March 26th, 2009
When Robert Carlock confronted “Apollo, Apollo,” it was if he were taking all of the elements which have made his past episodes (“Jack-Tor,” “Subway Hero,” “Sandwich Day,”) so fantastic and pulling them all together into one rather stunning half-hour. Moving from joke to joke at a breakneck pace, with barely any time for breathing yet alone for truly appreciating the genius on display, the episode achieves the right balance of total absurdity, stunning wit, marvelous delusions and genuine heart in pretty well every single storyline, although to the differing degrees required.
It’s almost unfair to other comedies that 30 Rock can combine all of these things and still feel as if it was cohesive: we have brand new show-specific terminology, one of the show’s best recurring guest stars (Dean Winters), muppets, Adam West, a wonderful viral video, and along the way so many small moments that the episode was without a dead zone.
And after all of that, anyone who isn’t Lizzing or Jacking needs to get themselves checked out by a doctor/trainer…or should that be the opposite? Hmmm.
I have the same problem as Alan Sepinwall on this one, as I’m tempted to just list off things I love without saying why. In debating (nerd alert) this is a common problem: we think our arguments are great, so why bother explaining them? The same goes for this episode: these jokes were so unquestionably funny that I don’t feel they need me to talk around them.
But I do want to note how intelligently this episode used some of the formulas that don’t always work this well: it’s not as if Carlock has been revolutionary in his scripts, but rather that he has managed to find the absolutely best way to achieve balance with introducing larger elements into a series.
Let’s take for example the use of guest stars. Now, admittedly, Dean Winters’ Dennis Duffy isn’t quite a celebrity guest considering the show has slowly developed him into someone worthy of our effusive praise and worship for being so hilarious, but nonetheless any guest star will introduce a different element into the series. The show struggled a great deal with guest stars earlier in the year, but in “Believe in the Stars” Oprah’s guest appearance was handled ideally, funny in context of Liz’s drugged up plane-ride and brought back down to the universe’s level when we discovered that it wasn’t, in fact, Oprah.
Dennis has the same impact here, primarily because he’s not there to show off so much as make Liz’s life more difficult. Throwing Jenna into the mix only helped the scenario, which is surprising but not surprising. Jenna’s character always needs something to riff on in order to be most effective, and while relationship drama is not always effective having it be relationship drama with Liz, and having Liz become the vindictive side of the pairing, was an ideal way of introducing Dennis as the destabilizing, K-Mart basement vending-machine owning self-diagnosed self-addict he is. While he was more central to “Subway Hero,” and it worked in the way that episode was structured, this one felt better served by a lighter touch.
Carlock also managed the question of how to deal with Jenna and Tracy by relating Jenna to Liz (who is pretty consistently enjoyable) and then giving Tracey a storyline without reason, without logic, and without anything approaching seriousness. I’ve always enjoyed when Pete is put in charge of creating a fake experience for Tracy, such as the Pacific Rim Emmys, but this one was given such an elaborate setup. Whether it was Kenneth using the computer voice, or the “Right Stuff” parody with the heater and Kenneth making some sort of hilarious noise, or Tracy lizzing during the flight, or the level to which Tracy was aware of his delusion (spotting Kenneth’s wink, hearing Jenna’s voice) but choosing to ignore it, it all brought out the most delusional and wacky in Tracy without dragging down the rest of the episode.
It’s a problem with both characters: when they are a nuisance that is causing chaos, it becomes your stereotypical sitcom, but in this instance they weren’t a nuisance at all. They never struggled to provide this illusion for Tracy, whether it was helicopters or actors, but rather it all just happened behind the scenes, making it infinitely funnier. Similarly, Jenna wasn’t being a nuisance for Liz, as this returned to their friendship (remember that?) which is far more personal and feels less petty and more like a Liz Lemon twist on the traditional scenario of a man getting between two women. Rather than feeling like an obstacle that needed to be passed before the episode became funny again, Jenna was played just the right way.
The rest of the episode was just pretty great: Jack’s sadness reaching his 50th birthday was poignant, and his chats with Liz on the subject another great chapter in their charming friendship, so it gave the episode that poignancy you want it to have on some level. But then, immediately thereafter, you have a wonderful sequence like Jack bringing in former friends and a deaf person under the pretense of job interviews – there was perhaps no funnier moment in the episode than the deaf woman’s anger at having been instructed to watch his mouth without being warned about the throwing up to follow. Jack is best when his human side results in a panicked departure into his obsessive side, and this was a great example of that.
Even Kenneth got some great moments here, with the idea of his pointed of view with everyone as muppets resulting in the two great jokes (singing Jack and the real Liz Lemon walking like the muppet Liz Lemon) as well as the inspiration for Jack’s POV (everyone as value, Kenneth being worth $7) and Tracy’s (everyone as himself). Combine all of this with a cameo form Adam West, who is managed by Grizz, and it’s hard to argue against it.
And this was all before the conclusion, as we learn that Liz Lemon was in a Chicago Sex Line commercial that was just so bizarre I can’t even begin to describe it (OKFACE, Pizza Eating, seductiveness, horrible teeth, the list could go on and on), and everything becomes an epic conclusion only possible in this episode, with callbacks to Jack’s excitement vomiting (He’s gonna Jack!), some absolutely marvelous reactions from Frank and Lutz, and then that nice quiet moment with Jack and Liz to end the episode. Any comedy that can combine a personal discovery for one character, a revenge-driven comeuppance for another, as well as something distinctly hilarious and unique to the series’ identity, is pretty well on top of its game.
So kudos to Carlock on this one – a classic.
- I’m always somewhat skeptical of new terms we’ve never heard people use suddenly becoming ubiquitous, but Tracy’s “I’m Lizzing! I’m Lizzing!” in the spaceship was kind of awesome – I shall now use it in my everyday vocabularly to combine laughing and whizzing.
- One of my favourite gags was how Liz’s fake Jenna voice had a British accent, and how Jenna KNEW it would have a British accent, and felt like she needed to explain why – her explanation has given a whole new perversity to my High School production of My Fair Lady.
- Loved Tracy’s “Wordplay!” joke and Robert Browning quote in his first altercation with Jack/Liz because they were actually both really funny/ideal for the discussion – loved them even more when he used “Wordplay!” like he’s used “Banter!” in the past later, when he hasn’t actually used wordplay or anything even close to it.
- “What those people were doing to the Superdome” is yet another in Dennis Duffy’s hilarious, but oh so inappropriate, observations of the world. I almost wish the episode would have given us his POV, but maybe we’re not ready for that.
- McNuttCast Preview: hilariously, as this episode was airing, I was editing my brother and I’s discussion of the ACTUAL Canadian Grammys, the Juno Awards, and then this joke popped up on the DVR – such wonderful karma. The Junos, by the way, air this Sunday.