30 Rock: A One Time Special wasn’t a Zoom reunion or retrospective interview, but an actual scripted and filmed episode of 30 Rock with the actors all reprising their characters, seven years after the Emmy-winning comedy went off-air. Yay! Delightful!
Those scenes, however, would be in the service of NBCUniversal’s Upfronts, the annual event in which the company unveils its slate of programming to potential advertisers, everything from series airing on networks like NBC, USA, and Bravo to its news offerings and Olympics coverage plans. Boo! Depressing!
And yet it’s a very meta, real-life example of something that Tina Fey and Alec Baldwin’s characters, Liz and Jack, would be asked to do in support of Cabletown, the fictional stand-in for NBCUniversal (then Comcast) in the world of the show. So the whole operation becomes kind of weirdly hilarious and very much in the 30 Rock spirit, even if it meant the special would be interspersed with insufferable commercials touting the company’s fall line-up as if it is the second coming of God and also the coronavirus vaccine.
Ordinarily NBCUniversal’s Upfronts (every major media company has one) happen at Radio City Music Hall, and there’s a live show in which the biggest talent come out to shill for checks.
There’s something, again, very 30 Rock about the circumstances behind NBCU pivoting in this way: a global pandemic forcing a splashy reunion to happen, but with the indignities of filming it entirely remotely and as, essentially, a branded commercial.
Adding another That’s So Liz Lemon layer to the proceedings: after all the pomp and circumstance surrounding the special, it was reported that many NBC stations around the country wouldn’t be airing it.
Regardless of the pleasures of seeing Jane Krakowski back in character as Jenna Maroney (she was spectacular and the funniest part of the night), in the end the reunion was basically a long commercial for NBCU and its new streaming service, Peacock. If they aired it, the affiliates would be advertising for a service designed to take eyeballs away from their broadcasts. It’s the kind of escalating disaster that would routinely frame an episode of the show.
Then again, there’s also something very 30 Rock about the circumstances of the world, in general. That’s whether you look at pop culture—a $2 billion streaming service in which Reese Witherspoon talks about hyena penises and you can only watch it on your phone, also it’s called Quibi—or the culture wars.
Liz Lemon yelling at a buncha dummies for refusing to wear masks that will literally save lives because they think it’s an affront to civil liberties and/or emasculating and/or will give them mascne could have been ripped from a farcical plot on the original series. (No mention of the recent blackface controversy, however.)
As it was, Thursday night’s special was both a treat and a chore, occasionally as sharp and funny as you remembered and often badly whiffing at the thing it did so well in its heyday: eviscerating takedowns of corporate entertainment.
Back then, the blunt blows of the jokes at the expense of Comcast were softened, sure, by the fact that the company allowed them to air at all. Ruthless as they may have been, there was a winking “we’re all friends here” vibe. In this case, because so much of the program was forced into literal promotion, not just lacerating punchlines, the edge of it all was gone.
I’m trying to imagine a person watching the special and being wholly unfamiliar with the concept of Upfronts, wondering what the hell it is that they just saw. It’s one thing when you cover the media and you know what to expect, what the end-goal is here. It’s another if you were just tuning in to see your girl Liz Lemon eat her night cheese and were suddenly assaulted with a montage in tribute of the MSNBC and Today show news teams.
So it’s a strange thing to judge. It’s utterly bizarre as primetime television; there’s a reason Upfronts aren’t typically broadcast like this. But, in the grand scheme of Upfronts, it was kind of fantastic. Whoo-ee have there been cringey attempts at entertainment at these things. But here was a 30 Rock reunion! With the whole cast! And crackling 30 Rock jokes! It might be the best Upfronts content there’s ever been.
So why not air it on television? Sure it might play as nonsensical to some and excruciatingly boring to many. But if you found out that there was a scripted 30 Rock reunion but it only played to a roomful of advertisers and media folk, wouldn’t you be annoyed? Especially if you were a fan of the show, wouldn’t you want to find a way to watch it?
The problem here is that no matter how many times they specified that this was part of the company’s Upfronts, by airing on primetime it was still somehow missing that context.
The saving grace is that this thing was an hour long, of which maybe 30 minutes or a little more was actual 30 Rock content. The gist is that Kenneth (Jack MacBrayer) is now chairman of NBCUniversal—Jack’s warning that in five years everyone would either be working for or killed by him came true—and plots a TGS reboot for the launch of Peacock, the company’s new streaming service.
Liz is going stir crazy at home with husband Criss (James Marsden, who didn’t appear) and their two kids. Jack hates retirement and just wants to work again. Tracy (Tracy Morgan) has moved to Canada, where he became an Olympic silver medalist in race-walking, “after picking up regular walking in his late 30s.”
Jenna (Krakowski) has been “pretty canceled ever since she pooped in Mandy Moore’s thermos.” She spends her days Zoom-bombing to deliver unrequested graduation speeches and opening her window every day at 7 pm, when the city claps for essential workers, as if the applause is for her. She was also supposed to be in the notorious celebrity “Imagine” video, “but they said I started too high.”
It can’t be overstated how funny Krakowski was in this special. Even in this silly, not exactly brilliant outing, she nailed everything, reigniting the never-truly-dormant rage that she never won an Emmy for playing Jenna.
In any case, it’s all a ruse. Kenneth doesn’t want to reboot TGS. He just knows that’s the only way to get his old coworkers to take a Zoom meeting with him, as they’ve ignored all of his other virtual event requests.
When they join the call, he shames them. He doesn’t need TGS, given that Peacock already is—cue corporate speech—“a dynamic new platform that will leverage NBCU’s unmatched ability to combine the best of television with the best of streaming, delivering a vast library of content that includes both the timely and the timeless.” (The wink is baaaarely there.)
What the gang realizes, however, is that it’s they who need this reboot, and they need Kenneth in their lives, too. Reliable shenanigans and a dizzying array of celebrity cameos abound: Khloe Kardashian, Dwayne Johnson, Al Roker, Andy Cohen, Gwen Stefani, Mandy Moore, Ted Danson, and more.
For anything there is to say about how strange it was to marry the 30 Rock that we were all nostalgic for with the Upfronts ethos and vibe that is so foreign to most TV viewers, there’s no denying that the special was a herculean effort of production.
Again, this was not a Zoom reunion. Each cast member shot their parts from home, with their families managing the equipment with guidance from the 30 Rock crew. It had the look and feel of an actual episode, not the grainy—and thus scrappier and more forgivable—webcam captures of other similar efforts.
That alone was undeniably cool, and should give us all even more reason to roll our eyes about this long-teased Friends reunion. Score one for Peacock.