Rating: 4.5/5 stars
A comedy’s third and fourth seasons are akin to litmus tests of how a show will fair in the future. For example, “Seinfeld” didn’t lose a step in seasons 3 and 4, and from there it stayed consistently funny until…well, until its last episode. On the other hand, “Scrubs” began to show its cracks by the end of its third season, and was in complete free fall by season 5. The same goes for “Weeds.”
A sitcom’s third and fourth seasons represent points of no return. If a show can make it past these critical points with its freshness intact, its future will be bright. But, if a show’s premise grows stale in season 3 or 4, from that point on, the storyline will likely meander and the jokes will slowly deflate.
Last season was “30 Rock’s” third, and thankfully, it did not fall into this trap. The show stayed fresh last season, hitched on the wagon that is Tina Fey, Alec Baldwin and the comedy’s signature cocktail of wit and irony. That’s not to say that every episode last season was perfect (regrettably, not every show can be “Arrested Development”), but it was always relevant and instantly quotable.
“30 Rock” seems to realize the pressure that comes with a show’s telltale fourth season, and the premiere begins with Jack Donaghy (Alec Baldwin) addressing the camera directly: “Hello everyone…and welcome to Season 4…which is, of course, the name of this restaurant, the number-one Asian fusion restaurant in New York…” And in that instant, “30 Rock” is making a statement: The show knows it’s getting up there in years, but it’s not ready to give up its subversive humor.
But the rest of the premiere, despite being written by creator and star Tina Fey, is a bit flat. The episode is scattered, with four plots pushing and shoving each other for air time, and it feels like every time one story line hits its stride, the episode has to cut away to fill in the gaps in other threads.
Kenneth and Tracy’s plots each have a few memorable moments (like Tracy’s attempt to connect with an everyday man: “Do you ever lose your remote control? Do your wife start getting all mad, because the roof won’t close, and the bed in the shape of your face is getting rained on?”), but they don’t end memorably. Jenna’s plot is the exact opposite: no buildup, huge payoff, ending with her singing the opening theme for a show that could be dubbed, “Monday Night Tennis.”
Liz (Fey) and Jack, strangely enough, are supporting characters in the premiere, as the other loonier characters dictate their every move. It’s as if the show is trying to introduce all of its characters to a new audience who may have been drawn in by all the Emmy buzz, and the result is overambitious.
But like every “30 Rock” episode, it’s entertaining and tongue-in-cheek all the way through, and while not all of the stories were memorable, the jokes always were.
“30 Rock” airs on Thursdays at 8:30 p.m. on NBC.