“Everyone here is awful,” complains Kristen Schaal’s scheming new page Hazel to Kenneth deep into a disconcertingly dreadful Valentine’s Day episode of 30 Rock that luxuriates in a bubble bath of sour misanthropy for an interminable hour. That statement implicates her character as well. Hazel, is, after all, a grasping striver whose noblest aspirations in life include being on a reality show “with other dumb sluts” like herself.
Within the context of a show that brought out the worst in everyone, the “other dumb sluts” ('cause what’s funnier than a character we haven’t gotten to know at all self-identifying as a “dumb slut?”) line registers not just as unfunny but as hopelessly mean and disconcerting. Schaal’s addition to the cast was promising in theory, but it looks unnervingly like the writers are going to turn her character into a fuzzy, mean-spirited Xerox of the doe-eyed stalker she so memorably played in Flight Of The Conchords, only instead of desperately pursuing Bret and Jermaine, she appears intent on recreating the plot of Single White Female with her in the Jennifer Jason Leigh role and Liz Lemon inhabiting the Bridget Fonda part of the woman whose enviable life becomes the focus of an unhinged woman’s obsession.
On Flight Of The Conchords, the creepiness of Schaal’s character’s single-minded fixation was undercut by the deadpan sweetness of the main characters and Schaal’s own adorability. There’s nothing like that on 30 Rock tonight. Even the generally sweet Kenneth behaves like a bit of an asshole.
There is, I suppose, something of a cosmic joke in making a Valentine’s Day episode a repository for incredibly vicious jokes and all-around abhorrent behavior, but like seemingly every other joke on the show tonight, it was a joke that got the ratio between meanness and humor hopelessly off. It wasn’t just that the jokes, premises, and conflicts weren’t funny enough to be so ugly and cruel; it’s that the jokes generally weren’t funny at all.
In “Hey Baby, What’s Wrong?” Liz dreads another Valentine’s Day, because she suspects she’s fated for it to go as disastrously wrong as everything else in her romantic history. In case we’ve forgotten just how often Liz has been unlucky in love, we get a series of rapid-fire flashbacks to romantic disasters of the past. For Liz, pursuing a new relationship, even with men who are both model-handsome and suspiciously perfect-seeming (albeit in a way that betrays that they have fatal flaws that will doom any possible lasting union) is a Sisyphean endeavor. Unfortunately, watching Liz do her best to fuck up another relationship tonight was about as much fun as pushing a boulder up and down a hill for eternity. (Okay, that was an exaggeration but this episode really got under my skin in a bad way.)
The Liz who was once warm and funny and relatable and the object of intense crushes from both genders (the Liz who was and is, fundamentally, how we imagine Tina Fey to actually be) has been replaced by a dour, joyless, judgmental, and critical scold, who seemingly derives her only pleasure in life from sucking the joy and fun out of everything she encounters. This includes her new relationship with James Marsden’s toothy looker Criss, a sweet-natured man terminally incapable of finishing anything he begins, including a song he writes for Liz.
Liz is a romantic fatalist—deservedly so given the way the show has coldly dispatched her boyfriends—yet she nevertheless decides to accompany Criss on a trip to IKEA she strongly suspects, with good reason, will destroy their relationship. In one of the episode’s many DOA comic conceits, IKEA is depicted as a nightmarish hellhole that crushes even the strongest bonds and brings out the worst in everyone who enters. In “Hey Baby, What’s Wrong,” that joke feels both redundant and unnecessary, since Valentine’s Day itself, and also life, seem to bring out the worst in everyone.
This, of course, includes Jenna, who is not inclined to be kind or considerate under the best of circumstances but has turned into even more of a cartoonish, one-dimensional monster since rocketing to infamy and super-stardom as the judge of a popular reality show where she says cruel things to small children.
In tonight’s episode, Jenna is scheduled to make her debut performance on America’s Kidz Got Singing only to discover that she’s lost her ability. This necessitates a brief visit to the always-dependable (comedically, if not medically) Dr. Spaceman that prompts some of the episode’s biggest and, alas, only laughs.
Meanwhile, a desperate and incredibly horny Jack finds himself first locking horns and then fighting off an explosive sexual attraction to his incredibly cold and repressed yet incredibly hot mother-in-law, Charlotte Jessup (Mary Steenburgen). Jack isn’t the only one who’s desperate: “Hey Baby, What’s Wrong?” resorts to Jack trotting out a wacky Australian accent more than once and calling an unhelpful UN representative from Transylvania (the joke, wait for it, is that he’s actually a vampire! Ha!) a “penis!” The episode is so enamored of the “civilized adults calling someone a penis” gag that it has both Charlotte and Jack do it.
In part because it lasts a whole fucking hour, “Hey Baby, What’s Wrong?” prominently features a lot of gags I suspect would never have been considered during the show’s prime. Worse than that, it recycles gags that never would have been considered during the show’s prime, like a flashback to Pete’s unlikely past as a Reagan-era Olympic contender that exists solely for the sake of a groan-inducing avalanche of ham-fisted, sub-Family Guy '80s references. 30 Rock used to be above the whole reference-as-punchline business. No more, apparently.
From top to bottom, people behave abysmally in “Hey Baby, What’s Wrong?” Even more distressingly, they behave abysmally in depressingly similar ways. A running joke has Tracy and Frank delivering the same sleazy, bottom-feeding advice at the same time to Lutz, who wants to end a long Valentine’s Day (and life) losing streak by scoring with one of the sad, lonely, desperate, and vulnerable women Tracy and Frank, sleazebag would-be Cyrano De Bergeracs, encourage him to pursue. The gag, I suppose, is that horny scumbags behave similarly, if not identically, but the doubling up of jokes, lines, and motivations just results in Morgan and Friedlander delivering the same unfunny, mean-spirited lines at the same time.
It’s a testament to how little the episode cares about its characters that it essentially turns Frank and Tracy into the same creepy, predatory and thoroughly unlikable character. When 30 Rock was at its peak, there was no character on television remotely like Tracy Jordan. Hell, there was no character in television history like Tracy Jordan. And now, the show turns Tracy into Frank and Frank into Tracy for the purposes of a terrible running joke, though I did like Tracy’s line about trying to pick up women where the IKEA was located back when it was just a marshland.
Just as it pointlessly and needlessly turns Tracy into Frank and Frank into Tracy, the episode ends by turning Liz, once one of the all-time great television heroines, into pathetic sad sack Lutz when Lutz accidentally tries to pick her up outside IKEA and Liz realizes that she’s been sabotaging herself in a distinctly Lutz-like fashion.
“Hey Baby, What’s Wrong?” ends by softening just a little and having its characters be slightly less awful. Liz and Criss make up when Criss refuses to see their fight as a proper break-up, and Jack and Charlotte refrain from fucking each other by sublimating their sexual hunger for each other into hitting golf balls, but this closing soupcon of sentiment, however quasi-ironic, feels deeply unearned on the heels of so much fruitless ugliness.
I apologize, dear reader, if this post is overly vitriolic, but I used to love 30 Rock (hell, I’ve really liked other episodes from this still-young season), and this St. Valentine’s Day Massacre of my affection for the show wasn’t just disappointing. It angried up the blood. It made me feel stupid for being emotionally invested in characters the episode, if not the show, now seems to hold in contempt.
It’s bad enough that “Hey Baby What’s Wrong” reduces a show capable of pathos and emotion and, yes, heart, as well as explosive, non-stop laughter, into a soulless, heartless joke machine. It’s even worse that it turns it into a soulless, heartless joke machine that misfires badly the vast majority of the time.
- I did enjoy Billy Bush’s cameo as well as Charlotte Jessup’s line about shaking hands with the baby
- There were a few flashes of the old Donaghy wit tonight, like his observation that Charlotte had cheekbones like an evil Disney queen and that he had eyes like “two pools of ice-water.”
- I was so fucking disappointed in the direction Schaal’s character has taken, especially at the very end.
- The next episode will be better. Much, much better. It has to be.