just made up. He tries to do insane (and possibly illegal) things to get her attention, all to no avail. One of the hallmarks of the show is Tracy’s “Liz Lemon” lines, and he delivers an instant classic in this episode: “Liz Lemon, I just realized that this summer, I started a camp for kids. Now we have to check on them to see if any of them are still alive.”
Liz isn’t the only one becoming a better person. Fatherhood has changed Jack, and he’s gotten soft enough to consider cancelling “America’s Kidz Got Singing” because Jenna’s meanness toward the children makes him sad. Of course, he can only change so much, and this certainly isn’t enough to keep him from purposely mishearing his daughter’s cries for “mommy” as cries for “money.” Jack’s domestic life always risks falling into the cloying, but the writers have shown themselves capable of toeing the line.
Even when “30 Rock” tries something new, it keeps the familiar jokes and rhythms that make it great. The premiere provides a blueprint for how the character development of season six is going to go, and it’s a promising plan. “30 Rock” is never going to simply give out the warm fuzzies — not when it could be organizing snack tables by a food’s Jewishness instead. The show is much closer to the end than the beginning, and it’s good to see that it’s still firing on all cylinders.