30 Rock, “It’s Never Too Late For Now”

Inspired by the sprawling, multi-armed conversation about the state of television criticism (see here, here and here, among other places), I’ve decided to take the next week or so to check in with the series that I watch every single week, but never actually write about. There’s been a lot of discussion about writing longer form pieces on series with more episodes in the tank, so I’m going to try to experiment with that and see how it goes. Let’s start things off with 30 Rock, which I think I’ve reviewed maybe once this season.

This won’t be an original statement, but good lord is it nice to have 30 Rock back. I thought the second half of season four was a marked improvement over the drivel that was season three and the first half of season four, but I’m willing to go ahead and say that season five has been a very welcome return to the season two glory. I’m not sure if this season is particularly better than those episodes because there was such a bouncy pace of wit, but I’ve probably enjoyed this season the most since it has allowed me to wash the nasty taste of that season-and-a-half out of my mouth.

Knowing that I was planning on writing a review of this episode and the season as a whole, I sat down with “It’s Never Too Late For Now” with the hopes that it would be indicative of the season thus far. Oddly, this turned out to be an interesting outlier of sorts, but it still stayed true to a lot of the series’ strengths on its way to being one of the strongest efforts of the season.

We all know that the strongest element of this series is the relationship between Liz and Jack. The chemistry between Tina Fey and Alec Baldwin carries every single episode and made even those middling S3-S4 episodes worth watching, despite everything else. This season has been particularly strong in the Liz and Jack department, mostly because it seemed liked the writers figured out how to make them happy enough separately that their interactions together didn’t get bogged down by various romantic entanglements. When the two of them are continuously cycling through celebrity boyfriends or girlfriends, that became the focus of the series in a detrimental way.

But thankfully, I think the writers sort of lucked out at the end of last season with Matt Damon and Elizabeth Banks. The two of them are big enough stars that they can’t be around on a weekly basis or even agree to do multiple episodes in a row like Selma Hayek did in season three, so the series was able to just lock Liz and Jack into this fairly healthy relationships, put them to the side for most weeks and move forward with the kind of fun stories that it did really well in the early going. And course then it can bring Damon and Banks back for episodes like last week’s effort, in which Avery has her baby in Canada and Carol and Liz have a funny fight on an airplane while it sits on the runway. When those famous love interest-y kind of characters aren’t around all the time, the pay-off for certain beats is also more effective. It’s unfortunate that the writers took this long to figure that out, but they’ve handled it beautifully this season.

I say all that to set up this week’s episode, which brilliantly handles Liz’s break-up with Carol and to a much lesser, but still moderately funny extent, Jack’s handling of his newborn child. While the Liz-Jack dynamic is the heart of the series, this episode goes out of its way to show Liz (and us at home) that this group of weirdos is actually a great makeshift family. Of course Liz goes into a personal tail-spin after the break-up with Carol and just decides to become a spinster. I feel like the character has been building towards that realization for five seasons and combined with the fact that it is always fun to see Tina Fey in some sort of awkward/terrible apparel, I was totally on board for whatever direction the episode was going to take the plot. Liz should be a cat lady who joins a book club and uses a chip clip to pull back her hair. In fact, I’m sort of shocked that she didn’t do these things on a regular basis anyway, but I guess everyone has some semblance of dignity.

In any event, though I was happy with any direction the Liz spinster plot could have gone, I was really impressed where it ultimately did travel. While 30 Rock certainly has its own brand of emotion and heart, it’s not a series that likes to bring the major — or hell, even the minor — heartwarming moments at the end of episodes. Sometimes it gets close and quickly undercuts them, and that’s perfectly fine. We have enough comedies on the air right now that like to wrap things up with a moderately sarcastic/mostly sincere emotional button.

However, “It’s Never Too Late For Now” actually goes down that road and because the series usually keeps that bullet in the chamber, it’s actually really nice to have it fired here. The series never wants to have Liz be too happy for too long, so the fact that she went out to club dressed how she was and then hooked up with the very attractive Anders (sup, Eion Bailey?) seemed too perfect, especially considering it happened only halfway through the episode. I kept waiting for the episode to undercut Liz’s triumph and general happiness, but instead of going there, it actually subverts expectations in a fun little way. It’s a mark of genius to have Liz use her newfound conspiracy detective skills to discover that the whole night, down to the set-up of the club — it was quiet with well-marked fire exits — to Anders himself happened to be fully concocted by everyone at TGS. And I mean literally every single one of the main and supporting cast, minus the absent Tracy.

As Liz discovers, this is completely and wildly inappropriate and probably terrible on multiple levels. However, in this zany world, it actually serves as a reminder to Liz that she has at least a good 15-20 people who care enough about her that they would create an elaborate chain reaction of events that led to her having sex with a probable prostitute suggested to Jack by Martha Stewart. She might not have Carol anymore and can’t seem to figure out how to keep “the one” happy for the long-term, but on a day-to-day basis, these are the people who keep her happy, or at least comfortable. There’s a middle ground between in love forever and becoming a cat lady spinster and it’s the people at TGS, especially Jack, that keep her in that boring, lull of a middle space.

Like I said, this is an emotional pay-off that the series usually avoids, but it felt totally earned in this instance. The season has done a nice job of developing Liz as a person, from her growing comfort with having a boyfriend who travels all the time to working out some of those creepy sexual issues from her past, but that stability has been shattered by her break-up with Carol. Liz needed that night and that moment with the TGS team and Jack and we in the audience needed it as well. 30 Rock might be the closet thing we have to a live-action cartoon, but it still can’t hurt itself by trying to pay-off a good and real emotional beat every now and again and I think this was the perfect time for the series to pick its spot.

In the other primary storyline, Jack’s plot with the cunning babysitter wasn’t that impressive, but it was still a nice use of some of Alec Baldwin’s best traits. The plotline with Kabletown — and obviously, the real-life non-sense with Comcast — has given both Jack and the series as a whole a larger thread to connect the season together, and having Jack’s personal life directly alter a big meeting is always a nice play. Like with the handling of Avery before the baby was born, I appreciated that the series isn’t shying away from the fact that Jack has a newborn son, but the writers are also not allowing it to overtake his character, at least at this point. Jack has gone through some big moments this season as well and it’s pleasant to see the series sticking to them. Jack is in foreign soil both at home and in the boardroom and it’s hilarious to watch him squirm in ways that he hasn’t ever before. This is particularly true when it involves gags about magazines that only cover meetings, fantastic.

And one final thing positive about this episode, which does happen to be reflective of the season as a whole: It’s very light on Jenna and almost entirely devoid of Kenneth. I’ve never been a big fan of either character, but they became particularly annoying and suffocating when the series fell downwards, and I’m not really sure if they were worse because the series fell overall or the series fell because these two idiots were highlighted more. In any event, both characters work wonders in short spurts, especially the horribly broad Kenneth, and the writers have done a nice job of finding room for them only when it’s necessary without making a big deal out of their presence. That not only allows for their few moments to seem better, but it also opens some story room up for a great runner like Pete and Frank’s two-man ’80s band that only adds to the fun instead of sucking life out of the proceedings.

Even though it’s not an episode that represents the season’s overall greatness, I’m glad I checked in with 30 Rock during “It’s Never Too Late For Now.” This is an episode that might not be looked back on as fondly as some of the season’s more obvious highlights like “When It Rains, It Pours,” “Reaganing” or last week’s “Double-Edged Sword,” but it’s an important episode on a much different level.

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