I've got to admit; I was a little bit fearful of where 30 Rock was at the beginning of its third season. It was about to undertake its first full season back after the writer's guild strike; it had just won practically every comedic television award under the sun, and they were opening Season Three with a multitude of guest stars. In short, I thought the show was going the route of bloated Elvis. It was going to be flash over substance and fade sooner rather than later. While it's nice to see 30 Rock hasn't reached the selling out stage quite yet, the fact that the show is steadily increasing in popularity while maintaining the same high standard of comedy that it set for itself is an added bonus.
For those unfamiliar with the show, it is set against the backdrop of producing a weekly comedy/variety show, and looks at the lives of its cast and crew. You've got the show's creator and producer, Liz Lemon (Tina Fey, Baby Mama) and her best friend and show co-star, Jenna Maroney (Jane Krakowski, Ally McBeal). Tracy Jordan (Tracy Morgan, First Sunday) is the other co-star, he of the large bankroll and erratic behavior. Liz' corporate supervisor in NBC is Jack Donaghy (Alec Baldwin, Glengarry Glen Ross), who counsels Liz on dealing with her staff while reminding her that life as a boss does require her to be the proverbial bad guy sometimes.
Season Three carried over some of the previous year's storylines from its main characters and extends some of them, yet they share a common theme. Liz had a pregnancy scare in Season Two, and Season Three finds her feelings of having a family still burning. Jack has returned from a stint in Washington and is looking to reclaim the job that his adversary Devon (Will Arnett, Arrested Development) claimed from him, but when Jack regains that power, he finds his personal life lacking, and perhaps there may be future inklings that Jack's single life may be winding down as well.
Fortunately, both of these arcs are handled exceptionally well, but before I discuss that, let me go back to the Spelling-like celebrity galaxy I mentioned earlier. Among the guest stars in Season Three's first four episodes include a Golden Globe winner (Jennifer Aniston), an Emmy and Grammy winner (Steve Martin), the stars of the '80s NBC sitcom Night Court, and Oprah friggin' Winfrey(!) Aside from not drinking enough alcohol to consider a group like that to appear in one show, the writing staff of the show, combined with Fey and SNL head Lorne Michaels' resume, give the stars a chance to stretch comedy legs which they either hadn't had a chance to do before, or hadn't done in a long time. Martin plays a reclusive businessman, Aniston plays a mutual friend of Liz and Jenna who parties constantly and has a borderline psychotic liking to Jack, and Oprah plays a 13 year old girl. Trust me, it's funny.
While the Liz and Jack storylines are the only ones that get advanced at all, they also get their own stable of guest stars to play off of and enjoy. As part of Liz' fascination with having children, she inadvertently bumps into little person Stewart (Peter Dinklage, Elf) and has a date with him. She dates a doctor in her apartment building (Jon Hamm, Mad Men). Her old boyfriend Dennis (Dean Winters, Oz) even returns in an episode. Jack has it pretty good as well, having a relationship with his mother's nurse Elisa (Salma Hayek Frida), not to mention trying to find out who his father is. It might even be Milton (Alan Alda, M*A*S*H*).
Many of these characters have unbelievably hilarious backstories we find out about later, with Elisa's being the best or second best. But the way that the writing staff is able to pull together these darkly comic, even politically incorrect circumstances is hilarious. Liz starts dating Stewart out of the guilt for mistaking him to be a child. Liz takes some time off from work and meets some of her apartment neighbors, and finds out they have a female fight club. Jenna gets away with wearing blackface and a George Jefferson-equse wig in the Oprah episode. Because the characters have their own individual nuances, you're able to let a lot go because it's not as offensive as one may presume.
Perhaps it's due to the fact that Liz is at the front and center of the cast. Fey allows herself to be as much of a victim of the jokes as anyone; it's commonplace to hear someone throw a Star Wars or excessive eater jab out there to bring her down a notch. A lot of it gets done by the writers, like Frank (Judah Friedlander), and any strange mission Liz undertakes may involve Kenneth (Jack McBrayer, Forgetting Sarah Marshall), the gentle yet dimwitted intern from the South. The journeys are stupid in their implausibility, but every damn one of them is funny. Every damn one. And knowing their occasional brush with continuity in their events and characters, devotees should expect the return of the Pranksmen, among other gags.
In the end, I'm glad that 30 Rock could maintain the delicate balancing act of being Will and Grace for 2009, with the exception that 30 Rock is, you know funny. The characters are great, and it even advanced in the way of character development without losing that comedic touch, another difficult balance for a show to attain. Yet it does it without effort. It makes a good thing better in its third season.
Like the previous two seasons, 30 Rock comes to DVD in 1.78:1 anamorphic widescreen, with its 22 episodes spread out over three discs. Things appear slightly better than they did in the second season of the show, with colors being a tad more vibrant then they did last year, and flesh tones replicated accurately and naturally. There are times when the show has a little more edge enhancement that becomes distracting, but otherwise, this is a clean transfer without any issues. It looks solid for broadcast television material.
Like Season Two, the show has Dolby Digital 5.1 surround and 2.0 stereo tracks to pick from. There is far more music involved in the show this season than last, culminating with the all-star song "He Needs a Kidney" on the season finale. But you get the "Templeton" song from Michael Buble, "Muffin Top" from Jenna and a whole host of other songs and sonic action that is handled surprisingly well for a sitcom. There's even some directional activity sprinkled into some episodes here and there. Pleasantly surprising work, Universal!
At first glance, it would appear that there was a little bit of thought put into the supplements this season, but upon further review, that doesn't appear to be the case. Compared to last season, there are fewer commentaries (seven versus Season Two's ten) on a set holding more episodes (22 in Season Three, compared to a strike-shortened 15 in Season Two). And the participants by and large appear to be the same as well. The participants this time are as follows:
"Flu Shot" (Fey and producer/husband Jeff Richmond)
"Goodbye My Friend" (Friedlander and John Lutz, who plays Lutz)
"The Bubble" (McBrayer and Hamm)
"Apollo, Apollo" (co-executive producers Robert Carlock and Jack Burditt)
"The Ones" (Krakowski and McBrayer)
"Mamma Mia" (Alda)
"Kidney Now!" (Fey and Richmond)
To be fair, some of the commentaries are entertaining this time, including Carlock discussing Burditt's varied past. To be fair, some of it is fake. Or is it? And the Friedlander track gives us the chance to find out about Friedlander's extensive cinematic collection of Bigfoot movies. Fey even gives us a phrase to go with about the show - "30 Rock is like a box of chocolates...dropped in the dirt." So while there are some laughs there, but you've got to search for the funny.
The remaining extras are all on Disc Three and again, no gag reel to speak of. First are some deleted scenes (12, 6:20) that are really more extended than anything else, save for a couple of omitted jokes with Morgan. A quick look at the use of the muppets in "Apollo, Apollo" is next (3:10), with an introduction by Fey, but it's mainly looking at the puppeteers working under the camera frame. The full commercial for 1-900-OKFACE is next (1:09), followed by a table read of the script for "Kidney Now!" (31:26), similar to what was done for last year's finale on the Season Two DVD. The making of "He Needs a Kidney" (12:23) shows Richmond as he recalls pulling everything to together for that hilarious song. And there's even studio footage with many of the musicians too, which is cool. A stills gallery follows, along with Baldwin's monologue from his 2009 appearance on SNL (4:50). A rant from Morgan as Jordan (2:08) gets points for channeling Christian Bale, and the awards acceptance speeches from the 2008 Emmy and Golden Globe awards (3:42) complete things.
For my money, 30 Rock remains the funniest show on broadcast television. The ensemble cast each get their individual moments to shine, and the stars handle being in front of the show well. Simply put, the show doesn't appear to be losing any steam creatively in the foreseeable future. If you still haven't seen the show, this is a perfect opportunity to get on board, especially with all the familiar faces in guest starring roles.