After a lackluster sixth season in which the writers’ shortage of fresh ideas became painfully apparent, even the most loyal 30 Rock fans seemed relieved by the news that this year will be its last. So our hopes weren’t particularly high coming into last night’s premiere, the first of an abbreviated, 13-episode farewell run — especially with that terrifying still of Liz Lemon holding a baby circulating.
But we should know never to underestimate Tina Fey, who not only surprised us with an excellent season premiere, but gave us a half-hour of television that surpassed even the always-delightful Parks and Recreation with the evening’s best episode.
In what seemed like a concerted effort to return to what 30 Rock does best, last night’s premiere came flying out of the gate, with the baby fake-out segueing seamlessly into one of Liz and Jack’s dizzyingly rapid-fire post-vacation catch-up sessions. The show never fails to make us laugh when characters’ one-on-one exchanges are sharp, and this episode seemed built around them. We saw Tracy coaching Kenneth to treat his first-ever girlfriend, criminally insane Hazel, like a queen. And the scene that had Jenna death-grip Liz into being her maid of honor reminded us of how much we enjoy watching those two interact (and how rarely they’ve shared story lines recently).
Unlike much of Season 6, the episode also had several hilarious payoffs. When Tracy showed up at Kenneth and Hazel’s place for dinner, we got an eerily humorous glimpse into the couple’s personal life — which seems, entirely appropriately, to involve a whole lot of kitschy decor and TV-based mutual delusion. The creepy vibes escalated to peak awkwardness when Kenneth left and Hazel, in her campily slinky gown, tried to seduce Tracy so he’d cast her in his movie. “You know what’s happening here,” said Hazel. “I never know what’s happening anywhere,” said Tracy, in one of those wonderfully self-aware throwaway lines 30 Rock does so well. Another great, demented moment came when Liz decided to get out of her maid of honor duties by sabotaging Jenna’s bachelorette party, hosting it at her apartment and populating the room with a few elderly guests and a listless clown. Jenna responded, of course, by tearing the place to pieces.
But the most promising thing to come out of the 30 Rock premiere, titled “The Beginning of the End,” was a premise that’s absolutely perfect for the show’s final season. In an attempt to save NBC by forcing Hank Hooper to sell it, Jack plots to “tank” the network, purposely airing terrible shows like God Cop (which actually stars Jack as God) and Tank It (grandpas in tank tops, for viewers’ ridiculing pleasure). “Do you like the information channel you get when you stay at a hotel? Well, Thursday is just that now,” one faux promo promises. With Community shunted off to Friday and Parks and Recreation the gentlest of NBC’s great sitcoms, this meta-commentary on how toothless the post-30 Rock Thursday-night line-up will be seems frighteningly prescient. Sadly, all we can do about that now is hope the show’s 12 remaining episodes are as excellent as the premiere — and Tina Fey gets in a few great Revolution jabs before she’s through.