Top 5 ‘30 Rock’ Episodes, Curated by a Proudly Biased Superfan

{image id=1333327 align=center size=large caption=false}While enshrined sitcom classics like “Seinfeld” and “Friends” spin colorful tales out of the mundane, “30 Rock” episodes are special in that they’re aggressively absurd. Each is a whirlwind, a screwball adventure packed with wisecracks that’ll whiz by if you don’t pay careful attention. “30 Rock” creator Tina Fey plays Liz Lemon, the head writer for a straggling NBC sketch show called “The Girlie Show” and is prone to moralizing displays at the local hotdog cart (line-cutters, beware). Liz isn’t a great person, like most other characters on the show. The “30 Rock” creators have peopled this world with a host of venal characters whom you wouldn’t want to befriend, but whose internal dynamics function as magically as a Rube Goldberg machine. “30 Rock” plays irreverently with the act of presentation: This world is outrageous, but because of our watchful eye and the mediation of the fourth wall, the zany (and sometimes offensive) elements of the show amount to a mockery of our foolish human tendencies. That being said, the inimitable combination of physical comedy and mordant wit that Tina Fey employs so consistently makes choosing these five episodes excruciatingly difficult.

1. “Black Tie” (Season One, Episode Twelve)
Jack Donaghy (Alec Baldwin), Liz’s boss, invites her to accompany him to a lavish party celebrating the 25th birthday of his friend, Prince Gerhardt Hapsburg (Paul Reubens). Jenna (Jane Krakowski), TGS’s resident diva and Liz’s egotistical best-friend, gets her to think that Jack asked her out romantically, a notion that he gleefully dashes. The way Reubens animates the body that the writers have bestowed upon him, a product of centuries of inbreeding, is a tour-de-force performance in itself. Jenna, fancying herself a modern Grace Kelly, sneaks into the party and enjoys a romance with Gerhardt that ends in champagne-related calamity. Jack runs into his glamorous and temperamental ex-wife (Isabella Rossellini), who flies into a rage when Liz and Jack pretend to be a happy couple. The drama that ensues, like an initiation ritual, lays a stone in the mosaic of Jack and Liz’s friendship — they’ll have each other’s backs, even if it costs Liz some hair.

2. “Do-Over” (Season Three, Episode One)
Every time I watch “30 Rock” and declare one episode supremely insane, the next episode does the other one better. This episode exemplifies the “30 Rock” brand of humor that shocks without relying on vulgarity, with elliptical plots that, like fun house mirrors, twist and warp situations in unexpected directions. Liz decides she’s ready to adopt a child, so Bev from the adoption agency visits her workplace to interview her co-workers on Liz’s viability as a prospective parent. The visit goes spectacularly awry, as expected. When Bev winds up with a head injury and forgets everything she has seen and learned about Liz, she affords Liz a do-over that seems to go as successfully as it possibly could, until it doesn’t.

3. “Apollo, Apollo” (Season Three, Episode Sixteen)
Liz and Jenna feud once she finds out that Jenna once slept with Liz’s deadbeat boyfriend, beeper salesman Dennis Duffy (Dean Winters) after he enrolls in a sex addiction recovery program and must apologize to his former sexual partners. But the episode’s most resonant throughline is Jack and Liz’s. Jack watches home videos in anticipation of his 50th birthday, vexed by the knowledge that despite his superficial success, he won’t ever again be so happy that he could vomit, as he did when he was a toddler. He comes to realize that Liz and the ridiculous entanglements that are almost contractual requisites of their relationship bring him the greatest joy. In this case, his saving grace is an old phone sex commercial that Liz did as a ridiculously coiffed “Bijou.”

4. “Queen of Jordan” (Season Five, Episode Seventeen)
This episode takes the form of “Queen of Jordan,” a reality show brought to us by Angie (Sherri Shepherd), the domineering wife of movie star Tracy Jordan (Tracy Morgan) who is dropping a new single titled “My Single is Dropping.” It’s a delightful send-up of reality show theatrics with captions like “Pete, Powerless Bald” that accompany the talking heads, and with reality show staples like a snappy entourage, weave-pullings by Angie, and wine-throwing by Jenna. The “30 Rock” writers somehow manage to stitch an emotional undercurrent into this ludicrously wacky episode, as Angie’s concerns about her and Tracy’s relationship underlie the glossy artifice of her show. She shares her husband’s gift for acting out to the inconvenience of everyone around her, and Tracy frequents strip clubs to hype himself up to go home to her. Their relationship is probably the strongest on the show. “30 Rock” is ultimately about unconventional and non-intuitive ways to have successful relationships — in Season Seven, Liz grapples with the gender-normative expectations of parenthood as a stay-at-home mom.


5. “Leap Day” (Season Six, Episode Nine)
Legend has it that every Leap Day, Leap Day William emerges from the Mariana Trench to trade children’s tears for candy and to encourage us to live a little. Everyone but Liz is religious about the holiday, and Kenneth (Jack McBrayer), the preternaturally upbeat NBC page, dresses in Leap Day William’s signature blue and yellow to shower candy upon the writers. When Liz runs into Thad (Steve Little) from college, formerly the nerdy “skin tag lad,” now an Internet billionaire, he confesses his longtime crush on her and proposes that she take his virginity for $20 million. An overworked Jack is forced to re-evaluate his life when he has a bad dream after eating rhubarb leaves (it’s a Leap Day tradition to eat rhubarb). Meanwhile, Tracy manages to spend his $50,000 Benihana gift card. If we learn anything from Leap Day, a day when the rules and limitations of the universe no longer apply (as if that were not already the case on “30 Rock”), it’s that we should “live every day as if it’s Leap Day, and every Leap Day as if it’s your last.”

—Staff writer Claire N. Park can be reached