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30 Rock celebrated its 100th episode with a giant-sized two-part episode in which TGS, the show-within-the-show also celebrates its 100th episode. Although it was a cameo-filled extravaganza, it was also partly a clips show that recycled footage from the previous five seasons. This raises the question as to what purpose a “Clips Show” serves in the age of Hulu and You tube.
In the past, a clips show was the go-to method of producing an episode on the cheap, usually reserved for somewhere near the end of the season when the budget was running low, and money could be saved by having the main characters gather round to discuss all of their adventures so far (Complete with footage from previous episodes). Of course when 30 Rock does it, it becomes yet another meta joke from Tina Fey, an ironic, self-aware Clips Show, complete with an utterly implausible excuse to explain why everyone is flashing back to their previous adventures.
Guest star Michael Keaton plays the grizzled maintenance man Tom, who discovers that a gas leak is affecting everyone at TGS. Deliberately awkward exposition is shoehorned into a couple of scenes to explain that this gas leak will cause “Flashbacks, nostalgia, and revelation of secrets”, and Keaton delivers this blunt exposition with campiness, right up to the moment of Tom’s inevitably tragic death. The whole notion of a clips show is further deconstructed when Danny, the new cast member who only joined a couple of years ago, gains the power to see flashbacks involving Josh, the character he replaced.
Amidst the Gas Leak story, the four main cast members all have their own individual plots that stretch across the hour-long event. Jenna wants to get pregnant, just for the attention. Meanwhile, Jack wonders how his life would be different if he hadn’t befriended Liz, hallucinating a meeting with a more successful version of himself from an parallel universe. Liz contemplates getting back together with her old boyfriend Dennis, while Tracy scrambles to lose the respect he’s gained as an EGOT winner.
These subplots are propelled by the possibility that TGS might get cancelled unless they do the best show they ever done, or as Liz vows “Tonight, TGS will NOT be the worst thing on television”.
Even though there is fun to be had with Liz and Jenna’s shenanigans, the strongest story elements belong to Tracy and Jack. The gas leak causes Jack to see alternate versions of himself, including Future Jack and Past Jack from the 80’s. While Future Jack and Alternate Universe Jack are achieved through special effects, Past Jack is actually a brilliant cameo appearance by Alec Baldwin’s younger brother Stephen. This meeting between the multi-Jacks is definitely the highlight of the episode.
Another high point to the episode is when Dr. Spaceman examines Pete to see if he’s still showing effects from the gas, and Pete recites, syllable for syllable the exact gibberish heard in the Serene Branson “Reporter has a stroke” viral video.
Almost all of Tracy’s scenes brilliant. He charges through the episode in a series of attempts to lose his dignity, but is foiled at every step by people intent on making excuses for him. This is a little nod to the way that celebrity bad behavior is brushed aside by society, but it also pokes fun at the culture of “irony”, and the way that any mundane activity can be over-analyzed and turned into Art with a capital “A”. It all culminates with Jack delivering a passionate speech about how television will ruin the career of even the most respected movie star (Blatantly mirroring Alec Baldwin’s own career).
Guest stars force their way into the episode at every turn; because this is a “Special” episode, we meet numerous ex-boyfriends, have several celebrity cameos, and all of the minor characters show up at some point to get some screen time, right down to the “Recurring Hobos”. Rachel Dratch shows up as well, something I’m very pleased to see because I found her weekly guest spots during the first season to be one of the best parts of the show when it first premiered. It’s a shame that she didn’t stick around longer.
There’s a definite air of self mockery in this two-part episode. The 100th show in a series traditionally marked the point where it was deemed to have “Enough” episodes for syndication, but television has changed drastically in the last ten years, especially in the five that 30 Rock has been on. While 30 Rock’s 100th episode extravaganza was very entertaining, it lacked a sincere sense of pride, and rather came across as an ironic jab at the very notion of sitcoms celebrating their 100th episode with a cheesy clips show. This sort of television spectacle is no longer needed, and hopefully the networks will listen to what 30 Rock is saying here, and spare audiences from having to endure more anniversary clips shows in the future.