30 Rock was always honest about the compromises in making network television. Seven years after its run, Tina Fey’s groundbreaking series is remembered more for its many swipes at its network — NBC, then in a serious decline after the end of the Must See TV era — than for its creative concessions. But corporate interference and obligations were a primary source of conflict on 30 Rock, starting from the show’s earliest episodes, when fictional NBC head Jack Donaghy (Alec Baldwin) tells showrunner Liz Lemon (Fey) to include product placement on TGS and to come up with more sketches involving catchphrases. When Liz defends the integrity of her writers’ work, Jack scolds, “Get real, kids. You write skits mocking our president to fill time between car commercials.”
30 Rock: A One-Time Special, Thursday’s pandemic-set reunion episode, sure felt like a zombie version of the show made to fill time between ads for NBCUniversal content. Admittedly, the hourlong special was billed from the start as an upfront — a presentation of upcoming programming (and services, like the just-launched Peacock) aimed at advertisers. But no amount of fourth wall-breaking or celebrity guest stars could disguise the fact that this was essentially a gussied-up Powerpoint presentation for a global entertainment conglomerate.
The One-Time Special was not without its nostalgic pleasures. The impetus for the characters’ reunion was the possibility of rebooting TGS for Peacock, but the special’s real draw was seeing what sociopathically narcissistic TGS actress Jenna Maroney (Jane Krakowski) was up to nearly a decade later (getting canceled for the umpteenth time) and which new pathetic road former producer Pete Hornberger’s (Scott Adsit) perpetual midlife crisis took him down. And, of course, it was heartwarming to see Liz and Jack united (if only over the phone), the wannabe-stoic exec once again confessing his emotional turmoil to his ex-protege.
Overall, though, Fey and her writing partner Robert Carlock were clearly loath to develop the characters beyond the resolutions that they’d carefully crafted for the series finale. And it didn’t help that the special’s storyline focused so much on NBC page turned network president Kenneth Parcell (Jack McBrayer), who wore out his welcome several seasons into the show.
The 30 Rock cast shilled for Snapple and Soy Joy, but the acidity and mocking transparency with which they did it (with Fey once singing Verizon’s praises then turning directly to the camera to ask, “Can we have our money now?”) made the compromises funny and sympathetic. Liz’s hands were tied, and, we assumed, so were Fey’s, since 30 Rock‘s ever-increasing Emmy collection never seemed to substantially boost its relatively low ratings.
TGS is finally canceled in the series’ third-to-last episode when Liz makes so many concessions to keep the show on the air — she approves a title change to “Man Cave” and her creator credit is given to a “Todd Debeikis” — that star Tracy Jordan (Tracy Morgan) forces her to confront the fact that “there is no TGS to save.” The One-Time Special feels like 30 Rock‘s “Man Cave,” like something the show once would’ve mocked. Without the sharp jabs at NBC, the show’s essence has been hollowed out. And now that the industry is in the era of TV auteurs, where superstar creators like Fey can negotiate for creative leeway in addition to lucrative deals, it’s not as if the special was something she had to put up with to, say, get her next NBC series, the Ted Danson- and Holly Hunter-starring Mr. Mayor, on the air.
Overseen by director Oz Rodriguez, the filming realities of the pandemic prevented the kind of rapid-fire, joke-machine rhythm that was one of 30 Rock‘s signature strengths. Alternating between one-person scenes, Zoom conversations and, in McBrayer’s case, playing two different characters in the same room (as Kenneth and his new assistant, Vivica), the special never let viewers forget it was shot under lockdown, in part because the narrative anemia offered plenty of invitations for the eye to wander and gawk at what we could of the actors’ homes. By the time Jenna sang “[NBC]Universal is love,” it was time to remind ourselves that the network never pretended the special was for fans.
Premiered Thursday, Jul. 16, at 8 p.m. ET/PT on NBC