Passing judgment on individual episodes of a long-standing and beloved television show like 30 Rock can already feel reductive, but when the episode in question is but the first half of a “to be continued” narrative, the grade is even more conditional. Last week, I gave “Idiots Are People Two!” fairly high marks, mostly on the strength of the Liz-Jack storyline. Their relationship is the most important one on 30 Rock, so when you’ve got a strong Liz-Jack plot, it usually means you’re in good shape.
But let’s face it: Tracy’s ripped-from-the-headlines homophobic rant was the real “point” of the episode. Odd, then, that neither “Idiots Are People Two!” nor tonight’s follow-up, inevitably titled “Idiots Are People Three!”, really tackles the issue of Real Tracy’s slurs in a head-on way. As I pointed out in my recap, Fake Tracy’s diatribe was considerably milder than Real Tracy’s. I gave 30 Rock a pass on this front, doubting how useful (or funny) it would have been if Fake Tracy had said things as vile as Real Tracy. Still, the way that 30 Rock has dealt with Morgan’s rant feels unusually squeamish.
Most of the time, 30 Rock is perfectly content being self-conscious, but there are occasional moments when the meta thing becomes uncomfortable. Last season’s “TGS Hates Women,” which waded into the Jezebel vs. Jon Stewart debacle, felt this way, and so do both “Idiots” episodes. While I don’t necessarily believe it’s Tina Fey’s or 30 Rock’s job to explain Tracy Morgan’s actions, I do think it’s interesting that his misbehavior is summarily dismissed as the ravings of an idiot. This might be an accurate assessment, but it also seems like an easy out. Plus, I’m surprised the show didn’t mine the material a bit more; I half-expected Fake Tracy to make a weak argument about how he’s a comedian and he’s simply trying to push the envelope, and so on. To paraphrase, “I’m not angry, 30 Rock, just disappointed.”
But enough with the serious talk. The best part of “Idiots Are People Three!” is that it marks the return of Devon Banks. Along with Thomas from Downton Abbey, that pointy-faced guy on Revenge, and Andy Cohen, Devon is one of my favorite gay TV villains. Devon turns up in Jack’s office with more incriminating footage of Tracy’s stand-up act, chock full of jokes about Mexicans, Asians, and women. (One last thing on this subject and then I promise I’ll stop: maybe this was the show’s delicate way of saying, “Hey, Tracy says terrible things about everyone, not just gay people!” Maybe?) Predictably, Devon is using the footage to blackmail Jack, but the twist is that, as a Brooklyn house-husband, he wants Jack to get his three “gaybies” into the prestigious St. Matthew’s School.
Jack swallows his pride and, in a brief but very funny scene, introduces Devon to Douglas, a WASPy board member at St. Matthew’s. It’s always fun to see Jack in his element—in this case, a dark, clubby restaurant filled with other powerful alpha males. But it’s even more enjoyable to see Jack in his new role as a proud father. While some things about Jack, like his unapologetic elitism, will never change, it warms my heart to hear him boasting about Liddy’s potty training.
Speaking of change, Liz also decides that she’s an idiot for thinking about dumping Criss just because Jack disapproves. We’ve seen the push-pull between Jack and Liz many times by now, and we’ve also seen Liz get into many petty fights with many different boyfriends. Given how overly familiar Liz’s scenario is, I’m glad that she decides to do something different for once and opts to give it a go with Criss. My one real grievance with 30 Rock is the romantic torture that Liz is repeatedly subjected to—I still shudder when I think about her break-up with Carol last year—so I hope Criss sticks around. If nothing else, I’d like to see what the writers do with his character. At the moment, he mostly feels like a remainder bin of Liz’s exes, but there’s some potential there. In the end, Jack gives Criss a temporary approval anyway, a sign that Jack and Liz are moving forward, together. Awww, how sweet.
While all this is going on, we’ve got the continued craziness of the Jenna-Kenneth-Kelsey plot, which is just about as willfully absurd as 30 Rock gets. In order to distract the TGS audience as they wheel Pete back to his office, Kelsey stages a mandatory, free one-man play about Abraham Lincoln. Like I said last week, I like it when 30 Rock gets aggressively weird, but I don’t know that such a loopy plot really needed to be drawn out over two weeks. It does feel as those the writers are running a bit low on ideas and are, more or less, just fucking around at this point to see what they can get away with. They pull it off this time, mostly because Kelsey Grammer is so great at doing the fake gravitas thing. It's too bad he doesn't stick to comedy.
- “We’re called Peen.” “What is that an acronym for? “Acronym?”
- “I’m on the board of the Manhattan Hospital for Rich Whites and Assimilated Jews.”
- Add this to the long, long list of Ivy League snob jokes on 30 Rock: “Wesleyan is the Harvard of central Connecticut.” “Yale is the Harvard of central Connecticut.”
- “If a poor boy from Boston can become me, maybe you can become a suitable sex partner for Liz Lemon.”
- Poor Denise Richards, barely able to play an idiot convincingly.
“The Ballad of Kenneth Parcell”
If you were to closely analyze every 30 Rock episode over the past five seasons, you’d probably find that at least a third of them followed some version of this basic trajectory: Liz second-guesses a particular relationship in her life, tries to fundamentally change or replace said relationship, then realizes it’s just fine the way it is.
In “The Ballad Of Kenneth Parcell,” the subject of Liz’s anxiety is her very best frenemy, Jenna. Fresh off a starring role in Garry Marshall’s new celebrity-studded epic, Martin Luther King Day (the fake trailer starring Emma Stone is clearly the best part of this episode), Jenna’s ego is out of control. Liz tries to talk some sense into Jenna, but when what’s supposed to be a nice ladies’ lunch at Outback Steakhouse turns out to be a staged paparazzi photo-op/PETA ambush, Liz decides to re-evaluate the relationship.
Her soul-searching raises one vitally important question: Where are all of Liz’s female friends? It’s a legitimate question, especially for someone like Liz, who seems like a “girl’s girl”—i.e. funny, likes junk food and bad movies, won’t steal your boyfriend. So why is Liz’s only female friend a depraved, egomaniacal monster? The answer, according to this episode, is that Liz can’t stand to be around someone as negative as she is. Seeing Liz and her doppelganger commiserating over their shared distrust of sushi is fun, but it’s also a little sad to think that Liz can only be friends with someone who’s too self-absorbed to even hear her complaints. And, though the costumes and casting are spot-on, the Sex And The City joke is also horribly dated.
Just as Liz discovers that she needs Jenna in her life, Jack realizes how much he needs the pages to ensure that he doesn’t do things like sending Hank Cooper’s “workaversary” present to the wrong floor. This storyline feels extremely recycled—by my count, this is at least the third time the NBC page program has been suspended for one reason or another—but weirdly I found it the most enjoyable part of the episode.
I think a few things salvage it. First, there’s the always-welcome appearance of Hank Cooper, who’s become one of my favorite recurring characters on the show; it feels nice and uncomplicated to laugh at such a nice and uncomplicated character, doesn't it? Then there’s “Not Kenneth,” a computerized tour guide that, when prompted, spits out information about NBC shows like Dam U and Not My Fault. But the highlight, especially for those of you who played close attention to “Idiots Are People Two!” has to be the appearance of the Phillie Phanatic. I am disappointed, however, that Liz’z theory about the Phanatic’s gender do not appear to be true.
The less said about Tracy’s non-starter of a C-plot, the better. He already has everything he ever wanted, and temporarily loses the will to live. Maybe it’s time for him to set his sights on another EGOT.
- Whoever the actress was playing “Knob Kardashian” deserves an Emmy for her pitch-perfect Kardashian whine.
- “She’s bigger then Malik Pancholy on Whitney.”
- Love the Steve Earle performance in the credits.
- Also starring in MLK Day: R2 D2, Lynddie England, inflatable tube guy, Steven Slater, John Krasinski.
- “Satellite images have confirmed that she is indeed keeping it tight.”
- Strange that Liz Lemon would find her doppelganger in the bathroom of the Barnes & Noble on 18th St. Seems like a better place to find a heroin addict.
- Rachel Dratch in yet another guest appearance, this time as the voice of "NK."
- “If PETA doesn’t love you or hate you, you’re a nobody. Like teachers and soldiers.”
- “A mistake is something a man does, like going to war without a reason. What Jack did was a whoopsie daisy.”