"30 Rock" strikes back

The question raised by the season premiere isn't whether the show is still good. It's how could it get any better?

Published October 16, 2009 10:16AM (EDT)

Kenneth (Jack McBrayer)
Kenneth (Jack McBrayer)

"We'll trick those race-car-lovin' wide loads into watching your lefty, homoerotic propaganda hour yet!" Jack Donaghy tells Liz, Tracy and Jenna in Thursday night's season premiere of "30 Rock," perhaps a reference to the fact that, despite three straight best comedy Emmys, the show hasn't managed to rack up impressive ratings. Donaghy has a plan to make "TGS" more relatable to the masses: Jenna will "go country" to rally flyover country, Tracy Morgan will reacquaint himself with the common man and Liz will go out looking for a new star of the show, someone who's more relatable and less of an urban elite than Tracy and Jenna. 

Yes, "30 Rock"(9:30 p.m. Thursdays on NBC) is back at last, and in fine form. Although it's been a great fall for new comedies, with ABC's "Modern Family," NBC's "Community" and HBO's "Bored to Death" all blowing the comedic offerings of the past few years out of the water, there's truly something special about Liz, Jack and their rag-tag crew of vainglorious underlings.

As Kenneth leads a page strike against NBC ("What do we want? To get you sandwiches! When do we want it? Whenever would be convenient for you!") and Liz Lemon looks for a new actor for the show ("Another actor? Why?" asks Pete when Liz suggests they take a prospect out. "They have so many feelings and opinions!"), the question is not whether or not "30 Rock" is still good, but rather, how could "30 Rock" be any better? The show's writers have a real knack for taking the issues of the moment – the recession, anger at exorbitant executive pay, the tendency of celebrities to lose touch with reality – and dramatizing them in new ways each week.

Take Tracy, who in his quest to reconnect with the average guy, invites a janitor into his dressing room for a chat.

Tracy: Do you ever lose your remote control?

Janitor: (smiling) Yeah!

Tracy: And do your wife start gettin' all mad because the roof won't close and the bed that's in the shape of your face is gettin' rained on?!

Of course any clash of the classes has to include Jack, who remains calm when Kenneth confronts him about the pages' low pay and inability to work more than 16 hours a day.

Kenneth: Sir, I accidentally saw your paycheck.

Jack: Well, I hope it was inspirational.

Kenneth: Those zeroes! It's downright un-American.

Jack: That's where you're wrong, Kenneth. It's extremely American. My talents are more valuable than yours, so I'm paid accordingly therefore I'm entitled to my bonus.

Kenneth: That's a bonus check?!!

And then there's Liz Lemon, a true hero to today's modern woman, in all of her self-deprecating, messy, unraveling, self-defeating glory. Just the sight of Liz's self-conscious smile is enough to make the screeching, looks-obsessed harpies of "Cougar Town" fade into distant memory. Yes, Liz makes growing old look sad and pathetic, too, but for much better reasons. The problem isn't that you don't have time to get a bikini wax, it's that your boss is an arrogant Republican, your coworkers are delusional dummies, and you go home to your messy apartment with nothing to look forward to but eating a microwaved chicken pot pie in front of "Top Chef." See? Much more like real life!

But obviously it's not realism that makes "30 Rock" so good. Rather, it's the courage of its writers to get weird. So many lines of dialogue on the show are jam-packed with off-kilter hilarity, it's hard to digest them all on the first viewing. Take this bizarre exchange between Jack Donaghy and private investigator Lenny Wosniak (Steve Buscemi):

Jack: Lenny, this page strike is an embarrassment to the company.

Lenny: I get it. It's like I tell my assistant: Your weight is a reflection on me.

Jack: I can't have that apple-cheeked goon outside screaming about my bonus. What are my options?

Lenny: Let me ask you a question, Mr. Donaghy. How do you kill a snake?

Jack: Cut off the head!

Lenny: Of course! Thank you. Now I won't be afraid to go into my garage. All right here's how we play this page thing. I go undercover, infiltrate the union. Take this Parcell guy down from the inside.

Jack: Very well. And you have undercover experience?

Lenny: They used to call me The Chameleon… because of my slender frame and my big, wet eyes.

With jokes that odd, the writers of"30 Rock" aren't about to trick those race-car-lovin' wide loads into watching their lefty, homoerotic propaganda hour. But that's OK, because the rest of us will keep watching regardless. Welcome back, "30 Rock"!

By Heather Havrilesky

Heather Havrilesky is a regular contributor to the New York Times Magazine, The Awl and Bookforum, and is the author of the memoir "Disaster Preparedness." You can also follow her on Twitter at @hhavrilesky.

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