“The Rural Juror” (originally aired 1/11/2007)

In which GE owns KitchenAll of Colorado, which in turn owns JMI of Stamford, which is a majority shareholder in pokerfastlane.com, which recently acquired the Sheinhardt Wig Company, which owns NBC outright

When Alec Baldwin pulls down that chart to reveal the twisted lineage of subsidiaries that own (and are owned) by NBC, it’s like 30 Rock opening a nondescript door and finding untold comic riches within the next room. It’s further evidence of the show escaping the confines of our world to craft an Earth all its own, one in which networks of seemingly unrelated business all feed into the same crooked coffer—similar to the real world, but in a fashion that makes plain the ludicrous collusion of resources and wealth within the modern-day free-market economy. Only, instead of saying anything as boring as all that, 30 Rock expresses it through the unchecked power and human-rights violations of the Tracy Jordan Meat Machine.

30 Rock built itself one of TV comedy’s most enviable sandboxes, the proof of which is in the “The Rural Juror” from the title on down. Considering what’s still to come, this installment only rates a 4 on teenmoviescene.com’s signature 5-iPod scale—but the fact that this episode invented two plausibly named, easily joked-upon fake websites is testament to its world-building strengths. 30 Rock told some great stories in its time, but any legacy the show leaves behind is in its commitment to character and its status as an all-time-great primetime joke-delivery system.

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And sometimes those qualities dovetail in uniquely satisfying ways. Nobody knows the title of Jenna’s new movie because it’s a mealy mouthed jumble of syllables greenlit by coked-up screenwriters, but Liz’s dismissiveness of the enterprise is what’s truly keeping her from knowing the name of her friend’s big break. (“Can it be Roar Her, Gem Her?” “No, that doesn’t make any sense. It has to be Oral Germ Whore.”) There are still plenty of Rural Juror mispronunciations to be wrung from “The Rural Juror,” but the episode wisely wises Liz to the true title early on, because it has bigger Liz-Jenna fish to fry: The tensions of fame and shared dreams and the divergent paths that took the duo from Chicago’s Little Armenia to TGS. It’s potent stuff, and Tina Fey and Jane Krakowski really get into it as the melodrama of a Kevin Grisham novel spills into a script from future Emmy winner Matt Hubbard.

Yet there are times in “The Rural Juror” when those tensions feel less believable than pokerfastlane.com. It’s a manufactured disagreement, though no doubt one familiar to the people behind the scenes at 30 Rock: With rare exception, the writers of a comedy show are never going to get the same amount of recognition as the performers on a comedy show. Liz and Jenna fantasized about making it together, and they did, but not in the way they pictured it (or so we’re told). And so “The Rural Juror” stages the cold war between Jenna and Liz that builds to the blow-up in the hallway, a series of events that serves the narrative but doesn’t necessarily do well by the characters.

By the time the “The Rural Juror” is tying a bow on the plot (and blaming it all on mood-altering drugs), it’s best summarized by Liz’s apology to the costumed extra she’s just punched: “I’m sorry, I didn’t know there was a person in there!” It’s good for backstory, good for the world-building mentioned above—but it’s not the sort of thing 30 Rock excels at. For that, look to the conclusion of the storyline, which lifts itself up when Liz makes the Liz-like admission that a “sad little part” of her does want the type of attention Jenna garners. Or to get a deeper impression of what 30 Rock truly thinks about this type of thing, just look at Jack’s petulant reaction to the whole sitdown: “This is boring. I’m bored now.”

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Ten episodes into its first season, 30 Rock is still experimenting. Parts of this Liz-Jenna-Rural Juror misunderstanding don’t work, but maybe that’s because so much of Jack and Tracy’s storyline does work. Receiving a bye week in which they’re not the primary sources of Liz’s and Jenna’s respective anxiety (maybe that’s why the other storyline feels off), Jack and Tracy combine their unique kinds of crazy to spearhead a product so dangerous it can only be sold in Ukraine. It’s odd that it works this well, because of “The Rural Juror”’s two main stories, Tracy and Jack’s is closest to what we’d think of as a worn-out sitcom premise. It’s a get-rich-quick scheme from an alternate-reality Honeymooners (with its own, non-disastrous version of I Love Lucy’s Vitameatavegamin commercial), but it plays expertly in the 30 Rock sandbox. And it riffs off of the main reason Tracy came to TGS in the first place: He and Jack have a bond. As I mentioned last week, conflict’s great for 30 Rock, but this is a multifaceted show, one that pulls a pair of great set-pieces from the connection between to very different rags-to-riches cases.

“The Rural Juror” is a fantastic collection of set-pieces: The Meat Machine infomercial, Tracy’s initial pitch, and Jenna’s appearance on The View all speak to the writer’s sketch-comedy bona fides and the future success of the series’ second live show. (The less said about that first one, the better.) I’d include the Liz-and-Jenna highlight of the episode—their dueling memories of Liz’s “condescending compliment thing”—in that count as well. Here’s an example of the show propping up a so-so story with its still-developing bag of tricks: The flashbacks enable some fun visual humor (Liz’s modified Rachel cut in 1997, the posters for Jenna’s stage shows, and the two versions of “Ethan,” neither of which may be the real one) while working a little unreliable narration into the script. It’s a clever touch, and it ties into what Liz later admits in Jack’s office: She puts on a good front, but some emotions don’t hide.

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30 Rock was one of the most reliably funny sitcoms of its day, and it gave itself so many ways in which to be funny. It’s not all killer dialogue in “The Rural Juror”: It’s charts and Con Air: The Musical, Grizz’s posterboard dance and that beat Alec Baldwin takes after Tracy denies knowing anyone named Arsenio Billingham. The show existed in such a well-defined universe, but in “The Rural Juror,” it’s still teaching itself the languages of this universe. And despite Barbara Walters’ best, pronunciation-butchering efforts, it’s making some progress.

Stray observations:

  • This week on TGS With Tracy Jordan: “Tracy to the stage please for ‘Pull Your Own Wisdom Teeth.’”
  • Good reply for the next time someone’s quoting the American Psycho Phil Collins monologue at you: “You like Phil Collins?” “I have two ears and a heart, don’t I?”
  • Jack has some hoity-toity tastes, but he’s a populist at heart: “They’ve adapted The Rural Juror? I’m a huge Kevin Grisham fan.”
  • Better fake name: Arsenio Billingham, Constance Justice, or Whoopi Billingham?

Nerds!

  • While the ensuing years were good for 30 Rock, they were not as kind to Sheinhardt-Universal. While the company became the type of corporate laughing stock whose logo is printed on novelty T-shirts and coffee mugs, it weathered a brutal legal campaign spearheaded by Congresswoman Celeste Cunningham. (In a curious twist, Cunningham was rumored to be dating GE man Jack Donaghy at the time, a volatile mix of political philosophies rife with humorous potential.) Its reputation forever sullied—despite the best efforts of the “Not Poisoning Rivers Since 1997” campaign—Sheinhardt sold its stake in the National Broadcasting Company to Kabletown in 2010.
  • Conan O’Brien was an easy get for “Tracy Does Conan”, but Whoopi Goldberg marks the beginnings of 30 Rock’s evolution into a live-action equivalent of The Simpsons—so far as celebrity cameos are concerned. (Though now that I really think about those parallels…) I wonder if that booking came before or after the “There’s nothing wrong with a black comedian wearing a dress” line was written for “The Baby Show.”
  • The Lemon family tree gains a branch in “The Rural Juror”: Jenna cops to sleeping with Mitch, Liz’s brother who was in “a really bad skiing accident.” Conveniently, Mitch’s future casting will strengthen the bonds between 30 Rock and the Conan O’Brien talk-show empire: Mitch Lemon, the man unstuck from time (and placed in a perpetual 1985) is played onscreen by Andy Richter.

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“The Head And The Hair” (originally aired 1/18/2007)

In which Liz Lemon is the hair…

This is 30 Rock as romantic comedy: In “The Head And The Hair,” Liz Lemon falls for a guy while thinking he’s working some kind of con. There’s spooky sci-fi music instead of heart-swelling strings. (The only time there is heart-swelling music, it’s when someone speaks of their love for television.) The moment of connection occurs when Liz and “The Hair” (a.k.a. Gray, played by Peter Hermann) both deliver the same scolding retort to a shopkeeper. In the end, the lovebirds discover they’re related.

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Yet none of that is the true stroke of genius within “The Head And The Hair,” one of the five best episodes of 30 Rock’s first season. (We’ll see how I feel about this on the other end of next week’s doubleheader, but if you prompted me for a top five right now, they’d be, in order of airdate: “Tracy Does Conan,” “The Head And The Hair,” “Black Tie,” “Fireworks,” and “Cleveland.”) What sets “The Head And The Hair” apart from earlier 30 Rock genre exercises, what makes it gutting and gut-busting, is Liz’s reaction to Gray’s romantic interest: This sort of thing doesn’t happen to this sort of person. Liz expresses a distrust in the simplest of human kindnesses, and “The Head And The Hair” portrays that distrust in the most embarrassingly relatable of terms.

I can’t think of another TV episode—let alone a sitcom episode—that probes so deeply into such a grossly narcissistic character trait. It’s not superficially narcissistic, because self-deprecation develops in order to mask this kind of narcissism. “I’m the worst,” the Liz Lemon in this situation thinks, “Why would anybody be this nice to me?” But “I” and “me” are still the operative words there, and “The Head And The Hair” (written by Tina Fey and John Riggi) grasps that. “I am a ‘head-plus,’ at best” Liz says of herself, using the scale established by Hermmann’s and Brian McCann’s characters. Later in the episode, director Gail Mancuso embeds the viewer in Liz’s skull, blocking the party scenes so that Liz looks at least a head (or head-plus) shorter than the other guests. In the world according to Liz Lemon, she can’t be the center of attention unless the only other person at her eye level is a tiny dog.

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Adding levity to the situation is the “opposites day” (or “Bottoms Up Day,” as it’s known at GE) vibe of the entire episode: The handsome guy goes for Liz rather than Jenna, Jack works as a page, and Kenneth sells a game show to NBC. Everything’s a bit off-kilter in “The Head And The Hair,” so narcissist or no, Liz is right to touch the flowers in Gray’s apartment to confirm that they’re real. (Tina Fey’s performance in the loft scene is full of guarded nuances like that. It’s pretty great.)

Another reason “The Head And The Hair” is a 30 Rock rom-com done right: There are great speeches within the script, and those speeches both adhere to and defy convention on their way to big laughs. In the market, Liz lays it out to The Hair:

“I don’t have any money, if that’s what you’re after. And I’m not one of those girls that does weird stuff in bed because they think they have to. If you’re a gay guy looking for a beard, I don’t do that anymore. And if you’re trying to harvest my organs and sell them, I have an uncle who’s a cop, so don’t even try.

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There’s so much history in this monologue (a lot of which comes from a well-placed “anymore”), and The Hair’s response—“Hey, we all have uncles who are cops, so just take it down a notch”—is a brilliantly sly hint toward the episode’s end. But the episode’s most sincere declaration of emotions doesn’t occur in between the cash register and the produce—it happens amid the mess left behind by NBC Nightly News monster Brian Williams.

This is another hugely important moment of characterization for 30 Rock. Kenneth isn’t just some yokel cleaning up the barfs of the stars because he believes celebrities are better than regular people. No, Kenneth believes in something else: Television, an art form that’s rarely portrayed at its finest in 30 Rock, even as 30 Rock was one of TV’s finest shows about itself. If the weirdos on this show have trouble accepting love from other people, it’s because so many of them are in a one-way love affair with concepts like TV and capitalism. (And I’m not going to deny it: When Jeff Richmond’s busy accompaniment for Kenneth’s speech kicks in, this weirdo gets a little misty eyed.)

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True to the Bottoms Up Day spirit, “The Head And The Hair” contains three well-told stories that all end in varying degrees of anticlimax. It’s a neat subversion, though it disappoints the part of me that loves the harmonizing endpoints of “Tracy Does Conan.” Kenneth’s boardroom triumph segues into Tracy, Toofer, and Frank on the verge of completing an autobiography in 24 hours, but that triumph deflates in a big fart of a punchline: Tracy never sold this autobiography in the first place. Everybody else is let down, too—Liz nearly made out with her third (?) cousin, while Kenneth and Jack spearheaded an unsustainable game show—but there’s an element of chickening out on the last page of Tracy’s autobiography, funny as the first instance of “Shut it down” is.

During its run, 30 Rock was frequently described (and just as often praised) for being “cynical”; in its non-endings and jaundiced rom-com POV, “The Head And The Hair” backs up such descriptions. To me, however, it’s more skeptical than cynical. Liz starts out believing that The Hair is only looking out for himself, but eventually makes herself open to the notion of this fairytale connection. Kenneth’s love letter to TV undercuts itself at every turn, but dialogue like “the less-fun Winter Olympics” coats an optimist’s spirit in realist’s humor. The cynical view on “The Head And The Hair” is that the episode punishes its characters for overreaching, but I don’t buy that. The moral of “The Head And The Hair” is closer to that of Gold Case: If it seems too good to be true, it probably is. But there’s always the possibility that the ATM will spit out a magic $100 bill, and the model who’s straining to hold up that brief case is most definitely carrying $1 million in gold.

Stray observations:

  • The 30 Rock version of Brian Williams has some strange peccadilloes: “Is this tube sock filled with bird seed?” (Followed, naturally, by Jack removing an egg from a pair of briefs.)
  • That’s writer-performer Brian McCann (a.k.a. The FedEx Pope, Preparation H Raymond, and 4 a.m. talk-show host Jerry Butters) further strengthening the bonds between the Conan-verse and 30 Rock. He has a way with dweeby dialogue like “Let’s put the ‘fun’ in ‘funky!’”
  • Kenneth Parcell, one-man focus group: “Which show would you rather watch: An ex-porn star who talks to ghosts, or a remake of Little House On The Prairie?” “Neither! I want to see a show where women get their hair done while listening to salsa music!”
  • “Moonvest over at CBS”: Great one-off, one-joke 30 Rock character—or greatest one-off, one-joke 30 Rock character? Just like Les Moonves, he doesn’t really think much about TV; unlike Les Moonves, he wants Kenneth’s fingernails.

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Nerds!

  • And so opens in important chapter in 30 Rock history: The chapter in which “it” must be “shut down.” What is “it” exactly? It’s indescribable, but it’s usually some ill-advised NBC venture or another: Gold Case, The Rockefeller Center Salute To Fireworks, the role-playing Liz initiates during a tense contract negotiation with Josh. It’s so crucial, it even has an onscreen character devoted to shutting it down. Shut it down, Brendan “Shut It Down” Walsh!

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  • A fleshed-out version of “A Jordan Christmas” plays over the credits of season two’s “Ludachristmas,” but what makes the song truly important is that it introduces the idea of Tracy’s recording career. Without “A Jordan Christmas,” there might not be any other novelty party songs in the Tracy Jordan discography—and who wants to live in a world where Halloween-season playlists are without “Werewolf Bar Mitzvah”?

Next week: Guest star Paul Reubens invites the gang to a “Black Tie” affair. After that, everybody stays “Up All Night” on Valentine’s Day, discussing Isabella Rossellini’s love affair with Arby’s Big Beef ’N’ Cheddar.

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