30 Rock – “The Natural Order”

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“The Natural Order”

April 30th, 2009

Having already written my posts on Parks and Recreation and The Office tonight, I’ll admit to be at a bit of a loss at what to say about tonight’s episode of 30 Rock. It isn’t that the episode was bad, but 30 Rock just seems to be in a total holding pattern right now, while Parks and Recreation has the novelty of newness and The Office is transitioning out of a really engaging disription. So when “The Natural Order” finished, I was left with some rambling notes about how the episode featured a few jokes that hit, a few jokes that didn’t, and plots that threatened to come together but never quite did.

One of the problems that can kind of tie the episode together, and give me something to talk about, is how in many ways the show has to deal with what I’ll call leftovers. When there’s a small gibbon introduced into the story, it’s a funny throwaway gag that the writers decide not to throw away, and it results in an unfunny and uninteresting C-story. Similarly, while I love Elaine Stritch and storylines that showcase Jack’s more empathetic side are always welcome, at a certain point Colleen Donaghy feels like a character that was so great in that Season One finale that the writers keep reheating with diminishing returns.

It’s not enough to send the show into the territory of downright unfunny comedies, but it usually results in episodes that feel like the cast-offs in need of rewrites, quite likely because they were cast-offs that needed lots of rewrites.

Oftentimes, it’s easy to forget that 30 Rock and other high-quality comedies on television owe something to the sitcom genre that we often malign in praising these shows, but it was pretty clear in this half hour. The deal between Liz and Tracy, where they agreed that everyone should be treated equally, was one of those role reversal storylines that never really went anywhere, and actually seemed to rewrite some of the existing knowledge of Liz as a character. Yes, she is a woman, but she’s always been “one of the guys” (heck, it was the whole point of last week’s episode, especially with Jack who here was suggesting quite the opposite) and there has certainly been farting and pranks and everything else in her presence in the past. And while the water bottle gag was some fun physical comedy, it just felt enormously rote, never quite coming together into something definitively 30 Rock.

I thought that Tracy had a lot more fun with the storyline, as Tracy Morgan playing a professional, upstanding citizen is like seeing a monkey dressed in human clothes and had an element of novelty to it. The fact that he played an actual Race Card made me laugh out loud, and the end reunion when they both realize they have no interest in living the other’s life was not without merit. It just seemed like the storyline eskewed any character development, which isn’t uncommon for 30 Rock but felt particularly problematic in a storyline ripped out of a sitcom and featuring fart jokes.

That they spun off the gibbon into a Jenna story was an example of, in my eyes, a way to save the script, perhaps replacing another Jenna story that wasn’t working. It was essentially a display of Jenna’s insanity and neediness, which is fine in isolation but here felt just a bit overdone. I liked that it didn’t become a dominant theme, but the sexual jokes therein didn’t really click and the conclusion of the gibbon trying to mate with her face was never really built effectively. I loved the gibbon when it was introduced because it was something Tracy would totally do, and I enjoyed how they preferred it to Tracy (“And it doesn’t try to bite the dancers!”), but they should have just left it on that freight elevator with the “Take Me to Indonesia” sign on it and called it a day.

As for the main storyline of the episode on the emotional side, we have Jack Donaghy being given father issues as he suffers with the anniversary of his father leaving his mother, who returns to the picture after having last been seen recovering from being run over by her own son. I really like Elaine Stritch, but I don’t feel as if she has ever been anywhere near as funny as her first appearance in “Hiatus,” and this was perhaps her most unfunny appearance yet. I liked that she was quite kind to her son, and I think that Baldwin and Stritch both played it well, but I liked Colleen when she was a raving madwoman who made her son’s life a living hell as opposed to this old woman desperate for companionship. In a show that rarely lets characters evolve into something more serious permanently, allowing them to move back and forth, this was a pretty straight dramatic performance with only a few bits of comedy.

I think that balance needed to be adjusted, as the end revelation (that Jack’s father is not actually his father) was pretty contrived and clearly choreographed – 30 Rock never does twists well, nor do long-term storylines (especially involving Jack: see, Phoebe and Elisa) really play out in a strong way. As a result, I worry that this search for his father will take away the elements of Jack’s character that we really enjoy, which happened at times in the relationship stories and might well happen here as well.

There’s been some talk about the show falling off the rails a bit this season, and for the most part I’d tend to disagree with this notion, but after The Office demonstrated in the past month its ability to handle long-term storylines in a deft fashion 30 Rock has a lot to live up to if Jack’s story is going to become a recurring one.

Cultural Observations

  • “TWIST!” is really fun to yell out loud, and I enjoyed both Tracy and Liz using it at different points in the episode; it wasn’t quite the level of connectivity I like to see, but it was a nice way to add an element of consistency at the very least.
  • On the connective point, I thought that there was something to be made with the title in terms of the Tracy/Liz storyline and the Jenna storyline (Tracy and Liz disrupting the gender roles, Jenna disrupting the animal world), but the second half was so slight that it never developed into anything, and the episode was content to essentially leave on a cliffhanger of all things.
  • Loved seeing Steve Buscemi pop up in a brief cameo as Jack’s P.I. of choice: especially enjoyed his “No, I’m just taking a photography class” and that he rode off on a bicycle. I thought his Emmy nomination for the role the first time around was patently ridiculous, but I can’t lie in noting it’s a fun character.
  • Simon Cowell and Kathy Hilton? Really? That’s the best you can do, 30 Rock?
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