Judge Patrick Bromley loves The Girly Show!
Our reviews of 30 Rock: Season One (published September 4th, 2007), 30 Rock: Season Two (published October 8th, 2008), 30 Rock: Season Three (published September 22nd, 2009), 30 Rock: Season Five (published November 29th, 2011), and 30 Rock: Season Six (published September 2nd, 2012) are also available.
"There ain't no party like a Liz Lemon party 'cause a Liz Lemon party is mandatory."
The 2009-10 season was a rough one for what was once NBC's best pair of sitcoms, The Office and 30 Rock. Both were critically lauded and relatively popular, and both had previously delivered solid season after solid season of incredible quality. This last year, however, saw both once-great shows fall from grace somewhat as either familiarity or exhaustion set in.
Now, 30 Rock: Season Four arrives on DVD so you can decide for yourself if it is, in fact, the weakest season of the comedy to date.
Facts of the Case
Here are the episodes that make up 30 Rock: Season Four:
• "Season 4"
• "Into the Crevasse"
• "Stone Mountain"
• "Audition Day"
• "The Problem Solvers"
• "Sun Tea"
• "Dealbreakers Talk Show #0001"
• "Secret Santa"
• "Klaus and Greta"
• "Black Light Attack!"
• "Winter Madness"
• "Anna Howard Shaw Day"
• "Future Husband"
• "Don Geiss, America and Hope"
• "Lee Marvin vs. Derek Jeter"
• "I Do Do"
How long can a show as fresh and breathlessly joke-for-joke funny as NBC's 30 Rock remain, well, fresh and breathless funny? On the basis of the newly-released 30 Rock: Season Four, I'd say about three seasons.
That's unfair. The fourth season of Tina Fey's critically-lauded 30 Rock still finds a very fast, very funny show that continues to put most other sitcoms to shame with the cleverness of its writing and the sheer number of jokes that are crammed into a given episode. But it's also not the show it once was, and why that is I cannot say. I was fortunate enough to be able to review 30 Rock: Season Three for DVD Verdict, and in that review spent a great deal of time praising 30 Rock for its comic energy and gushing about how it was showing no signs of slowing down. I spoke too soon. Season Four finds the series most definitely slowing down. In much the same way as its Thursday night counterpart, The Office, 30 Rock experienced its worst season to date this past year and, just like with The Office, I'm not sure if that's a sign of creative fatigue or if NBC's uperclassmen sitcoms are simply being shown up by Community and Parks and Recreation, the two new kids on the block.
Whatever the reason, Season Four is the weakest season of the previously unassailable 30 Rock yet. Many of the story lines have no stakes—or, at least, stakes that it's difficult to care about. As much as I want to be worried about which beautiful and funny woman Jack Donaghy will choose (it's between Julianne Moore and Elizabeth Banks, because life is HARD), I don't really care. They're both great, and this is a comedy show that's never really slowed down long enough to develop romantic relationships. That's perfectly fine, too; I like a show that doesn't waste time on some "will they or won't they nonsense" (even though I'm a total sucker for that) and just focuses on characters and jokes. 30 Rock is that kind of show, but it stopped being that for a bit this season. What's worse, though, is that the humor has become fairly predictable. 30 Rock's greatest strength was always its ability to surprise us—particularly in the form of Tracy Morgan's character, who is perhaps the single greatest source of absurdist non-sequiters on television. But in the fourth season, a kind of familiarity has set in to the jokes on the show. When Tracy (or Kenneth, or anyone for that matter) says something left-field or off-color now, we see it coming. Is that just our awareness of the show's rhythms? Or has a kind of laziness set in to 30 Rock? Couple this with an annoying over-dependence on "meta" jokes about the sitcom format and the show has fallen into some pretty bad habits in its fourth season. The less said about the show's thinly-disguised corporate shilling, the better. You can pretend that you're doing satire about product placement all you want; there's a point where you cross the line from being "meta" to just plain selling out, and 30 Rock has crossed that line a few times too often.
Of course, as was my experience when reviewing The Office: Season Six, a second look on DVD has revealed that the fourth season of 30 Rock isn't quite as bad or self-indulgent as I remember. The characters are still great, and the ensemble is still incredible. The relationship between Tina Fey and Alec Baldwin—the engine driving the show—remains hugely appealing and, at times, genuinely moving (it's perhaps the closest the show comes—and should come—to real emotion). On the whole, there are just as many jokes that work (if not more) than don't. 30 Rock has always been a massively quotable show, and Season Four certainly comes through in that department (a few of my favorites include "Women are allowed to get angrier than men about double standards!" and Tracy Morgan's line upon learning the inventor of Pac-Man has died: "I shall eat a bowl of cherries and some ghost meat in his honor."). My criticisms about the show aren't in relation to other sitcoms, but rather in relation to 30 Rock itself—which was once (and may still be) one of the two or three best comedies on the air.
30 Rock: Season Four arrives in three-disc set courtesy of Universal. If you've been keeping up with the 30 Rock releases, you should be happy with this one; it's technically comparable while actually adding more bonus features than we're used to getting (how often do we more extras instead of fewer?). The episodes are presented in a 1.78:1 anamorphic transfer that look very good but not great; skin tones are consistent and no obvious flaws are apparent, but things have a tendency to look a little soft. As someone who's used to watching 30 Rock as it broadcasts in HD, the standard definition DVDs can't quite compare. Still, it's another solid effort. The 5.1 audio track is also very solid, delivering the endless stream of rapid fire jokes with total clarity, all buoyed by show composer Jeff Richmond's (that's Mr. Tina Fey to you) bouncy score.
For Season Four, Universal has seen fit to offer commentary tracks on 10 of the 22 episodes. There are the standard cast and crew commentaries, including Jane Krakowski, Alec Baldwin, Jack McBrayer and Jon Lutz (a Saturday Night Live writer who plays sad-sack TGS writer Lutz) and Tina Fey, but there are a few surprises, too. Producer Lorne Michaels sits down with Baldwin for a commentary on "Audtions," while guest star Jon Hamm joins McBrayer for a discussion on "Emmanuelle Goes to Dinosaur Land" that's very entertaining (is it really fair that Hamm be incredibly handsome, talented, charming and funny? Save some for the fish, I say). I also really enjoyed the commentary on "Stone Mountain," recorded by Community stars Donald Glover and Gillian Jacobs. While it could easily be dismissed as a cynical bit of synergy on NBC's part, remember that Glover used to be a writer on 30 Rock; either way, it's fun to hear a commentary with something on an outsider perspective.
Also included in the supplemental section contained on the third disc is a collection of amusing but disposable deleted scenes, a pair of making-of featurettes, a photo gallery, the full-length version of the very funny "Tennis Night in America" song that Jenna performs (the bulk of which is actually seen in the episode, making this a little redundant) and an episode of Ace of Cakes that focuses on the wedding cakes that were made for "I Do Do," the Season Four finale.
Look, the fact of the matter is that there are still twice as many good jokes on any episode of 30 Rock than on just about any other sitcom on the air. There are also at least twice as many attempts, though, which makes it that much more noticeable when 50 percent of the jokes fall flat. 30 Rock: Season Four is the first season of the show with such a ratio, and that's a disappointment. It's still a good show and one worth watching, but this season saw it slip from its own high standard. If you've been a fan of the series from the beginning, you should absolutely continue on with Season Four. Just know what you're in for.
Not guilty. Thanks, Meat Cat.
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