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30 Rock: "The Moms"

I feel like in this season of 30 Rock, I'm often really enjoying the B- and C-stories, while finding the main storylines mostly uninteresting. That hasn't always been the  case this season, but when much of the time has been taken up with Jack's ongoing love triangle and Liz's quest for HER TRUE LOVE, it often seems as though the show doesn't really know what to do with those ideas. The episode where Liz was constantly being pushed toward the British Wesley Snipes by the universe had a clever conceit, but many of the jokes fell flat. Most of the other stories in these plots haven't even managed to get that far. I just find it hard to care about which woman Jack picks when the two choices are such broad caricatures and nothing like real characters, and I find it hard to care about Liz finding true love when it's clear she won't until the series finale.

What's weird, though, is that either of these storylines can work so long as it's not sucking up the majority of screen time. For example, check out tonight's episode, where I mostly enjoyed Liz deciding she should settle after being told to do so by a bunch of the staff and cast's moms. It was, sure, yet another plot about Liz wondering when she would find that one, special man, but it had some great oddball gags around the edges, and the story at the center was pretty simple. Liz is told by a bunch of women that settling is just fine. Then her mom tells her that she settled for Liz's dad and had once dated Buzz Aldrin. Then Liz finds Buzz Aldrin and realizes he's crazy (which is something that happens to astronauts on sitcoms a lot). Then she decides her mom was right to settle.

I don't think it's any great surprise to say that 30 Rock often has trouble with story construction from week to week. They can unfurl a terrific single episode storyline, but the series often gets trapped up by trying to tell continuing stories like this. This is a show that's always been more comfortable flipping old sitcom chestnuts on their ears or telling farcical stories about the world's wackiest workplace. It's not especially a show that can handle, say, a romantic comedy plot or that random stretch of time when Liz wanted a baby. Plots like this, particularly ongoing ones, often require some level of emotional investment, and 30 Rock is always careful to keep many of its emotions carefully hidden. Liz and Jack can be fairly expressive characters, but the show is always more comfortable with that expression when it's filtered through several layers of irony.

For example, I've never really liked the relationship between Jack and his mother nor the Colleen character, and I can't say she was a huge favorite of mine even when the show was at its peak a couple years ago. The meddling mother is an old, old sitcom type, to be sure, and Elaine Stritch seems like the type who'd give it new life, but it almost feels like the entirety of the character is in the casting, as though all involved thought just getting Stritch was enough to make everything Colleen does hysterical. Now, there are always a few funny things Colleen does every time she appears, so it's not like the character's a total wash, but if we're talking significant recurring characters, I'd much rather have Dennis the beeper king or even Jack's father and brothers show up again.

It was even worse to get Colleen involved in the seemingly never-ending story of Jack being torn between Nancy and Avery. I think one of the problems with this storyline is that both characters are played by guest actors, so it's rare to have an episode where Jack romances them both. I don't think the show should ever go to the "Jack and Liz hook up" well, but the reason so many shows do love triangles between two regulars and a recurring player - even though it's always obvious who's going to end up with whom - is because it's easier to get everyone in the same room for maximum conflict. Here, Nancy was alluded to, but there was plenty of time for Avery, which gave the whole thing a weird imbalance that kept things from being as funny as they might have been. And having Colleen wander around and lecture everyone was kind of a dumb thing for her to do, even if that's what she always does. Now, it was nice that she was paired with Kenneth, so he got less to do (in general, the less there is of Kenneth, the funnier he is, as he was when singing for her), but having her call him "Karl" over and over wasn't a terribly terrific runner.

Fortunately, all of the other plots here were quite funny. Tracy Jordan has become the most reliably funny character on the show for me, and his quest to find a fake mom better than the one Pete cast for him - or, more accurately, to whine about the one he had until she got tired of him and left or something - was packed with great lines and at least one all-timer cutaway gag. ("I can't fish in my pajamas!") I also kind of liked the Jenna plotline, even if it wasn't anything more than she and her mom yelling at each other. Since I almost never like Jenna plotlines, I suppose this should be considered progress. And, as mentioned, I thought the Liz story started out kind of perfunctorily but turned into daffy genius as soon as she was playing the younger version of her mother and Buzz Aldrin was trash talking the moon.

Mostly, though, I just liked the episode for having all of the characters have their moms wandering around. Seeing that Lutz's mom is just him in a wig or seeing that Danny didn't know he was adopted by an Asian family made for great sight gags, but they also suggested that these are jokes the show could return to and mine more material out of if it wanted to. (In particular, I was surprised that Danny basically disappeared for the rest of the episode, even if his joke has been done on many, many other shows.) I think Nathan's right to look at this show every week based on just how much it makes him laugh, not as the great comedy it was in 2007. On that score, the main portions of the episode were kind of humdrum, but everything else was very good indeed.

Stray observations:

  • "I sexually assaulted Scottie Pippin in 1997."
  • "Her name MIGHT be Cheryl, and she wearing a red shirt in 1984."
  • "I apologize, ma'am. That is not a song. You make me nervous."
  • "That could be anyone! We all look the same to me!"
  • "Pajamaralls! Pajamaralways!"
  • "I know it's gay, but it's my gay problem. And I'm handling it!"
  • "I always called him Ed, because our town had, like, five Buzzes."
  • "Laura Linney could have played you in the HBO original movie Moonwives!"
  • "I'd rather be up on that stage all alone than to be with someone whose resume has black judge on it nine times!"
  • "Remember, in this scenario, I'm a man and my father is an astronaut."
  • "Sometimes, I sing too beautifully."
  • "I don't believe in barriers because I always break them."
  • "Would you like to yell at the moon with Buzz Aldrin?"
  • "Divorce. Broken engagements. I assume herpes."

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