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“Black Tie” (originally aired 2/1/2007)

In which it’s almost like a fairy tale (yes, almost)…

Some episodes of a TV show are great because they take the medium beyond previously conceived limits. Others are great because they work within those constraints and prove that even the most populist of forms of expression are capable of true artistry. And still others achieve greatness because no other series would be bonkers enough to produce them.

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“Black Tie” is the third type of episode. This is an endeavor so bizarrely specific—so fraught with Looney Tunes imagery, riffs on European dynasties, and giddily twisted humor—it could’ve only happened on this show in this world with these people. At one point during the 25th birthday of diminutive, doll-handed Prince Gerhardt Hapsburg, the chamber orchestra plays an instrumental version of The Pointer Sisters’ “Neutron Dance”—and that’s the closest the episode gets to portraying something that could feasibly occur in our reality. In “Black Tie,” 30 Rock is all the way through a looking glass of its own design, and it works.

An episode that’s preoccupied with mythic figures like Cinderella and Snow White and Sampson and Delilah, “Black Tie” portrays a pair of parties that more closely resemble something from an animator’s brush. The role of Prince Gerhardt takes an actor who’s accustomed to working with puppets (Pee-wee’s Playhouse star Paul Reubens) and makes him part puppet; in the climax of the episode’s office-bound storyline, Tracy and Kenneth assume the roles of the devil and angel talking Pete through extramarital temptation. (Just to bump up the absurdity of the scenario—in which the uninhibited TGS star and the pious TGS page pop through the vents in the men’s room—Tracy Morgan and Jack McBrayer are backlit by garish colors indicating their devil-or-angel status.) It’s a loud episode in a lot of senses, which would be a problem if that loudness wasn’t so hilarious: The volume of the performances, characters, and storylines is properly calibrated for an episode in which Jenna romances a man who manually folds his legs and Liz has an embarrassing wardrobe malfunction at the hands of Jack’s estranged wife. It’s the kind of thing you expect to see on the stage of TGS With Tracy Jordan—but it’s actually funny.

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The episode doesn’t open in Crazy Town, however: In a more traditional storytelling move, “Black Tie” begins in the TGS studios, where Jack interrupts an exchange of “Yo mama” jokes to invite Liz to “spend some time with a different class of people.” This is the way 30 Rock begins its funhouse-mirror version of a party episode: With Frank and Josh spraying water bottles at one another’s crotches, in what proves to be the height of propriety for the episode’s sight gags. 20 minutes later, Tracy’s rowdy office shindig will have taught Pete the meaning of true love, while Liz, Jack, and Jenna will participate in the abrupt interruption of the Hapsburg lineage. (Though, considering the various crimes against genealogy that brought Gerhardt into being, maybe they’ve done the world a favor.)

“Realism” is always a relative term with regard to 30 Rock, but the ups-and-downs of the Hornberger marriage are truer to life than the fairy tales respectively sought and faked by Jenna and Jack during “Black Tie.” The sparks that fly at Gerhardt’s birthday party are the results of reality scraping up against the side of fantasy, the fleece tech vest of the former slipping over the evening gown of the latter. The question “Is this a date?” is of great importance to “Black Tie,” because the way Liz asks it is not the way fictional employees usually ask it of their fictional bosses. If there’s any astonished disbelief in Tina Fey’s reading of the line, it’s because Liz is incredulous that Jack would use her as a buffer between himself and his ex, Bianca (Isabella Rossellini).

The happy romance that Jack’s projecting with Liz is just as false as Jenna’s one-night-only Cinderella act, and it’s great fun to watch Alec Baldwin and Jane Krakowski squirm their way through each scenario. The regulars are given such pitch-perfect foils, too: The role of Gerhardt was written specifically for Reubens; Rossellini’s double-edged performance—all elegant poise one minute and hair-rippingly wild the next—exposes a whole new layer of vulnerability for Jack. The characters are a delightful complement to Liz’s “Becauthe I’m tho grotethque” line to Jack, representations of actual grotesquerie that suggested, hey, maybe these two could fall for each other someday.

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Not a totally outrageous conclusion to draw at the end of a totally outrageous episode, but it’d be a cold Thursday in Hell before Liz and Jack ever hooked up. There’s fantasy in “Black Tie”’s DNA, but the episode has its feet on the ground when it comes to love, an emotion that isn’t struck up at lavish balls or forged by the Pretty Woman “snapping jewelry box” gag. As the episode argues, the real deal is closer to what Pete has with his wife, or what Bianca and Jack had once upon a time: A passion fed by kindness and invulnerable to fuy. Jenna can’t force that kind of thing between herself and Gerhardt; the night Gerhardt plays Prince Charming winds up getting him killed. Both Reubens and Rossellini turn in performances that are totally free of vanity here, and that emphasizes “Black Tie”’s position on its driving emotion: Love is a warts-and-all kind of thing, a commitment to messin’ it up when your wife gets home in addition to potty training the result of that messin’ it up. No offense to Gerhardt, but that kind of connection is worth keeling over for.

Stray observations:

  • Fun fact: Most, if not all, of the background information about Gerhardt is historically accurate. The House of Habsburg/Hapsburg reigned over more than just the Austro-Hungarian empire; during the Habsburgs’ time at the top, Protestants tossed two Catholic regents and their secretary out a third-floor window—the second historical event referred to as the Defenestration of Prague. Also: There’s plenty of painted evidence to suggest that a Hapsburg line that extended to the 20th century would produce such a thing as Gerhardt.
  • In addition to introducing Bianca, “Black Tie” lets the audience know that Jack was once involved with Beyoncé and “Liz Hurley… in the ’90s.”
  • There’s so much about Jenna’s character packed into this exchange with Liz: “Oh Liz: If you dress well and enter with confidence, you can get in anywhere.” “You showed the security guy your boobs, didn’t you?” “Just one. It’s not the White House.” [Jenna turns to bartender.] “Chocotini, please.”
  • Let it not be said that Jack Donaghy is easily impressed: “That Gerhardt is amazing, isn’t he? Most people in his situation would be angry with their family for the centuries of inbreeding, but not Gerhardt. He’s too busy trying to stave off infection.”
  • One more Gerhardt quote for the road: “Gerhardt, would you like to dance?” “Sadly, because my body does not produce join fluid, I cannot.”

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Nerds!

  • In “Black Tie,” Will Forte’s character extends Gerhardt’s romantic overtures to Jenna; three years later, he’ll be playing the guy in crazy makeup making romantic overtures to Jenna.

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“Up All Night” (originally aired 2/8/2007)

In which marry, boff, kill…

Isabella Rossellini’s mother was the recipient of the most heart-breaking send-off in cinema history; her father helped usher in Italian Neorealism. She overcame scoliosis, modeled for Lancôme, very nearly out-crazied Dennis Hopper in Blue Velvet, and made a series of avant-garde educational shorts in which she reenacts the mating rituals of the natural world. She’s a performer of some distinction, but she’s never shied away from the weird or the wild, which is why Bianca Donaghy’s devotion to a signature Arby’s sandwich, righteously proclaimed in “Up All Night,” is one of 30 Rock’s best jokes.

In the role of a beer baroness with prosthetic legs full of suds, Rossellini once led an onscreen search for the saddest music in the world. But even Guy Maddin would have trouble coming up with something more surreally tragicomic than Jack Donaghy snatching a future Beef ’N’ Cheddar out of his ex-wife’s hands. I’ve always loved the way Bianca calls her estranged husband “Johnny” and “John,” but it struck this time “Black Tie” and “Up All Night” that there’s a little bit more sadness in her voice each time she utters those pet names. The end of “Up All Night” indicates that the characters will never be completely rid of one another, but in all of the comic absurdity of her 30 Rock performance, Rossellini carries herself like someone who’s saying goodbye.

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Bianca appears for so little of 30 Rock’s first Valentine’s Day episode, but her presence hangs over all of “Up All Night.” In the space of a few scenes, we can see why: The Donaghys feel an undeniable mix of excitement and terror toward one another. No one knows Jack as well as Bianca does, and vice versa; the thought of her not being there to parry his thrusts rockets our GE Lightbulb Man into a dark night of the soul, from which only Liz can rescue him. Doubtlessly, this was another episode of the show that sent the ’shippers’ hearts a-flutter, but the only marrying, boffing, or killing that Liz and Jack do in “Up All Night” is all theoretical. It’s a neat use of the episode’s major contribution to the pop-culture lexicon: The sanitized version of the classic party game Fuck, Marry, Kill pops up early in the episode, but the TGS writers’ lewd time-killer puts Jack’s feelings toward Bianca in the exact words he needs to hear.

On the way to that sidewalk epiphany, “Up All Night” drops a doozy of a montage: The story of Jack’s St. Valentine’s Massacre told through decreasingly costly alcohol and increasingly undistinguished company. It’s an inventive piece of filmmaking, the slow camera pushes squeezing Jack’s drinking companions out of frame just before the contents of his right hand provide the transition to the next location. (For added cinematic flourish: The people crossing in front of the camera at the start of the sequence act like a pair of curtains opening on the scene.) It’s jarring when his martini becomes a boilermaker, but when that cocktail becomes a brown-bag special, we’re set up to follow Jack to the very depths of this post-divorce spiral.

It’s like that throughout “Up All Night,” an episode in which certain shots and specific props tell whole stories. Pete’s bad holiday—compounded by the fact that February 14 is also Paula’s birthday—is summed up in his near collision with Kenneth and Cerie, Scott Adist streaking from the background to the foreground with a tail of red, pink, and silver. The traditional Valentine’s Day palette competes with and complements New York’s nocturnal glow and the actors’ rosy facial features. (I was in a different part of the United States that winter, but I remember how cold the first few months of 2007 were—it’s amazing that Jack McBrayer’s tongue didn’t wind up sticking to Katrina Bowden’s cheek.) The episode is visually on-point, one of those distinguishing 30 Rock marks that subsequent single-camera shows haven’t always been able to emulate: Framing, blocking, editing, and props can tell a joke just as well as an actor. For 30 Rock, the words in the script were never enough; there needed to be words on Frank’s hats, too. (That’s a gag Judah Friedlander brought with him, but I digress.)

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The most prominent seasonally appropriate props in “Up All Night” turn out to be as phony as Frank thinks Jenna is. They’re a Valentine’s MacGuffin, a dozen roses and a box of candy intended for Liz—just not our Liz. That reveal is of a piece with both of this week’s episodes, a two-parter that reminds the audience not to get too wrapped up in mass-marketed ideals of romantic love. It’s not as easy as getting flowers from the anonymous handsome guy up in legal; the heights of your passion might make you do something crazy and reckless, like keeping the good people of Telluride from their Kings Hawaiian BBQ Brisket or French Dip & Swiss.

And yet, the bright-eyed, corn-fed visage of Jason Sudeikis represents a glimmer of hope in Liz Lemon’s personal life. Here’s a guy who was thoughtful enough to send his girlfriend a gift on Valentine’s Day, the kind that didn’t get lost because it was carried 70 blocks from a Hallmark to the tricky rotating doors at 30 Rock. Life isn’t a fairy tale or a romantic comedy, “Up All Night” and “Black Tie” say; not every meeting between two people has to be a meet-cute. But sometimes it is. The conclusion of “Up All Night” is a letdown to buildup, and it provides much of the fuel that will carry 30 Rock to the end of its first season. Happy Valentime’s!

Stray observations

  • Cerie has hit a rough patch with fiancé Aris: “He keeps sending me all these flowers to apologize, but he’s still insisting on having a Greek Orthodox wedding. But I really disagree with the church’s stance on Cyprus.”
  • This week’s Rachel Dratch character, Vlem, is intentionally off-putting and almost definitely intentionally offensive, and Dratch leans into both characteristics with her reaction to the Jordans’ Valentine’s suite: “I clean this too, or just the sex?”

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Nerds!

  • Introduced as a pretend nitrogen inspector in “Up All Night,” Sherri Shepherd’s Angie Jordan would leave 30 Rock as the star of her very own show-within-the-show: The Bravo sendup Queen Of Jordan, in which it’s her way ’til pay day.
  • That’s the end of “Up All Night,” but Floyd DeBarber will return in… “The Source Awards.”

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Next week: The title of “The C Word” does not refer to “CEO Don Geiss”—at least not directly; contract negotiations find Jack and Liz playing different versions of “Hard Ball.”