This week’s lineup was an odd one: two new episodes of 30 Rock, a new episode of Parks and Rec and a repeat of Up All Night. (Even though there was no Office this time, it seems we might have a Dwight Schrute-centric spinoff to look forward to next season, so that’s…something). So we’ll tackle the shows that had new episodes, starting with how 30 Rock dealt with the Tracy Morgan controversy.
Last week I addressed 30 Rock’s Liz Lemon problem partly in regards to how the show chose to address the backlash to his homophobic comments. I wanted to wait until the two-part episode aired before weighing in, which I guess was my way of giving Tina Fey and the show’s other writers the benefit of the doubt. But “Idiots are People Three!” only solidified what a terrible idea it was to satirize the controversy if they were just going to use it as a jumping off point for a so-so subplot featuring Devon Banks, and for Liz to realize she’s an idiot if she’s going to let Jack dissuade her from dating Criss.
If 30 Rock wanted to address the issue, then it should’ve tackled it head-on, not diminished what happened by making light of it and using it as jokey fodder to advance other storylines. Blaming Tracy Jordan’s outrageous comments on him being an idiot, and even worse, depicting the gay community as an easily offended group of people who protest at the drop of a hat, undoes any goodwill Tina Fey and Tracy Morgan gained when each apologized last year. It was distasteful to see something that was profoundly hurtful to so many people clumsily satirized. No one—the characters, the writers, the audience—benefited from its inclusion in the episode.
I’m finding 30 Rock in general to be problematic these days. Once in awhile I’ll catch it in reruns, and I’ll appreciate the show’s rapid-fire humor, the pop culture parodies, the Liz Lemon-isms (summed up nicely in the “Shit Liz Lemon Says” clip). The shows are briskly paced and the episodes are often laugh-out-loud funny. But now that the series has returned to the Thursday night line-up, I’ve felt impatient with it. While still amused, I am not enjoying it the way I did in earlier seasons, or even in reruns. And it wasn’t until I saw April give Chris movie tickets in this week’s Parks and Rec that I realized what’s not sitting right with me about this show.
30 Rock is the same series in the first episode of its first season as it is in the fourth episode of its sixth season. Nothing about this show has really changed beyond Jack and Liz’s relationship. The characters speak to each other in other punchlines and non-sequiturs. TGS is still a low-rated, unfunny sketch comedy show, Tracy and Jenna are its shallow, immature stars, Liz is their coddling head writer who is “subord-a-friends” with her boss Jack. What was fresh and funny in season one now feels tired and even annoying in season six, especially how Liz still craves Jack’s approval (which this week he gave in the form of a gold star, ugh).
And while I don’t mind this when watching the occasional episode in reruns, when viewed in the context of its TV neighbors on Thursday nights, it makes me realize I have higher expectations from a comedy these days. I expect characters to show growth and dimension, even as they stay true to what makes them so funny and appealing. 30 Rock can still be a pleasurable show (everything involving Kelsey Grammer was wonderfully absurd, and the MLK movie trailer nailed the formulaicness of modern-day rom-coms featuring all-star casts). But seeing April rise above her dour, sarcastic nature to help cheer up Chris on Parks and Rec was so much more rewarding.
Of all the characters, April has surprisingly shown the most growth, and it was gratifying to see her become more softened and human even as she retains her hilarious edge. Now, Parks and Rec isn’t perfect, because when Leslie Knope gets hyper-competitive, she becomes a bit cartoonish, as she did in her quest to get Derek the bowling fan to vote for her. The important distinction is that Leslie learned to accept that she won’t be able to win everyone over. Just like April, Leslie experienced some personal growth, but is still very much herself. Meanwhile, Liz and Jenna realized that their friendship works because they indulge each other’s worst qualities, and are happy to never change at all.
I’m not sure it’s fair to expect 30 Rock to raise its game, because it never aspired to be anything more than an SNL sketch in sitcom form. But considering all the talent involved, and the absolute misfire of the Tracy Jordan/protesters plot, it couldn’t hurt for the writers to shake things up and figure out how the show and its characters can evolve. Because if the series got yanked from the scheduled tomorrow, unlike Community, it’s hard to believe that people would stage flash mobs in protest.