Thursday, April 17, 2008

30 Rock, "Subway Hero": Baba-booey!

Spoilers for the latest episode of "30 Rock" coming up just as soon as I buy some buckets...

I saw "Subway Hero" a while back, and as I wrote in my column last week, my reaction to it was roughly the same as it was to "MILF Island": a number of very funny individual moments, but an episode that was less than the sum of its parts.

And yet, as I was going over my notes from the episode to write this blog entry, I found myself laughing at certain jokes (say, Dennis explaining that he saved the woman to prove he was better than Derek Jeter) more than I did at the time, while whatever flaws I perceived at the time didn't seem as obvious anymore. Ask me what was wrong with "MILF Island," and I can tell you plainly: the pace was too slow for what was intended as a farce, and the Pete subplot was there either because they were on a deadline or because they needed some way to shoehorn in a plug for that soy candy bar. With "Subway Hero," I'm having a harder time putting my finger on what left me slightly dissatisfied.

Okay, one problem is clear: the Bucky Bright subplot didn't work. Now, I like Tim Conway, and think he can be amazingly funny with the right material (or, even better, when improvising with the right partner), but this part wasn't a good fit for him. On paper, I suppose there was some shock value in having Conway talking about opium pipes and "The Jew Room," but in practice most of those lines fell flat. I think another actor might have worked in the part, maybe a more stiff-upper-lip leading man type, but it wasn't Conway's bag. (Okay, one exception: The sandwich girls line? Genius.)

As for the rest of it, I continue to love the way that Fey and company write Dennis as such a classic example of That Guy, oblivious to how the rest of the world perceives him as an obnoxious tool (because he is, of course, an obnoxious tool), whether it was the Jeter comment, the Stern shout-out during the press conference, him declaring himself to be socially conservative but fiscally liberal (does that combination apply to anyone in real life?), calling out the Butterfaces in the crowd, etc. I don't know that they can do another "Liz takes Dennis back" story after this, but I really enjoy the character and how Liz keeps letting herself get trapped in his orbit.

So maybe, in retrospect, my problem was with the story about Jack trying to use Tracy to recruit new Republicans. Even there, there were many funny things -- The Committee to Reinvade Vietnam, Tracy's love of state's rights, Dot Com's need to always be the smartest guy in the room, Kenneth choosing God (and that counting as a Republican vote) -- but I don't feel like the pieces came together well enough, or that they intersected well with the Dennis storyline.

I don't know. Maybe I was just grouchy that day, but considering how psyched I was to have new "30 Rock" at my disposal, I don't think so. I think they're still getting back on their feet, though this one was more assured than last week's.

What did everybody else think?

31 comments:

Bill said...

A lot of what didn't work for me was that the Bucky Bright scenes felt completely disconnected from the rest of the show. He really didn't interact with anyone but Kenneth. The scenes could have been attached to any other episode without more than a few seconds of changes, and even the connection to the Tracy plot was tenuous. Just a big walk and talk that ambled around the perimeter of the episode without taking much notice of it.

filmcricket said...

I think the pacing was still off. Tracy telling Jack that he'd put him in a "quandary" was an example - Tracy using that word is like Homer Simpson talking about the third law of thermodynamics - but an up-to-par "30 Rock" would do a hit and run on that line, not hang onto it for five seconds. And yeah, the Conway scenes didn't really work.

On the other hand, Baldwin-as-Nixon was hilarious.

Alanna said...

I love Dean Winters to pieces, and "The Break-up" was my favorite S1 episode, so I was thrilled to have him back. I like that they use him to really play up Liz's insecurities and not-so-shiny side, without her going on a self-pity run. That's one of the show's overall strengths, even if it sometimes feels a bit forced.

I agree that the subplots were weak, though I laughed at the Nixon dream and Conan O'Brien as "a giant lesbian". The anti-GOP jokes fell flat for me because they felt too much like the writers speaking through the characters (and I say this as a hardcore Democrat.)

And please tell me that the Forgetting Sarah Silverman pop-up at the end is not a sad vision of things to come. Yeah, I know the networks have to pay the bills in the DVR Age, but c'mon.

Alanna said...

Er, that's "Forgetting Sarah MARSHALL" (though at times I'd like to forget Ms. Silverman.)

Anonymous said...

Did anyone else catch that "Lord Stanley Cup" was credited as "Himself" in the end credits?

bill said...

I think the Tim Conway plot is even funnier if you view it as a parody of the Eli Wallach episode ("The Wrap Party") of "Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip."

R.A. Porter said...

There were a lot of disconnected threads in tonight's episode, and that was the problem. On their own, each of the plots was funny, but with no crossover, it just fell flat. Plus, I was sure they were going somewhere with Liz's Mexican Cheetos, but they just dropped it.

All negatives aside, I was rolling at "The Jew Room".

So it goes said...

I liked the Bucky Bright subplot, Conway had plenty of great lines considering his limited time on screen. I thought it worked because as Bill noted it was a not so subtle jab at Studio60 and I always enjoy seeing Kenneth's innocent naivety taking a beating from his 30 rock reality.

Tracy telling Jack that he'd put him in a "quandary" was an example - Tracy using that word is like Homer Simpson talking about the third law of thermodynamics

You have to remember that:
A) He spends lots of time with a guy who likes to be the smartest guy in the room, he is bound to pick up at least a word or two.

B) Considering all the crazy shit Tracy gets into Dotcom would probably end up saying quandary about 5 times a week.

Anon said...

declaring himself to be socially conservative but fiscally liberal (does that combination apply to anyone in real life?)

Since you mentioned this...I did a double take at that line for the following reason: Initially I thought it was just another free-associative moment from Dennis ("Get me a leather jacker, a shirt with a glowing skull, and a porkpie hat"). But if you think about it, socially conservative and fiscally liberal described plenty of ethnic communities over the past century that suffered discrimination but persevered by relying on: a) a strong religious tradition, and b) formal support or informal patronage through city services largesse or federal poverty programs. As one of my friends pointed out, one example of this might be...Irish Catholics in NYC, like Dennis' (grand)parents. And whose politics is Dennis going to have? So maybe it wasn't a joke at all.

This is exactly the type of messing with my head I expect from Ryan O'Reily.

Dean Winters mostly made the episode for me. I would have been fine with Tim Conway at the periphery with a few good lines as a C-story if the Jack/Tracy B-story had had a better punchline. The "Don't Vote" ad was cute, but it wasn't worth calling up ghost Nixon and insulting Dot Com for. I guess I also expected to see Toofer play a part in story once he showed up in the dream. (Related: I so hope the show works in some reference to this).

Anon

Nicole said...

They probably could have mined a few more laughs if they had been accurate in having that guy who follows the Stanley Cup at all times, with the white gloves.

Jack as Nixon was excellent though. Where is Baldwin's Emmy?

BigTed said...

I found plenty to laugh at in this episode, and that's enough for me. I certainly understand the problems: Tim Conway's character didn't really reflect any actual "living legend of television" I can think of. And the Tracy subplot didn't really go anywhere (although Jack as Nixon was great).

There's been talk on other blogs about a potential Tina Fey backlash (based on what could be called her overexposure, along with the now kind of controversial pro-Hillary speech she gave when she hosted "SNL"). By the time she gets around to plugging her new movie on all the talk shows, even fans may start getting tired of her. What do you guys think?

R.A. Porter said...

I'd only lash Tina's back if she asked me nicely, promised it wouldn't hurt her, and she selected an appropriate safety word.

"Blergh" would work.

Anonymous said...

Socially conservative and fiscally liberal? Isn't that populism? Dennis for Huey Long in '08...

Siddhartha said...

Tina Fey can come out and say that she dines on toddler casserole on a nightly basis and I'd still love her.

Since we're reminscing about S1 with the reappearance of Dennis, I loved her line to Jason Suidekis in S1 about "telling all my friends that I voted for Barack Obama but really voting for John McCain" was strangely prescient and depressingly a possible outcome if those two do make it to the Electoral Survivor Finale in Nov '08.

Also, Tracy Morgan is the only person who can get away with repeating the absurd part of a punchline at the end of his dialogue without ruining the joke.

"There was still so much left on bucket list that I wanted...So many different types of buckets I wanted to buy...Buckets."

Undercover Black Man said...

Well, they also pulled off a very difficult thing: a funny joke with "rape" in the punch line. (Triple word score for having a parrot in the set-up.)

Bruce Reid said...

I agree the writers really nail Dennis's character, but I'd still hand the bulk of the credit over to Winters, who's consistently maintained a laugh-to-line ratio that rivals even Baldwin's. ("She said her last boyfriend was Asian, and that stuff doesn't start till college" is an inspired line; genius is getting a big laugh out of "it's biased against the Irish.") Here's hoping he keeps showing up on, say, an annual basis, whether courting his dummy or not.

Or, hell, stick him in the Office spin-off; why not?

The subplots worked fine for me, and fed off each other nicely enough--Jack's longing for a resurgence of the "cool" Republican celebrities of yore and Kenneth's romanticized notions of TV culture both shot down thoroughly, but in a way that proved the change didn't matter--even if they didn't blend all that well with the main story, true.

R. A. Porter: "Plus, I was sure they were going somewhere with Liz's Mexican Cheetos, but they just dropped it."

It wasn't the best gag, but I think the whole point there was, disgusting as they seemed to everybody else, Dennis dug in and ate them along with her. More a character beat than a laugh-out-loud moment.

Anon's dead-on about the "socially conservative, fiscally liberal" line; it's funny because no one ever uses that formulation, but it perfectly describes a (perhaps stereotypically) East Coast urban voting bloc.

As to a Tina Fey backlash, I've no doubt one's coming. You could feel it revving up two summers ago, till the buzz missed it by a mile and her backstage show turned out so much funnier and accurate than Sorkin's. (Which I never doubted, having disliked all of his previous efforts, but that's a tangent.)

christy said...

Also, the cheese puffs' brand name was Sabor de Soledad.

I myself wondered if they were trying to nail McCain with that "socially conservative, fiscally liberal" thing. I definitely know some people who'd describe him that way.

Steven said...

Everyone knows the FDNY is biased against the Irish.

Steven said...

I have to say, with a title of "Subway Hero," I was very disappointed there wasn't a single sandwich joke.

Allison said...

I thought that minus the Bucky Bright subplot, this episode was classic.

And though Jenna and Frank were barely on the show, they both each got a hilarious line--Frank's about watching people die in the subway and Jenna's about "love means wearing makeup to bed and hiding alcohol in perfume bottles."

TL said...

Anything with Dennis is aces in my book. My first 30 Rock was "The Breakup," and I was genuinely sorry to see that he wasn't coming back. (Especially love the Springsteen-esque piano & harmonica cue that they use for his theme.) I think they can find an episode once a year for Dennis.

fuzzydunlop said...

Steven, I'm sure Ben Silverman would have been happy to insert a few Subway sandwich jokes if the good people at Subway had coughed up enough cash. I wasn't sure if Jack's reference to Liz blogging on iVillage was product placement or not; it certainly didn't come off as a pos-men.

Dean Winters really does pull off even the mediocre lines. I was almost embarrassed that I laughed so hard when he said "Thank you, Mayor Bloomberger!"

Anon said...

Steven said:

I was very disappointed there wasn't a single sandwich joke.

I thought there was. At the end of Jenna's food/relationship analogy (which Liz even acknowledges is strained) she opens Liz's office door while saying "You need a good meal, Liz".

What's going outside? The staff yelling (call-and-responsing?) "Subway" "Hero" "Subway" "Hero"

Anon

barefootjim said...

Maybe The Office spinoff should have Dean Winters and Melora Hardin. Jan goes back to New York and meets Dennis. It would be a step up for everybody concerned.

On the whole, I laughed far more at this one -- "Those count as Republican" -- than last weeks.

And I thought that the Irish/FDNY joke was a shout-out to "Rescue Me."

drake leLane said...

Seeing Winters again (outside of his wasted performances in TTSCC) is a good reminder of what's been missing from Rescue Me since they killed off his character. Why doesn't this man get more work?

I'd like to echo bill with the Bucky Bright side story as Studio 60 parody ("The Wrap Party"). The scenes are a lot funnier when you watch it remembering the doe-eyed sentimentality that Sorkin wrote for Eli Wallach's character.

As funny as it was, though, it still didn't fit in well with the rest of the episode.

Jon Delfin said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Jon Delfin said...

(Take two.) Sabor de Soledad = Taste of Loneliness, sí?

Loved the Lord Stanley Cup credit. Was that Toofer playing Sammy Davis?

R.A. Porter said...

That was indeed Toofer playing Sammy.

Thanks for the translation. I'd forgotten what "soledad" meant, but now I know why I always feel a little melancholy when I see Soledad O'Brien.

Mark B said...

Having not seen Studio 60 (as many others didn't), the sense of parody was lost on me.

As for Liz, she's waiting for campaign finance reform? How many years ago was McCain - Feingold? Sheesh, no wonder she got that nickname from Dennis!

floretbroccoli said...

Was the scene with Nixon's ghost talking to Tracy's "ghost" a deliberate Beetlejuice reference?

I had to remind myself that Alec Baldwain was in that movie.

Toby said...

I watched the episode again online at NBC and this time got the chance to read the news crawls in that opening bit with Mayor "Bloomburger". The best because it's so off-the-wall was "Baby Bottle Found On Mars", but I liked the shout-out to 'The Terminator' as well (NORAD puts cyborgs in charge of Skynet).

Not sure if the bosses at the real 30 Rock will feel the same about the nod to the competition.....