The one-hour reunion special that also served to promote NBC Universal programming and the launch of the Peacock streaming service was not only bad, it was excruciating, says Sonia Saraiya. "30 Rock, in its heyday, skewered its parent company’s self-mythologizing, its multiple subsidiaries, its desperate efforts to make hay out of corporate synergy," says Saraiya. "In this zombie reunion special, all of 30 Rock’s charm and wit was devoted to cohering NBCUniversal’s brand identity into some kind of shared 'universe,' despite offerings that include professional wrestling, TV news, the Olympics, The Office, the Real Housewives franchise, several Law & Order spinoffs, and Gwen Stefani. Here is the great promise of TV in 2020: A packet of disparate forms of distraction, bound together by sizzle reels, the reanimated corpses of characters you once cared for, and vague promises of the healing power of live sports. Slate’s Sam Adams tweeted that the special 'feels like a funeral for television,' and that rang true for me, too. It wasn’t just the depressing conflation of scripted TV and literal advertisement, though that didn’t help. The corporate synergy on display also emphasized how the actual quality of what we watch has diminished even as the quantity of available programming has ballooned past reckoning. Last year, I wrote about how our attention has become so profitable that media giants are spending billions to silo us into their particular streaming platform. (On Thursday night), NBCUniversal’s ad-episode-sizzle felt like the literal embodiment of the attention economy’s race to the bottom. If the conglomerate’s individual programs have any power or significance—and Khloé Kardashian’s humorless cameo in the middle of the special was a reminder that that’s a big if — it was diluted or glossed or spun into a montage that funneled into our eyeballs and earholes coated with syrupy, disingenuous schmaltz. This Is Us? This is yikes."
The 30 Rock special sure felt like a zombie version of the show made to fill time between ads for NBCUniversal content: "Admittedly, the hourlong special was billed from the start as an upfront — a presentation of upcoming programming (and services, like the just-launched Peacock) aimed at advertisers," says Inkoo Kang. "But no amount of fourth wall-breaking or celebrity guest stars could disguise the fact that this was essentially a gussied-up Powerpoint presentation for a global entertainment conglomerate." Kang adds: "Overall, though, (Tina) Fey and her writing partner Robert Carlock were clearly loath to develop the characters beyond the resolutions that they'd carefully crafted for the series finale. And it didn't help that the special's storyline focused so much on NBC page turned network president Kenneth Parcell (Jack McBrayer), who wore out his welcome several seasons into the show."
Like much pandemic TV, this was not something the public would ever have seen in normal times: "I watched the special twice on Thursday night, once live, once with my family, who wisely fast-forwarded through the ads," says James Poniewozik. "It played better the second way. But you could also see more sharply how the special deteriorated as it went on, as if the writers had a half-hour of material and an hour to fill. In theory, 30 Rock was the perfect brand for the job. From 2006 to 2013, it bit the hand that feeds as lustily as Liz chomps into a block of night cheese. It cast company talent in gently mocking cameos, as the special did with stars including Khloé Kardashian and Jimmy Fallon. It made comedy out of real-life corporate mandates, as in 'Greenzo,' an episode about an environmentalist mascot that came out of an actual network-wide 'Green Is Universal' programming requirement. When the show moves from biting to gently nibbling the hand that feeds, you lose a certain energy. Beyond that, the special showed that, however gut-busting 30 Rock remains in reruns, its arch, lighten-up-Francis comedy is a product of a very specific era that does not time-travel well."
The special was downright bizarre TV: "Even for those prepared to see Tina Fey and Alec Baldwin pushing Peacock with unprecedented sincerity, some moments in the special had to feel pretty freaking weird," says Ben Travers. "It piqued for me during what I believe was the sixth ad break, as teasers for Ellen’s sadistic game show and a water park ride/reality show played across the screen. These are exactly the kind of programs 30 Rock would make up when skewering NBC’s more popular series, and knowing that we were now being asked to take them seriously — as real shows we’re supposed to look forward to — was just too much to swallow. Could Love Island exist today? Absolutely. It always felt about five degrees removed from reality. But Liz & Co. were always making fun of it before, even when they admitted to watching."
30 Rock: A One-Time Special absolutely excelled at what it is and does: "It is a perfect commercial for NBC Universal, a perfect commercial for television, and a perfect commercial for people who believe they are too cool to watch commercials but not too cool to watch television reunion specials," says LaToya Ferguson. "If you want to get pedantic about it, in some ways, 30 Rock: A One-Time Special is even more 'real' television than other 'real' television shows, because it’s completely upfront (no pun intended) about its function as a gateway to advertising—even before Kenneth Ellen Parcell’s soul literally leaves his body. While the actual advertisement for this special wasn’t as upfront, the original announcement about the special was, and as is the special itself, from start to finish."