December 4th, 2008
I do not know where to start with tonight’s episode of 30 Rock. “Reunion” was one of those situations where it was everything we should want it to be: no big name guest stars (although Janel Moloney counts for West Wing fanatics), numerous hilarious throwaway jokes, a situation bound to create awkward situations for Liz Lemon (and who doesn’t like awkward Liz Lemon?), and a chance for Jack Donaghy to both get drunk AND take on someone else’s identity. What could possibly go wrong?
To be honest, I don’t know if anything really went wrong, but my enthusiasm wavered throughout this one. There were definitely some moments of genius, and I thought the episode picked up a bit at the end, but it felt like a shotgun approach to the show’s comedy. While there might not have been any big guest stars, I thought the episode had much the same problem that we’ve seen all season: humour that feels like it’s trying too hard without any real sense of subtlety, and an emphasis on creating humour more than allowing it to develop organically.
None of this condemns the show by any means, but it just felt like Liz and Jack going to her high school reunion could have been perfectly funny and 30 Rock-esque without going in all of these directions. And while I know that doesn’t really do certain parts of the episode justice, it just kind of underwhelmed for me.
I’d say that the episode was at about a 66% hit range, if we use the cold open as our example. The three messages that Liz receives that are meant to be funny have two hits (Cream soda is never not funny, and “It’s not the toilet, it’s you” had me at toilet) and one miss (Bike Tour in South Carolina). The three flashbacks/callbacks to high school reunions had two relative hits (Tracy’s trip to a Deaf Girls’ school and Jenna’s “the boat I was educated on sank”) and one relative miss (Other than the idea of Kenneth being involved in an urban environment, I didn’t find his particularly worth the time). The entire episode seemed to operate at this pace: while there were enough hits to keep the laughs coming, there were a fair few duds sprinkled throughout.
As a setup, it was quite well executed. Jack is excited to hear that Don Geiss has risen from his coma only to find out that he won’t be getting the job after all after a beam of light (from either an alien, god, or an unborn Aztec King) convinced him to keep it. Liz, meanwhile, decides to go to her high school reunion on Jack’s insistence, a hilarious scene (likely my favourite outside of parts of the finale) wherein Jack tells Liz that she will have transformed from an Ugly Duckling into, and I quote here, a “vaguely ethnic swan.” The episode was great within Liz and Jack’s dynamic, as it always is, and that’s a sign of Fey and Baldwin’s comic ability. So when they got stuck in White Haven, Pennsylvania, there was a lot of potential in seeing how their time at the reunion would fare.
And, while I may well be off my rocker here, I thought that they could have done more with it. I thought Liz’s side of the coin was just a bit too harsh: it makes sense that she wouldn’t realize how insensitive she was, but I guess the joke kind of got old for me. I wish there had been at least one normal person at the reunion, if only so that it didn’t feel like a random batch of zany stereotypes were out to get her. Admittedly, I’ve never been a fan of Liz Lemon in too broad a context: everyone was raving over how great she was in the episode where she was being groomed to be Jack’s successor, and I thought it was taking what was once the show’s straightwoman too far.
I still have issues with it, even while acknowledging that the show is about as straight as Rob Sussman. I like Jack so much more in this context, as his side of the storyline was great. I loved his discussion of Mulch (I plan on asking people, at random, whether they’d like to buy my mulch in the future), I loved his taking on a new name as Larry Braverman, and I especially enjoyed his drunken choice to buy into that persona. I felt like, unlike Liz, Jack had a reason for his behaviour: he was drunk, he was depressed, and he wanted to live a little. Liz, meanwhile, was just a hateful high schooler incapable of self-reflection who returned and made fun of the physically challenged individual’s dance moves.
That said, though, I thought the ending really came together. I was madly in love with the “I want to go there” runner with Outback Steakhouse and the plane with popcorn on it, the idea of the bullied trying to Carrie Liz was nicely on the wacky side, and Liz’s hateful speech and “Lemon out!” was a great sendoff to the episode. It just seemed like what was in between was very broad and never quite found its emotional centre for Liz. I’m all for awkward Liz, but awkward Liz without some sort of recollection also seems like “unprofessional and crazy Liz” which is something I don’t want the show to go too far towards.
On the other side of the storyline tonight was a smart if jumbled choice of placing Tracy, Jenna and Kenneth in the same storyline. I often wonder how Liz has time to do her job anymore considering how often she’s running off on trips of this nature, and the lack of the writers this year has been somewhat problematic (whether it’s an issue of budget cuts or creative decisions, I couldn’t tell you). There were some fun moments in their game of elevator supremacy, mostly from Tracy and Jenna’s comisceration, but it never really clicked like it could have. The ending felt especially forced, with the fake crying never really becoming funny so much as just kind of “there.”
I guess I just worry about patterns forming: this is admittedly not my favourite side of Liz Lemon, and I remain somewhat concerned about Jenna (in particular) being relegated to sideshow storylines when, as uneven as she can be, she was the center piece of “Hard Ball” and some of the show’s most interesting episodes. The focus thus far this year has been so far removed from TGS and the 30 Rock setting itself that, while I understand their concern of not falling into Studio 60’s trap of focusing too much on the workplace setting, getting rid of that entirely runs the risk of the characters losing their multi-dimensional places within the show’s setting.
All in all, there’s quite a few one-liners that I’ll remember from this, but nothing else really stuck out as memorable.
- Is there something significant about the name “Sussman?” It was in the title of a Weeds episode once, and now it pops up here as well. Really threw me for some reason.
- Loved Kathy Geiss, in hopefully not her last appearance, with her Magna-Doodle, her unicorn, and her window grasping towards her father’s newly awakened self.
- Jack’s vendetta against Michelle Obama was one of his good throwaway lines, but I also enjoyed his lucky coin and, of course, his observations that Rich 50 is Middle Class 38. Plus, his insinuation that to distract himself he uses “sex, and awesomeness.” So much genius, so little time.
- White Haven, Pennsylvania: If you like Methodist Churches Full of Vietnamese!
- Was surprised to see Janel Maloney (Donna on The West Wing) pop up in the small role as Larry Braverman’s jilted high school lover and baby daddy, but it made for a nice exit for Jack and I thought some of Baldwin’s best work was stringing her along in their conversation. He’s a deft comic actor, that one.
- There is no better product to sell to the “Liz Lemon” demographic than Dove Age-Fighting Acne Cream.