From today through the end of the year, Slate will be unveiling our favorite TV moments of 2012 – the scenes and surprises that made us love television all year long. It all began way back in January, with the welcome sixth season premiere of 30 Rock.
NBC, Jan. 12, 8:28 p.m. ET
Of all the glorious things that exist only in 30 Rock land—Tracy’s novelty party song “Werewolf Bar Mitzvah,” Jenna’s long history of startling run-ins with B-list celebrities, the incompetent Dr. Spaceman—perhaps the greatest its writers have ever dreamed up are its fake reality shows. Queen of Jordan was a note-perfect Real Housewives parody starring Tracy’s wife Angie. MILF Island was a sort of Survivor for hot cougars. But the most amusing—America’s Kidz Got Singing—debuted this year in the Season 6 premiere, and it provided the soundtrack for my favorite TV moment of 2012.
When the episode aired, it had been a while since we’d seen Liz Lemon and the gang: The show had been on hiatus during creator and star Tina Fey’s maternity leave, delaying the premiere til January. The episode’s plot centers on Liz Lemon’s mysterious good mood—neither Jack nor Tracy nor Pete can figure out why she has become so easygoing.
As they search for answers, we’re treated to clips of America’s Kidz Got Singing, an American Idol-style show for preteens on which Jenna has been starring as a cruel and cutting judge. (John McEnroe is her warm, Paula Abdul-esque counterpart on the panel.) The show is a hit, and Jack Donaghy breathlessly reports that it’s “public domain week”—which means all the songs the kids sing are old and out of copyright, further lowering costs. Over the course of the episode we hear a rollicking “Turkey in the Straw” and a version of “Do You Know the Muffin Man?” in which a tyke soulfully lingers on the phrase “he lives on Drury Lane.” It’s absurd—and, like many 30 Rock parodies, absurdly plausible: You half expect to see a promo for the show airing during the commercial break.
But the moment I love best comes at the end of the episode. Jack, who likes to think he knows everything about Liz, has finally figured out what he assumes is the source of Liz’s newfound happiness: She’s been moonlighting as a dancer for New York’s WNBA team, the Liberty. In the clip, he drops Liz off at a movie theater after her game, smugly confident that he still understands what makes her tick. And then—as the strains of an unusually balladic America’s Kidz version of “Camptown Races” rise up (surely the phrase “doo dah” has never before received such melismatic treatment)—he sees Liz meeting—and smooching!—a handsome stranger in the lobby.
It’s a perfect 30 Rock moment—pairing bizarre cultural spoofs and overly precise real-world pop references with the totally sincere, beloved and much-analyzed Liz-Jack dynamic. Plus it gives Liz a chance, finally, to have one up on her know-it-all mentor. With all of Season 6 and most of the final Season 7 airing in 2012, it has been a year delightfully dense with 30 Rocks (which are themselves delightfully dense with jokes). But for me the high point came right at the start.