30 Rock – “Believe in the Stars”

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“Believe in the Stars”

November 6th, 2008

One Word: Oprah.

Okay, two words: Octuples Tennis.

Okay, fine, two more words: Monster Claw.

I could really go on and on with this, folks – what tonight’s 30 Rock lacked in plot development or quiet moments of reflection it gained in sheer insanity, ranging from enormous numbers of social experiments of varying morality to the idea that anyone could watch Boston Legal nine times (I kid, fans of Boston Legal – people should be able to reach ten).

It was an episode that was chock full of the types of witty retorts, slightly askew proverbs, and drug-induced sleep crimes that the show is confident enough to indulge in as it starts its third season. While the aforementioned Oprah Winfrey guest appearance was indeed a central point of the episode, the real standout here was the ability for the show to work around that: the entire episode felt enough that, when Oprah turned out to be not everything she was cracked up to be, it didn’t feel like the show had lost its big ending. Instead, it felt like we were getting something that distinctly belonged to these entirely unhinged characters.

And by showing such unwavering commitment to those principles, it’s hard not to love 30 Rock right now.

The thing that struck me most about this episode is its insistence on showing us so many of its various throwaway references. While it was funny to hear of the various made-up sports designed to help NBC’s ratings and America’s standing at the Olympics, actually seeing Octuples Tennis made the joke that much better. Hearing that Liz Lemon was going to get out of jury duty by dressing up as Princess Leia was one thing, but the show following through on it with the perfect “One line -> cut to plane” moment is another entirely. The episode was filled with moments where it felt like we were seeing a show that is willing to go to great lengths for its comedy, often to the detriment of things like plots.

This episode didn’t have much of one: Tracy and Jenna’s legal battles was the closest we got to something resembling a continuing storyline, and it was perhaps the most ridiculous with Jenna’s black face and Tracy’s transformation into co-ed Becky (which gave me serious White Chicks flashbacks, and I never even watched the movie). Instead, we got something approaching your standalone stories: pairing Jack with Kenneth is something that has worked in the past, and letting Tina Fey play Liz off of Oprah in her manic, off-the-wall fashion (except this time exaggerated by the drugs Jack gives her) resulted in a number of storylines that contributed to the episode’s strengths and weaknesses.

As far as weaknesses go, I’d say that Jack and Kenneth’s storyline kind of fizzled out. I like that it connected into Tracy and Jenna’s storyline, in regards to Jack performing social experiments on Kenneth to test his loyalty, and “I don’t believe in hypothetical situations – it’s like lying to your brain!” enters a long list of naive Kenneth-isms (His confusion at the idea of there being ten commandments was also funny, although I wonder if he thinks that’s high or low). But by the end, it fizzled out: it was a storyline of some small little moments, and it didn’t feel like the conclusion really did anything for either character. Yes, so sue me, even if a show that is absurdist as this one can be sometimes I would like to see a little growth here and there.

We got a bit of it with Tracy and Jenna, although through a really strange therapy session – these two are, indeed, Liz’s children in many ways, so I’m glad that we’ve at least separated their storylines in future episodes so that the crazy levels can calm down slightly. I think that pitting them against one another has worked quite often in the past, but doing it too often will keep Liz from being able to focus on other storylines (including the impending arrival of Jon Hamm as a love interest for Liz, which is the most exciting casting the show has done all season). I also felt that Tracy’s line I alluded to above, his admission that “I watched Boston Legal nine times before I realized that it isn’t a new Star Trek,” was one of my favourite lines of the season, and I had even read about it before. The writers know how to write for these characters now, so pitting them against one another was a good way to start the season off.

But, let’s fact it: people were watching for Oprah, who has been everywhere this week considering her attendance at President-elect Obama’s acceptance speech in Chicago on Tuesday night. I thought it was smart that Liz didn’t actually get to meet Oprah, as it would have ruined the magic: bringing real celebrities onto the show, as they did with Seinfeld didn’t work for me primarily because this world seems too wacky for real people to exist in. So, a sassy high school student council vice president who has a best friend named Gail is a far better option, especially since it makes much of Liz’s conversation with her more humorous.

I also thought that Liz’s scenes with the real Oprah were a good balance of outright wackiness (“Can you keep your hands outside my clothes?”) and Oprah viewer in-jokes (Liz’s dream where she’s seducing Nate Berkus, but he turns into Dr. Oz, made me laugh hard enough that I have to admit I got it), even if the earlier moments where Oprah looks terrified for her life to the flight attendant didn’t really match up with a perky 14-year old even if we’re acknowledging that Liz was remembering the situation the wrong way.

To be honest, though, the best thing about the Oprah situation was the sequence where, after revealing that Oprah was coming, everyone begins to worship Liz and treat it as a religious experience. The scene where Jenna bowed to Liz’s Oprah-touching hand as the white light shone behind her was one of the most inspired visuals the show has done, perhaps my favourite since the quick pan-out to Liz’s enormous “Followship” cheque as she claimed she wasn’t a follower in “Rosemary’s Baby.” The show often doesn’t get enough credit for those moments, but this is a show that operates on numerous levels.

And that’s true even with an episode involving Oprah Winfrey: while I felt like it needed a bit more plot to be amongst 30 Rock’s best episodes, it was a hell of a lot of fun, and keeps the momentum going into next week’s appearance by Must See TV alumn Jennifer Aniston. Hopefully, the viewers will keep coming as well.

Cultural Observations

  • I think my favourite of Fake Oprah’s favourite things was Chinese Checkers – I hope it makes her list, as that game deserves a comeback.
  • In case you were wondering, white people have stole jazz, rock and roll, and heart disease from black people, according to Tracy Jordan.
  • I greatly enjoyed that Jack’s first bribe for the athlete was for him to be the host of Deal or no Deal right in his own home…in other words, a copy of the Deal or no Deal board game.
  • On the list of other Oprah show-related moments: Liz’s mention of “bowel movement” as the most important thing was not just a random non sequitor, I am 90% sure I once saw an episode of Oprah where she and Dr. Oz told me what my bowel movements should be shaped as. Oh Oprah.
  • And yes, Kenneth included Women’s Soccer amongst the made-up sports.

2 Comments

Filed under 30 Rock

2 responses to “30 Rock – “Believe in the Stars”

  1. Will Smith was also on the list of things that white people have stolen from black people.

    Am I the only one who found it a little genuinely sad when Kenneth finally caved to temptation?

    I was so sure that the Oprah stuntcasting would make this episode lame, and am pleasantly surprised to be totally wrong.

  2. Great recap, as always.

    Two things that I thought deserved separate mentioning were the ballpit joke with Tracy (Do you know who I am?!?), and my biggest laugh in the show, Tracy’s dialogue as the “white chick” (lipstick!), soon followed by his call to Liz, where he switches to his regular voice claiming she already is treating him with more respect. This show really knows how to write for that guy.

    One aspect about the Kenneth storyline that I loved was how there was absolutely no hesitation in Kenneth pulling the trigger with the gun at his head. It says a lot about Mcbrayer’s talents that he can hold his own, or even steal the scene against a vet like Baldwin. And c’mon, the “I will fight you, it’s human nature” line was pretty inspired, you have to admit.

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