March 12th, 2009
It’s kind of funny that, after an episode of The Office where Michael struggled with the idea of responsibility and blame, that 30 Rock would be so occupied with exactly the same ideas. The episode is all about authority figures who are trying to maintain something approaching order, and their subordinates who are at the same time doing everything they can to subvert all principles of authority.
It’s almost a bit too clean in the end, as all of the storylines come together to a clearly choreographed conclusion, but at the same time each storyline plays to the characters’ strengths. Just as Tracy taking over the financial crisis was funny, so too was Tracy taking over the entire airwaves. Just as Jenna’s last trip to Dr. Spaceman was a comic goldmine, this one at least got us something other than coal if not quite gold. And while Liz and Jack were both a little bit out of their elements (Liz stuck on jury duty and Jack stuck, well, working with subordinates directly), thus not quite giving the episode its potential comic punch, I still think the episode set out a simple and 30 Rock-esque storyline and succeeded in showing its potential.
And while I still want the show to shoot for something better, this is a good piece of complacency in my book.
The problem with Liz’s storyline is that arson isn’t funny – yes, there is something poetic in someone realizing that their own feelings about their life could escalate into themselves burning the entire place to the ground, but it was one of those frames wherein there isn’t any real comedy beyond the absurdity of the woman’s testimony (what lawyer would ever put her on the stand?) and the initial failed attempt at using her Leia routine (augmented by the Playgirl magazine) to get out of jury duty. Liz was back to playing the straight woman here, and at a certain point it felt derivative: the show has become so used to playing Liz as our centerpiece for comedy, and now all of a sudden she is just a normal person surrounded by whackjobs.
It’s not that this can’t be funny, but it just isn’t quite where we want this character to be: I enjoy Liz more as a character when the show lets Tina Fey run wild, and here the whole point was that she couldn’t. Once she gets run over by that bike messenger, she is angry, frustrated, and mean to just about everyone, but all while trying to avoid going out of control. The middle ground doesn’t work for Liz Lemon anymore, it appears, and the rest of the episode suffered slightly as a result.
But not beyond repair: the rest of the show is still designed to maximize the madcap hilarity the show is known for, and with Jenna and Tracy they successfully tapped into it. From their first St. Patrick’s Day debacle, the two storylines (Tracy vs. the FCC and Jenna vs. Sleep) were simple, to the point, and used both Morgan and Krakowski in the way they need to be used. Tracy taking over all of the commercial airtime, choosing to subvert the FCC’s authority over advertisers by buying all of the show’s advertising, was one of those strokes of sheer genius: you can’t make it so 2/3 of your sentence suggests he does something of this nature, and the end result was the episode’s best comedy (“I AM ADVERTISER…is that thirty seconds? No?”).
On the other side of the coin, Krakowski often doesn’t get enough credit for her work as Jenna but I thought this side was pretty funny as well. A lot of this comes from Dr. Spaceman, who Chris Parnell continues to inject with sheer genius, but the glimpse of Janet Jopler was great (Synonyms are just another word for the word you want to use!) and I thought her part of the St. Patrick’s Day debacle fallout was kind of great (“My face is bigger on movies!”). These two are always the center of those madcap final moments, and here I thought the total breakdown (Spaceman with the stool, Tracy and his “Funcooker”) was perhaps almost a disappointment considering the parts involved. After Spaceman’s last dramatic entrance (in “Succession”) was so great, this one fell flat. Regardless, I thought that things kind of went to too obvious a place in the end, but I thought there was some fun comedy (including the cuts to Professor Bananas and then back to Jenna) in the process.
As for the reveal of Jack (and Liz’s, in a way) Pocket Microwave, it never really went anywhere: Jack taking over the TGS crew to solve the question of his microwave name (after BiteNuker was rejected) was a solid idea, but it was never quite crazy enough to bring comedy and felt like the most neglected of the various storylines. Still, its contribution to the final whole of chaos was probably worthwhile, and I enjoyed that Liz was so desperate to find stability in her life when all she needed was a pocket microwave that cooks ham in the shower. Similarly, Kenneth’s little power trip was a small throwaway joke, along with Frank’s lack of pants, that gave the entire episode that extra layer of chaos to pull it together.
In the end, it’s an episode that was really only let down by its central premise, a too easy “Liz sees that her life or something very like it drove her to arson and considers it herself” when there could have been more nuance. I also spent the entire time asking “Where the hell is Pete in all of this?” which is something that the show needs to deal with more often: it’s hard for me to view Liz’s life as so bad when she has spent a LOT of time out of the office this year without any sort of consequence. It’s things like this that pull me out of what is supposed to be zany escapism, and is something it will be interesting to see the show balance in the future.
- “But the Oscars love that kind of scene…there’s two guys at my gym named Oscar!” – nice that Jenna, with all of her ego, understood why the mention of Oscars and Janet Jopler in the same sentence raises eyebrows, lesbian scene or no lesbian scene.
- “Passing out and cursing…on St. Patrick’s Day? Is nothing sacred?”
- To be honest, this was a fairly weak Dr. Spaceman scene in some ways: the WNBA? Really? Are we still making fun of the WNBA? That joke must have been written by the same writer who wrote the Marc Anthony joke a few weeks ago.
- Enjoyed the return of Liz’s Leia impression, but it kind of taints that first example: I loved the quick cut to the plane that time around, but in this instance we lingered too long. Still: I wouldn’t want a hologram on my jury, that’s for sure, so the state of New York truly is whack.
- I loved Tracy’s first commercial but “Do you want our old towels?” cracked me up more for some reason. It was just so mundane.
- Jack pulling “HITLER” out of the Scrabble bag reminded me of the recent controversy over a screenshot of an XBox Scrabble game, so it’s clearly not an original joke – however, surprisingly, Hitler was funnier than arson. Didn’t see that one coming.