30 Rock Watch: The Fabian Strategy

30 Rock began its fifth season as a painfully under-watched gem with a bang--an episode jam-packed with Liz Lemon eccentricities and diabolical Jack Donaghy life lessons, all the stuff the show is made for.

As TGS enters its fifth season, one the showrunners never thought they’d see, some obscure contract stipulations in Jenna’s contract come to light. She’s owed a run-of-the-mill pay increase but also, in true Jenna fashion, constant eye contact and a show producer credit, much to Pete’s chagrin. She doesn’t possess much business know-how, but she’s willing to do the jobs no one else will tackle, like making tough budget calls, and firing poor elderly Grace from wardrobe--“I’ve been here since the Jack Parr show!” Ultimately as Pete coasts, letting her take care of the heavy lifting, her fluke status as a budget stickler cause her to realize her own redundancy as a producer. As he’s squeezing a lime into his beer it’s obvious Pete hates his job, but he’d rather do anything than be at home with his five kids, so he accepts Jenna’s resignation.

Jack & Avery, after an island summer, settle into cohabitation bliss. She’s ready to redecorate and maintain an adult relationship. Jack, always the businessman, views their love in terms of bargaining. Rather than adult conversation he chooses to employ "The Fabian Strategy," named after a soldier who ran away rather than engage in battle. Jack successfully weasels his way out of all confrontation, conniving her with distracting side conversations and sex. Proving that she’s his perfect counterpart, Avery uses a meeting with a gay interior designer as a chance to capitalize on Jack’s ego, and convince him that he’s making the decoration decisions himself, getting what she wanted all along.

After getting fired last year for poor job performance, Kenneth is absent from the studio. Tracy, unable to grasp his departure, likely because of all the insane tasks he must now do for himself, hallucinates Kenneth everywhere. He mistakes everyone for him-- the new page, even Liz: “C’mon! This is a woman’s blazer, from a very expensive blazer store called Rico’s.” Inconsolable, he roams the streets, where he finds Kenneth now working as a page for the Late Show With David Letterman, profiling guests for audience placement. Kenneth, always the selfless and lovable simpleton, throws himself in front of a car to prove he’s real. Finally Tracy begs Kenneth to return to TGS to continue his important duties, like picking the peas (and rice) out of Tracy’s fried rice (he just wants carrots).

Liz is still going strong with beefcake pilot Carol, played by Matt Damon. It’s the perfect setup for Liz--he’s not in town that often, so she can maintain whatever awkwardness she perceives as normalcy, and when he does come, she gets to stay at some mid-level hotel (you guys, they have WIFI!). Jack books all the hotel rooms in order to stronghold Carol into staying at Liz’s, and while she’s content to keep it separate, he’s actually interested in progressing their relationship. It may not be a match made in heaven, but when both of them answered "shirt of pubes" to Frank’s umpteenth “Would you rather?” gag, it seemed these two have a little steam left in them. Though I’m somewhat enjoying Matt Damon’s portrayal, I can’t help but hope for a return of the amazingly dry Michael Sheen as Wesley Snipes, the desperate-but-irritating bachelor out to convince Liz to settle for him.

I’ll admit, the past few seasons of 30 Rock have felt lukewarm, but this premiere felt strong, as though the writers took a cue from newcomer comedies like Modern Family and juiced up the one-liners, of which this episode was full. A few noteworthy quotables:

“What about office supplies, can you cut down on that?”

“I’ll try, but we’re already printing all of our internal memos on the back of my kids’ art.”-- Pete and Jack

“No more making love on the beach surrounded by a privacy circle of English trained butlers.”-- Jack

“The Harry Potter theme park is a huge hit with both anglophiles and pedophiles.”-- Jack

“Did you know that if you’re a pilot, they seat you right away at Chili’s, even if your dinner companion has just yelled at the hostess?”

“You’re the Jackie-O of our time.”-- Liz and Jack

“Did you ever see a UFO up there?”

“No, but one time when I was in the Air Force, I saw Mr. T at a Pizza Hut.”-- Carol

“No, it okay! Don’t be cry!”-- Liz

“Would an imaginary me know that you have a mole on your… list of pets to get?!”-- Kenneth