May 14th, 2009
If there is one blemish on 30 Rock’s solid, if not spectacular, third season that really stands out, it’s the criticism that the show has leaned too heavily on high profile guest stars in order to meet its ratings potential. First and foremost, it was “successful” in its goal: the show was renewed months ago, showing that critical attention and slight viewership growth really can save great comedy. However, the consequences of this was a reputation, that I’ve heard used as a sign of the show’s decline throughout the year.
But I’m with Liz Lemon in the end: it has been quite a year, and while I don’t think 30 Rock won the Thursday Comedy face-off at the end of the year I do think that “Kidney Now!” is a fine argument for the show’s ability to go above and beyond what one would normally expect. Combining two television cliches (the benefit concert and the organ transplant) and sprinkling with the most guest stars the show has ever crammed into it, it reads like one big middle finger to those critics who questioned whether the show could weather the network-pressured invastion of movie stars.
It’s not a fantastic finale, and perhaps lacked the cohesiveness of last year’s “Cooter,” but with a rollicking final song (which you can find more info on at NBC.com) and some fun material for Liz Lemon the episode delivered a nice sendoff for the season.
My problem with “Kidney Now!” is not that its A-story about Jack needing a kidney for his dying father used too many celebrities, or that its B-Story about Liz’s relationship advice never got resolved; both of those ended up being more than funny enough to sustain any small quibbles I might have, with Liz’s rapid fire catchphrase making and Jack’s musical dealmaking being every bit as funny as you would expect them to be. My real problem is that the show seemed as if it was treating Tracy Jordan as a third star by giving him his own storyline: as far as Tracy storylines go, I didn’t find the story about his high school graduation all that funny: the speech reused a joke from his Pacific Rim Emmy speech, the entire storyline lacked a real sense of urgency, and other than a couple of classy Tracy lines and Kenneth’s discussion of what he learned about Peter and Jesus in Science class it just didn’t connect for me.
But the other two storylines were far more successful, primarily because it really felt like strong, meaningful stories for both Liz and Jack. For Liz, I was all set for her trip to the Vontell Show to be an embarrassing disaster, but then I realized that she was well within her wheelhouse fielding questions like this. Heck, it’s what she does for Jack, and Jenna, and Tracy, and pretty well everyone all the time. Combine that with her desire for fame (so weird to see two 30 Rock episodes connecting this much), and you have the hilarious montage of advice: whether it’s “You have sexually-transmitted crazy mouth” or “a classic case of fruit blindness” or “Only one snake in the bed,” it actually convinced me that (even if the bits of the sketch we have seen aren’t actually funny) there really is some humour to be found in “That’s a dealbreaker, ladies.”
Things only got better once Liz became aware of the potential that sat in front of her, and was spurned on by Jack in one of his many uplifting discussions about how she is taking her life nowhere. That’s Tina Fey at her best in this role, trying to stretch out a lucky break into an actual life improvement. This resulted in the hilarious attempts at coining new catchphrases (“ROBOT WARNING” needs to catch on, damnit), Liz wondering if there was a sit-down Quizno’s where she could take the book agent, and basically planning out a whole new life for herself. Fey is just so good at portraying someone who has let a single idea totally overcome them, and I liked that the episode didn’t give her all sorts of crises to distract her: it was simpler, and funnier, left as it was.
Sure, I think there was room for the show to resolve it a little more, or perhaps bring in her desire to have a child to tie things together, but it is becoming very clear that this should could never handle a baby, nor could it even handle a long-term relationship that lasts more than an arc of episodes. This isn’t going to become that show, even if there are moments where Liz Lemon could become that character, because there is always a Jack Donaghy pep talk, or a trip to the Vontell show, that will send her careening off into crazy land. She can’t have anything tying her down to keep her from being able to dragged off into these crazy adventures, especially since this one could actually be quite an important career move for her (and a Liz Lemon book tour is a comedy sensation waiting to happen, as Liz Lemon signing books might be even funnier than her getting a book signed, as seen in “Rosemary’s Baby”).
The other half of the episode, meanwhile, brought the funny something fierce. The various guest stars were to different levels game for the comedy: Mary J. Blige was a bit stilted, and Clay Aiken tried a bit too hard, but for each of those you had Adam Levine and Sheryl Crow’s wonderful European accents, Levine planning to punch Elvis Costello in the back of the head, or Elvis Costello revealing himself as an International Art Thief. And when they came together at the end of the episode to sing “Kidney Now!” it was as epic as it needed to be: the lyrics were funny, the jokes were flying, and the parody of charity singles (“when someone talks in the middle of a song, you know it’s serious”) was right on the money. Throw in drunk Cyndi Lauper and real Michael MacDonald (Too bad Jenna didn’t get to show him her impression), and you have a whole lot of fun for the episode’s climax.
The storyline itself didn’t really go anywhere: I like Alan Alda, and he was a lot of fun to have around for some self-deprecating jokes (okay, I’ll admit it – I’m too young and naive to know how they were self-deprecatory, I’m just going by what smarter people observed on Twitter. This is all lies), but here they didn’t really get to do anything with he and Jack’s relationship. It stayed in that sweet but ridiculous place it was before, with the hilarity of Dr. Spaceman (who kills me every time, just as hard Ks kill him) contrasting with the simple scene where a back and forth refusal to take a baseball becomes a game of catch. The storyline never became dramatic, nor did it end in some kind of twist ending (like many of the guest appearances, such as Jennifer Aniston or Steve Martin): instead, it ends with Jack staging a stunning song for his father who needs a Kidney.
There’s something nice and simple about that, but at the same time ridiculously complex: it was a simple story, perhaps, but in true 30 Rock fashion it ballooned into an epic music event. It was the ideal combination, really: the episode gets to introduce a lot of guest stars and get off some great jokes about them, while at the same time essentially boiling down (on a storyline level) to very simple themes and a lack of real complication. Sure, I prefer The Office’s more dramatic approach to those find of finales, but this was the 30 Rock equivalent: bring out the guest stars, let Fey and Baldwin loose on some fun material, and then bring everything together into a musical number sure to rack up the Hulu hits in the days ahead.
If that’s what the show wants to be, I think “Kidney Now!” is fine evidence of its ability to execute it – the real question now is whether or not either of these dangling plot threads, Liz’s burgeoning success, Jack’s relationship with his father, and even Tracy going off to college with his honourary high school diploma, will get picked up next season. With 30 Rock, it’s always tough to tell, but coming off of a much improved season in the ratings maybe a little bit of change will do it good this time around.
- I always love Liz’s advice to Jack when he comes into her office, but her school play responses (sitting there waiting while the other Kidney was singing, continuing on with the Colon) were gold. I am, however curious, what rhymes with decisions and is pushed out of the Colon. Combine that, though, with the great line about the tough times for hobo organ harvesting, and it was a great teaser run.
- Anyone who didn’t know that Spaceman would not remember to change the form should have their brain examined (it’s where decisions are made!), but yet it still made me laugh – ah, the joys of Chris Parnell.
- “No, Courtney is Dead” made me laugh so suddenly that my dog, who can’t hear very well except for high pitched noises, got up and went to sleep somewhere else. Sorry, Cody.
- The one gag that really hit for me in Tracy’s storyline was the idea that Mean Steve was the nickname of a guy named Steve Killer.
- “You Have To Go Out There and Get Yours” is both Jack’s advice for Liz, and the title of Leo Spaceman’s upcoming book on sex for couples.
- Screw you, Jenna and Liz – I would totally go camping with Mickey Rourke. It would kick ass.
- What IS under Michael MacDonald’s beard? I don’t know, but I love that he was game for that joke.
- Okay, I liked one other gag in Tracy’s storyline: Kenneth’s internal narration being heard by everyone, even with his mouth not moving – just a really fun little moment.
- NBC.com’s website sadly doesn’t have the ability to download the song itself (making it an actual charity single for Kidney Disease will totally make me buy it, just saying NBC), but it does have a Karaoke version for you to be able to record and upload your own version, which is kind of cool.
- EDIT: Forgot to mention “Rainstorm Katrina,” a loveable throwaway line.