30 Rock: “Leap Day”
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30 Rock: “Leap Day”

What a difference 14 days makes! A mere two weeks ago, I decried the Valentine’s Day episode of 30 Rock as a thousand times worse than Hitler, gave it A.V Club’s first ever F-, and declared that the episode’s preternatural suckiness was incontrovertible proof that 30 Rock was now the worst television show in history and would never pull out of its nightmarish death spiral.

Two weeks later, 30 Rock returns with another holiday-themed episode, only everything is not only different but antithetical. Where 30 Rock’s Valentine’s Day episode brought out the squabbling, sour, misanthropic worst in its characters and the show as a whole, the Leap Day episode brought out the best in all of its characters and the show as a whole.

Where The Valentine’s Day episode was unrelentingly nasty and mean-spirited, the Leap Day episode benefited from jolly good cheer and an ironic but nevertheless welcome atmosphere of generosity and optimism. The Valentine’s Day episode made me fear for the future of 30 Rock. This episode restored my faith in the show.

"Leap Day" begins with Liz once again out of step with the western world. While the rest of Manhattan is agog with excitement over another miraculous Leap Day, Liz is completely oblivious to the holiday, its customs, and its benevolent mascot/overseer, Leap Day Williams, a fantastical creature that emerges from the Mariana Trench every four years to exchange candy for children’s tears.

She’s even oblivious to the existence of Jim Carrey’s smash redemption comedy Leap Dave Williams, a basic cable classic about an uptight lawyer who turns into the real Leap Day Williams following an ice-fishing incident and, in the film’s climactic scene, runs through the streets in a delirious frenzy crowing, “I saved Leap Day! And connected with my son! And I solved a big case of murder!” What more could a neglectful dad possibly want? I generally find Jim Carrey grating and obnoxious, but he engaged in some hilarious and scathing self-parody here, and Leap Dave Williams proved a devastating, succinct satire of the kind of high-concept, pandering, family-friendly schlock Carrey, Eddie Murphy, and Adam Sandler specialize in these days.

But Leap Day isn’t Liz’s only blind spot. When a painfully geeky old college acquaintance of Liz’s she cruelly nicknamed Sad Thad The Skin Tag Lad (Eastbound & Down’s Steve Little) invites her to a Leap Day party she blows him off as the kind of person she looked down on in college despite her own rampant geekiness until Jenna informs her that her old classmate is in fact a billionaire and a hot topic of conversation on all of the gold digger message boards. As Jenna eloquently relays of Sad Thad The Skin Tag Lad’s rise to wealth and status, “He did an Internet and now the computers like him and Wall Street is Google.”

Liz is intrigued, and Jenna spies a potential pay day so they go to Thad’s Leap Day party, where the host confesses that he’s nursed a huge crush on Liz since she starred in a free, unlicensed version of The Sound Of Music with lyrics like “You are one age going on another age/what’s going to happen next?”

Thad indecent proposals Liz (yes, indecent proposal is now a verb) by offering her $20 million to relieve him of his cursed virginity. Not to be outdone, Jenna decides to challenge Liz to a good old-fashioned slut-off with Thad as the unlikely prize. “Leap Day” is so refreshingly good-natured and likeable that even a subplot involving Liz trying to whore herself out to a painfully awkward Poindexter registers as strangely sweet, rooted as it is in a nerdy young man’s long-simmering college crush.

Alas, in the end, the Internet billionaire’s geeky nostalgia for his college dream girl is no match for the volcanic force that is young, toned flesh, pert breasts and glossy hair, as Liz eventually loses the possibility of a massive windfall to what she realizes just a little too late is an army of “hot bitches” eager to use their youth and vitality and womanly wiles to separate a virginal billionaire from his fortune.

Liz might have nostalgia and wit on her side, but that is ultimately no match for what Jenna tauntingly describes as the unbeatable competition: “Models waking up from their coke binges, multi-ethnic bartenders with daddy issues, former ballerinas who had to quit because their boobs got too big. (ominously) Click, click. That’s their stilettos.”

Meanwhile, Tracy uncovers a $50,000 gift certificate to Benihana’s that expires as soon as March rolls around and gathers the writers together in an attempt to spend $50,000 on a single meal before Leap Day ends and with it an unimaginable bounty of inexpensive Japanese food. Where the Valentine’s Day episode made Tracy out to be a borderline sexual predator, he cut an unmistakably innocent, almost child-like figure here. There is a real sweetness to Tracy Morgan’s performance, even before he climactically engages in a decidedly non-Tracy Jordan-like act of generosity and donates the rest of his Benihana's leftovers to a soup kitchen.

Even Jack Donaghy gets in on the act. At first, Jack is excited about Leap Day, solely because it affords him an extra day to make more money and show up his college roommates, but after eating some bad rhubarb, he is visited by visions of Leap Days past, present, and future and comes to realize that unless he spends time with his daughter on Leap Day, she will grow up to experiment with Liberalism and toil selflessly for Habitat For Humanity, instead of following in his footsteps and trying to fill the hole in her heart left by parental neglect with money.

Yes, “Leap Day” was like Christmas in late February. It's an unexpectedly sweet, if at times savagely satirical episode, that also has the virtue of being consistently funny and inventive. It was 30 Rock at its loopy best. I even found myself laughing at an unusually self-aware Jim Carrey and Andie MacDowell. If that isn’t a Leap Day miracle, I don’t know what is.

 Stray observations:

  • I kind of wanted to hear all of the lyrics Liz made up for the song the Star Wars Cantina band played
  • I loved Toofer’s delivery of “not a fan” after bragging that he’d finally listened to rap music for the first time.
  • I also enjoyed Tracy’s line from his Leap Dave Williams cameo: “Give me your wallet, old man.”
  • It’s sweet that Kenneth’s bird is named Rebecca Birdstein.
  • Nobody does painfully awkward like Steve Little. His delivery of, “Stop pressuring me! What are you? An intercourse monster?” was perfect
  • I love how Tracy Morgan invests a line like, “I am always coughing up blood. Could that be Leap Day Williams trying to get out?” with such goofy innocence. I also liked how sweet his encounter with the real Leap Day Williams was. 

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