"You know what I learned tonight? As hard as you try, no one can escape the horror of Christmas, so you may as well be with your own family."—Liz Lemon
Greetings, fellow Lemonheads. Nathan Rabin's having some problems with his cable tonight, so I'll be subbing for him. So expect twice the word count, with half the insight. Thank you for your patience.
30 Rock has never been a show exactly comfortable with sentiment. They recognize the use of it, and few episodes go by without some kind of moral coda or bit of pathos tossed into the climax, but many of these attempted grace notes ring hollow. The problem is that this is a series whose first and foremost goal is to make you laugh, whatever the cost, which results in a lot of quotable lines (watching this episode for notes took twice as long as it usually does because I had to keep stopping to grab the best lines), and characters whose development and core selves tend to twist to fit the need of the immediate gag. Jack and Liz stay generally well-defined; everybody else shifts across varying levels of probability. Which means that on those times when the show decides it needs to make us feel something, we keep waiting for the punchline. It's possible to care about ridiculous characters; not so much possible to care about ridiculous concepts.
It's not dire or anything, and I feel like the show's been improving considerably this season. It's never entirely lost the funny, but in the past few months, it's managed to find just the right amount of depth, so that I'm not just waiting for punchlines to land. Liz has been allowed the dignity of a stable relationship, and Jack's romantic entanglements have gone back to standard relationship woes, as opposed to whatever the hell was going on last year. Plus, Jenna has a boyfriend, and it's actually kind of sweet. This is never going to be a series that deals much in heartbreaking drama, and that's fine; as Tracy learns tonight (stealing a scene from Sullivan's Travels), laughter is just as important as the crying and the seriousness and so forth. It's just nice to have moments like the conclusion of tonight's episode that make the funny a little more sweet.
"Christmas Attack Zone's" main storyline went back to a well that's delivered solid return for the series in the past: Jack's relationship with his mother, Colleen. (The great Elaine Stritch, looking more and more like a hostile Muppet with each passing year.) Jack hasn't told Colleen about Avery's pregnancy yet, a fact Liz deduces using the new body language reading skills she's developed from watching marathons of The Mentalist. Avery isn't too happy about this, but when Jack finally shares the news, Colleen does the expected and freaks out. To get the upper hand in their argument, Jack decides to play his trump card, Milton Greene, the father Colleen never told him he had.
It's a plot that takes a little while to get going, although it's aided immeasurably by Colleen's obvious delight in screwing with her son. The energy isn't quite what it should be, and there are a few dead-spots, joke-wise (the bit where Colleen realizes she's been temporarily bested went into the commercial break on a weirdly flat note, like somebody accidentally deleted a punchline), but the more obvious it becomes that Jack and his mother are trying to play each other, the better it works. It's great to see Alan Alda again (and to learn he did get his kidney, from Elvis Costello), and it all builds to a sweet pay-off in the hospital, when Jack gets what he really wanted, even if he didn't know he wanted it: his mother and father yelling at him.
Of the two other storylines, Jenna and Paul's trip on the road to reconciliation worked best. Their relationship is just the right kind of ridiculous, and it gives Jenna something a little more interesting to do than just be selfish and stupid all the time. (And it's also refreshing to see such a bizarrely romantic pairing treated as legitimate and sincere. Obviously this is mostly because it's funny to see Jenna play off someone who loves her as much as she does, but this is basically a fetish pairing, and a pretty healthy one at that.) It was good to see them back together again by the end, and the Black Swan sight gag? Not bad at all.
Tracy's journey from seriousness back to fat suits and fake vomit wasn't quite as heart-warming, but it didn't drag the episode down. You could say there's some meta-commentary buried in there, about Fey and 30 Rock's philosophy, and how really, if you can make people laugh by falling down the stairs, why aren't you falling down the stairs? But honestly, with Tracy, there's no journey here. He was ridiculous as a "serious" actor, and he's ridiculous as a "ridiculous" actor, so the pay-off at the end is more about finding a way to get him into the episode and make him a part of the concluding montage of dysfunctional bliss than it is anything that's really that meaningful to him.
Generally speaking, though, this was a nice holiday outing with a lot of great gag-writing. By finding a way to make Jack's Christmas experience something more than just an excuse to torment/be tormented by his mother, the show earned its sentimental closer. (Although I do take some points off for that montage running a little longer than was necessary.) I could've done with a bit more Lemon, and I wouldn't put this up there with the show's best Christmas episodes. But I'd say it fits in nicely with the general run of competency to excellence we've been seeing so far this season. It was modestly funny, a little sweet, and not at all horrible.
- "And her ex-husband will also be there, with his date, alcoholism."
- "Happy Holidays … is what terrorists say. Merry Christmas, from Avery and Jack"
- "The symbol on the Jessup family crest is a knight refusing to talk about his feelings." (Which reminds me of Patton Oswalt's great bit about his family crest.)
- "Obesity is killing the African-American community … with laughter!"
- "From now on, the only movies Tracy Jordan makes are about the Holocaust or Georgia O'Keefe or both."
- "Most people thought I was a hero for killing Lydia's parrot."
- "Jack! Guess what, they just got Caller ID in Vermont."
- "Or photographing her with salamanders covering her nipples."
- "I once kissed a dog at a party to try and impress what turned out to be a very tall 12 year-old." (Speaking of impressing boys, strange that there was no mention of Carol tonight. Or did I miss it?)
- I like how The Chunks 2 is so close to the real title of the movie that it parodies (The Klumps) that's almost more of an homage.
- "I see you brought the bag my bastard grandchild will come in."
- "I had a couple rich men die on top of me."
- "Ladies of the battered women's shelter, please be quiet, a man is talking!"