29. "Rosemary's Baby," 30 Rock (2007)
Welcome to the “100 Best Sitcom Episodes of All Time,” a countdown for 2012. Each episode will get a separate blog post, counting backward toward No. 1. A list of the programs revealed so far is here (and on Pinterest), and an introduction to the project is here.
In "Rosemary's Baby," Liz Lemon learns to accept her fate as an artistically compromised but financially secure TV writer. I hope that 30 Rock creator Tina Fey also follows her destiny, which is to create a comic rejoinder to Aaron Sorkin's The Newsroom. (30 Rock fans: Also see "Greenzo," at No. 88.)
30 Rock premiered in 2006, the same year that Sorkin created his own series set backstage at a TV sketch comedy, Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip. Sorkin's high-minded drama was supposed to be about a comedy show that was good, so it was a problem when critics pointed out that the show-within-a-show seemed pretentious and unfunny. But The Girly Show with Tracy Jordan, where Liz Lemon is the head writer, has always been presented on 30 Rock as terrible, which is both easier to depict and more relatable for most viewers. How many of you leave work feeling like LIz Lemon, and how many feel like an Aaron Sorkin hero?
Liz: Rosemary said that women become obsolete in this business when there's no one left that wants to see them naked.
Jack: You make enough money, you can pay people to look at you naked.
The premiere episode of The Newsroom (the only one I've watched so far) pays tribute to a golden age of TV journalism, with one character all but making the sign of the cross before mentioning Edward R. Murrow and Walter Cronkite. "Rosemary's Baby" takes a more jaundiced look at the supposed golden age of political satire on TV — the late 1960s, when Laugh-In and the Smothers Brothers were on the air. Liz's doomed attempt to revive that tradition makes me long for Fey (a former "Weekend Update" anchor) to make her next project a Newsroom rebuttal that satirizes both Murrow and his acolytes.
In "Rosemary's Baby," Carrie Fisher guests as Rosemary Howard, who was the first female writer on Laugh-In (though the clip we see makes it look more like the legendary flop Turn-On) and later "wrote all the political stuff for Donny and Marie." Liz hires her to bring some edge to The Girly Show, but Rosemary's idea of humor is pointless provocation. (Put a white guy in blackface! Set a sketch in an abortion clinic!)
Jack: (about Rosemary) Fire her. And don't ever make me talk to a woman that old again.
Liz loses her job because of her refusal to fire her idol, so the two of them decamp to Rosemary's rat-infested apartment in the "Little Chechnya" neighborhood. The decor includes a small table cluttered with Emmys and Golden Globes, which doesn't say much for the weight of showbiz awards. When Liz starts to get cold feet about partnering with Rosemary on a screenplay, the older woman strikes back:
Rosemary: You're just like me. You get up in the morning and smoke weed—
Liz: No, I don't.
Rosemary: You obsess over the Jamaican man across the hall—
Liz: Oh my god, I lost my job.
Rosemary: You wouldn't have a job if it wasn't for me! I broke barriers for you!*
Liz: I really have to go.
Rosemary: I sat around while my junk went bad! All for you. I didn't have any kids. You're my kid! You're my kid that never calls! Help me, Liz Lemon! You're my only hope!
*An argument also used by gay men of a certain age who want to sleep with guys 30 years their junior.
In the end, Liz runs back to the mediocrity — and steady paychecks — of The Girly Show. If this were The Andy Griffith Show, the moral would be: Do the best at the job you have instead of chasing impossible dreams. 30 Rock is a bit more cynical, so Liz learns to keep her head down and cultivate her "followship" abilities. She'll never land a husband on an Aaron Sorkin show that way, but it's one way to keep sane in the real world.
Liz: It was terrible. I went to her apartment. I don't think she has a toilet. I saw my future, Jack.
Jack: Never go with a hippie to a second location.
• The most-remembered scene from this episode is actually from the B story, in which Jack tries to control Tracy's self-destructive behavior. During a role-playing exercise with an NBC psychologist (whom Tracy greets with "Who's crazier, me or Ann Curry?"), Jack takes the parts of Tracy's father, mother, and other black and Latino characters. This scene alone puts Alec Baldwin next to Lucille Ball in the sitcom pantheon.
Jack: Lady, just because I'm an ignorant black man and you paid me a nickel to bust up your chifforobe, doesn't give you the right to call me ridiculous just 'cause I'm proud of my son.
• As usual, Jack understands Liz better than anyone. The A.V. Club's Todd VanDerWerff correctly points to the Liz/Jack dynamic as one of the main reasons 30 Rock was sturdy enough to make it past 100 episodes:
... the show has always had an ace in the hole. In Liz Lemon (Fey) and Jack Donaghy (Alec Baldwin), the show has an extremely strong comedic pairing, a goofy mentee-mentor relationship that has steered clear of unresolved sexual tension and made both characters stronger in ways that allow them to wander off to deal with the show’s less-defined figures. Instead of flying off into the atmosphere with no connection to reality, as so many comedies focused exclusively on jokes have done in the genre’s past, 30 Rock hangs on thanks to Liz and Jack.
• The therapy scene is (hopefully) below. The entire episode is on Netflix.