“Cleveland” (originally aired 4/19/2007)

In which Floyd is so tired of the rat race…

It doesn’t have to be Cleveland. It could be any number of other destinations referenced in the penultimate episode of 30 Rock’s first season: Italy, Hawaii, Port Arthur, Texas. Cleveland just happens to be the right symbol for Floyd DeBarber’s Midwestern style of “nice.“ (Sudeikis’ real-life hometown, Kansas City, could’ve worked just as well, but that would’ve robbed “Cleveland” of its killer “lunch with Little Richard” callback.) Because Cleveland, in “Cleveland,” is just an idea. Accuracy isn’t a factor in the scenes set there, or in the descriptions of the city, because all that matters is that those scenes and those descriptions represent an escape from Manhattan. “Cleveland” itself reinforces that notion, as Liz and Floyd’s trip to the Metropolis of the Western Reserve was actually filmed in New York’s Battery Park City.

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Another place in practically another time, Cleveland represents everything the characters of 30 Rock have yearned for in this first season. Once the relationships are established and the skeptical-but-not-cynical tone is set, season one is driven by the sense that these characters don’t know how good they have it. They have plenty, but they want more: The perfect boyfriend, the ideal wife, the one-man Thomas Jefferson movie with gratuitous Claymation sex scenes. And for a brief, shining moment, Liz wants Cleveland, a stress-free haven where no one spits in her mouth and the standards of beauty are more realistic, such that she books a gig as a catalog model. (Two years later, a variation on that joke would serve as the premise of Hot In Cleveland.)

The magic of “Cleveland” is in how it reaches out and entrances the viewer, too. The episode is, to borrow a phrase, just a whirl of wind, cramming an impressive (and mesmerizing) amount of story in to 22 minutes, and the stories set in the show’s home base do an excellent job of setting up the East Coast-Midwest tension. The New York of “Cleveland” radiates negativity: Tracy’s cracking, Jack’s fiancée might be a two-timing, accent-faking swindler, and the woman who floats above all of The Big Apple’s ugliness is violently shoved into a pile of trash bags. But there’s a pleasant smell in the Cleveland air, and all the sights have exotic names like “Euclid Avenue” and “The Flats.” New York City is all gray and damp in this episode; 30 Rock’s entire impression of Cleveland, meanwhile, exists in a peppy montage with a jazzy soundtrack and sunny skies. And Chef Boyardee was born there, you know?

But it’s all a mirage, as phony as the name Stacy Gordon. Floyd might be able to make Cleveland work, but Liz never could. Carried by the momentum of “Corporate Crush,” there’s a cliffhanger vibe to “Cleveland,” a mini will-they/won’t-they playing out over Floyd’s relocation plan. They won’t, and they couldn’t, because even if 30 Rock hadn’t been renewed for a second season, Liz’s story doesn’t end west of the Allegany. She convinces herself that she could give up TGS for a guy she just met, and Tina Fey’s commitment to that notion is wrapped up in “Cleveland”’s spell. It goes against everything we know about series television, but there’s a glint in Liz’s eye and a spring in her step that makes it seem like the big move could really happen. It would take a force of extreme gravity to keep her from leaving—not an episode for half-measures, “Cleveland” presents two forces of extreme gravity, in the form of Jack’s engagement and Tracy’s disappearance.

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This is an episode of closing doors: Figuratively in Liz and Floyd’s case, and literally in Liz and Phoebe’s, as the latter physically shuts the former out of Jack’s life. “Cleveland” churns through so much material so confidently that it’s easy to forget its opening passages concern an unsuccessful bid at bonding with Jack’s hollow-boned fiancée. (Jane Krakowski makes the most of her minimal screentime, doing Elmer Fudd voices and then tripping through a background gag in which she pulls on two pairs of underwear over her jeans.) Phoebe is portrayed as something of a Bizarro Lemon: She’s never seen Caddyshack, misses a “What’s Opera, Doc?” reference, and talks openly about her sex life. In the lingerie shop, Liz tells Phoebe that she’s “not that kind of girlfriend,” but the truth planted by “Cleveland” is that Liz won’t be any kind of girlfriend to Phoebe. Doubt curdles into suspicion throughout the episode, exploding into full-blown paranoia after a tense standoff beneath the TGS bleachers, 30 Rock’s preferred setting for tense standoffs.

There’s an air of paranoia throughout “Cleveland,” and for once, Tracy isn’t solely responsible. But he is partially responsible, pushing the episode’s most urgent conspiracy theories by breaking the fourth wall and prompting a spooky musical sting with his concerns about The Black Crusaders. Tracy’s fear about being made an example by Bill Cosby, Oprah Winfrey, Jesse Jackson, Colin Powell, and “Gordon from Sesame Street” serves dual purposes: It’s a clever meta-commentary on the fact that some of Tracy’s behavior in the first season perpetuates black stereotypes in the name of humor, a meta-commentary that removes one more block from TGS’ already wobbly Jenga tower. The people tasked with the show’s survival are so distracted by relationship problems, ominous messages from Lester Holt, and that greatest love of all—that between a man and Cleveland—that TGS could very well crumble into a pile of baby masks and bikinis.

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That’s the underlying sentiment in Liz telling Floyd that she can’t move: The Flower Guy and his perfect hometown are a nice distraction, but they’re not what’s real to Liz. “Real” is the show and her friends and the troublesome path Jack might be walking with Phoebe. Escape is not an option here. The city treats her like scum, but New York knows Liz Lemon, New York needs Liz Lemon. New York knows it needs unique Liz Lemon. Getting that across is just one of the many things “Cleveland” does right.

Stray observations:

  • In college, I used to do a mush-mouthed impression of Michael McDonald singing “What A Fool Believes.” Then Yacht Rock happened, and Kenneth Parcell sang “Oh Tray-shee you can’t yoosh any of mah shah-hongs,” and I started doing a mush-mouthed impression of Michael McDonald all the time. (My friends and I also took a spring break trip to Cleveland the year before “Cleveland” debuted, so I think my smart-ass collegiate self is owed some royalties for this episode.)
  • Tracy doesn’t specify if he’s being targeted by the actor who currently plays Gordon on Sesame Street, Roscoe Orman, or the character of Gordon, who’s been played by four different actors. And that makes the threat of The Black Crusaders feel all the more ominous.
  • The literal rat race taking place in Floyd’s hallway is a great cutaway gag, made even better by how quickly he gets sucked into it.

  • I can’t find anywhere to confirm this, but the singers flipping Spinal Tap’s traditional greeting for the Mistake on the Lake (“Hello, Cleveland”) on “Cleveland Hello” sure sound like Tina Fey and Jason Sudeikis, don’t they?
  • Jack speaks the vacation wishes of every red-blooded American: “We’d all like to flee to the Cleve and club-hop down at the Flats and have lunch with Little Richard…”

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“Hiatus” (originally aired 4/26/2007)

“The show doesn’t go on because it’s ready; it goes on because it’s 11:30”—Saturday Night Live executive producer Lorne Michaels, as quoted by Tina Fey in Bossypants

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The “Goodnights” portion of Saturday Night Live is television’s most reliably poignant moment. It’s meant to feel that way, what with the outpouring of gratitude from the week’s host and the bittersweet saxophone accompaniment. SNL doesn’t get everything right every single week, but it never fails to hit these notes, which mix the celebration of another show completed with the small sadness that there’s no chance to do it again. Ending with a small re-creation of an event that’s occurred more than 770 times (and counting), “Hiatus” captures that feeling better than any episode outside of 30 Rock’s series finale. Despite all of the personal squabbles, despite all of the unsurmountable obstacles, this group of people pulled together and made something that could never be made again.

One such seemingly insurmountable obstacle: The first-season finale makes TGS matter. The trials and tribulations of putting on a weekly sketch-comedy show didn’t make for a good weekly sitcom, but every once in a while, the act of preparing TGS gave 30 Rock genuine stakes. Here, it’s similar to the case of my beloved “Tracy Does Conan,” an episode that also lives by Lorne Michaels’ words: The show will go on regardless of whether or not Tracy shows up, but the chance that he might not, along with the hope that he does, gives “Hiatus” an undeniable electricity. This is Liz’s life work, this is why she’s not moving to Cleveland, and that’s reason enough to care about TGS for at least 22 minutes.

TGS does nothing for 30 Rock as a show, but as an idea and a symbol (like the Cleveland of “Cleveland”) it’s of great importance. Of more tangible importance are the working relationship and friendship between Liz Lemon and Jack Donaghy, which are, like TGS, left in a precarious position at the end of “Cleveland” and saved by the conclusion of “Hiatus.” The architect of that salvage job is an unlikely candidate: Colleen Donaghy (Elaine Stritch), who takes an instant liking to Lemon in her first onscreen appearance. The first 20 episodes of 30 Rock treat Colleen as some kind of mythic figure, an assignment that might have stymied any actor short of a living legend like the late Stritch. Inhabiting a character who was introduced by uncomfortable phone calls and not-so-fond recollections, Stritch gets to play into those impressions (Cutting Jack down to size, subtly insulting her ex- and future-daughters-in-law) and contradict them. She’s less sour and more saucy, which makes the character a great deal of fun. And good God, could she wear the hell out of a hat and sunglasses.

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With Mother Donaghy present, it’s all the more crucial that our heroes not fail. She’s a figure of supreme judgment, visiting at a time when the 30 Rock principals are taking extreme risks. Putting on a live comedy show is already a huge risk, but “Hiatus” builds on that by placing lives, livelihoods, and romances at stake. The episode feels like a season finale without forcing it, riding the slow build of the previous two episodes (and more, in the case of Liz and Floyd) so that none of the momentous happenings arrive from out of the blue. Tracy’s stopover in Needmore, Pennsylvania falls flattest among the episodic plots (it’s easy to predict a Misery situation as soon as Sean Hayes comes onto the scene), but it still honors the themes of this final arc and gives Tracy a reason to return for the TGS finale. Some of his reasons for returning are craven (he needs the attention of a mass audience, not a single deluded Honky Grandma Be Trippin’ devotee), but they also go back to the reality checks he’s received throughout season one. Tracy was a movie star, Jack reminds us in “The C Word,” and if he wants to do the thing that he so desperately loves (which loves him back in the form of fame, fortune, and Grizz and Dot Com), he has to risk the wrath of The Black Crusaders.

“Hiatus” is the type of 30 Rock that comes dangerously close to lionizing showbiz above all else—after all, Kenneth flings himself down a flight of stairs so that Tracy can make the TGS taping. This is probably why the episode is so hard on Jenna: Balancing out the impression that there’s some sort of inherent dignity and honor in all creative endeavors, here’s an actress acting undignified and being denied any sort of honor. The show has a good sense of perspective on these matters, emphasizing the personal angles of every professional triumph and/or defeat, lest the show be as elitist and alienating as its harshest critics would claim.

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That goes for the suits, too, as “Hiatus” reduces the jargon-spouting peacock who burst into pilot to a sickly man in a hospital bed, unwittingly pitted in a polygraph tug-of-war between his mother and his fiancée. The EKG is as honest as Dr. Spaceman’s pretzel-induced frenzy, and though it’s a masterstroke of manipulation on Colleen’s part, it’s a show of Jack’s true priorities. His mouth might tell Liz that he wishes he spent more of his time working, but his heart values the relationships he’s fostered in his off-hours, not the May-December romance he squeezed in between meetings and stress-eating appointments.

Jack’s telltale heartbeat returns in the episode’s epilogue, a tender moment that marks the end of Jack-Phoebe (Jack-be? Phack?) and Liz-Floyd (the name of this ’ship is definitely Fliz, though Lloyd is pretty funny, too) while bringing Liz and Jack’s season-one relationship full circle. The beeping of an EKG has never sounded as sweet as the leisurely electronic cadence that accompanies Jack telling Liz “Honestly? I no longer think you’re doing a terrible job, and I’m very proud of you.” This is the type of gratification for which Liz sacrifices her relationship with Floyd. It’s direct, truthful communication that isn’t garbled by an Internet connection or midday-commute doldrums. It’s the smallest of compliments, and somewhat backhanded, but it’s miles from where these two started off. It’s not an unbelievable jump from Point A to Point B; Liz and Jack did not end one week’s episode at odds with one another and then return the next week the best of friends.

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Along the way to refining its comedic voice (and what better sign of that than Dr. Spaceman’s presence in “Hiatus”?) and finding its characters (my previous point to the contrary, Kenneth’s pratfall in the name of TV is 100 percent Kenneth), 30 Rock shows its work with Liz and Jack. They learn to respect one another in front of our eyes, weathering on-set breakdowns, bad relationships, a disastrous Valentine’s Day, and a discharged firearm. After “The Source Awards,” 30 Rock starts putting space between the pair, the “Fireworks” disappointment leading to a cold war whose Cuban Missile Crisis is Phoebe closing that door at the end of “Cleveland.” Reuniting Liz Lemon and Jack Donaghy in mutual esteem and sarcastic threats is an absolute necessity for “Hiatus.” The episode demonstrates that TGS could be important, but the true core of 30 Rock was this relationship.

It wasn’t always like this: 30 Rock didn’t go on because it had all of its pieces in place; it went on because it was ready. (After a pregnancy, significant rewrites, some major recasting, etc.) But the way it pulled itself together in this first season is a joy on par with that expressed by any SNL host at the end of their week at 30 Rockefeller Plaza. And now that joy is bittersweet, because 30 Rock ended nearly two years ago—it’s done, it’s gone, the saxophone has played and everyone moved on. Fortunately, 30 Rock plays better in reruns than any SNL ever could. It’s never “goodbye” with this series, it’s always goodnight. Liz suggests otherwise, but she never truly pulls the plug. Instead, she gets a few more chances at the relief and satisfaction she expresses after Tracy charges out of frame in his Cowboy Hey Hey getup.

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That moment, even more than a thumbs up from Jack, is why you stay in New York, even though Floyd left for Cleveland. It’s why you do TGS, even though it’s not a very good show (and a shoddy narrative device). It’s the tension in your muscles that you feel when you think you’re looking at a car wreck, and the unbelievably uplifting release when everything turns out okay. It’s the reason you watch 30 Rock’s first season again and again and again.

Good night. That’s our show—have a great summer.

Stray observations:

  • “Hiatus”’ medical-check-up cold open marks the final regular 30 Rock appearance by Rachel Dratch. She’d be back for a handful of landmark episodes down the line, but there’s still a twinge of sadness to seeing the original not-quite-right Jenna delivering the prognosis that Liz (and by extension, 30 Rock) is “actually in better shape than last year.”
  • Liz Lemon will have it all: “I want a lobster. I want two lobsters, totaling five pounds of lobster meat.”
  • “Maybe this is the drugs talking, but I think I got Nixon to agree to be on the show and say ‘Sock it to me.’” Just make sure you don’t tell him about the Haldeman/mailbox sketch, Jack.
  • Bolstering the connections between the halves of the “Cleveland”/“Hiatus” two-parter, Kenneth brings back “By the hammer of Thor!” in “Hiatus.”
  • Sorry to get a little bit maudlin at the end there, but 30 Rock just brings those types of emotions out of me. I’ve never been able to identify why, but it has something to do with the dream-come-true nature of Saturday Night Live, which 30 Rock manages to capture every so often. Writing about the first season for The A.V. Club is a bit of a dream-come-true moment for me, so thanks to everyone who’s kept up with these reviews, following a publication schedule so erratic, it could’ve been set by NBC in the mid-’00s. An extra-large expression of gratitude to anyone who’s been reading about 30 Rock on this site since the fall of 2007—30 Rock has been an important part of TV Club since the beginning, and it was an honor to bring the show full circle.

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