30 Rock: quick character summaries & catch-up

30 Rock addict Gaye gives us a refresher course in the show's cast of oddballs to celebrate the new season...

My name is Gaye Birch and I am a 30 Rock-aholic.

I’ve watched every episode of both seasons at least 30 times each and it’s still not enough. The second season finished up last April and I’ve been going through withdrawal, craving fresh supplies of 30 Rock. Soon, I should have it. The third season of my laugh source of choice airs in the US on 30 October.

If you’re less easily addicted, but worry that you won’t know the characters and can’t catch up, here’s a rundown and tempter. Your first fix is on me. Seek out your next yourself.

Liz Lemon (Tina Fey) Liz is a 30-plus single woman who writes and directs a successful comedy sketch show at 30 Rockefeller Center in New York. She doesn’t exercise, works long hours, and makes constant, nearly relentless, references to Star Wars. On seeing her web cam image, she panics, “Uck. Is that how far apart my eyes are?! I look like Admiral Ackbar!”. Heading for a management meeting she’s dreading, “If [my boss] does this at me (mimics the pincer hand grip of Darth Vader) I will run.” Describing her inability to turn down a date with a man who will ultimately be revealed to be her cousin, she says, “I had to say ‘yes’. He looked at me with those crazy Handsome Guy eyes. It was like the Death Star tractor beam when the Falcon… ” Liz also freely admits, “I gotta get some new DVDs.”

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For all her career success, Liz has had less luck in love, easily listed by her producer, Pete Hornberger (Scott Adsit), who runs through a litany of former boyfriends: “There was the guy that was obsessed with Charlie Chaplin…(Neil). There was the guy who played Halo under the name ‘Slut Banger’… (Dennis). The tall, gangly, red-haired guy who played guitar all the time… (Conan).”

A heavy snacker, almost every crisis Liz faces is food-related, whether it’s the fear of choking to death alone, undiscovered in her apartment until the neighbour’s dog smells her rotting corpse, or turning a wedding dress she bought on spec into a giant ham napkin.

In last season’s finale, Liz thought she was pregnant and may have to put up with Dennis, the suspected father, back in her life permanently and irrevocably. Turns out the scare was caused by hormones in the evaporated bull semen-coated Mexican brand cheese curls, Sabor De Soledad, she’d been scoffing non-stop. That’s what gave the snack its tasty tang.

The false alarm nudges Liz’s nest-and-nurture nature into full-blown broody-mood mode and at the close of season two she’s decided she wants to adopt a child and be “a kick-ass single mom. Like Erin Brockovich. Or Sarah Connor.”

Jack Donaghy (Alec Baldwin) Liz’s boss, Jack, the new Vice President of Television and Microwave Programming, is the only sibling in his family to pronounce his surname properly. He’s also the only one that’s not a violent alcoholic or con man. His current level of success is due to his greatest triumph, the GE Tri-vection oven, which uses three kinds of heat to cook a turkey in 22 minutes.

When he’s put in charge of The Girly Show, Jack determines it needs the same treatment, a third heat to add to the demographic appeal of the two main cast members, Jenna and Josh.

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Jack’s a stickler for corporate management technique, holding tight reign on the show, insisting on executive programs like Followship Awards, Bottoms Up Day, Product Integration using Positive Mentions, or ‘PosMems’, of GE products during NBC shows and synergising backward overflow. He also claims to have personally coined the phrase, “What’s the up side?”

Not all of Jack’s ideas are award-winning. He once scheduled a live, televised fireworks spectacular that, in theory, would grip American viewers with fantastic displays, some shaped like cowboy hats, but, in practice, looked very much like a terrorist attack and crippled an entire city with fear.

At the end of the first season, Jack suffered a major heart attack trying to please his demanding mother and fragile fiancé, and secure his next career move, to replace Don Geiss (Rip Torn), the current top exec at the television station’s massive conglomerate parent company, when he retires.

Jack recovers over summer hiatus, returning to full health (minus fiancé) and enjoys resounding success with his summer launches of America’s Next Top Pirate, Are You Stronger Than A Dog?, and MILF Island, a reality-contest show featuring “25 super-hot moms, 50 8th grade boys, no rules”. And then there’s Seinfeld Vision where he’s had Jerry Seinfeld reproduced from the series’ hundreds of hours worth of shows and digitally inserted into new NBC reality programs, game shows and dramas, without Jerry Seinfeld’s approval.

At the close of the second season, Geiss told Jack privately that he plans to nominate Jack to replace him, only to fall into a Diabetic coma before formally announcing the news. Jack’s similarly gravelly-voiced adversary, Devin Banks, calls a sneak meeting, and makes sure Jack’s dream will never be realised… not in the second season, anyway…

Jenna Maroney (Jane Krakowski) Maniacally-manicured, consummately-coiffed, neurotic, conceited Jenna is the self-obsessed star of The Girly Show. She has a tendency to break into over-animated song on any occasion, or non-occasion. A dedicated performer, Jenna returns to the second season 30 pounds overweight from the 32 pieces of pizza she ate each week while appearing in Mystic Pizza: The Musical! during The Girly Show‘s summer hiatus.

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Jenna wouldn’t raise an eyebrow, and can’t, at the simultaneous use of multiple medical beauty treatments of Botox, collagen, chemical peels and shark DNA injections.

When something doesn’t go Jenna’s way, she uses her secret weapon, her sex-u-al-i-ty, to get what she wants. It never works, but she never notices. Jenna hopes to garner more acclaim and serious stardom from her recent role as Southern lawyer, Constance Justice, in the tongue-twistingly-titled feature film, The Rural Juror, based on a book by John Grisham’s brother, Kevin, who used to work at a recycling centre.

Jenna managed to snatch a smidgen of genuine respect from her co-worker, Frank, when she accidentally “pooted” during a tirade fuelled by her offence at always being the expendable, doomed choice in office rounds of Marry, Boff, Kill. When Frank explains the airy act makes her less fake she offers, “I could do it again, but I wouldn’t want to show off.”

Tracy Jordan (Tracy Morgan) Tracy is ‘the third heat’ that Jack wants injected into the show. Tracy’s been the star of comedy films, (most in which he plays more than one character) including Who Dat Ninja, Black Cop/White Cop, Samurai I Am Awry, and Honky Grandma Be Trippin’. But his career has been faltering of late with only the tabloid press’ stories of his exploits keeping his name before the public. Although most would suspect drug abuse is to blame for running down the highway nearly naked, swinging a light sabre and shouting, “I am a Jedi!”, Tracy explains he’s done that, and slept on Ted Danson’s roof, simply because he’s “straight up mentally ill”.

But Jack wants him, and Jack gets him, and promptly changes the name of the show to TGS With Tracy Jordan.

Tracy’s challenging condition is, for the most part, kept in check with prescription drugs supplied by Dr. Spaceman (pronounced Spa-chem-en, played by Chris Parnell). Unfortunately a smorgasbord of trial medication threatens Tracy’s second chance, when he’s scheduled to appear on Late Night With Conan O’Brien hoping to banish the memory of his last appearance and his ‘stabbing robot’ routine, during which he chased Conan around his desk armed with two sharp knives. An eleventh hour new prescription keeps Tracy’s mainstream popularity safe when he falls deep asleep in his seat after an introduction and impromptu dance on Conan’s show.

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Hard as it may be to spot, there’s good in Tracy’s heart. Though he’s a frequent patron of strip clubs, fakes illiteracy to minimise his work hours, ‘borrows’ a yacht to impress his workmates, and is fitted with a “Hollywood sock” (an alcohol-sensing ankle bracelet) for a DUI offence, he also ministers to transvestite prostitutes, encouraging them to attend computer school. He always bears in mind that “freaky deekys need love too”.

Dennis Duffy (Dean Winters – currently Charley Dixon in Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles) Liz’s on-again-off-again boyfriend, Dennis’ favourite way to show affection is with choke hold – knuckle rub burns on Liz’s head, after she’s fixed her hair for work. However, he feeds Liz, and as food is her Kryptonite, she’s unable to resist his charmless, food-ful ways.

Dennis is The Beeper King, a title he acquired when the original Beeper King committed suicide, leaving Dennis the only remaining beeper salesman in existence in Manhattan. Dennis believes that technology is cyclical, and beepers will one day become indispensable again. He also believes that rat kings roam the city and its restaurants. Rat kings are created, he explains, when many rats swarm and are cornered in small spaces and their tails become tangled. They can’t escape each other and eventually fuse together into one massive multi-headed rat.

Liz finally finds the impetus to rid herself of Dennis when she catches him on a TV show that traps and exposes men looking for ‘dates’ with under-aged girls. This throws the balance of her Dennis Pros and Cons list heavily into kick-him-to-the-curb territory and she dumps him.

Dennis surfaces again in the second season, when he’s hailed as the Subway Hero for rescuing someone who’d fallen off a subway platform. Jack wants Dennis to appear on NBC shows, sending Liz to bring him in. However, Dennis negates what good he might have ranked up in Liz’s eyes when, after fame has faded, he tries to repeat his heroic stunt by pushing Liz into the path of an oncoming train so he can save her and regain glory.

Other characters include Kenneth Parcell (Jack McBrayer), a naive NBC page from the back woods of Georgia who adores television. Kenneth tries hard to maintain his untarnished moral core in an evil city. He had a bit of a slip this past season when he became hooked on coffee after his first sip. He’d never had coffee before, or any other hot drink, because that’s “the devil’s temperature”.

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Frank Rossitano (Judah Friedlander), the writer Liz describes as the product of sex between Gene Simmons and a basset hound, will pick up and eat food off the floor, lives for porn and comics and ably explains the ‘Uncanny Valley’ theory when Tracy wants to create the world’s first porn video game, Gorgasm: The Legend of Dong Slayer

Frank: A porn video game? – it can’t be done. History’s greatest perverts have tried: Walt Disney, Larry Flint, the Japanese – but they can’t do it because of ‘The Uncanny Valley’. (Produces a graph on paper) Check out this chart. As artificial representations of humans become more and more realistic, they reach a point where they stop being endearing and become creepy.

Tracy: Tell it to me in Star Wars.

Frank: Alright. We like R2-D2. And C-3PO.

Tracy: They’re nice.

Frank: And up here (points to pinnacle of graph), we have a real person, like Han Solo.

Tracy: He acts like he doesn’t care, but he does.

Frank: But down here (points to base of graph) we have a CGI Storm Trooper… or Tom Hanks in The Polar Express.

Tracy: I’m scared!! Get me outta there!

Frank: And that’s the problem. You’re in The Valley now and it’s impossible to get out.

Devon Banks (Will Arnett) is Jack’s nemesis and main rival to replace Don Geiss. Although Devon is gay (and attracted to Kenneth, who Jack uses as an unwitting spy and weapon), he gets engaged to Geiss’ daughter, Kathy, a woman who plasters ousted Jack’s former office with Marky Mark posters and unicorns and who likes to squeeze into small spaces, like behind a washing machine. But that’s the lengths driven Devon will go to, to beat Jack to the prized position and their venomous conversations, wherein each talks deeper than the other in turns, are bass-a-licious.

Other key, recurring and incidental characters are just as intense and interesting and the show attracts the type of A list guest stars you’d expect in a very popular program. It’s not especially high-brow, but it is chock-full of pop culture and political references. Hardly a line is wasted on anything less than comic genius. This is undiluted, full strength funny sitcom stuff. And it’s doled out rapid-fire, requiring repeated viewings to fully assimilate all of the sarcastically saturated dialogue. (Well, that’s my excuse and I’m sticking to it!)

If anyone keeps me from my 30 Rock come the end of the month, they’ll regret it. If you think you can handle it, find it, watch it, but in moderation and with cautious consideration of your mind grapes, please.