30 Rock figured out how to make product placement funny a long time ago—in its fifth episode, back in 2006. “You’re saying you want us to use the show to sell stuff?” Liz Lemon (Tina Fey) incredulously asks her boss, Jack Donaghy (Alec Baldwin), who has just given a presentation touting the benefits of product integration. “Come on, Jack, we’re not doing that. We’re not comprising the integrity of the show to sell—” “This is diet Snapple?” her colleague Pete (Scott Adsit) interrupts. “I know! It tastes just like regular Snapple, doesn’t it?” Lemon gushes back. “I only date guys who drink Snapple,” finishes Liz’s hot assistant, Cerie (Katrina Bowden). With this bit, and a later, even more blatant plug for Verizon that ended with Lemon (really Fey) saying, “Can we have our money now?” straight to camera, 30 Rock found a way to critique the thing and do the thing, to sneer at taking the money while taking the money, to sell out with just enough cynicism to undermine the selling out. I mean, did these sequences make you want to buy Snapple, or 30 Rock?
This question pertains to the show’s first new episode in seven years, a “one-time special” that aired Thursday night on NBC. Rather than being pure 30 Rock, the episode, overseen and conceived by NBCUniversal’s ad-sales division, was a replacement for the network’s upfront presentation and an occasion to tout its newly launched streaming service, Peacock. (Affiliate stations controlling more than half of NBC’s market refused to air the episode exactly because it was an advertisement for Peacock, which those affiliates see, not incorrectly, as a threat to their business.) The new 30 Rock, in other words, was product placement for NBCUniversal, which in 2020 needs selling way more than Snapple or Verizon do.
The episode started well, with Liz Lemon yelling at a non–mask-wearing man on the street. (“Another successful interaction with a man!” Lemon’s still got it!) There were tons of wacky, dense jokes and even flashbacks (a personal favorite was Tracy Jordan reciting the dictionary in front of a green screen) as it put its plot together: Kenneth Parcell (Jack McBrayer), former page and now head of NBC, wants to reboot Liz’s The Girlie Show and announce it at the network’s online upfront presentation. Cue Liz Zooming everyone in the cast and a number of special guests all to get the gang back together—but not, you know, in person. (A caption at the end of the episode reassured us that the entire thing was shot, “safely,” by the cast in their own homes.) 30 Rock seemed to be whirring up to its trademark velocity: Jack’s in the Hamptons with his new iPhone 40; Tracy lives in Canada and is now a dedicated racewalker (after taking up regular walking in his late 30s); Jenna has been ostracized for “pooping in Mandy Moore’s thermos” and also has the episode’s stealth best line, trying to excuse her bad behavior: “The late 2010s were a very different time.” But the velocity was disrupted, increasingly frequently, with throws to NBCUniversal content.
Upfronts, which usually take place one week in May (and, needless to say, did not this year), are typically full of self-congratulation and wannabe-rousing montages, as networks try to woo advertisers with their fall programming slates, serving them obscene amounts of food and alcohol as well. They’re also occasions for the network’s talent to gamely press the flesh and put on a show, and while the in-person component was necessarily curtailed this year, getting Tina Fey to shill for you with utter abandon is hard to top in the flattery department.
But getting Tina Fey to shill for you with utter abandon also feels like it’s at odds with the spirit of 30 Rock. With its previous product placement—not all of which was as successful as the Snapple and Verizon bits—30 Rock was so blatantly insincere that it still came across as authentic. There was something brilliantly adolescent (or is this where I should invoke Gen X?) about its approach: It found a loophole even while complying with the letter of the law, doing what the corporate overlords asked with so much enthusiasm that advertisers couldn’t really take issue with it but no one watching could take it seriously. The special found a hint of this in Alec Baldwin’s early line readings, but it faded fast. Where there had once been toothless rebellion, now there was eager compliance—even if the show had trained me to see insincerity floating in the air, like the afterimage from decade-old flash.
The cast of 30 Rock really committed to selling all of NBC’s new shows, Peacock, and the whole brand. When Kenneth asks Liz and Jack if he can get their real opinion on the shows he picked and Liz tells him, “Those shows are amazing, I wouldn’t change a thing,” I can’t have been the only one who was waiting for the jaded wink that didn’t come until it the episode’s very last scene, in which Liz winks so hard she hurts herself.
It’s funny—not really in a ha-ha way—for earnestness of any kind to have arrived for 30 Rock in this context. Product placement was only one of the places where 30 Rock’s mixture of self-awareness, autocritique, and cleverness could make it near impossible to tell a belly laugh from a bellyache—which was maybe the point. In the 30 Rock episode “TGS Hates Women,” the show dove into the feminist blogosphere of the time and impugned all sides without concluding much of anything. In one of the Blackface episodes recently pulled from the streaming services, Toofer (now James, played by Keith Powell), TGS’s Harvard-educated Black staff writer, says of Jenna’s Blackface character: “You realize this is incredibly offensive. And you realize blackface makeup reignites racial stereotypes African Americans have worked for hundreds of years to overcome?” And yet the show used Blackface anyway.
Compared with Blackface, product placement is a nothingburger, but the reunion-slash-infomercial points to the way that 30 Rock, in some ways the most modern of TV shows—funny and fleet and lightning-fast—is already an artifact of a much less earnest time, when puncturing all sides wasn’t its own kind of opinion (also a time when you could have your sheet cake and eat it, without being accused of myopic white feminism). With the special, 30 Rock finally committed to something other than the joke, and that something was its corporate overlord. A pretty dark joke indeed.