Scripted by “30 Rock” co-creators Tina Fey and Robert Carlock, the hour-long reunion special “episode” that aired Thursday on NBC (and some of its affiliate stations) brought the cast back together via Zoom calls and side plots with impressively high production values as everyone unites for the common cause of praising NBCUniversal and its new streaming service, Peacock. While there were plenty of “30 Rock” inside jokes as the characters got to update us on where they’ve been since the 2013 series finale and how stir-crazy they are in COVID-19 quarantine, the special was more of an opportunity for NBCUniversal to promote NBCUniversal.
Tasked with replacing a newly controversial Jenna (Jane Krakowski) for a potential “TGS” reunion, Liz (Fey) Zoom interviews NBCUniversal personalities Sofia Vergara (NBC’s “America’s Got Talent”), Kandi Burruss (Bravo’s “The Real Housewives of Atlanta”) and Khloe Kardashian (E!’s “Keeping Up with the Kardashians”). (That this “30 Rock” reunion opens with Jenna getting “canceled” for “pooping in Mandy Moore’s thermos” just weeks after Fey pulled two episodes featuring the character in blackface is either a weird coincidence or a stranger way around a fiercer controversy.) One-time page Kenneth (Jack McBrayer), now the head of NBC and too tan in Los Angeles, frets about how to land his yearly pitch to advertisers about the merits of NBC. Newly retired executive Jack Donaghy (Alec Baldwin) jealously runs down the success of Peacock, “NBC’s amazing new streaming service,” before telling the camera that “advertisers are some of the smartest and most physically attractive people this industry has ever seen” with a wink. Tracy Morgan’s eccentric facsimile Tracy Jordan, meanwhile, is sitting pretty in Canada, raking in residual cash from selling his likeness for whatever CGI movie wants him. (Largely freed of the mandate to promote NBC, Tracy’s storyline yields the most jokes per minute, ending the episode with a final, hilarious beat that feels the most like classic “30 Rock” of most anything in the special.) By the episode’s end, rows upon rows of NBC stars smile into their webcams for the pleasure of Kenneth and the network that employs them.
In between the new “30 Rock” material peddling NBCUniversal’s wares, there were back-to-back commercials for NBCUniversal properties, sneak peeks for upcoming originals and somber montages about the power of NBC’s commitment to news, the Olympics and Peacock #content (the vast majority of which pulls from the history of NBC for its content library rather than points toward its future as a possible originals player.) If you’ve ever attended an upfront presentation, in which networks make their splashiest pitches for advertisers by putting forward their most impressive slate of talent, it would have felt very familiar. If you’re a “30 Rock” fan who tuned in to see a “30 Rock” reunion special, it would have felt both very strange and…well, kind of familiar.
Of all the shows NBC could have called upon to anchor this advertising play, “30 Rock” makes the most sense. Throughout its seven-season run, the show always made a point of poking fun at its network even (especially) as it had to indulge the demands of corporate synergy. Jack’s commitment to innovation still tended to fall in the NBC model of, as he once put it, “making it 1997 again through science or magic.” (At one point, this manifests in him trying to digitally insert Jerry Seinfeld into every single NBC show, much to Seinfeld’s helpless fury.) Fake “30 Rock” shows like “America’s Kidz Got Singing” and “MILF Island” were purposefully ridiculous at the time, but frankly, seem less unlikely with every passing day. “30 Rock” knew its place in the NBC firmament — a relatively lower-rated critical darling fighting for relevance opposite behemoths like “The Biggest Loser” — and constantly made fun of itself with game self-awareness. Most of it was in good fun, but every so often, “30 Rock” wove in a plot about its corporate overlords that felt a bit more pointed.
In the fourth season of “30 Rock,” the show’s version of NBC gets absorbed into “Kabletown,” a family-friendly mega conglomerate that’s perfectly happy to reap the profits from mediocre reboots of old properties. Even Jack, the creator of “SeinfeldVision,” is confused and dismayed by Kabletown’s empty cynicism, in which absolutely everything is fair game for retreading. And yet, as a businessman, he can’t deny that Kabletown’s philosophy basically works. So maybe if “30 Rock” were still airing now and had to integrate a Peacock shoutout instead of briefly returning for the express purpose of acting as an advertorial boost, it might’ve erred towards something slyer. But it feels just as likely that Jack would have read the copy about Peacock and shrugged that hey, sometimes you just have to make it 1997 again through science or streaming magic.