The candle. The mother-flippin' candle under the lampshade. That may be my single favorite joke in the short but brilliant history of "30 Rock," and the highlight of the nearly-perfect "Cooter."
(I say "nearly" because the page rivalry stuff never quite works -- if it hadn't been for Pete's secret archery history, and Pete with a wig and mustache, the latest round of Kenneth vs. Donny would have been a complete waste this time -- and yet the rest of the episode was so wonderful that I didn't mind it.)
The candle gag symbolized so much of what makes "30 Rock," at its peak (which the show admittedly hasn't been at since the strike ended), the funniest comedy on TV. We start off with our first glimpse of the crumbling remnants of the show's version of the Bush administration -- bare bookshelves, the leaky ceiling that everyone's in denial about ("We've looked into it, and it's not"), no pens or other relevant office supplies, an appropriations meeting where everyone argues over the most ridiculous minutiae (whether "dam" is a swear word, whether Rome was, in fact, built in a day). In this Kubrick-meets-Gilliam bureaucratic nightmare (sort of the D.C. equivalent of the 12th floor at 30 Rock), Jack's brand of Reagan-era conservativm marks him as an admirable man of action, but then he turns out to be just as motivated by petty self-interest as everyone else, with his desire to go back to GE and wait for Geiss to wake up. And so as he delivers that stirring speech to Cooter about capitalism's power to heal the nation, it only serves him right that the big symbolic gesture to lift up the lampshade blows up in his face, just as it underscores how pathetic the current administration is supposed to be. Perfectly set up, perfectly executed by the director and Alec Baldwin, and funny every single time I've gone back to watch that scene again.
It helped to have Matthew Broderick around as Cooter Burger (aka James "It was a sandwich!" Reilly). It's taken me a while to make peace with Ferris Bueller growing up to play so many dweebs on stage and screen, but the Leo Bloom association worked here, even before the story turned into such a blatant "Producers" riff. I'm surprised, and pleased, that the Gay Bomb plan didn't turn into a straight "Springtime for Hitler" copy, where it succeeded to the point where Jack and Cooter became indispensible Bush aides. That would have been a little too easy, and the idea of the Gay Bomb going off in Cooter and Jack's presence (and as a payoff to Cooter's Jack-fueled desire for pens) better fit the surreal tone of the storyline. I imagine they'll work their way out of it somehow next season(*), but the image of the other guys in the room getting amorous in a hurry ("Let's do this thing!") was wonderful.
((*) That said, it would be nice to see Edie Falco -- whose return as CC was a pleasant surprise -- show up while Jack is still experiencing the Bomb's effects so she can taunt him about the whole "and, as we broke up before it was my birthday..." whining from Jack's trip to her office.)
Robert Bianco at USA Today, whom I like and often agree with, wasn't a fan of the finale, or any of the other post-strike episodes (which you know I've had issues with), complaining that the show has been hurt by its increasing push towards farcical anarchy (he compares it at one point to "Family Guy"). Specifically, he takes issue with the writing of Liz:
The chief blame for the decline rests with Tina Fey and her fictional counterpart, Liz Lemon. At one point tonight, Tracy (Tracy Morgan) asks Liz, "Do you know what it's like to be the only one who cares about your job?"Now, I don't disagree that the show hasn't focused much of late on Liz's actual running of "TGS," but I never found that to be the strongest part of "30 Rock." Beyond that, though, I think a slightly-unhinged Liz takes better advantage of Tina Fey's growing acting gifts, in the same way that Jack's slight disconnect from reality plays to Baldwin's genius. And even in the midst of a very broad, ridiculous story involving the return of Dennis ("'Pre' -- before. 'Natal' -- ruined."), bull semen-flavored Mexican cheese doodles and Jenna's pathological self-regard ("Oh, no; someone's going to get more attention than me!"), Liz -- and Jack, for that matter -- became as human as ever in the two scenes where Jack listens to all of Liz's voicemails (the last one, and the way Fey said "Never mind," was kind of heartbreaking) and then visits her apartment.
There was a time when the payoff would have depended on our knowledge that Liz did, indeed, know what that was like. But now it leads to a joke about a missed period — and leads viewers to ask when exactly was the last time Liz showed any interest in her job at all. A woman who at least used to try to make her show better has spent the spring dragging through outlandish romantic entanglements and going ballistic over missing sandwiches.
Liz doesn't have to be sane, but when she's as unstable as the nuts circling around her, you get a show that plays more like a barely related series of sketches than a sitcom.
It's not easy to combine complete cartoon behavior with genuine emotion -- "The Simpsons" could do it in the early days, as could David E. Kelley, but both struggle mightily with those tonal shifts today -- and this episode pulled it off. I bought Liz's realization that she wants to have a baby, and Jack's desire to help the closest thing he has to a friend, even amidst an episode featuring Gay Bombs and pornographic video games and notes written in ketchup.
This is the point of the review of any great "30 Rock" episode where I inevitably run out of ways to praise the show and just start listing other jokes I found funny. As this was the last show of the season -- and one of the best -- I'm actually going to keep it a little shorter than usual, both because there were so many things to list and because I want to hear what other people's favorites were. We've got to have something to discuss between now and the fall besides who shot Kenneth and what a gay Jack might be like.
Among my faves not already mentioned above:
- Kathy taking the race car out of her mouth, and then putting it back without saying a word
- Tracy directing Jenna's voiceover work: "Don't overthink it. I don't need another Judi Dench situation!"
- "Like eating a burrito before sex, a guaranteed disaster!"
- Even after discovering the secret ingredient, Liz keeps on eating the Sabor de Soledads.