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“The Break-Up” (originally aired 12/14/2006)

In which Dennis is here to boff some chick named Mary…

30 Rock helped make the broadcast networks safe for single-camera, no-audience-laughter sitcoms like Community, Parks And Recreation, and New Girl. But similar production styles can’t mask the fundamental difference separating the characters of those shows from the TGS crew: 30 Rock thrives on conflict.

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As previously noted on The A.V. Club, a certain friendliness (or Friends-liness, really) has crept in to the single-camera comedy over time, defusing the sorts of disagreements and head-butting that used to be the sitcom’s lifeblood. This is not so with 30 Rock, whose characters always managed to rub one another the wrong way, even as the series mellowed with age. Part of this is wrapped up in the prickliness that’s intrinsic in Tina Fey’s comic voice; another part comes from the show’s embrace of unabashed conflict-starters like Liz Lemon, Jack Donaghy, Tracy Jordan, and Dennis Duffy. These are not characters who neatly resolve their differences in 22 minutes or less: Liz begins “The Break-Up” intending to dump Dennis, and though he almost worms his way back into her heart, there are some people who’ll never forgive an ex for appearing on To Catch A Predator.

At a time when the acrimony between Liz and Jack is already starting to dwindle, Dennis Duffy swings through 30 Rock, feeding the flames of discontent with a cocktail of hair products and body spray. The list of pros and cons Liz keeps throughout “The Break-Up” is for the audience’s benefit only, because Dennis is a walking pro-con list. (Perfect for a young show so enamored of metaphor and analogy, which gets a particularly foul one in the form of Dennis’ dog-and-toes ploy.) And that makes him conflict personified: He’s helpful yet harmful, considerate yet careless. The ways he’s written and portrayed are constantly at odds with one another, necessitating a huge mistake to finally shoo the character out of Liz’s life. As if his encounter with Chris Hansen didn’t swing the final vote in favor of “con,” Dennis scores insurance votes by breaking everything he fixed—figuratively and literally, as his exit destroys the TV mount and shelves he built. Liz folds the Dennis list shut at the end of “The Break-Up,” with good reason and tremendous determination.

The Dennis debate is a great illustration of the “Break-Up” approach to conflict. In this episode, several characters are at loggerheads with one another, but none of their disagreements are cut-and-dried. Dennis is a horrible person, but he’s been good to Liz on occasion. Jack’s difficulties with his new girlfriend—a “high-ranking African-American member of the Bush Administration”—are seemingly without nuance, but he’s jealous over slights and indiscretions he’s only imagining. (Though Vladimir Putin’s definitely copping a feel in that news footage.)

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The friction between Tracy and Toofer, meanwhile, is one that no half-hour sitcom, half-hour sitcom review, or decades of debate could clear up. At stake here are questions of identity, representation, re-appropriation of hate speech, the merits of drag in comedy (and its implied emasculation)—heavy stuff, and meaty material for Tracy Morgan and Keith Powell. Perhaps acknowledging that this debate wouldn’t be settled at 9:30 p.m. on a Thursday in the middle of December, “The Break-Up” lets both sides have their say, but mostly uses their conflict to tell some politically charged jokes. Not wanting to reinforce negative stereotypes about black men, Toofer previously wrote for BET’s hit cutaway gag, Black Frasier. Seeing a coworker who seemingly refuses to be a black man, Tracy drops the n-word as a term of endearment—masked by the vacuuming of the GE Building’s maintenance staff, who have the most expert comic timing in all of New York City.

It’s discomfort comedy that walks right up to the line of saying something, then reverses course in the third act—forsaking storytelling in favor of a few jokes, a criticism that’s long plagued one of the “con”s on the Dennis list, Family Guy. But it’s more thoughtful than the average Seth MacFarlane provocation, closer in spirit to the approach of modern-day South Park: Both sides have good points—they should stop being assholes to each other.

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Ultimately, we don’t get to see what Tracy and Toofer cook up following their company-mandated sensitivity training, because the resolution of their storyline is more in line with Tracy’s mindset: In the end, funny is funny. Sometimes, funny makes you think, but that’s just gravy. And that’s something else that set 30 Rock apart from some of the single-cam shows that swam in its wake: Despite what the over-thinkers (he wrote, hundreds of words into a 30 Rock review) in its audience wanted from the show, its ultimate objective was the laugh. “The Break-Up” doesn’t find meaningful resolution for all of its storylines, but it does hang a bunch of great lines on a group of characters who would believably say such things. (Even Dennis, who we’ve only known for three episodes at this point.) On an intellectualized, Toofer level, “The Break-Up” isn’t the best: Tracy and Toofer’s “serious” comedy is abandoned in a pile of fake vomit, Liz’s unstoppable wavering over Dennis must meet the immovable object of Dateline NBC for any positive change to happen. But it doesn’t try to have all of its conflict tied up in a neat bow, and it is funny. By 30 Rock’s own standards, the pros win.

Stray observations:

  • Alec Baldwin does great, Bob Newhart-esque work in his one-way phone calls to Condoleezza Rice. “Well, you have to admit, there’s always time for Tony Blair, there’s always time for Bashar al-Assad, but there’s never any time for Jack Donaghy, and that’s a problem,” could come from an updated take on “Abe Lincoln Vs. Madison Avenue.” (Baldwin will have further opportunities to flex those phone-conversation muscles in “The Baby Show.”)
  • With its harmonica, piano, and glockenspiel, there’s a vintage Bruce Springsteen vibe (echoes of “Thunder Road,” specifically) to the musical theme that Jeff Richmond dreamed up for Dennis. It’s really swell.

  • Cutting edge Condoleezza Rice humor, circa 2006: “It must be hard to get cell phone reception when she’s so far up the president’s butt.”
  • Tracy has a good rejoinder for Toofer: “There’s nothing wrong with a black comedian wearing a dress. Eddie does it, Martin does it, Jamie Foxx, Flip Wilson. Whoopi Goldberg does it every day!”
  • Tracy also has some grand ambitions for the sketch he and Toofer write together: “I want to hold a mirror up to society and then win world record for biggest mirror.”
  • Another geopolitical joke that makes 2006 seem like such an innocent time: “Next time I see Putin I’m going to kick his teeth in.”
  • Famous last words: “Let me tell you about 20-year-olds, my friend: Half of them are 16.”
  • Dennis Duffy, straight shooter: “In this example, Liz is the dog, and I am my feet.”
  • Toofer’s response to Tracy’s “Uncle Tom” dig is the perfect example of why The Simpsons figures into one of Liz’s “pros” for Dennis: Toofer: “You can’t call someone that if you haven’t read the book.” Offscreen voice: “What book?”

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Nerds!:

  • Regardless of pros and cons, 30 Rock just couldn’t let Dennis out of its life. He’d make 12 more appearances (10 if we’re counting two-parters as one epsiode), eventually lending a helping hand in Liz’s marriage and her adoption. Not bad, dummy.
  • Jack’s uncoupling from “The Break-Up” haunts him later in the series, too: When wife Avery Jessup (Elizabeth Banks) is kidnapped by North Korea, he has no choice but to turn to Condoleezza Rice, who won’t help Jack until he admits that she’s better at the piano than he is at the flute. (The pair also exchanges the most sexually charged uses of the word “turkey” in TV history.)
  • Liz’s karaoke choice—“At Seventeen” by Janis Ian—is a bit of a callback from Tina Fey’s cinematic career: The folk singer and one-time Saturday Night Live musical guest is the namesake for Lizzy Caplan’s character in the Fey-scripted Mean Girls, the soundtrack to which makes use of “At Seventeen.”

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“The Baby Show” (originally aired 1/4/2007)

In which Colleen Donaghy carried Jack for nine months—let him carry her now…

There is a force that surrounds 30 Rock and penetrates 30 Rock. It binds the show’s galaxy together—and for all of the show’s Star Wars shout-outs, it’s not The Force. Nope: It’s motherhood, the source of Jack’s deepest anxieties, Kenneth’s endless well of optimism, and Liz’s most ambivalent ambition. “Mother: There is no other like mother” the show argues time and again.

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It’s also the source of one of my least-favorite long-running 30 Rock arcs: Liz’s on-again, off-again attempts at adoption. The show itself never seemed particularly crazy about this storyline: It’s kicked off in “The Baby Show,” plays a major part in season three, and pretty much drops off the radar until the back half of the final season. Those last episodes give the adoption storyline some meaning, but they also confirm what’s hinted toward in “The Baby Show”: Liz is already the mother to a brood of surrogate kids who help her put on TGS With Tracy Jordan. This part of her personality is already there, and it doesn’t need a multi-episode arc to reinforce it. There’s a false ring whenever Liz starts talking about adoption, but I totally buy her maternal instincts when she vetoes Cerie’s wedding “dress” or when she goes after Josh for impersonating Jack.

Liz’s adoption journey is a case of 30 Rock trying to have its cake and eat it, a quality that plagues parts of “The Baby Show” as well. The episode indulges in romantic-comedy clichés (Liz and Jenna chat about boffing celebrities over red wine and birthday cake; Liz declares “Maybe it’s impossible to have it all: Career, the family—but if anyone can figure out how to do it, it’s me”), then contradicts them with the prescribed amount of eye rolling (Liz answers “Brad Pitt or George Clooney?” with a weepy breakdown; Jack reminds “Have It All” Liz that she’s going down on an “Up” elevator). But at its core, “The Baby Show” is still the type of story it’s ostensibly spoofing, the tale of a woman who’s found success in the workplace, but can’t deny the internal pull toward an unseen, unspoken something else. (Usually, but not always in this situation: A husband, some kids, and fulfilled cultural expectations.) 30 Rock wasn’t wrong to shade Liz in this way, but putting her in a script that also contains the phrase “baby-crazy” has always struck me as an odd fit, even as this facet of the character drives her to act intentionally odd—as in “accidental kidnapping” odd.

Thank goodness for Colleen Donaghy and Pearlene Parcell. Neither character is seen in “The Baby Show,” and only the latter is heard from, but both make their presences known—all the while showing that 30 Rock doesn’t believe that popping out some kids is the solution to all of life’s problems. In fact, those kids might turn out to be the problem, and least as far as Colleen is concerned with Jack. Alec Baldwin deserves all sorts of kudos for his performances in these first few 30 Rock seasons, and he does some of his best work in this episode: Months before Elaine Stritch first donned Colleen’s kicky hats and sour reactions, Baldwin paints a picture of Jack’s mother in harried phone conversations and wounded heart-to-hearts. (Great, under-appreciated Jack Donaghy quote: “Jonathan, these cheap phones keep on shattering!”)

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Colleen and Pearlene take opposing tacks with their kids—Pearlene sends Kenneth his old Halloween decorations; Colleen wanted to send 12-year-old Jack to Vietnam—but we still get the impression that both women act out of love. Colleen’s style of love exposes some critical vulnerabilities in Jack, and though his stress eating is an episodic gag, the bundle of neuroses it reveals has a marvelously humanizing effect on the character. Maybe that’s why I always had a hard time swallowing Liz’s desire for a child: It feels like pre-fab characterization, whereas Jack’s mommy issures are raw and real even when Colleen isn’t around. One feels like a personality trait tacked onto Liz; the other feels like something discovered by peeling away Jack’s layers.

By the standards of post-“Tracy Does Conan30 Rock, “The Baby Show“ is sort of a wash, an introduction to one of the show’s least rewarding tangents (in the short term—the way things resolve in season seven is undeniably sweet) and an episode that spends way too much time with Josh. But the saving grace of any lukewarm 30 Rock is that it usually winds up compensating with big laughs, and “The Baby Show” has those, too. Liz telling Cerie that “there are other things in life, like having a career and working and having a job and working” get this over-worker right where he lives, and I still enjoy the Psycho-inspired twist in the tag. Also, at one point, Scott Adsit makes this face:

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So 30 Rock couldn’t have it all all the time. That’s okay, because “The Baby Show” actively discourages such pursuits.

Stray observations:

  • This week on TGS With Tracy Jordan: “Jenna to the stage please for ‘Jazz Police.’”
  • So here’s the problem with Josh, which the producers must have started to realize after “The Baby Show”: He’s no more a main character than any of the TGS writers, and we’ve spent so little time with him in the first nine episodes that the most weight he can carry here is the impressions-and-prank-calls storyline. Arguably, Lonny Ross was given a raw deal, cast on a show that swiftly recognized it had the ensemble it needed without him. In turn, there’s just not much to his portion of “The Baby Show,” no matter how well he (or whoever’s dubbing in the impressions) delivers the line “I’m Jack Donaghy. I’m important. I just bought the moon.” (Of course, the way Josh naively shakes his head in response to Liz’s “Do you not understand what we’re doing?” probably gave Ross an indication that his character was sliding down the totem pole.)
  • Liz has one specific objection to Tracy’s impression of her: “I don’t skateboard!” “Hurts, doesn’t it?”
  • Saying More Than You’re Actually Saying, with Dr. Leo Spaceman: “I should start by saying I can’t personally help you conceive. Something happened to me while scuba diving.”
  • Spectacular Liz-and-Jack banter after Baby Isabelle (who Liz likes to call “Nancy”) is returned: “You’re loving this, aren’t you?” “Oh yes, I’m a big fan of kidnapping, especially by my middle-management.”
  • Objects found in Kenneth’s apartment, excluding the “kooky skeleton”: A Conan O’Brien bobblehead, vintage “REHEARSAL/ON AIR” light, and a DVD copy of Saved By The Bell seasons one and two.

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Nerds!:

  • I covered most of what would go down here in the full review, but here’s a detail that winds up playing into that aforementioned Condoleezza Rice cameo: “If your child is a terrific hockey player and a gifted flautist, don’t make them play the national anthem on their flute in front of their teammates.”
  • Pearlene will continue to be an unseen influence on Kenneth, eventually materializing in the form of Catherine O’Hara. She’ll acquire her “friend Ron” (to be played by Bryan Cranston) in season two’s “The Collection.”

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