Yesterday’s satire is today’s news. It is one of the iron laws of reality in 2020, and it was awkwardly proved by the weird, recursively ironic reunion “30 Rock: A One-Time Special” Thursday night, in which a sitcom that spent years spoofing corporate TV’s desperate salesmanship took part in the big shill seriously. But jokingly. But seriously.
The resulting grab bag of scenes, padded out generously with ads for NBCUniversal TV and its new Peacock streaming service, was the sort of Frankensteinian synergy that the “30 Rock” exec Jack Donaghy (Alec Baldwin) might have dreamed up: an hourlong, sporadically funny grinfomercial that occasionally recalled how good the show was at its best, but mostly underlined how long ago its cultural moment had passed.
Like much pandemic TV, this was not something the public would ever have seen in normal times. The special took the place of the annual “upfronts,” the springtime song-and-dance shows networks put on for advertisers in Manhattan theaters in order to tout their new series and woo companies into buying airtime.
The upfronts often feature skits, live or recorded, in which the network talent is drafted to perform for the suits. The bits are loaded with ad-business references, and the cringes generally outnumber the yuks, but there’s at least a feeling of exclusivity: You, the ambassador of corporate America, are being feted like the king who pays for the jesters’ bells.
And look, at 4 in the afternoon in a room of midlevel executives looking forward to free drinks at the after-party, all of this would have killed. At 8 p.m. Eastern — in those markets where affiliates had not pre-empted the special because it promoted a streaming competitor — it was … nice, for a while. The cold open, in which the producer Liz Lemon (Fey) has a Covid-rage run-in with an unmasked New Yorker, was classic “30 Rock,” right down to the callback line: “Another successful interaction with a man!”
Unlike some pandemic-inspired reunions, the special managed to re-create, briefly, the feel of an actual episode, partly because of a decent standard of production (which relied generously on green screen and on cast members’ families), partly because the forced isolation of quarantine meshes well with a breakneck comedy that always relied on brief cutaway jokes.
The best material was front-loaded into the beginning: the chemistry, even over teleconferencing, of Tracy Morgan and Jane Krakowski; Jack slapping Liz through a new feature of his iPhone 40 (in a gag that tweaked Peacock for not having the rights to “Friends”); a fantastic throwaway bit in which Tracy Jordan (Morgan) reads the entire dictionary in front of a green screen so that his acting can be rendered by computer.
But as the plot kicks in — the sketch show “TGS” is being rebooted at the behest of the NBC-page-turned-boss Kenneth Parcell (Jack McBrayer, also playing his own lovelorn assistant) — the gags become weaker and the plugs denser. You become aware, like a peacock in gradually boiling water, that you are not just watching a skit about a corporate stunt; you are immersed in the stunt itself.
There is comedy, kind of, in watching Tracy Jordan read you a list of ad-sales talking points. But it’s still, ultimately, only as fun as being read a list of ad-sales talking points can be. (Dealbreaker! Shut it down!)
And the copious in-house promos, which would have been unremarkable at an industry confab in Radio City Music Hall, broke the rhythm and undercut the satire with dead-earnest flogging. Since so many spots were for programming that is theoretically available only in a misty future when normal-ish life returns — a sitcom with Kenan Thompson and Don Johnson, the 20[who knows?] Tokyo Olympics — it lent the whole production a surreal undertone of forced optimism.
I watched the special twice on Thursday night, once live, once with my family, who wisely fast-forwarded through the ads. It played better the second way. But you could also see more sharply how the special deteriorated as it went on, as if the writers had a half-hour of material and an hour to fill.
In theory, “30 Rock” was the perfect brand for the job. From 2006 to 2013, it bit the hand that feeds as lustily as Liz chomps into a block of night cheese. It cast company talent in gently mocking cameos, as the special did with stars including Khloé Kardashian and Jimmy Fallon. It made comedy out of real-life corporate mandates, as in “Greenzo,” an episode about an environmentalist mascot that came out of an actual network-wide “Green Is Universal” programming requirement.
When the show moves from biting to gently nibbling the hand that feeds, you lose a certain energy. Beyond that, the special showed that, however gut-busting “30 Rock” remains in reruns, its arch, lighten-up-Francis comedy is a product of a very specific era that does not time-travel well.
We already saw an example of this when the show shelved several old episodes that featured blackface, the ’00s “edgy” comedy writer’s go-to answer to “What’s the most excruciatingly inappropriate thing we can have a character do?” (It’s telling that so many examples — in “The Office,” “Community” and “Scrubs” as well — came in marquee NBC sitcoms.)
The special seemed to allude to this when Jenna Maroney (Krakowski, who was in some of the blackface instances) halfheartedly apologized to the “This Is Us” star Mandy Moore after being “canceled” for a scatological offense, saying, “The late 2010s was a very different time.”
It is a different time now, in many ways that the highly meta, low-stakes comedy of “30 Rock” feels unequal to. The big-hearted comedy of “Parks and Recreation” — an NBC sitcom of its time in a different way — adapted to the big emotions of the pandemic in its own reunion.
But global health crisis or no, it’s hard to imagine how the razor-edged cynicism of “30 Rock” — which spoofed media synergy and amorality as ridiculous but inept — would fit into a moment when the actual president is a crossover character from an NBC reality show.
Of course, Fey and her crew are smart enough to know exactly this and to work it into the special. The hour ends with Liz insisting to Jack that she has too much artistic integrity to write his remarks for a sales meeting. She turns to the camera and winks, then gets a cramp in her eye.
But we already knew it was possible to wink so hard you injure yourself. We’d spent an hour watching “30 Rock” do exactly that.