November 20th, 2008
Of my three favourite comedies on television at the moment (The Office, How I Met Your Mother are the other two), 30 Rock is there primarily based on its quick wit. There is no other show that throws our rapid fire dialogue at this pace, and the show is at its best when that dialogue meets up with well-conceived storylines that interweave with the best parts of these characters. After the early season plot elements were concluded after the very first episode, 30 Rock has (smartly) spent the following episodes delving into both of these elements in earnest.
The issue is that, in combination, they’ve been relying on guest stars as opposed to their usual supporting players. This was problematic last week, when it felt like Jennifer Aniston was unfairly dominating the half hour (even if she gave a great performance), and it had every concern of being an issue this week considering that the character track for Steve Martin’s Gavin Volure was almost identical.
However, there was something different here: maybe it’s that the storyline did a better job of connecting with Liz’s character, or that the Jack and Kenneth side of the story was so strong, or that the episode just felt more cohesive overall, I just liked “Gavin Volure” a lot better. The episode, despite featuring one of comedy’s biggest legends in a guest role, never felt like something other than a really fun episode of 30 Rock, and that’s something that bodes well for the show’s ability to balance stuntcasting in the future.
I am likely going to end this post with a bunch of my favourite phrases from the episode, because there was a metric tonne of them. While I don’t think that the storyline itself was all that memorable, which has been one problem of this entire stuntcasting phase outside of Megan Mullally, it served as a good foil for the show’s writing style and more importantly its characters. That both Jack and Kenneth and Liz’s plots revolved around Gavin, the fake-agoraphobe, really tax evading, racketeering crook sentenced to house arrest, is a good way for these episodes to feel more meaningful. Last week with Aniston it worked right up until the end, when her craziness became predictable and drawn out as opposed to gradually brought to a climax.
I thought that there were similar problems here, although it came together better. It is a bit suspect that we get two characters introduced as eccentric who eventually devolve into insane psychopaths who threaten their own lives or the lives of others, but it’s not a bad trait and makes sense in terms of the sensationalist world of the series (realism, obviously, is not my complaint). And I though that, considering his situation as it relates to the law as well as the nice reveal at mid-episode (whereas I knew Aniston’s character was staunchly in favour of cocoa puffs the moment they introduced her, Liz even told me so), the pace of this one felt a bit more on target.
The earlier stuff with Liz was definitely my favourite part of the storyline, though, before we knew he was in fact running from the law. From the opening party scene, where I got two big laughs (from connosieur of Art Collecting and Yelling John McEnroe’s “WHY IS THERE NO FINE ART IN HERE?” and Liz’s total ownership of the cupcake question), to Liz’s great visit to the mansion confirming that she, in fact, desires to have a relationship with a total agoraphobe, it just felt like a good fit for Liz’s character in particular. Now that the show is more sure of itself as it relates to Liz’s character, it lets her break free more often (her concern over an “away toilet situation” would have been TMI back in the early first season), and I thought that was played to great effect here. I know it’s old news that Tina Fey is fantastic on this show, or that the show really started to cater to those talents in its second season (Her Three Emmys say “Hi!”), but Martin’s cameo largely worked because it allowed the show to make a sad but hilarious commentary on Liz’s highly irregular love desires.
The second half of the storyline let Martin let loose a bit more, and to good effect (even if I felt he went a bit over the top in the final scene as he prepared to leap from the rafters of the stage). He was better as he played the period in between insanity, before his escape. What I liked about Martin’s performance is that he got to play straight man for the first part (albeit an eccentric straight man) and then was able to slowly break free. My favourite line reading was when he told Jack that he spent his money “ON DISGUISES!” in the most wonderfully mysterious and insane tone of voice. His great tape machine message from in the bathroom was another example of how Martin is capable of balancing on that fence, which is why the final scene felt a bit overdone.
However, it also ended up fairly seamlessly integrating into the episode’s other storylines. While I thought that last week’s attempt to tie things together never quite clicked (Only Kenneth’s “Friends…from Night Court!” was clever enough to pull it off), here the conclusion (albeit it a bit sensationalist) nicely weaved both Jack’s fix for losing Kenneth’s money (giving him the Emergency Marshall’s job, saltines and all) and Tracy’s Menendez/Sex Doll storyline (And no, I don’t think anyone in the history of television ever expected that a television critic would write the phrase “Menendez/Sex Doll storyline.”) The callback as the credits rolled, that Gavin “miscounted the men” (as he did during his first escape attempt) was just another sign that this one came together in a less superficial way than last week’s Night Court homage.
As far as Tracy’s storyline goes, I thought it played well into one of my favourite Tracy tropes: mass paranoia. Morgan is a great comic actor when he gets to play something like this, so scenes like his awkward silence with his kids or the second staring picture being there after he covers up the first staring picture, just really roll well with the pace of the show. The idea of Tracy having a japanese sex doll was a joke in and of itself, but for it to play such a crucial role in his plan (and eventually the conclusion) was something that a lot of shows wouldn’t bother with. Tracy’s video game money has, thus far, been profitable both in terms of his bank account and in terms of the strength of Tracy’s role in the series. I also enjoyed how this did kind of have an actual positive character note: sure, Tracy reassured his son of his love for them while making it clear that it was only a Japanese sex doll in his bed, but it still kind of heartwarming.
Overall, this was a show working at a higher level, to the point where I actually kind of like last week’s episode more because it is in some way related to this one. It wasn’t perfect by any means, and I do want to return to some of our neglected secondary characters (Twofer, where are you?!), but at the end of the day it was an incredibly fun to watch episode of a damn quick-witted series.
- I don’t know which of Jack’s sexual revelations was more hilarious: his sudden realization of, while listing his top male sexual prospects if he were gay (Michael Jordan, Denzel Washington, Taye Diggs), “God, do I have a black thing?!” or his observation that Tracy could in fact have a sex doll likeness to satiate the totally natural desire to have sex with one’s self. Either way, I’m laughing. Jack also danced on stage at a Springsteen concert.
- Just so you know, Liz, Wikipedia defines racketeering as “engaging in an illegal activity, usually related to organized crime.” Which is like the tax evasion/embezzlement equivalent of general mischief.
- Kenneth’s storyline with Jack didn’t have much meat, but it had some great lines like the pig wall (and the ineffective pig moat), the idea that California is an off-colour slogan (plus his confederate money), and his story of how “we Parcells have eaten our share of rock soup and squirrel tail, but we also saw leaner times.”
- Even Pete gets in on the action this week, with his enormous head, Cloverfield monsters, and “Yes, HORNBERGER” entering into the show’s lexicon of explosions with happiness.
- I hope it goes online eventually (not that NBC’s player would let me watch it), but the Sex Doll PSA themed after “The More You Know” was almost as good a coda as The Office’s fantastic “Perfect Crime” – together, anyone who skipped on these shows before the very end should be highly disappointed