Last night, the cast of 30 Rock reunited for a one time only reunion special. The original series, which followed the behind the scenes world of an SNL-type show, aired on NBC from 2006 to 2013. Despite low ratings, the show built up an intensely loyal cult audience, became praised critically, and was sharp in all the right areas. Much of the show was tongue-in-cheek, full of jabs at the very hand that was also feeding it: NBC.
So when they announced the reunion special last month, it seemed like a pretty solid idea. The pitch was that the show would be merged with a virtual NBC Upfronts event that normally takes place in New York in May. The Upfronts is a self-congratulating chance for the networks to sell their shows to advertisers, and trot out their biggest stars (and copious amounts of food and alcohol) to help seal the deal. So the writing was on the wall for a sharp lampooning of the network in all the ways that we’ve grown to love from the series.
Unfortunately, the bite was not as sharp as we had been expecting. The special followed Kenneth Parcel- once a lowly page; now head of NBCUniversal- as he brings back together the cast and crew of the show-within-the-show TGS under the guise of a possible reboot for Peacock. In reality, he is insulted that they kept ignoring his Zoom requests for four months. So now, the gang is coming back together to try to figure out how to get back on Kenneth’s good side, just as he realizes that he is surrounded by too many “yes men”.
The special has all the makings of a classic 30 Rock episode, complete with the sincerity, heart, and utter ridiculousness that made us fall in love with the series to begin with. Some of the notable standouts include Tracy reading the dictionary in front of a green screen, Liz yelling at someone for not wearing a mask, Jenna pretending the nightly 7 P.M. honking for essential workers is praise for her, and Jack McBrayer playing double duty as both Kennth and Kenneth’s assistant, Vivica. Even a more sincere conversation between Jack Donaghy and Liz Lemon felt like something we needed again.
And yet, there was an artificial feel to the whole ordeal. Half of the network affiliates refused to air the special because they felt like it merely existed to promote NBC’s new streaming service, Peacock, which would take away viewers from their respective networks. That is a pretty valid complaint, as the entire ordeal did have the feeling of a glorified infomercial. It was an hour time slot bought by NBC with no commercials or advertisers, except for the ones that were promoting itself.
The most depressing part is that 30 Rock felt like it was no longer making the joke, but was now the joke itself. For all the times that the show rolled its eyes and made fun of the idea of product integration or network synergy, this felt like it had lost its voice in some respects. This was sort of an eye-opener that the outsider, underdog sitcom that could basically get away with doing anything they wanted to do had now gone corporate. It’s the exact kind of move that 30 Rock in its original incarnation would’ve made fun of (and essentially did). And now, it’s become just another cog in the machine, as they now are reduced to setting up commercials for some of the networks new shows with little indication that it’s all done tongue-in-cheek.
Not to mention, there are cameos galore featuring faces from all of NBCUniversal‘s various television networks like Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson, Andy Samberg, Ted Danson and Mary Steenburgen, Khloe Kardashian, Andy Cohen, Al Roker, and more. All of them are playing themselves and are taking part in the whole corporate nature of it all. Basically, the cameos are there because they all work under the NBCUniversal umbrella and they sort of are expected to do this.
But for fans of the show who just wanted to see the gang together again? There are definitely some good moments here. Even Jenna’s song where she proceeds to kiss up to the advertisers works in a weird, roundabout way. The two parodies of NBCUniversal properties-Law and Order SVU 2: Just the Paperwork and Jurassic Green Book– we would’ve loved to have seen more of, because this felt like what we thought we’d be getting. After all, some of the greatest fictional shows have come from 30 Rock including Milf Island, Homonyms, and even Bitch Hunter.
All in all, if you fast forward through all of the NBC promos, there’s definitely some things to enjoy here. The writing didn’t really feel as stale as the circumstances surrounding it did. And it all looked very polished for something that everyone basically did all on their own, with their spouses/children serving as the crew. Even the worst things about a 30 Rock special would feel like some of the best moments of another show. We just hope that next time we catch up with our favorite NBC misfits, it isn’t constantly interrupted by far-too-long promos for NBC properties.