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30 Rock 6.01, “Dance…” and Parks and Rec 4.11, “Comeback Kid” Make Welcome Returns

30 Rock, Season 6, Episode 1, “Dance Like Nobody’s Watching”
Written by Tina Fey and Tracey Wigfield
Directed by John Riggi
Airs Thursdays at 8pm ET on NBC

When we last left Liz Lemon she had traded her idyllic dreams of a relaxing summer in the Hamptons for one spent doing community service as she accepted chaos as her normal. That sense of contentment with the craziness that surrounds her carries over to tonight’s season 6 premiere and even inspires confusion in her coworkers. Much is made of how well Jack knows Lemon, it’s fun seeing him effortlessly punch through her facade of false superiority early on as she claims she doesn’t watch Jenna on NBC’s new hit reality show America’s Kidz Got Singing (Variety called it “boffo” and they don’t just throw that word around you know.) It’s funny, but somewhat comfortable and relaxed, the mode the show fell into in season 5 after a fourth season (and arguably a third) that often tried too hard to impress (and came up short because of that very eagerness to please). So it’s nice to see that dynamic turned on its ear at the end of the episode, with Liz finally getting one over on Jack. The look of surprise on his face as he realizes this is priceless.

This is nicely tucked in behind a more flashy revelation that Jack is incredibly proud of discovering. And really why shouldn’t he be? Figuring out she is providing halftime entertainment at WNBA games dancing alongside the New York Liberty’s Timeless Torches is quite a feat. Given that the only clues present are the medication for arthritis pain Tracy observes her buying and the location of the purchases, near Madison Square Garden, you might wonder if he’s been reading Sherlock Holmes (he’s certainly not watching the BBC series, as if Jack Donaghy would ever watch PBS). By making this the climax of the episode and the supposed cause of Liz’s calm, the writers catch us off guard with the revelation that Liz has a new boyfriend (or would have if it hadn’t been trumpeted in all the interviews surrounding the show’s return.)

Reality TV seems like a rather easy target these days and one could be excused for skepticism when looking at the promotional photos for tonight’s episode, but the satire here is rather biting and a reminder of just what 30 Rock is capable of at its best. The judge’s responses in particular manage to subtly skewer the kind of inane commentary that masks itself as criticism on American Idol and America’s Got Talent while sounding exactly like something you wouldn’t think twice about hearing from Randy Jackson or Sharon Osbourne. John McEnroe’s presence on the panel next to Jenna is a nice touch, especially seeing him play against type.  A bubbly and loving McEnroe is an uncomfortable but funny sight.

Less successful is Kenneth’s rapture subplot.  While it’s fun to get some insight on Kenneth’s religion (Women’s Hell is also Aroused Dog Heaven) and see what he does when he thinks it’s his last day on earth (scrape a Chiquita sticker off the ceiling that has been bothering him for a year), Parks and Recreation already did a pretty good job skewering Harold Camping’s prediction of the rapture and much of the plotline feels like a way to keep the guys in the writers room occupied making lazy jokes at Kenneth’s expense. Taken as a whole though, it’s a strong, funny episode and it feels good to be back in 30 Rock.

Parks and Recreation, Season 4, Episode 11, “The Comeback Kid”
Written by Mike Scully
Directed by Tucker Gates
Airs Thursday at 8:30pm ET on NBC

Coming off a third season that was as near-perfect as one could expect from a network comedy, it was probably inevitable that season four of Parks and Recreation wouldn’t quite meet those standards. Which isn’t to say it hasn’t consistently been the best comedy airing every Thursday night, it just hasn’t been firing on all cylinders. The Entertainment 720 arc provided some good jokes and was endemic to Tom’s character, but there just wasn’t a whole lot there and the writers seemed to quickly pick up on that. The Ben and Leslie stuff wasn’t all bad, but when they weren’t being incredibly cute, there was more than one instance when it felt like they were searching for ways to put off the inevitable. Most notably, Chris and Ann both seemed a little off-balance and their subplots frequently fell flat. Chris’s boundless optimism was extended to the point of disorder and while bringing Ann into City Hall seemed like a no-brainer, until she was given her own plots, she seemed somewhat lost when separated from Leslie.

Which is why the decision to make Ann Leslie’s campaign manager seems like a good one, on paper anyway.  When she meets her former campaign managers in the hallway and learns they’re pursuing other candidates for City Council, she professes her confidence in her team, claiming that most murders aren’t committed by trained snipers and hitmen but by friends and neighbors, which she admits sounded much better in her head. Unfortunately the snipers and hitmen are usually the ones that get away with things, while the friends and neighbors frequently get caught (this really isn’t a good analogy Leslie), and nearly everything that can go wrong does in prepping for Leslie’s first campaign rally.

Ron offers to build the stage because he believes Contractors are incompetent thieves, but he doesn’t have a license to drive the truck he’s hauling the lumber in, and the stage he constructs with what he could fit in Leslie’s Volkswagen is only slightly larger than a podium.  Most of the banner Andy was tasked with creating is left in the truck as well. The part he ends up bringing with them reads “LE” and features Leslie’s eyes, which he justifies by saying “windows are the eyes to the house.”  Tom can’t afford enough of the luxurious red carpet he picked out to make it to the stage, which wouldn’t be so much of a problem if the surface of the Pawnee Sports Building was a Basketball court as they were expecting and not an ice rink.  Unexpectedly, the only one who comes through is Jerry, who is in charge of getting people there.

The resulting set piece is brilliantly constructed, with Leslie and her team slowly waddling across the ice like so many penguins, trying to make it to the inadequate stage while her theme song awkwardly plays and then plays again and then again until they finally reach the stage. The show’s comic timing is always impeccable but the editing here is particularly adept. It’s such a funny gag it’s hard to imagine them botching it, but the cuts to reaction shots and the repetition of the campaign music really send it over the top.

Meanwhile, Ben isn’t quite sure what to do with himself now that he’s unemployed and Chris spots his new enthusiasm for mastering the art of the calzone (in an amusing callback) and learning how do make Claymation as symptomatic of depression which Ben himself doesn’t realize until he makes Chris watch his film and realizes 14 days of painstaking work amounted to about 3 seconds of footage. The solution is a rather obvious one and it’s to the show’s credit that they make it feel cathartic. Ben becomes Leslie’s campaign manager, giving his life purpose, leaving her with someone more competent than Ann to organize future events, and robbing the citizens of Pawnee of the ability to purchase “a delicious food that’s its own container” at the Lo-Cal Calzone Zone.

So what did you guys think?  Next week we’ll be covering Archer as it returns to FX and taking a look at their new animated comedy Unsupervised.

Justin Wier