May 7th, 2009
What a difference a half hour makes: after an episode of the Office that started out without an idea at all and ended up coming together quite well, we have an episode of 30 Rock with a central storyline that was both quite funny and charming, but one that the show surrounded with two storylines that were anything but. And, although this is going to sound weird at first, the problem with this is Tina Fey.
No, not her as an actress: she was hilarious in this week’s episode overall. The problem was that I don’t know which Liz Lemon story to really focus on. Her role in Jack’s storyline, the central take-off of Mamma Mia, was absolutely hysterical, her excitement over realizing her good fortune of having the movie play out in real life maybe my biggest laugh all night. But then the show had her as both lead investigator in the quest to discover whether Tracy’s illegitimate son was a fraud and in a storyline where Jenna’s catchphrase led to fame and success and she was envious of the attention since she was given so little credit for writing it.
The concern here is not a lack of material, but a lack of editing: the episode wasn’t actually about Liz having to balance these three different roles, and her centrality to every story just didn’t end up making any sense. She was vain and petty in her quest to fight with Jenna, unnecessary in Tracy’s storyline when Pete was right there, and could have been used more often in Jack’s storyline to be quite honest.
While some have argued that 30 Rock suffers from a lack of strong supporting players, I don’t think the show is so hard off that Liz needs to be everywhere: a little bit of spreading the love to Kenneth, or Frank, or even Twofer would have really helped “Mamma Mia” get off the ground.
Three seasons makes it a trend, so I can officially say that Jack Donaghy is always going to be the central part of an end of season storyline that stretches over a number of episodes leading into the finale. In Season One, it was his relationship with Phoebe, the girl with bird bones, who was charmingly portrayed by Emily Mortimer but was not very funny and kind of obnoxious at the end of the day; however, the storyline brought us Colleen Donaghy (Elaine Stritch). Last season, Jack fell out at GE, leaving the company following his demotion and ending up in the White House for the finale, bringing us a rather great conclusion to a strike-shortened season.
This year, the storyline is straight out of Mamma Mia, although it is clear right away based on both guest casting and the nationality/genitalia situations of the other two competitors that Alan Alda’s Milton Green, a college professor with liberal leanings who was renting room from Colleen and found out she had a unique arrangement for paying the rent. Alda is, of course, a sitcom legend, and while he wasn’t really allowed to let loose here there was some fun interaction between two very good actors, and that’s really what we’re looking for: more importantly, unlike some other guest stars, the episode didn’t revolve round him, and the conclusion (that he needs a kidney) was smartly kept until the end of the episode and keenly foreshadowed by Liz’s insistence that there couldn’t possibly be a ridiculous third option for how the scene would play out.
What really made the storyline was Liz and Jack’s interactions, though: from their initial discussion of the problem in the cold open (where Liz informs Jack of what she thinks will happen to him without a father as based on her Sims family and Jack ponders why he has no other friends), to Liz’s pure geek out at the idea of the “film songsation” reviewed as “a madcap musical romp…fun…good,” which made me laugh most with “don’t push it Liz, it’s going to happen!” I just love these two together, and in many ways Jack elevated other characters as well: I loved Tracy’s dog in the sidecar runner in their early scene together, Steve Buscemi was enjoyable in his little cameo, and just in general I thought Jack’s storyline clicked.
Everything else was kind of all over the place, an occasional solid joke not able to save the entire storyline. I greatly enjoyed the runner about Liz being unable to tell the age of black people consistently (especially the “Happy 18th Birthday” card for Dot Com), but it didn’t actually go anywhere, Lutz getting himself beaten up or not. The episode felt like it was going for a theme in Liz misreading Jenna’s intentions at the photo shoot, or misreading the intentions of the young ruffian posing as Tracy’s son, but it never really came together. Yes, there was a fun callback to “Hard Ball” with the rubber chicken at the photo shoot, but it was just such a nothing storyline: it wasn’t even that Jenna wasn’t funny, it’s that the show never bothered trying.
It just seemed like such a hodgepodge of ideas, all involving Liz as if she could connect them all together. Yes, Liz was great pumping up Jack by noting that he and his father have an uncanny ability to make fun of her shoes in common, or trying to pose sexily at the photo shoot and failing miserably, or excited about being on the cover even when her photo is the one where she’s birthing a chicken into a toilet. But those moments weren’t enough to actually make the storylines outside of Jack’s come together into anything substantial, which is unfortunate for this penultimate episode; I expect more from next week’s finale.
- “That’s a deal breaker” is not funny, just so you know – and I don’t know if associating it with Sean Avery is going to help it become more funny.
- I don’t know which ridiculous name I prefer: Black Entrepreneur and Butts Magazine, which is funny in a crude way or Tracy Morgan Institute for Black Karate, which reminds me of Zoolander.
- Enjoyed the Bret Michaels joke that he wanted to come and dress up in the same costume as Jenna…AND be on the show. Separate things, people.
- I demand a t-shirt with the following, or something similar, on it: “I will not be spoken to in this way, I’m a contest winner!”