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.
“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.
April 26th, 2009
While its Thursday night comedy counterpart The Office has been delving into a long-term storyline over my hiatus, which has made not blogging about it a little bit more problematic, 30 Rock has been in a very different sort of place. This isn’t to say that the show isn’t achieving its goals: this is two solid episodes in a row now, so one can’t say the show is necessarily coasting.
In fact, I’d argue that “The Ones” was really on the ball in terms of both its light comedy (which is almost always strong) and its resolution and continuation of some storylines and characters who have been hit and miss. I was less than kind in my analysis of the Elisa storyline, but some time in Puerto Rico seems to have done both the character and the writers well, as the zany but grounded conclusion felt like the ideal sendoff. Combine with the second straight good use of Jenna, a fun little Tracy diversion, and Liz as Jack’s bro? And this was an episode chock full of strong dynamics.
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.
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.
“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.
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.