30 Rock – “Christmas Special”

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“Christmas Special”

December 11th, 2008

If there is a recipe for a good Christmas episode, it’s primarily comprised of two things: heart and musical numbers. This is all I really ask for: a Christmas episode, even for a comedy, where Christmas is just a punchline and where nobody breaks out into song is just not the kind of lively affair that I want to see at this time of year. Thankfully for 30 Rock, they got the basics right: “Christmas Special” had plenty of heart, and featured a nice end-of-episode musical number that warmed the cockles of my overtired and somewhat chilly heart.

As far as episodes of 30 Rock go, it was par for the course: Jack is in full of neuroses move over his Mother’s arrival in town (and, worst of all, confined to bedrest with a bell at her side), Liz tries to do something good but lets her own neuroses lead her to doubt the spirit of Christmas and ruin it for two young children, and Tracy and Jenna are used as the entertaining sideshows we appreciate them as. Working in a nice number of secondary characters and some fun lines scattered throughout, a slow-starting episode finds its groove in a heartwarming ending to certainly end up as NBC’s most festive (and satisfying) comedy in the hour.

This is the first episode we’ve spent in the writers’ room for a while, which meant the return of Twofer, Lutz and Sue. there was some fun stuff just interacting with this small group: Lutz breaking down into tears at the idea of having to work over Christmas was the kind of show-fatigue kind of thing that the season has largely ignored, and I think that it’s something to look into further. Yes, some of the show’s best episodes have been those operating outside of the show-within-a-show concept, but some of its best ones have done just the opposite: the amazing Rosemary’s Baby, for example, was all about the creative process. As a result, it was nice to see a return to that here, even if the bulk of the comedy was still given to to the two leads and the two main supporting players.

Of the two main storylines, I thought that Liz’s was simpler and as a result executed a bit more clearly. Picking up on last week’s theme, where Liz realized she had been mean in high school as a coping mechanism, here she uses charity as an outlet for her anger at her parents shunning her over the holidays. The result is racist presumptions about a Black Santa doll, an overabundance of purchases for her “Letters to Santa” program recipients, and a helathy dose of Scroogey (Or, if you listen to Kenneth, Cranky Sue) behaviour that leads her to question whether the men who opened the door and took her presents had scammed…er, sorry, scrumped her.

I like where the message ends up, though: she realizes her mistake just in time to ruin Christmas for the kids (who learn that she and not Santa delivered their presents), Kenneth gets to see his very own Christmas miracle, and Liz agrees to spend Christmas with Tracy (or, more accurately, host Tracy’s family for Christmas). It’s that delightful combination of earnest, neurotic and downright wacky that Tina Fey is so great at pulling off, and it made her side of the storyline highly enjoyable if, obviously, a little slight.

The same can be said, though, of the return of Elaine Stritch as Colleen Donaghy, an always radiant but here oddly neutered addition to the cast. After they brought her back during last season’s Christmas episode, it seemed weird to do it again here and in mostly an uninteresting way. I didn’t find her lines were nearly as funny, and outside of her “Exhibit 3 – 16-8 = 8” signboard I never really found anything in the characters that convinced me of Stritch’s addition to the episode. This storyline was mostly on Baldwin, who did some great work as he always does when Jack is struggling with his mother, his job, or his love life. It just felt like this was the same storyline that we’ve seen in the past, and unlike last year where Stritch got to interact with Liz’s family we didn’t really see her role expand in the episode.

This isn’t to say, though, that the episode’s heartwarming ending wasn’t earned. The story of Jack’s Christmases was wacky enough (She’d dress up as Mrs. Claus, and then go off to sleep with the founder of FAO Schwartz in order to get mountains of presents for her kids) to keep things light, while that imagined moment of the two of them sitting by the piano was the kind of charm that an episode like this needs to end on. This is the holiday season, after all, and I thought it was a fitting end to a storyline that based on episode length and time never really got off the ground.

Overall, though, it’s a strong outing for the show: between getting some more of the supporting cast into play to doing some good things for the two leads, this felt like a cohesive and celebratory episode of a comedy that enters the New Year with a solid if unspectacular sequence of episodes to get its third season started.

Cultural Observations

  • Jack’s best line of the episode was easily “If I wanted to lick a hippie, I’d just return Joan Baez’s phone calls.” It was so wonderfully random, and adds another line to the “Quotes related to Hippies” lexicon that Jack has going.
  • My runner up for best line overall was Tracy: not only am I crowning him King of the English language for his assumption that scrumped was the past tense of scam, but he also gets props for “If you just want to hug a black man, host the Price is Right.” The show started off slow on the one-liners front, but I felt it picked up as it went along.
  • It was nice to see the return of the show itself this week, as it brought some much needed non-guest star related chaos to the proceedings. While Liz’s high school reunion had some of it, the hustle and bustle of the stage was a nice tone for the show to set, and then slowly melt into a confection by the time Jenna ascended the stairs.
  • I would pay good money to see Jenna Maroney duet with Crocodile Dundee, but I’d pay even more to see the Christmas Special that makes A Wonderful Life look like Pulp Fiction.
  • For the closet former wrestling fan in me, entertained to see Frank sporting a Cactus Jack T-Shirt and a hat with “Foley Artist” written on it: Mick Foley is the real name of the wrestler who portrayed Cactus Jack in the ring.

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