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“The Source Awards” (originally aired 3/1/2007)

In which can’t we all just not get along?

“If I don’t go, Ridikolus is gonna kill me. If I do go, someone else is gonna kill me. See? It’s a catch-22. Aw! He’s gonna be there, too.”—Tracy Jordan, “The Source Awards”

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In “The Source Awards,” Tracy Jordan and Liz Lemon are both trapped in catch-22s of their own making. (Well, technically, Tracy’s beef with hip-hop mogul Ridikolus, played by LL Cool J, is all Kenneth’s fault, the result of farcical misunderstandings that Tracy has no hand in.) But neither the TGS star or the TGS creator would be in this mess if they worried less about how they’re being perceived; Tracy eventually demonstrates this by channeling the spirit of Oprah Winfrey while hosting a hip-hop award ceremony. He and Liz are seeking control of their situations, but neither wants to do the hard work to seize the circumstances that would be easiest to control: Tracy could smooth things over by fully accepting the Source Awards gig, and Liz could save herself a lot of grief by dumping boyfriend of the week Steven Black (Wayne Brady). But in service to the one force that controls this whole universe—comedy—they twist themselves into funny little knots on the way to shooting a man in the butt.

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The people of 30 Rock are great sitcom characters because they’re committed to principles and convictions, and that’s exactly why they wind up doing things like firing a gun in a crowded VIP area. Setting out to prove that she’s not a racist by dating a guy she can’t stand, Liz refuses to cut her losses. She’s applying the same sort of spin tactics Jack is using with his terrible sparkling wine—but sometimes you just can’t rebrand “the urine of Satan after a hefty portion of asparagus.” As played by Brady, Steven is an affable presence, but he’s wrong for Liz in every foreseeable, scriptable way: He’s smug about not owning a TV and he prefers Star Wars (the Strategic Defense Initiative) to Star Wars (“the fantasy movie with the, uh, monsters”). But the rising star at Dewey, Cheatem, & Livingston is also someone who sticks to his guns, and when he interprets Liz not wanting to date a Black man as Liz not wanting to date a black man, the couple reaches a romantic stalemate. The only outcome is mutually assured destruction, which is at least something Steven could write about in his SDI blog.

The central question of “The Source Awards” is like something out of a When Harry Met Sally rewrite by a political-science major: Can a black man and a white woman not be friends without it being about race? In the real world: Of course. (Ours is a universe in which people have infinite types of jackassery at their disposal.) But for the purposes of a heavily satirical episode of 30 Rock: Absolutely not. At least not this black man and this white woman, whose disagreements are exaggeratedly small, yet fundamental: The getting-to-know-you straw that breaks the date camel’s back is Steven’s apathy toward food, an unforgivable offense in Liz Lemon’s world. It’s in the disparity between their reasons for not getting along (hilariously petty) and their reasons for continuing their relationship (“race is a huge issue in this country, according to Newsweek magazine”—avid Newsweek reader Jenna Maroney) where the humor of the Liz-Steven non-romance lives. Like Kenneth and Ridikolus, they’re two people who’ve lived to two completely different lives, and that leaves them with an inability to communicate and connect. Race happens to be the socially constructed elephant in the room, and Liz does herself no favor by not acknowledging that race has probably caused less thoughtful women than herself to dump Steven. Steven is overly sensitive to it, she’s not sensitive to it at all, and therein lies another comic disparity.

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“The Source Awards” bears traces of the 21st century’s greatest satirical achievement: Stephen Colbert’s Colbert Report persona. Like the “color-blind” Colbert character, Liz doesn’t see black or white—she sees only “people,” which denies Steven a certain degree of identity. Jack Donaghy, meanwhile, is a Colbert conservative, through and through, an equal-opportunity opportunist who looks at The Source Awards guest list and sees nothing but green faces. In this episode, Liz and Jack enter into conversations that are more complicated than either realizes; 30 Rock respects the complications and the nuances of that conversation enough to not declare one character less prejudiced than the either. They’re both in several shades of wrong here, wrongs that refract sources of anger and ugliness and pain in the real world and make them funny. They make mistakes, we laugh—and maybe we evalutate our own take on the episode’s themes.

In “The Source Awards,” Liz Lemon successfully makes centuries of discrimination all about her personal quest to not look like a bad person. But since that designation ultimately rests in the hands of other people, she could never be 100 percent successful in her goal—just as Donaghy Estates could never bottle a 100 percent drinkable sparkling wine. No one makes it out of “The Source Awards” unscathed—not even Kenneth Parcell, whose efforts to live every week like it’s Shark Week put him on the shit list of a man who threatens to eat other men’s families. Well, the joke’s on noseless Ridikolus, because Kenneth doesn’t even consider his mom’s friend Ron part of the family.

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Stray observations:

  • Rappers whose beef with Tracy precludes the TGS star from hosting The Source Awards include Ridonkey Kong and MC Skat Kat.
  • No one but Liz has ever called a basketball “the old leather pumpkin,” a fact that becomes painfully clear after she asks “Flower guy” Floyd about his old leather pumpkin for the second time.
  • Ridikolus’ threats have Tracy digging into a deep appreciation of death-row cinema. “Tracy who? You’re looking at a ghost, JD! Dead man walking! The green mile! Christmas with the Klumps!”
  • 30 Rock sure has a way of making horrifying facts sound hysterically banal: “Donaghy Estates Sparkling Wine, which according to this lab report, ‘contains no lead and is not fatal if swallowed.”
  • “I’m sorry man, I’m pretty drunk.”—30 Rock denied the world a great pleasure by never delving further into the backstage drama at Ray Ray’s Mystery Garage.
  • Everybody remembers Tracy telling Kenneth to live every week like it’s Shark Week, but the second piece of advice he cites is just as important: “Nothing’s impossible except for dinosaurs.”
  • Liz asks a simple question, Tracy gives a simple answer: “What is it with men and guns?” “I think I speak for the both of us when I say, ‘Because they’re metal penises.”
  • You can tell the show’s been planning this “Don’t call me Shirley” joke for the entire episode. (Doesn’t make it any less funny, though.): “Oh, he’s harmless. Don’t be ridiculous.” “I am Ridikolus.”

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“The Fighting Irish” (originally aired 3/8/2007)

In which it’s pronounced “Donn-ah-hee” (or is it?)…

The best comment on the family at the center of “The Fighting Irish” isn’t even in “The Fighting Irish.” It’s from the first of this week’s episodes, spoken by Jack as he uncorks his very first bottle of Donaghy Estates.

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“‘Donaghy’ is Gaelic for ‘failure’” Jack quotes from the Gospel of Colleen, and you can almost hear Elaine Stritch spitting the insult out from beneath a smart hat and oversized sunglasses. But that’s looking to the future while thinking about the past, a temporal displacement typical of the last so-so installment of 30 Rock’s first season. After an impressive run in the middle of the season, “The Fighting Irish” takes a step back, and sets 30 Rock up for the remaining four episodes. At the same time, it does work on Jack’s backstory and Tracy’s public image, storylines that feel like orphaned pitches in search of an episode to call their own.

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The Donaghy (you can say it “Donn-ah-ghee,” “Donn-ah-hee,” or “Donn-ah-fee,” depending on which Donaghy you’re talking to) family reunion disappoints by not rising to the cast assembled for it. It’s a perfectly fine con-job story with just Nathan Lane, but to also pull in Saturday Night Live vets Molly Shannon and Siobhan Fallon Hogan (hey, she was in 19 episodes, shortly after her stint as Elaine’s roommate on Seinfeld) and The Wire’s own Lieutenant Charles Marimow (Bruno McGiver) sets the expectations too high. It’s a lot of talent to assemble just for a few slurred punchlines and a bunch of punches that all land offscreen, is what I’m saying.

Maybe special guest star Donaghys work better in single servings: After her onscreen debut in “Hiatus,” Colleen became a 30 Rock MVP, and Nathan Lane affects the appropriate levels of genuine sleaze and false modesty as Eddie. You want your “visiting family member” guest characters to at least pull their relatives into tighter focus, which Colleen and Eddie both do for Jack. While his other brothers and sisters are empty Bahston accents, Eddie is the guy Jack fights so hard not to be. It’s only right that the Donaghy brother would accidentally pull the same con on Jack as the Donaghy father: Jack’s dad is the other other man he’s afraid of turning into. But some family traits are just unshakable, be they an affection for “The Dead Man’s Curve” or nicknaming your fists. It’s not much, but it’s something to remember “The Fighting Irish” by.

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While Jack’s busy acting like a Donaghy, Liz must think like one. The never-ending mission to synergize backward overflow requires a 10 percent reduction of the TGS staff, and though that’s a clear-cut situation with a promise of comedy, Liz isn’t having it. Until she’s struck by a bolt of ruthless inspiration: Floyd the flower guy is only with “other Liz” (played here by Anna Chlumsky) because she got an accounting job at NBC. Other Liz, the intended recipient of the “Up All Night” bouquet, is the accountant for TGS. The moment that marks Liz’s deranged plan to kill two birds with one firing comes together like the “wonderful, awful idea” scene of Chuck Jones’ How The Grinch Stole Christmas. The looks Tina Fey gives her co-stars in the scenes that follow are hands-down my favorite part of “The Fighting Irish.”

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Liz Lemler is an obstacle, Liz Lemon is The Decider, and though the things that line up for old Liz Lemon are all devices of flattery and self-preservation, it still packs the potent intoxicating punch of genuine power. With Jack off palling around with his family, a power vacuum is created which Liz fills with tremendous gusto. But that gusto is all fake, like the compliments in the plaza-set walk-and-talk, Pete’s vasectomy, Tracy’s religious awakening, and the Chicago All Saints Hospital (think about the initials). Liz isn’t The Decider, Jack’s not a “Donn-ah-hee,” and neither of them are failures. Neither is Liz Lemler, whose recompense for her unjust firing is a promotion—to GE headquarters in Connecticut.

Maybe “The Fighting Irish” fails to connect because of all that fakery. It’s not as farcical as “The Source Awards,” but the episode does require a lot of fronts, and its episodic plots act as façades for what’s really going on: A clearing of the runway for the Floyd arc. It doesn’t just seem like things are lining up for old Liz Lemon—the writers are seriously placing things (Floyd, even footing with Jack) in an orderly row, to be plucked up by the season’s final stretch of episodes. It’s to the detriment of the episode responsible for the setup, but in a 21-episode television season, there are always going to be episodes like “The Fighting Irish.” They all can’t be great, and they all won’t be failures—but some half-hour has to shoulder the burden of Tracy attending the Wednesday-night hellfire-and-brimstone session with Kenneth and Reverend Gary, and “The Fighting Irish” is that episode

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At the end of “The Fighting Irish,” Liz tells Jack, “As always, it’s been a pleasure fighting with you.” For once, she means fighting alongside Jack. And with good reason: At this point, she’s closer to him than any of the visitors that share his surname. There’s a symbolic reason that no one can agree on a pronunciation of “Donaghy” in “The Fighting Irish”: Those people aren’t a family. Jack and Colleen are family. The people Liz can’t bring herself to fire are family. Liz and Jack are family. That’s why Jack ships Other Liz off to The Constitution State: He wants to see Liz happy. That and the demands of the season-one narrative, but it’s a lot sweeter to dwell on the emotions of the act, rather than the logistics. It’s not the Donaghy thing to do, but the Donaghy things to do don’t shed “The Fighting Irish” in the most flattering light, anyway.

Stray observations:

  • Tracy understands the true tragedy of vampirism. “I believe that vampires are the world’s greatest golfers, but they’ll never get to prove it.”
  • “I haven’t seen Eddie since I bailed him out of Disney jail.”—Did Jack see Blake Lively while he was there?
  • Classic fakeout gag from Eddie: “Now, I know there’s been a lot of controversy around the church lately—you know, because of The Da Vinci Code.”
  • You know what? Eddie ain’t a half-bad character: “You call those fist names? Say hello to Bono and Sandra Day O’Connor?”

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Next time: Will Arnett’s introduction as Devon Banks requires Jack to pull out the big guns: The Rockefeller Center Salute To “Fireworks.” After that: Jack develops a “Corporate Crush” on Liz’s new boyfriend, and Tracy pitches a very special movie to Don Geiss.