“Fireworks” (originally aired April 5, 2007)

In which skyrockets in flight / Afternoon at… night!

“Fireworks” is the most prescient episode of 30 Rock, but probably not in the way it was intended. The 10-second Internet sitcoms pioneered by Devon Banks satirized broadcast networks’ post-“Lazy Sunday” interest in online content made on the cheap, but it’s live spectacles like Jack Donaghy’s Rockefeller Salute To Fireworks that are currently seen as broadcast’s saving grace. And it’s NBC that’s most invested in this mindset, beginning every new week in the fall with a professional football telecast and mulling over a live presentation of A Few Good Men while Peter Pan is still in rehearsals. Like much of what Donaghy dreams up, the fireworks special is a throwback, a blatant appeal to gray-haired NBC executives that recalls all-American-apple-pie milestones like the moon landing and presidential inaugurations. As solidly built and emotionally manipulative as any of the presentations that Don Draper started handing out a few months after “Fireworks” debuted, Jack’s pitch respects the scale and influence of television. What happens afterward is recognition that this cornerstone of our modern society is also capable of some very dumb things.

The televised image of the GE Building engulfed in friendly fire is the epitome of 30 Rock. There are great episodes in this first season (“Black Tie,” “Jack-Tor”) and there are important episodes (“The Head And The Hair”), and along with “Tracy Does Conan,” “Fireworks” sits at the nexus of those two qualities. These episodes determined the type of show 30 Rock would be, while also serving as examples of the show at its best. “Fireworks” gives hilariously compelling and compellingly hilarious storylines to Liz, Jack, Tracy, and Kenneth, all while demonstrating the show’s nuanced approach to its own medium. This is a killer half-hour of episodic comedy that contains a Maury Povich fantasy sequence and a throwaway reference to the Doobie Brothers episode of What’s Happening!! It’s TV gold unafraid to mix with TV trash, which the episode fully admits it’s descended from: Liz pretending to be a member of Alcoholics Anonymous to get closer to Floyd is rudimentary sitcom stuff. Don Knotts might as well poke his head in the door at some point to make sure there’s no funny stuff going on between the three people falling asleep in front of Tootsie in Liz’s apartment.

But “Fireworks” is also, slyly, descended from Tootsie, a movie so well-crafted “they use it as an example in all of the screenplay books.” It’s also a story about creative people going to extreme lengths to get what they want, with a script that acknowledges the emotional reality of those wants. “Fireworks” isn’t long enough to dig that deeply into its principals, but with the benefit of 30 Rock’s first 17 episodes, it doesn’t have to. We’ve seen Liz struggle to meet and fall for someone as worthy of her time and energy as Floyd, so we understand the crushing defeat she feels when it turns out he might not be Mr. Perfect. And we’re right there with her when she dons her own “dynamite red sequined dress”: a feigned alcoholism that’s downright despicable (and funny because it’s so despicable). There’s such tension in that deceit, but 30 Rock doesn’t string it out: Liz comes clean the morning after Tootsie, a sideways wink at the movie that lays a path to the episode’s confessional denouement. “Fireworks” was written by future New Girl co-showrunners Brett Baer and Dave Finkel, and you can almost hear the duo warming up for any number of Nick Miller outbursts in Liz’s disclosures to Floyd.

Jack Donaghy’s also playing a deceitful game in “Fireworks,” but it’s one of faintly purer intentions: Crushing a rising star at General Electric before he can crush Jack. As Devon Banks, Will Arnett gives one of the all-time great 30 Rock guest performances, a smarmy suit who lacks that one important facet of humanity… what’s that called again? Oh yeah: A conscience. Devon has no conscience, and he has no real passion for the type of work he’s doing, which makes for the best GOB that Arnett has ever played who isn’t GOB. He’s a character who’s all vanity played without vanity, best evidenced by the front-row buffalo shot Devon gives to Kenneth during their first hotel-room rendezvous.

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While Liz and Tracy are handling respective identity crises in “Fireworks”—Tracy’s being wrapped up in the discovery that’s he’s descended from Thomas Jefferson—Jack and Kenneth hold down the fort for the episode’s purely comedic side. What happens in these stories is rooted deep in who these characters are, but they still get to be big, bright, entertaining cartoon characters. Kenneth plays the part of seducer the way that television instructed him to: With plenty of mascara and the flirtatious application of lip balm. This episode is a real showcase for Jack McBrayer, as Kenneth is forced to perform unspeakable acts for the benefit of the medium he loves. Finding a danceable beat within a traffic report, for instance, an assignment the actor carries off with physically awkward panache.

Devon’s presence in “Fireworks” leads to Jack lapsing into two caricatures of himself: One modeled after Tracy’s newly discovered ancestor; the other the raspy-voiced star of an incredible slow-burn callback. Liz’s gravel-throated joke that Jack and his corporate rival are headed for a “talking like this contest” is a good punchline that becomes great the second Baldwin and Arnett square off in Jack’s office, a bit of filmmaking that temporarily transforms the upper floors of 30 Rock into the streets of Dodge City. (Urging that impression along: Jeff Richmond’s neo-Ennio Morricone score, which, if I’m not mistaken, quotes the 30 Rock theme with its surf-rock guitar.) They commit to the drama of the scene, making it funny by not playing it funny; you could park a Cadillac in the pause Baldwin takes before Jack says “No Devon, I don’t do that.” At one point, they get just close enough to kiss—but, no, this isn’t about that: This is about one man trying to prove to the other that his idea is bigger.

But neither man, nor either of their ideas, is bigger than television itself. TV is the language that these people speak, which is why Tracy’s paternity nightmare takes the form of a Maury episode and why Liz understands the power of a third-act confession. (Tootsie factors in there, too—but that’s a movie that’s about making TV, so it fits the general theme.) Devon, as Jack so passionately states, wants TV to be smaller, to be something you can fit in the palm of your hand and squeeze in on a walk from your desk to the water cooler. The heart of Jack’s pitch is in the right place, but fireworks aren’t the type of spectacle that’s meant to be experienced through television. By putting them on NBC, Jack’s essentially making fireworks smaller, removing the visceral thrill of hearing them detonate overhead and shed whole acres of land in a burst of colorful light. There’s also the issue of setting off a series of timed explosions in midtown Manhattan with no warning beyond whatever promotion NBC might’ve done for The Rockefeller Center Salute To Fireworks.

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“Fireworks,” not fireworks, is just the right size for TV. It builds from the relationships the viewers have with these characters and that the characters have with one another; it only requires a 27-minute investment, but those 27 minutes are crammed wall-to-wall with jokes. (In its stealthiest of gags, “Fireworks” spoofs desperate network maneuvering from within a desperate network maneuver—like it so often did during this era, NBC “supersized” the episode’s timeslot in order to sell more ad time.) And it delivers a satisfying resolution for Liz Lemon, who ignites sparks of her own with Floyd. Jack’s correct: Corporations like GE got into TV because of the way it unites people—though the ulterior motive was to take those united people and convert them into GE customers. But if you truly love television like Liz or Pete or Kenneth, then it’s stuff like “Fireworks” that got you into the medium.

Stray observations:

  • In addition to co-writing “Fireworks,” Dave Finkel is also the husband in Makin’ It Happen, starring alongside his future New Girl colleague Kay Cannon. In the Makin’ It Happen webisodes that followed “Fireworks,” the couple is joined by an adopted son, played by Donald Glover. In a perfectly Community twist, Glover’s character’s catchphrase is “Catchphrase!”
  • The paternity suit Tracy’s embroiled in at the start of the episode is a physical impossibility: “I never got out of my car, and she never got all the way out of her tollbooth.”
  • And now another installment from The Quotable Dr. Leo Spaceman: “Science is whatever we want it to be.”
  • Kenneth’s follow-ups for Gold Case sound amazing: “And I have an idea for a show about a teacher named Art. I call that one Art School. And one about a Jewish guy who opens an ice cream parlor. That one’s called Ice Cream Coen. And a drama about two cops: One named Cash and one named Carry. I don’t have a title for that one.”
  • Tracy’s dressing room suddenly turns into a vaudevillian stage: “However, according to my DNA database, you are a direct descendant of our third president.” “Jasper Buckleman?” “No, Tracy. Our third president, Thomas Jefferson.”
  • Jack Donaghy: Dead wrong about why Liz became a writer, absolutely right about why anyone else has taken up the profession: “I don’t know what happened in your life that caused you to develop a sense of humor as a coping mechanism. Maybe it was some sort of brace or corrective boot you wore during childhood—but in any case, I’m glad that you’re on my team.”
  • I’ve always loved the boos that Jack/Jefferson gets after this line, delivered as Thomas Jefferson: “America, which I invented…”
  • Well done, Maurice. Well done:

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  • Preserved for posterity: Another depiction of TV’s seedier side, representing Floyd’s commitment to sobriety:

Nerds!

  • Caught up in corporate ribbing, Jack suggests that Kenneth might take Devon’s job some day. Devon counters by saying Kenneth might take Jack’s job. Getting in on the fun, Kenneth suggests that he might take the janitor’s job, too—all things that more or less come to pass in the show’s final two seasons.

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“Corporate Crush” (originally aired 4/12/2007)

In which Jack finds his Floyd…

Both The Sopranos and 30 Rock filmed at New York City’s Silvercup Studios, and from the looks of “Corporate Crush,” the former might have left behind some animal imagery for the latter to play around with. The episode, which amounts to the first act of what’s essentially 30 Rock’s three-part first-season finale, has quite the thing for horses. (Shades of poor Pie-O-My?) Jack is taken with the equine portraits currently on offer at Christie’s; an actual horse visits the offices during production of the Jefferson trailer. They’re majestic creatures, these horses, but 30 Rock knows how to knock them down a peg or two. Thomas Jefferson’s riding horse Caratacus shared its name with a king of the Britons who repelled a Roman invaders; the animal playing Caratacus has a name that’s considerably less dignified: Freddy.

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This is getting kind of highfalutin for an episode that features Tracy Jordan pulling a Norbit on American history, but bear with me. Because the fall of these creatures, from appropriate subject for portraiture to living props with goony names, starts to resonate when Jack lays out his plan for succession during the Knicks game.

“Floyd is me 20 years ago. I’m Don Geiss 30 years ago. Twenty years from now, Floyd’ll be me, I’m gonna be Don Geiss, and Don Geiss will be dead.”

At his lowest point, when the microwave division has been taken from him because the Rockefeller Center Salute To Fireworks blew up in his face, Jack Donaghy sees the truth. One day you’re Caratacus—the next you’re a carcass in Tracy Jordan’s car.

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“Corporate Crush” is a strange episode to dissect on its own, because there isn’t a whole lot to talk about. Liz is happy about her new relationship, which is startling to the TGS staff; following the fireworks disaster, Jack is caught in a shameful food spiral. It’s all staging for the two episodes that come next, with its talk of ”The Floydster”s potential promotion and Jack’s impulsive marriage proposal to Phoebe (Emily Mortimer). There’s something going on with most of the protagonists, but we don’t really know that that is until next week. It’s a bit like cutting a trailer for your Thomas Jefferson movie before making the movie itself.

But oh, what a trailer: “Corporate Crush” doesn’t try to fool us into thinking Don Geiss is going to get behind Jefferson, which looks like a disaster from the moment Dot Com’s Bluetooth headset sneaks into frame. Tracy’s a talented comedian, but a historian he is not, even if he’s correct in attributing the popularization of dumbwaiters/étagères in America to Jefferson. From beneath heavy makeup and funny wigs, Tracy Morgan gives a clinic in great bad acting, staring into the camera at inappropriate times, adopting a French accent in order to play an English nobleman, and over-emoting at every turn. Jefferson is an obvious boondoggle, but it gives Tracy the opportunity to pull his own Jefferson-esque move: Without Geiss’ backing, he opts to make the movie independently.

But that’s just another “Corporate Crush” cliffhanger we can’t really comment on this week. The episode is a tough nut to crack, in that it has just enough material to make for a full episode without feeling like a wholly satisfying piece like “Fireworks.” It’s enough to give Liz starring moments in a pair of scenes, though: The pre-bed slice-of-life scene between her and Floyd, and the pep talk with Jack in the skybox. Much of that skybox scene feels like a recycling of “Up All Night”’s best bits, as the codependence that Liz brings out of Jack resurfaces. It’s a bittersweet dynamic: They’re learning to respect one another, but Jack takes advantage of that in his loneliness, siphoning off the positive energy of a new relationship when there’s a perfectly lovely woman with Avian Bone Syndrome out there who could make him just as happy. Or at least it seems like she could at this point. “Corporate Crush” doesn’t give us a clue one way or the other, beyond Liz’s incredulousness in the closing seconds. Though there’s also this reaction from Alec Baldwin, which indicates that Jack just might have found the person to fill the whole in his heart that he was previously trying to fill with Floyd.

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Hold your horses, Jack. You wouldn’t want to rush into anything too… oops, too late.

Stray observations:

  • It couldn’t have been intentional, but I’ve always loved the way Emily Mortimer’s bangs flop out from behind her ear when Phoebe is telling Jack about the “delicate piece” she’d like to show him. It makes their flirtations seem so much more natural.
  • Jack’s business book is titled, naturally, Jack Attack: The Art Of Aggression In Business.
  • Who wouldn’t want to marry Jack after hearing the following story? “I took the money from the sale of those pieces, and I bought a sailboat, and I named it after my ex-wife, and I sank it.” “It’s true: the Bianca Blows is somewhere at the bottom of the Peconic Bay.”
  • Tracy couldn’t possibly meet Don Geiss’ request for a second Fat Bitch movie: “Well that doesn’t even make sense—everyone knows Fat Bitch died at the end.”
  • Another entry in The Big 30 Rock Book Of Analogies: “Look at your life, Jack! It’s like this skybox: It’s fancy and it’s empty and it smells like crabcakes.”

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Next time: Our journey to the beginning of 30 Rock reaches its end, traveling to “Cleveland” before we go on a permanent “Hiatus.”