Entertainment

The '30 Rock' Reunion Special Was Super Weird

It's basically an ad, but there are some good jokes.

30 rock
NBC

In the second season 30 Rock episode "Someone to Love," Liz Lemon and Jack Donaghy have a long conversation about Verizon phones. Liz then turns to the camera and breaks the fourth wall to say, "Can we have our money now?" This is all to say that 30 Rock has always had a complicated relationship with product placement. (See also: the McFlurry incident.) But last night, the reconvened cast made a truly bizarre return to network television with a reunion special that doubled as an ad for NBCUniversal programming, as well as the company's newly launched streaming service Peacock.

What to make of 30 Rock: A One-Time Special? Well, it's a confusing hour of television. On one hand, Tina Fey and her crew can still write very funny jokes -- for instance, this Jack Donaghy line: "I'm not pleased with how that call with Kenneth went earlier. I give it a 10 on the Iacocca-McDuck Business Interaction Scale." On the other, watching the 30 Rock special requires sitting through (or at least fast-forwarding through) lengthy commercials for the likes of NBC Nightly News and The Voice. You'll be laughing one minute and cringing the next. But maybe that's just the 30 Rock way. Here's what to know about the special and how you can watch it.

Why did 30 Rock: A One-Time Special happen?

NBC didn't have its annual advertising upfront this year. Okay, okay, I know I need to explain what an upfront is. Every May in non-COVID times, all the major television networks and/or the conglomerates that own major television networks and affiliated cable channels stage elaborate events in New York to present their upcoming programming slates to advertisers. The idea is to woo ad buyers with shiny new objects -- and also ply them with fancy parties and swag -- with the hope that they'll spend big on televised offerings. But this year, the upfronts, which were already starting to feel a little antiquated, had to devise more creative ways to capture advertisers' attention, which led NBCUniversal to convince Fey, et al., to get back together and write an "episode" that would double as a not-so-secret upfront presentation.

This explains why, at one point, Jack turns to the camera and deems advertisers some of the "smartest and most physically attractive people this industry has ever seen," and, at another, Kenneth references specific brands as his soul leaves his body. When it was on the air, 30 Rock loved to bite the hand that fed it, gleefully making fun of the entire idea of corporate synergy. But it also did a lot to boost the NBC brand. Sure, "make it 1997 again by science or magic" as a programming priority is a burn on the idea of NBC's desperate desire to cling to "Must See TV." It's also a series where one of the main characters wears the network's logo on his costume. If any series was going to try to pull off this weird alchemy between nostalgia and promotion, it had to be 30 Rock.

What's good about the special? 

Often, the special falls right back into the rhythms of the original series and, when 30 Rock is clicking, well, it's clicking. The general premise is that Kenneth, still the president of NBC after being promoted in the series finale, wants to reboot TGS for Peacock; Jack wants to go back to work in television; and despite the fact that they've all ignored Kenneth's multiple invites to hang out virtually during the pandemic, the writers and stars agree to reunite to make him happy. I'm not going to list all the jokes that hit for me, but just read Tracy's reasoning for moving to Canada: "Because I'm too rich to live on the less majestic side of Niagara Falls." Also, Kenneth has an assistant named Vivica, also played by Jack McBrayer.

And there are moments when Fey walks that delicate line between promotion and mockery perfectly. Take one of the very first jokes, when Jack starts talking up Peacock, describing how it's "where all of NBC's hit comedies from the past 93 years will be available," and Liz responds, "Wow, even Frie—?" only to get cut off by Jack slapping her virtually through his phone. (Friends, a Warner Media property, is on HBO Max, not Peacock.)

What's bad? 

What you'd expect, given that this is 100 percent a promotional video, and that gets clearer -- and deeply awkward -- when all the stars of other NBCUniversal start showing up, such as Khloé Kardashian, Al Roker, Gwen Stefani, and Andy Cohen. The "episode" is also broken up by long stretches of sizzle reels for the likes of Syfy, USA, Bravo, and E!

Where can you watch it? 

Peacock. Duh. It's also available on NBC.com and Hulu's Live TV app. At least if you stream it, you can skip all the ads.

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Esther Zuckerman is a senior entertainment writer at Thrillist. Follow her on Twitter @ezwrites.