30 Rock: "Hey, Baby, What's Wrong"


    Photo courtesy of NBC.

    This hour-long Valentine’s Day episode, aired a whole five days, a.k.a. a school/work week ahead of Valentine’s Day, will give viewers a welcome (not so welcome?) reminder of the confusion, disappointment and, perhaps, satisfaction that awaits if they buy into the whole she-bang. Most of the TGS bunch buys in, of course: Liz does--despite years of humiliation and disappointment, neatly summarized in mini montage (e.g., she waits on Dennis at a batting cage, wearing an umbrella-shaped, blood red dress. He snarls, “We’re not going to Chili’s until I hit one”. She wobbles clumsily like a teapot before getting plunked by a ball.)

    Jack subscribes too, being a sap at heart. He finds himself unexpectedly attracted to his mother-in-law Charlotte, his partner in navigating the bureaucratic and diplomatic straits of getting Avery back into the country. They make a good on-screen pair--of similar height, imposing in carriage and demeanor, yet fragile and glassy-eyed in the face of a Valentine’s Day alone.

    Lutz also wants in--after forty-some years of being squarely out. So Tracy and Frank make it their mission to verse him in the precepts of sleezebaggery. Frank is clearly a master. To him, Valentine’s Day is simply “scumbag Christmas.” His hat on this occasion reads “Feet.” The stage is set for magic.

    Finally, Liz and Criss venture to IKEA to shop for a table, a fluorescent prelude to the romantic evening that undoubtedly awaits. We soon learn that IKEA is a quick catalyst for bitter squabbling, tearing even the most committed (read: old) couples apart, swiftly dissolving the calcified bedrock of their time-tested unions--so how does Liz and Criss’ fledgling partnership stand even a chance?

    This is a well-directed episode. The main performances are energetic and focused, and even minor roles receive detailed attention. Special props go to the Transylvanian liaison to the U.N.; the phony-Italian guy who tries to get Jack and Avery’s mom to eat at his restaurant; and of course the irredeemable, irreplaceable Dr. Spacemen, pronounced Spa-che-man, who ends his day by announcing, “Well, it’s 5 ‘o clock somewhere.”

    The writing is largely innovative and witty, though the episode lags a bit in the second half. It’s hard to put a finger on what exactly sets apart the stretches where 30 Rock works from those where it doesn’t. I have said that the one-liners aren’t the driving force, but I reconsider. When the verbal jokes are working, it’s because they hit on the essence of a situation and, more importantly, of a character, whom they make more real—exactly what the doctor ordered. So, I revise. Effective one-liners cannot be separated from compelling character development and larger story arcs. They are integrally, symbiotically related.

    With that in mind, the plot mechanics of Avery’s situation—reckoning with the realities of a Jong-Il-less North Korea and the logistics of getting her back into the country--provide a challenge and potential hazard for the showrunners. Plot mechanics noticeably bog down the scene where Jack and Mama Jessup discuss the details of Avery’s return. That said, I sincerely hope Elizabeth Banks comes back soon. She’s a great comedic presence, and the show misses her.

    I’m still undecided about Criss, Liz’s old, new boyfriend. Although James Marsden makes him appealingly goofy, the character remains rather thin. The show flirts with portraying him as a flakey, go-with-the-flow type; however, he has moments of unexpected drive. Hard to get a read on so far--especially as he is ignored for entire episodes (such as last). Could this mean that, with the show winding down and all, he’ll be more of a permanent general presence in Liz’s life? A bathroom wall fixture, let’s say, instead of the usual cosmetics kit, explored actively, exhausted and summarily dumped?

    Anyway, in the show’s last scene, a coffee-table Criss fashioned--from tree branches he found at a romantic spot of his and Liz’s and a discarded Herman Cain poster--falls on Liz and wrecks the romantic mood. So it goes.


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