Hello, 30 Rock fans. I am here to continue the AV Club's senseless, corporate-mandated war on America's favorite comedy, insisting funny jokes are not funny, pointing out all of the blatant plot holes in said comedy and just generally comparing it, at length, in a needlessly wordy diatribe, to Coach. When Nathan - who is jet-setting, as he so often is - asked for volunteers to cover tonight's hour-long 30 Rock extravaganza, I naturally jumped at the chance, so eager was I to further send the fanbase into frothing madness. Plus, I mean, it was a full hour of the worst show on television, a barely-one-step-above-Wings mediocrity that has been needlessly overrated by a media obsessed with its star.
Then, actually, the first episode was all kinds of great, one of the better episodes the show has ever done and a firm sign that 30 Rock is still one of TV's best comedies by a fair margin (though it's much more crowded at the top now than it was when the show started). The second episode? Well, uh, we'll get to that.
"Klaus and Greta": OK, yeah, there was stuff that didn't work here. That long scene with Jack and Kenneth in Nancy's house trying to figure out her password was weirdly boring, with few of the jokes landing (though I did like Kenneth's continual problems with the computer, mostly because his expression in the photo he took was so strange). But for the most part, this was an example of how good 30 Rock can be when it's firing on all cylinders. I mean, this is a series that has had a ton of guest stars over the years, many of whom have been very, very famous, but the show's use of James Franco may be the best use of a celebrity guest star the series has ever pulled off. (Hell, it might be one of the best uses of a celebrity guest star in the history of the medium.)
Sure, there have been storylines where a star has a secret sexual fetish that results in his needing a fake relationship to keep the fetish from coming to light - Troy McClure and his thing for fish leaps readily to mind - but when 30 Rock delves into some of the oddities of living a life in show business, it's often at its best. So I didn't mind a storyline that was pretty much a note-for-note retelling of that storyline, right down to the ending where the star realizes he must embrace his true self. Because, when you get right down to it, the idea that James Franco is in love with a Japanese body pillow named Kimiko is just comic gold and a half. I literally don't know that a funnier concept exists in the English language, and I salute the 30 Rock writers for their ability to mine Internet esoterica to come up with this business for Franco to play.
In addition, Franco was a wonderfully game guest star. That scene where he tries to not explain what his fetish is as his agent negotiates the contract with Jenna plays to his livewire strengths perfectly, and his dancing in the club at the end was also very funny (as well as the little bow he had Kimiko do as he and Liz greeted Randy). Franco's an actor Hollywood hasn't used the best for many, many years, but his screwball strengths were really highlighted in this episode. It also gave Jenna one of her best storylines in ages. Jenna's probably my least favorite major character on the show because she plays to a lot of shrill cliches (and though Jayne Krakowski plays those cliches well, the writers rarely do much to move them past cliches), but everything here about how she slowly grew more and more oblivious was well-done.
Again, not everything was perfect. While there were great moments in the Jack and Kenneth storyline - like Kenneth's ability to shimmy through that coat hanger - I find Kenneth's a character who works better in bits and pieces, and the show too often seems intent on making him into a lead. I liked Alec Baldwin's rueful romantic regret here, but the show still hasn't done a very good job of showing just why Jack's so hung up on Nancy. Still, the storyline had enough solid laughs that - in conjunction with a very funny trio of other storylines (including Liz's gay relative and Tracy's daughter desire) - I'll cut it some slack. Grade: A-
- "I knew it was a character from Blossom, but I couldn't find the Joey Russo button."
- "Nope. That's a serial killer!"
- "I yelled Susan B. Anthony at the moment of conception!"
- "The gossip blogs are calling us James. It's a combination of Jenna and James."
- "That's where I'm meeting them later! A bar called Homebutt!"
- "Did you know paparazzo is single of paparazzi? Kimiko taught me that."
- "Try and look like you just got drilled."
- "Did you not learn your nation's airport codes in high school?"
- "Did you go out last night after I won the sleeping contest?"
- "Is it gonna be 'fierce'?" "It would be if it was 2006."
- "Now, having lunch with James and the actress who plays my mom somehow feels hollow."
- "You wanna save money on the trip, consider taking a sandwich."
- "I have to play it cool." "You should buy a leather jacket!"
- "You're being such a non-pillow right now!"
- "I'm the actor James Franco, dammit, and I'm in love with and common law married to a Japanese body pillow!"
- "Kenneth, your haircut is disrespectful to women!"
"Black Light Attack": I guess it sounds above like I'm going to slam "Black Light Attack," but I don't really have a lot to say about it except that I thought a lot of it was dead in spots. I mean, I laughed out loud a number of times, but not nearly as much as in the preceding episode. While I theoretically like the idea of Liz and Jack battling for Danny's affections (and Jack's rapid-fire and perfect description of CHIPS was terrific), something about it never landed in the way it should have. I like Cheyenne Jackson as Danny, but it sometimes feels like the show isn't sure what to do with him. He's just such a blast of aw-shucks cornpone on a show that so thoroughly embraces everything that's NOT that that it sometimes feels like the series is lost if it can't make fun of him.
In addition, the other storylines - Jenna realizes she's auditioning for mother parts and Tracy's wish to have a daughter results in him taking Sue into his gang - were similarly hit-or-miss, which left much of the episode with a rather scattershot feel. The Jenna storyline was the only one I didn't really laugh at, but even the Tracy one felt rather undone by the fact that it had as a major part of its center Sue, a character who's undeveloped even by 30 Rock standards.
And this gets out to a larger point I've always had about 30 Rock. The series doesn't develop its characters. And when I say that, I don't mean that the show should give everyone false dramatic business to play, since that would probably be terrible. What I mean, more generally, is that 30 Rock is constructed like a sketch show or a vaudeville routine, where the jokes are the most important thing. And that's completely fine. It makes the show very funny and many different KINDS of funny as well, which is necessary (whereas, say, The Office can only be the one kind of funny).
But this also leads to a situation where if Jack has to break into a flame's house, you know he's going to take Kenneth, and you kind of already know all of the beats of the scene. By having limited character development (which, again, is a completely OK stylistic choice), 30 Rock also necessarily limits many of the kinds of stories it can tell. So Tracy has to bring Sue into his gang, and the storyline, instead of feeling like a cool way to throw two characters who've never shared screentime together, ends up feeling pretty generic. By and large, the characters on 30 Rock often get stuck in the same, pre-determined roles, and that means the joke writing gets leaned on more heavily than it might in other series. So when the jokes aren't as good (as I'd say they weren't in this episode), the episodes fall flatter.
That said, though, you can always count on 30 Rock to make you laugh out loud a number of times, even in a weaker episode, and any show that can pull off that terrific little montage of Jack trying out various Girlie Show employees as his sports buddies and make it as funny as that is still one worth following from week-to-week. It's a good show. It's just no longer the BEST show. Grade: B
- "That girl has a name, Jack. We call her Skankovich."
- "Is it the body paint, or is Danny just glowing like a beacon of manly camaraderie?"
- "Under that dress, I can tell she's wearing some weird underwear. I wanna see it." "They're called Spanx."
- "When they were little, I threw them in the deep end of the pool. To get over their fear of sharks!"
- "Would a mother be planning a sex tour of Vietnam this spring?"
- "This build-up is making me nervous."
- "What are you happy about? Did we get canceled?"
- "Ah! Facebook!"
- "It's funny. All my aha moments end with a mustache pressed against me."
- "Did you say you like my body? Do you like to watch me dance?"