Saturday, May 7, 2011

30 Rock tries to "Respawn" with mixed results

30 Rock: Season 5     NBC's 30 Rock completed its fifth (already!?) season with "Respawn," in which a number of characters try to make it through the summer. Liz's (Tina Fey) dream is to stay in the Hamptons, learning Spanish and spending time doing brainless tasks outside. Her peace is interrupted when Tracy (Tracy Morgan) moves in next door to her. Jack (Alec Baldwin) doesn't even try to think of any way he might rescue Avery (Elizabeth Banks). Instead, he tries to carry on without her or other people's pity, and when that doesn't want, he forces Kenneth (Jack McBrayer) to take her place. Jenna (Jane Krakowski) tries to make her boyfriend, Paul (Will Forte), behave normally so that the head of the Wool Council (guest star Victor Garber) will be satisfied with Jenna's morality. And the writers play video games.

     Generally, summer episodes, if they are done at all, appear in the fall, so it is a new and novel idea to do it as a season finale. The drawback, though, is that instead of a big finish, it's a meandering episode spanning a large chunk of time, and not a lot gets done. While 30 Rock may make frequent use of episodes not getting anything done, after its big 'Weddings' finale last year, this one is a let down.
     The title of the episode refers to the writers' plot, where Frank (Judah Friedlander), Lutz (John Lutz), Toofer (Keith Powell), and some other guy keep killing themselves and respawning in a video game so that none of them actually get a kill point, and no one wins. They are only checked in on a couple of times, so it seems an odd thing to pinpoint in the title. However, their scenes may actually have been the funniest in this mediocre episode.

     The best thing "Respawn" has going for it is the great Victor Garber in an apparently one-time guest role. Garber is an extremely talented actor, and is only the latest in a long line of 'big gets' for 30 Rock. His presence elevates the series in a noticeable way, and he steals every scene he is in as the highly moral, wool loving CEO.

     Besides Garber, Forte continues to be a great asset for 30 Rock, and they should consider making Paul a regular, now that Forte is no longer with Saturday Night Live. He was originally introduced as a Jenna impersonator, funny enough, but their continued relationship and hilariously kinky sex has been a constant joy. Also, Paul trying to be normal for his girl is something he would not have done when they were less committed, so it shows a level of growth that is unexpected. Kudos is warranted for this subplot.

     Jack has been completely tamed by Avery and their baby. There is no way  a couple of years ago Jack would have sat by and did nothing while the love of his life is tortured by North Koreans. While this is sort of dealt with last week, it is intolerable that he should grow complacent in the season finale. Is Banks no longer available for 30 Rock episodes, and so she is being written out? It is hard to fathom what the thinking is behind this plot, but it is far from satisfying.

     Kenneth is a joke in "Respawn." While he has always been a bit dim and eager to please, he goes too far in going along with Jack's transference. Not only that, but the character clearly understands what is going on, and that it is wrong, and he doesn't want to do it, but continues anyway. Kenneth has come further than this, and it is very disappointing to see him backslide into such a stooge. And what is up with the little bit at the end where he tells Jacob he needs more time before "To be continued..." appears. To be honest, it feels like a one-note gag, possibly a Lost reference, that will likely not be followed up on.

     Jonathan (Maulik Pancholy), on the other hand, is moved to feelings of revenge when Jack fully chooses Kenneth over him. This has been touched on before, but it's time for an ongoing, full-blown feud between the two. It is certain to be tons of fun, if the writers pursue it. It would be good to see Kenneth get mad enough to fight back, the only possible outcome for his character to survive a full onslaught from Jonathan.

     Tracy is funny in his need to bug Liz, as he has formed quite an attachment to her after hiding out in her upstairs and sneaking in to repaint her apartment three times. He is likely looking for a peer-level friend, rather than his entourage he usually interacts with. This could be something really great to explore further.

     Liz, on the other hand, is sliding backwards. Throughout 30 Rock she has struggled to improve her life. She did so for awhile, even maintaining a steady relationship with Carol (Matt Damon). But since their break up, she has become a joke. She barely cares about the show anymore, other than how its cancellation would cut off her paycheck. What happened to the Lemon that was passionate about TGS? Bring her back!

     30 Rock has been renewed for a sixth season, and will return in the fall to NBC.

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