A few weeks back I caught back-to-back new episodes of 30 Rock. I have to say it’s a lot easier to enjoy the show when you’re not reviewing it. As a critic, I feel like I have a responsibility to hold 30 Rock to the high standards of its first and second season. But as a civilian I was able to appreciate the show not for what it once was and what I want it to be (one of the best, smartest and funniest shows of the past twenty years) but rather for what it is today: a pretty funny show good for a few chuckles, some clever lines, good performances by seasoned old pros and maybe a sweet moment of connection every now and then.
So I am pleased to report that tonight’s episode provided a whole lot more than that. The show was firing on all cylinders. It was good for laughs aplenty but it also helped illuminate Jack’s paternal relationship with Jenna, the source of some of Jenna’s narcissistic craziness and the full measure of Jack’s Oedipal hell. Also, there was an animated cat with Poochie levels of attitude. That was kind of awesome.
In tonight’s episode of 30 Rock Jenna’s nightmare stage mother (Jan Hooks, the latest distinguished Saturday Night Live to pop up on Lorne Michaels' other baby) makes a sinister return to her daughter’s life when she pops up at 30 Rock unexpectedly. As Jenna notes through clenched teeth, “I’m sure she’s down there, sitting on a curb, chain-smoking and waiting for me to come out, just like the day I was born.”
Jenna’s mother has been a cancerous, parasitic presence in her daughter’s life, pushing her to wed legislators while still underage, putting her within chomping distance of an alligator during a commercial shoot during Jenna’s days as a child semi-star and mooching money off her constantly. But she arrives at 30 Rock seemingly eager to make amends.
Jack isn’t buying it. As a battle-scarred veteran on family skirmishes he shows Jenna a hilarious slide-show presentation on how to say no to your mother. The key, it turns out, is “Say no, talk low, let her go”. He even lays it out in acronym form:
But Jenna is too intoxicated with the promise of reconciliation to pay attention to the warning signs. Jack is nowhere near as naïve. As always, his cynicism and lack of faith in human nature serves him well when he discovers that Jenna’s mom is every bit the reptilian con artist she appears to be and has weaseled her way back into her daughter’s life solely for the sake of pitching a mother/daughter reality show featuring “topless arguments” and “infections caused by Jacuzzi water”.
It’s been far too long since we’ve seen Hooks, who made the most of the episode’s nasty, classist and very funny digs at the gaucheness of the white working class, a brood for whom white jeans and a Dan Marino jersey constitutes classy evening wear and a fancy office looks like the Martha Stewart section of K-Mart. In a resolution at once naughty and nice, Jack ends up paying Jenna’s mom to be nice to her, figuring perhaps that if she can get validation from mom then maybe she won’t be quite as crazed in seeking it from everyone else.
In a b-story that delivered much more than it promised, Liz and Frank decide to move in together for the sake of conquering their vices. Frank wants to quit smoking and Liz wants to stop eating garbage. It’s the kind of wacky sitcom shenanigans 30 Rock tends to do an awful lot as of late but it proved a surprisingly solid springboard for Liz food gags, a scene-stealing appearance by a cartoon mascot and even a shockingly well-conceived Paranormal Activity parody.
Once upon a time I expected greatness and hilarity from every episode of 30 Rock. Those days are long gone but I nevertheless found tonight’s show both hilarious and pretty fucking great.
—Tracy didn’t have many lines tonight, but they were all funny, especially “I’m not offering. I’m just taking a survey to gauge general interest” and “It’s a little-understood parasomnial disorder!
—The Jenna and mom singing creepily incestuous duets together gag worked a lot better than it should have.
—“I’d like to pre-apologize”
—“Mothers: you can’t kill them…”
—“Manufactured in a facility that also processes food. This is what Meat Cat spoke of”
—“Don’t go, mommy! I’ll stay closer to the gator!”
—“While you were talking, I put a thumbtack in my neck. Makes me feel something.” Has Pete usurped Lutz as the show’s most pathetic character?
—I enjoyed Tina Fey’s look of revulsion as she spat out the words, “with salmon-rubbed strizzle chunks”
—“It was perfect, like a John Mayer song.”
—“A tumor those quack doctors removed.”
—“Could a bad mother raise a daughter who was engaged to a congressman when she was sixteen?”
—“Just like the one our nanny used to catch me watching her sleep.”
—“I’ve been many things: a liar, a dental hygienist"
—“I completely forgot about that! What betrayal?”
—“It’s a mermaid doing it with Captain Morgan”
—“Which is in my underpanties”
—“They still might have pigeon mites.”
—“You didn’t believe in me but I believed in myself. Just like the last scene of all movies!”
—“We’ll do a duet of “I’ll Make Love To You”
—“Some of the people on Match Game are drunk—with power!”