Liz Lemon, Jack Donaghy, and the TGS gang got back together… to shill for NBCUniversal.

By Kristen Baldwin
July 17, 2020 at 12:15 AM EDT
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For a fleeting moment, the Liz Lemon we loved was back, exactly where we'd expect her to be in 2020: out on the street in New York City, harassing a maskless stranger.

That moment didn't last. Once Liz drove the mask-shirker away, and the jaunty-jazzy opening credits rolled, 30 Rock: A One Time Special shed its "consumer-friendly reunion" façade and revealed its true form: a hourlong promo for NBCUniversal and its new streaming platform, Peacock. Fans tuned in to see a remotely-shot reunion episode, a la Parks and Recreation's sweetly funny fundraiser back in April. What they got was a series of disjointed 30 Rock-themed shill-sketches that required Tracy Morgan to say things like, "One platform, your ad dollars, reaching the exact person you want them to reach!" The program was so full of wonky Madison Avenue buzzwords and slick marketing-speak that it's hard to believe it was ever intended to play for a consumer audience at all.

Let's start with the plot: Jack Donaghy (Alec Baldwin) FaceTimes Liz (Tina Fey) and informs her that NBC-page-turned-NBCU-chairman Kenneth Parcell (Jack McBrayer) wants to reboot her old show, TGS, for Peacock. "It's NBC's amazing new streaming platform, where all of NBC's hit comedies from the last 93 years will be available!" he gushes. "Wow, even Friends?" Liz replies, before immediately and involuntarily slapping herself in the face. The bruise-poking gag (Sorry, Peacock subscribers, but Friends is only on HBO Max!) is emblematic of the way 30 Rock always handled product integration: Execute, then undermine. ("Can we have our money now?")

But it seems as though Fey & Co. weren't given nearly as much latitude for self-referential corporate mockery with One Time Special. The meta jabs were far outnumbered by clumsy, box-ticking setups for one of NBCU's many corporate arms. Liz, tasked with recruiting the TGS writers and cast to join the reboot, dreads calling Tracy Jordan (Morgan), so she decides to procrastinate. "Maybe I'll just check the news real quick," she muses aloud, before going on to name-check a series of hosts from the NBCU stable. "Stephanie Rulhe, hop over to David Faber and Jim Cramer, maybe stream a little of last night's Rachel Maddow. I want to feel informed, but nervous, but also yelled at."

With TGS' narcissistic female star Jenna Maroney (Jane Krakowski) "canceled" for pooping in Mandy Moore's thermos, Liz desperately has to search for a replacement, which leads to a string of brief appearances from NBCU-approved guest stars: America's Got Talent judge Sofia Vergara (NBC); Real Housewives' Kandi Burruss (Bravo); and Keeping up with the Kardashian's Khloe Kardashian (E!). As Jack says, "There's really something for everyone at NBC Universal."

There were a few comedic bright spots: Jenna's feud with Moore allowed us to witness her brilliantly unhinged insta-apology ("It saddens me that what was supposed to be a great night celebrating diabetes was ruined by Mandy talking about this!"). Morgan delivered Tracy's non-sequitur koans with the same winning nonchalance. (Jenna: "I've been thinking…" Tracy: "And now your head feels hot? It's normal. Take two popsicles and call me from the ocean.") Watching Tracy and Liz collaborate on a few impromptu jokes over the phone was probably the closest One Time Special got to feeling like an actual episode of 30 Rock.

But this wasn't an episode of 30 Rock, or even an episode of anything. It was a 60-minute sales pitch lumbering around inside the husk of an Emmy- and Peabody Award-winning sitcom. Toward the end of the hour, the TGS gang Zoom-bombs Kenneth's presentation to advertisers, and he is livid: "You embarrassed me in front of the people from Target, and Dove, and Toyota, and Wayfair.com, and Apple, and Humira, and the almond-growing council… [turns to camera] and anyone else who'd like to be on this list!" Then comes the punchline: A ghost-like specter, presumably Kenneth's soul, departs his body with an eerie hum. Well, it's not comedy, but I'm sure the gang at East Coast Television and Microwave Oven Programming loved it. C+

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