30 Rock: Settling Into Simpsons Territory

30 Rock S06E16: "Nothing Left to Lose"

How do you judge whether a sitcom is a success? Is it in sheer numbers of laugh-out-loud moments? If so, 30 Rock is doing pretty well this season. It’s been consistently coercing surprise guffaws out of me, a feat that other formerly reliable sitcoms (Modern Family, The Office) have lately failed to accomplish. Lutz in particular, along with his pirate baubles, have been bringing the lulz. But what if you judge a sitcom on deeper elements—characters, relationships, and story—that are the hallmarks of the enduring classics: shows like Cheers, The Golden Girls, and, to name one more in the spirit of 30 Rock, Arrested Development? Then, I’m afraid, 30 Rock is in deep trouble. It seems to have taken a turn into latter-day Simpsons territory, where the jokes fly faster and more furiously than ever before, but fewer seem to hit, and the characters devolve into one-dimensional buffoons. I’d definitely say that "Nothing Left to Lose" was an improvement over last week’s bizarre meditation on meditating, but to call it a “good” episode would be a stretch.

First, the pluses: It had a relatively coherent, if utterly absurd, plot, and a merciful lack of Hazel. Jenna was made the fool by the writers' room pranksters, who convinced her to dress up like Smurfette for a Christopher Nolan audition. She therefore pledged to get revenge by rooting through the garbage in search of humiliating evidence; when she failed to turn up anything on Lutz, she felt guilty, and went back into the dump to make him feel better. Aha, but it was all a ruse: They just wanted to sell footage of Jenna covered in garbage to a German fetish website.

In hindsight, little about this plot makes sense, foremost being how they knew she’d omit Lutz in the first place. But whatever, it produced enough laughs to justify its existence. I’m not entirely sure how I felt about Jenna’s strange, tearful confessional (somehow tied into a running gag about employment self-evaluation), or the character repeatedly telling her reflection that she hates herself. The fun of Jenna is that she has no self-awareness, humility, or humanity. Having her acknowledge her own self-loathing just served to deflate six seasons’ worth of character-building. (Or rather, character-shallowing.)

Then there was that Liz/Tracy plot, which was truly bizarre, and involved Tracy having a toy ring removed from his nose, giving him a sense of smell for the first time since childhood. Okay, it felt a little familiar, but I was ready to roll with it. Then it transformed in a way that we can all agree none of us saw coming: Tracy thinking Liz was the father who abandoned him, because she uses the same African-American-marketed pomade that his dad did. Once again, the show’s “edgy” exploration of race was nudged ahead, with a mock-commercial for the product. I must admit, I enjoyed it much more than Kenneth’s line about laughing like “two Jews watching The Daily Show,” a one-liner whose humor eluded me.

And finally there was Pete, who said during his self-evaluation that his aspirations for five years into the future were to remain exactly where he was—a response Jack took great issue with. This was the plot that worked least for me, mainly because Jack would never care what some peon wrote in his self-evaluation.

What did you think? And as always, what were your favorite lines or moments?

Best Lines:

Jack: "Your life is tied to the fate of the Ring. It must be destroyed."

Frank [re: Lutz]: "Well, he is estranged from his teenaged son, Kellan Lutz from Twilight."

Tracy: "It’s a Kalifornia Kong, which is two California Kings tied together with gorilla leather."

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