“Retreat to Move Forward”
January 22nd, 2009
In deciding which of The Office and 30 Rock to blog about first, making it my 1000th post here at Cultural Learnings, I thought that it was going to be a tougher decision. 30 Rock has been struggling a little bit as of late, while last week The Office came to the table with a strongly paced resolution to a long-recurring storyline. But this week the tables have turned – I’ll get to The Office later, whereas “Retreat to Move Forward” embodies a majority of the things that I love about 30 Rock. It was wacky, delightful, and used its characters in ways that were predictable yet oh so well executed.
What makes it work is that it uses Liz Lemon in the perfect way, where she is given a barrier to success, demonstrates her ability to succeed, and then goes way too far before course correcting in the end through a horribly embarassing act or two. The rest of the episode moved with a verve: each storyline felt infected by something that resulted in storylines that were no more complex than the show usually is feeling far more inventive. When The Office delivered a fine but complacent episode, 30 Rock felt like it was so sure of itself, so willing to throw whatever sense of caution it has to the wind without seeming like an overflowing pile of ideas that they didn’t bother editing down.
And as a result, “Retreat to Move Forward” becomes my 1000th post at Cultural Learnings.
I’ve been kind of picky about my Liz Lemon recently: I was kind of down on her entering into Jack’s world in Succession, and I thought that her re-entry into high school was, on first watch, missing what I liked most about Liz. But I’ve since begun to come around: these scenarios that bring out the worst in Liz Lemon, especially those like the story here which brings out the embarrassing as opposed to vindictive Liz Lemon, are in fact some of Tina Fey’s best moments on the show and, as we’re seeing, a great way to continue Liz and Jack’s friendship. The episode calls into question that very friendship, their chummish behaviour (or more accurately her “nicknameification”) raising some eyebrows with Jack’s successful business colleagues at the pretentious camp where LUNCH involves Lego and CLASS involves eating lunch.
It’s a great storyline because of it plays on two of my most favourite things in the world: Jack feeling anxious or nervous about a workplace situation, and Liz doing hilarious things that only make that problem worse before eventually coming around and saving the day through her sheer lewdness. The storyline had plenty of great small lines, including the entire 6 Sigma concept, but the two broad moments were amazing: Liz’s “Sorry, I dropped it when I was pretending it was my penis” was darn near Shakespearean, and the final striptease as Liz searches in her repetoire for some way to keep Jack’s psych-up speech from sticking in people’s minds was so wonderfully disturbing and brave that it was impossible to turn away from. The storyline entertained me throughout, and felt like a far better use of Jack’s character compared to his isolation from everyone else while off with Salma Hayek.
But the episode worked really well for me because I really dug the two supporting stories, if for different reasons. I like Tracy’s story for its sheer absurdity: whether it was the welcome cameo from Chris Parnell’s Dr. Spacemen (My favourite line from him is a toss between “Dee-Ay-Ba-Tees?” and “But, then you’d have to register as a motor vehicle.” I was on the floor) or the idea that diabetes and diet being related is a black myth just like Larry Byrd and Colorado, plus the sheer simplicity of “N-O-E…No!…E!,” the show knows how to make Tracy work as a caricature without ceasing to be a character. I don’t know how, necessarily, they accomplish this, but they just keep doing it.
And luckily for us, they also found a strong storyline for Jenna and, of all people, the writing staff! Yes, Frank takes a more prominent role because he’s in the credits, but Twofer totally had like four lines, and I thought that compared to The Office’s “prank” this one was far wittier and also had some very entertaining results. Jane Krakowski is so good at playing completely insane that I just get Jenna, and actually in some ways relate to her: the idea that she was willing to eat a cat because Wikipedia told her so was completely in line with our perception of the intersection between truth and fiction that it was almost too obvious. The same goes for her sleeping with Frank: there was nothing surprising about her demanding that the shame be hers and not his about their tryst. It didn’t resolve itself in anything substantial, but the idea that Frank was sleeping with all sorts of people on set was a nice role reversal that I thought worked pretty well.
And while I don’t want to make them think it should be a regular thing, I always like when storylines intersect: here, I called it immediately when Kenneth introduced the idea of the Hill Witch that Jenna, as part of her crazy Joplin preparation, would eventually appear as something approximating the loathsome creature, and sure enough there it was. But rather than feeling like it was too choreographed, it felt like the right level of contrivance and manipulation for a show that has always demonstrated an intelligent eye for when to play realistic and when to play the sensationalist card.
So on the whole, put this one on the list of reasons that I really, really love this darn show.
- I’ll have more thoughts on The Office in the morning, I’m taking the rest of the night off to celebrate this momentous occasion. And please note that there’s at least one more momentous occasion that passed over the weekend that I want to recognize more formally in time.
- As for the episode, I loved the call back to the opening improv (which was funny) in the ending sequence (which was more funny) primarily because it’s clear Liz sucks at improv. Plus, I loved when someone called out for her to do Jack Donaghy again: “No! Anyone else?”
- For those who might lament the loss of Salma Hayek for reasons other than her…assets, I would point you to this episode: Tina Fey striptease should be enough to keep those particular people occupied, methinks.
- Good use of Kenneth this week: with Tracy, who he’s always great with, and with that usual skewed sense of whether or not his plans will actually work. Loved his reversed desk idea: so Kenneth.