Fans of The Sarah Silverman Program and It's Always Sunny In Philadelphia were bound to experience déjà vu watching tonight's Oprahtastic episode of 30 Rock. Suddenly it seems like every edgy situation comedy is doing episodes where characters decide to swap places and/or races and/or genders to decide who really has it roughest. Not too long ago, The Sarah Silverman did a show where plucky/despicable anti-hero Sarah Silverman donned blackface and switched places with a black guy. It echoed a recent episode of It's Always Sunny In Philadelphia where Dee and Charlie switched places.
In an even uncannier case of creative overlap both It's Always Sunny In Philadelphia and 30 Rock did episodes where a character thinks they're interacting with a nobody they've mistaken for a beloved icon. In Philadelphia, Dennis imagined he was in rehab with a psychotic Sinbad and his creepy sidekick (that douche from Matchbox Twenty) only to learn that he was actually kicking it with people who vaguely resembled Sinbad and Rob Thomas. In tonight's episode of 30 Rock, Liz Lemon thinks she's shared a magical, life-changing plane ride with Oprah Winfrey only to come down from the brain candy Jack gave her and realize that she was actually over-sharing with a sassy black tween with an abundance of Oprah-like spunk.
Great minds truly think alike. All three shows were clearly riffing on mothballed sitcom clichés: is there a hackier trope than switching places? 30 Rock was fucked by timing. If tonight's episode had aired a month earlier Philadelphia and The Sarah Silverman Program would have looked like copycats, not 30 Rock.
Eh, originality is overrated anyway. What really matters is that 30 Rock had what those other shows could only dream of having: a guest appearance by Oprah Winfrey, a magical creature who's like the pope of secular America. She's the world's most benevolent cult leader, an all-powerful deity who just wants people to read good books and be good to each other. Heck, she single-handedly got Obama elected President.
But I'm getting ahead of myself. Tonight, Jack conspired to keep Kenneth from telling the world that NBC faked a series of Olympic events/genius sight gags–like tetherball, group tennis and synchronized running–as a way of boosting ratings/morale/ W's approval ratings. Kenneth was previously illusioned but learning that Jack may have behaved in an unethical fashion leaves him disillusioned. Meanwhile Tracy and Jenna decide to switch places–criminy, where have I seen that before?–to determine who has it roughest–black people or women.
The Tracy/Jenna subplot wasn't the most inspired idea in the world but it did give us one of my favorite gags in 30 Rock history: the revelation that the make-up people ran out of powder while giving Tracy a white bottom so they wonderfully, inexplicably, delightfully, hilariously gave him a monster claw. That was so very awesome. Seriously: all the adverbs in the world can't do justice to that brilliant gag.
Ah, but I haven't even gotten to the main event. Liz flies back to New York after getting out of jury duty by dressing up like Princess Leia and finds herself sitting next to someone she imagines is Oprah Winfrey. Hopped up on Screaming Meanies, Purple Poppers and Magenta Goofballs, Liz unleashes a rambling, borderline incoherent monologue about everything and everyone in her life. I found this part of the episode a little underwhelming but their were some delicious moments, like when Liz put her hand under her chin thoughtfully and frowned when she confessed that she kissed a girl in college who then drowned–events that seemed inextricably interlinked in her mind. It turned out she imagined the whole thing, but the stranger she brought back to New York helped solve all Tracy and Jenna's problems anyway. Apparently merely having an Oprah-like vibe allows you to achieve Oprah-like acts of magic and wonder.
The Oprah appearance was treated as such a seismic cultural event that tonight's episode couldn't help but feel like a letdown. A good rule of thumb when it comes to 30 Rock is the bigger the star, the weaker the episode. Consequently my favorite 30 Rock guest stars are the low-to-mid-level likes of David Schwimmer, Carrie Fisher and Tim Conway while super-duper-double-mega-stars like Oprah and Seinfeld appeared in merely solid episodes. I think that was part of the problem: tonight's episode was all about the cult of Oprah, just as the Seinfeld episode was all about the cult of Seinfeld, and not the characters we've come to know and love. They clearly built an episode around Oprah instead of giving her a funny character to play. Not a lot of people know this but before she saved the world, Oprah actually used to be an actress. An Oscar-nominated one at that.
There was still a lot of great shit in tonight's episode, and I liked the way the Kenneth/Jack thread became a morality play about the nature of compromise and temptation but it sagged a little under the weight of all that Oprahosity.
Grade: B+ Stray Observations– –Is it just me or is Tracy given less to do with each episode? He's one of my favorite characters in television history but 30 Rock is very much threatening to turn into the Liz and Jack Show –Hey, remember when 30 Rock was a show about a Saturday Night Live-style sketch show? They seem to have thrown out the whole show-within-a-show aspect entirely. –Ah, so that's how Jack hooked up with his assistant