30 Rock season 5 episode 3 review: Let’s Stay Together

Louisa finds that the latest episode of 30 Rock is hardly the show at its best...

5.3 Let’s Stay Together

Anthropologists tell us there are two kinds of laughter. One’s a spontaneous, uncontrollable, tears and snot streaming belly laugh that happens when we find something funny, the other’s a snorting, grunting noise made when we laugh on purpose to ease social situations or show we understand and agree with someone. To use shorthand, it’s snot vs. snort. And while 30 Rock has delivered more than its fair share of snot moments over the years, Let’s Stay Together sticks firmly in snort territory.

With an episode that could just as well have been called ‘Mr Donaghy Goes to Washington’ (but probably wasn’t because The Simpsons and Family Guy already used that one), the third in this new series sees Jack testifying in front of a House sub-committee as part of the proposed NBC/Kabletown merger. There he encounters a House representative (a guest appearance by Queen Latifah) who, in asking Jack why NBC is so racist, kicks off what looks set to be a multi-episode story arc about the channel’s lack of diversity.

Though politics and diversity might sound more like a trendy degree course than sitcom fodder, 30 Rock‘s brand of satire has done great things with similar themes in the past. The Tracy/Toofer race storyline in season one’s The Break-Up was proof that smart comedy can take on tricky themes and prosper. So, what wasn’t working about this week’s episode?

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Before answering, I should state for the record that I’m not usually one to pick holes in 30 Rock. I love the show. I love itso much I want to take it behind the middle school and get it pregnant. But still, something made Let’s Stay Together light on laughs for me.

A likely candidate is that I’m not American, so a fair few of this week’s nods and references just went over my head (Don Imus, anybody? Arthur Ashe? Houston foreclosures?) That’s not a criticism, though. Just as non-Brits or, you know, people who like comedy, are unlikely to laugh at Mock The Week, inevitably so too can 30 Rock leave its non-American viewers behind.

Another possible answer is that Let’s Stay Together seemed to rely on old set-ups and material that’s been done before.

Queen Latifah played Representative Bookman, a politician whose grandstanding borrows the rhetorical style of Martin Luther King, but none of the coherence. Her speeches quickly disintegrate into random combinations of the words “America”, “flag” and “troops” before sending her audience into rapturous applause. Rare as it might be to say that Family Guy did a joke before anyone else, Lois Griffin’s non sequitur use of “9/11” in her Quahog mayoral election speech did seem to have got there before 30 Rock.

That’s not to say Latifah isn’t good. She’s pitch-perfect as Bookman and her scenes are funny in a ‘they’re right, politicians do sound like that sometimes’ sort of way. Much of the third episode is devoted to setting up a closing sequence in which Bookman inspects the TGS studios for evidence of diversity, only to find it lacking. The ‘Oh no! My boss/mother-in-law/something-inspector is coming to visit: stations everybody!’ is a sitcom classic that delivers some predictable chuckles from the hapless TGS gang, but they are, well, just that: predictable.

The theme of recycled humour continues as eagle-eyed bloggers spotted this week a corn chips and diarrhoea-based  exchange between Liz and Jack that appears, intentionally or not, to have been lifted wholesale from a 2008 episode of The Sarah Silverman Show.

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Overlaps aside, elsewhere at 30 Rock, El Téjon (a.k.a. Liz) wants a little respect, Jenna teaches Kenneth how to step-ball-change for his re-application to the page programme, Toofer gets a promotion and Jack gets Tracy, Dot Com and Grizz to produce a show for the African American community. The week’s guest spots are filled by the aforementioned Queen Latifah, The Wire‘s Reg E. Cathey and a fun, but all too brief cameo from ‘Congressman’ Rob Reiner.

Not a corker of an episode, then, but even on a slow day 30 Rock is still smarter and funnier than most other comedies on TV today. Let’s just keep our fingers crossed that the laughs in the live episode coming up next prompt more bodily fluids than they do wry smiles.

Read our review of episode 2, When It Rains It Pours, here.