March 19th, 2009
There is something very reminiscent of How I Met Your Mother in “The Bubble,” where we say goodbye to Jon Hamm in a way that makes you wish that he had been around a little bit longer. He and Salma Hayek were really the polar opposites: while she was made too central to the key storylines and fell flat after an episode or two, Hamm was in so few episodes and so far apart that while the individual episodes were quite strong we never really got to know Drew as a character, and we feel like we’ve been robbed of that.
But the strongest part of this week’s episode was, in a very HIMYM way, this term of the “bubble” that attractive people find themselves in, full of perks and salmon cooked with gatorade. But while HIMYM has lately been either expanding the scale of these ideas to the entire cast (“The Naked Man”) or treating them as one-liners as opposed to the foundation of an entire storyline, 30 Rock didn’t know what to do with this one: surrounding it were storylines which never connected, and an episode that fell flat at almost every turn.
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.
“Goodbye, My Friend”
March 5th, 2009
Holy flashback, Harry Henderson.
There’s a whole lot of familiarity in “Goodbye, My Friend,” an episode that cribs quite liberally from last season’s “Succession” and this season’s premiere, and it’s not all bad. I liked both of those episodes, and after spending a lot of time on relationships we get a far more individual-driven hour that pairs off some characters that we’ve never seen together while even reintroducing some characters back into the fold however briefly (Hi, Josh! Bye, Josh!).
The episode didn’t really break any ground in Liz Lemon’s fight for a child, but I can’t resist sad and pathetic Liz; similarly, I don’t think that Frank’s brief foray into respectable life is going to change his character, but I just can’t resist Jack Donaghy on a mission to rescue someone from their sad middle class existence. Combine with a Jenna/Tracy subplot that might as well have been ripped out of the show’s second season, and you have either a sure sign that the show is fundamentally bankrupt, or a sick sense that Tina Fey knows the show can rip off itself and still entertain us, just like Harry and the Hendersons ripped off Shane.
Well, Tina, you got me – I had a lot of fun with this one, self-plaigarism be damned.
February 26th, 2009
What “Larry King” represents is an example of 30 Rock doing something that feels like it is happening less often: it takes one event, in this case a crises, and demonstrates its impact on various of the show’s characters. It reminds us that 30 Rock is operating different than most situational comedies. In fact, I’d almost argue that the show has become a carcom, or a character comedy, more than a situational one – while this one episode is built around how a scenario, an Asian stock market crash, effects all of these characters, the show has more or less abandoned its setting at TGS and finds all of its comedy in its characters. Even when the show often expands outside of this, it is with a guest star more often than it is one of these situations.
As a result, the situation is really just an excuse to force Liz Lemon out into the dangerous streets with Kenneth at her side, to place Tracy Jordan on Larry King and spouting nonsensical advice to the people of New York City, and to put Jack and Elisa’s relationship up against a crisis it might not overcome. And yet, to no one’s surprise the parts of the episode that use this situation for sheer zaniness offer the episode’s best comedy, while the one that feels the most formulaic kind of just flounders around, perhaps finally putting a worthless storyline out of its misery. For that, at least, this trip to Larry King was worth it.
“St. Valentine’s Day”
February 12th, 2009
After what I thought was a really fun little romp in “Generalissimo,” introducing us to Dr. Drew Baird (Jon Hamm) as Liz’s new love interest, the show continues to rush forward as more or less a romantic comedy. Centering around the most romantic (and commercial) of holidays, the episode investigates what happens when a relationship moves much, much too quickly, or when it is built on false pretenses, or worst of all when even McFlurries can’t keep people together.
It’s nowhere near the quality of last week, somewhat more meandering in its focus, but when it scores it scores: particularly with the amazing work of Tina Fey and Jon Hamm in creating a relationship that manages to become even more bizarre this week while at the same time actually becoming quite believable and engagingLiz agrees to a Valentine’s date. The rest of it felt more than a bit one note by comparison, a problem for the show at the best of times, but it felt connected enough to the idea of the differences between Valentine’s Day and St. Valentine’s Day.
And the dangers of moving from Date 4 to Date 20 (or date Never) too quickly.
February 5th, 2009
Bravissimo, Tina Fey and company.
With “Generalissimo,” 30 Rock has returned to what I would consider to be, at the very least, its pattern of glory. What works about this episode is not that every one of its storyline is a home run, as I am still extremely bored with Salma Hayek as an actress, but rather that everything connects. Not only do the A and B plots almost entirely intersect with one another, one informing the other, but then the C plot comes out of nowhere to play a convenient but nonetheless clever role in the conclusion.
And with comedies like these, especially ones like 30 Rock which here errs on the side of being a little zany and off the wall, connectivity is their greatest asset: this isn’t the episode where Liz Lemon got a new love interested played by Jon Hamm, or the episode where Jack Donaghy bought a telenovela starring a man who looks like him, or the episode where Tracy Jordan discovered the dangers of placing fire close to his mouth. Instead, it’s the episode where Jack purchasing a telenovela gives Liz terrible advice on dealing with her current crush which eventually is both complicated and then uncomplicated by the crazy antics as Tracy tries to prove his youth.
And that kind of episode? I want to go to there.
“Retreat to Move Forward”
January 22nd, 2009
In deciding which of The Office and 30 Rock to blog about first, making it my 1000th post here at Cultural Learnings, I thought that it was going to be a tougher decision. 30 Rock has been struggling a little bit as of late, while last week The Office came to the table with a strongly paced resolution to a long-recurring storyline. But this week the tables have turned – I’ll get to The Office later, whereas “Retreat to Move Forward” embodies a majority of the things that I love about 30 Rock. It was wacky, delightful, and used its characters in ways that were predictable yet oh so well executed.
What makes it work is that it uses Liz Lemon in the perfect way, where she is given a barrier to success, demonstrates her ability to succeed, and then goes way too far before course correcting in the end through a horribly embarassing act or two. The rest of the episode moved with a verve: each storyline felt infected by something that resulted in storylines that were no more complex than the show usually is feeling far more inventive. When The Office delivered a fine but complacent episode, 30 Rock felt like it was so sure of itself, so willing to throw whatever sense of caution it has to the wind without seeming like an overflowing pile of ideas that they didn’t bother editing down.
And as a result, “Retreat to Move Forward” becomes my 1000th post at Cultural Learnings.
January 15th, 2009
I know that it’s January, which means that we’re smack dab in the middle of two sweeps periods and thus in what would be a creative holding period for most returning shows, but it’s unfortunate for 30 Rock that as it delivers a mostly listless affair there’s all sorts of exciting shows premiering or about to premiere. There’s a lot of excitement swirling around the world of television right now, and this episode just doesn’t capture any part of that.
This isn’t to say that it’s bad, or to say that 30 Rock’s fate is dependent on this one outing: in fact, NBC announced today that the show is getting an unsurprising but still very welcome fourth season renewal. This show was on life support as early as this past October, so to see it thriving in the ratings and the award season enough for NBC to give it that vote of confidence is great to see.
Unfortunately, the show itself isn’t really living up to that reputation in “Flu Shot.”
“Senor Macho Solo”
January 8th, 2009
For 30 Rock, the comedy is often to be found in the details: it isn’t that the broader plots themselves are that comically complex, but rather that the way they are executed offers enough individual quirks to elevate the series above most other comedies on television.
Tonight’s episode was a test of this particular theory, because its three storylines were all pretty thin on paper; more accurately, they were probably post-it notes somewhere. “Liz mistakes dwarf for child,” “Jenna plays Janis Joplin,” and “Jack hooks up with mother’s nurse” are all storylines that either feel like brainstorms from existing storylines, excuses to justify the existence of characters and having Jane Krakowski sing, and Fey and Co. digging through season two of Friday Night Lights and realizing that maybe the Carlotta storyline would be better if it was purposefully played for comedy.
Ultimately, I feel like “Senor Macho Solo” works because of the show’s ability to pull some really great comedy out of these situations, but there will come a point where the show will need to feel less like it’s pulling itself in opposite directions.
December 11th, 2008
If there is a recipe for a good Christmas episode, it’s primarily comprised of two things: heart and musical numbers. This is all I really ask for: a Christmas episode, even for a comedy, where Christmas is just a punchline and where nobody breaks out into song is just not the kind of lively affair that I want to see at this time of year. Thankfully for 30 Rock, they got the basics right: “Christmas Special” had plenty of heart, and featured a nice end-of-episode musical number that warmed the cockles of my overtired and somewhat chilly heart.
As far as episodes of 30 Rock go, it was par for the course: Jack is in full of neuroses move over his Mother’s arrival in town (and, worst of all, confined to bedrest with a bell at her side), Liz tries to do something good but lets her own neuroses lead her to doubt the spirit of Christmas and ruin it for two young children, and Tracy and Jenna are used as the entertaining sideshows we appreciate them as. Working in a nice number of secondary characters and some fun lines scattered throughout, a slow-starting episode finds its groove in a heartwarming ending to certainly end up as NBC’s most festive (and satisfying) comedy in the hour.