30 Rock season 4 episode 1 review

30 Rock is back! This makes the world all good. Here's what we thought of the season 4 opening episode...

4.1 Season 4

Oh, 30 Rock, how I’ve missed you and your crazy ways.

The show returned this past week, marking the debut of its fourth season with an episode called, conveniently enough, Season 4.

We kick things off with Jack, Liz, Jenna and Tracy dining in a trendy Manhattan restaurant where Jack is making the team eat an intestinal-twisting food product called Cheesy Blasters, which is apparently a huge hit with Middle America and with Liz Lemon, who enthusiastically recounts the Cheesy Blasters commercial right down to its airborne, skateboarding mascot, Meat Cat. 

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Jack tells the gang that they and the rest of the network have lost touch with ‘the real America’ and are now tasked with changing that and reconnecting with the average Joe. Given that Tracy has taken to burning money on the sidewalk and telling jokes about St. Bart’s to his stand-up audiences, that’s going to take a bit of effort. 

Lovable spotlight whore that she is, Jenna cheerfully offers to “go country” in order to help the show because, as she explains to Liz, the only way for a woman to gain traction in show business these days is either to record a country album or have a lesbian relationship. Jack quickly nixes the latter before cheerfully declaring, “We’ll trick those racecar lovin’ wide loads into watching your lefty homoerotic propaganda hour yet.” And I, as a Middle American, laugh and laugh at perhaps the most accurate description yet of my homeland.

Later, Jack tells Liz that, as part of the rebranding plan, she and Pete need to find a new cast member “who can appeal to a wider audience”. She is not happy, remembering how Jenna freaked out the last time she came face to face with possible competition: ears were torn and dreams were dashed. To hide their mission, Liz and Pete are forced to sneak out to comedy clubs and utter outrageous lies to cover their tracks, including these beauties: “Pete’s stealing money!” “Liz’s uterus fell out!”

Meanwhile, in plot B, or is it A? – I always have trouble keeping those letters apart – overtime has been cut for the pages, “Thanks to Comrade Obama’s recession,” Jack says. Kenneth tells Jack he always works overtime and doesn’t care about the money; he just doesn’t want to sign a timecard that makes him a liar. Jack assures him that they’ve all had to make sacrifices, even reducing payroll to one guy and an envelope-stuffing machine. That leads to one of the funniest, split-second asides this show has ever done. I won’t spoil it for you, but rest assured, I’m still laughing nearly a week later.

Back in his dressing room, Tracy is fretting over the fact that he’s lost touch with the common man. After a bad attempt at casual conversation with the janitor (“Oh, you live in Brooklyn? My dear friend Moby opened a teahouse in Park Slope. Does he know you?”) Tracy decides to get out of the building and talk to people on the street, just as soon as he can find the elevator he’s not afraid of.

By the transitive rules of sitcom mayhem, Kenneth accidentally gets Jack’s bonus check, which is so large it actually has an extra flap that opens up to accommodate the extra zeroes, causing Kenneth to literally squeak with indignation.

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The next morning, Kenneth confronts Jack, demanding that he admit he’s a liar and give the pages back their overtime. Jack says no and Kenneth declares a page strike, which is comprised of the most polite picketers in history. Their battle cry? “What do we want?” “To get your sandwiches.” “When do we want it?” “Whenever would be convenient for you.” Beautiful.

Liz tries to tell Jack that maybe he should give some of his bonus money back to pay for the pages’ overtime, but Jack’s too distracted telling Jenna that she’ll be recording a rollicking new southern rock theme for NBC Sports, a division which consists entirely of a little something called “off-season tennis”. Jenna is thrilled.

Outside, Tracy is walking up to strangers and brandishing sure-fire conversation starters like, “You look regular. Can I guess your name? Is it Pedro? Is it Crackford? Is it Swimming? Are you a pre-op trans-centaur? Do you have change for a $10,000 bill?” Which is exactly how I hope the real Tracy Morgan greets people before challenging them to pantsless light saber duels. Please God, let it be so!

Fed up with the page strike, Jack hires private eye Lenny, played by Steve Buscemi, to infiltrate the union and break the strike. And much as I love Steve Buscemi, this subplot is pretty much a bust and seems to exist simply so Buscemi can utter the line, “They used to call me the chameleon because of my slender frame and big, wet eyes.” Admittedly, that’s a great line, but c’mon, the guy was in Reservoir Dogs. We can do better than that.

Back in the writer’s room, Liz and Pete are finally forced to confess to their cast member searching after an abortive attempt to stave off the writers’ growing curiosity by falsely admitting to an affair or, as Liz puts it, she and Pete are indeed “intercoursing each other”. Which leads to a very disturbing moment with Pete’s wife, who has walked in on the whole mess and tells Liz, “If this is what Pete needs, I would be willing to welcome you into our lovemaking.”  And a thousand fan fiction writers scurry to their keyboards!

Kenneth’s strike continues to grow as “the mall Santas, horse whisperers and bucket drummers” join the movement and are soon followed by Tracy and Jenna, who has found out about the new cast member and is royally pissed. 

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Finally fed up, Jack shows up at Kenneth’s house, where he pours himself a Robitussin (cough syrup) cocktail, and threatens to shut down the page program forever. I won’t ruin the power struggle ending, but suffice it to say, Kenneth may have learned a bit too much from Jack.

This episode wasn’t 30 Rock at its finest, mostly because writer Tina Fey seemed intent on (rightfully) thumbing her nose at NBC and the studio executives who value ad revenue over quality. But sometimes those kinds of heavy messages weigh the comedy down. Season 4 was one of those occasions.

Now that the vitriol is out of everyone’s systems, I’m hoping for a strong return to 30 Rock‘s Dada-ist roots with this week’s episode. Or at the very least, some charmingly sleazy, deep-voice purrs from guest star Will Arnett. Yeah, try that one on for size, Middle America!