"If that kid could see you today, he would... throw up." -LizEvery now and then, I'll go back over old blog reviews of "30 Rock" and look with dismay at the ones where I did nothing but list the jokes I liked -- not because my opinion of those episodes has changed, but because I feel like I've in some way fallen down on the job. If I can't do more than just list what was great -- if I can't explain why it was great, or what the larger meaning of its greatness is -- then what good am I as a TV critic, right?
Then I watch an episode like "Apollo, Apollo" -- easily the best "30 Rock" of the season, and one of the series' best episodes to date, one that required me to make liberal use of the DVR rewind function to go back and catch jokes I had missed because I was laughing so hard at the ones before them -- and I'll be damned if I don't want to do anything but rattle off the many, many, many jokes I loved. If anything, there's a part of me that feels that, where my deconstruction of a show like "Mad Men" or "Battlestar Galactica" -- or even another comedy like "The Office" (which was also great tonight, and which I'll get to in the morning) -- might enhance the experience, when "30 Rock" is this good, there's a magical quality to it that I feel I can only take away from by trying to explain its genius.
Still, I wanna try -- before going to the inevitable bullet point list -- because I do feel like this one was special, and a significant cut above even some of this season's stronger entries like "Believe in the Stars", and I think I can get at why without ruining the magic trick.
So, some of the reasons why:
It had Muppets. Okay, this is an obvious one. The Muppets rule, and singing Muppet Jack (pictured above) was only topped by the transition from Muppet Liz to flesh-and-blood Liz moving in a very Muppet-like fashion. But Muppets alone aren't enough. What else?
It had Dennis. Dennis also rules, and I would argue is a stronger occasional character than Dr. Spaceman (who's usually awesome but occasionally misses the target). The writers (in this case, Robert Carlock) have completely zoomed in on the narcissistic worldview of that kind of That Guy, then cranked those qualities up to appropriately absurd "30 Rock" proportions. So much nonsense spews out of his mouth that it's easy to miss it all, but a line like him explaining that he was upset to watch Hurricane Katrina coverage and see "what those people were doing to the Super Dome" sums up his idiocy within the "30 Rock" universe -- and his genius to us viewers at home -- quite neatly.
It had heart. It's easy for a show with this many talented writers and actors to just turn into an amalgam of zany gags. And, certainly, those episodes can be awfully satisfying on their own. But the ones that allow Jack and/or Liz to have some human emotions in the midst of the chaos are even moreso. Jack feeling so much joy as a kid that he had to vomit is a good joke on its own, but the way Alec Baldwin played Jack's sadness at reaching 50 and no longer feeling happy enough to puke made the final payoff that much richer. And speaking of which...
It all came together. This, more than anything else, is the thing that's been separating some of this season's better episodes from the truly classic "30 Rock"s like "Rosemary's Baby" or "The Fighting Irish." Even the episodes that are filled with very strong jokes and/or brief moments of pathos from one of the characters don't quite end as well as they could. Either the jokes tail off, or they fail to cross over, or both. Here, each joke built on top of each other -- say, the way Kenneth's Muppet-vision was followed by Tracy's Tracy-vision and then Jack's $-vision -- and then they all collided at the end, as Liz and Jenna's feud, Jack's need for a moment of happiness, and the practice of turning your own name into a gerund to describe a gross bodily function all blended into a hilarious climax. (And even there, the script kept adding more jokes, like Frank's horrified "He's mortal!" reaction to seeing Jack vomit.)
This was just genius all around, and Carlock, director Millicent Shelton and the whole gang deserve an extra attaboy, followed by the traditional lazy bullet-point list of other stuff I loved, including:
• Jack has a Google News alert for "Tracy Jordan ridiculous disaster"
• Jack's list of things he wanted to (and did) accomplish by 50 included "Beat up a Russian"
• Grizz is Adam West's agent
• Liz's Jenna impression has a British accent, and Jenna is both happy about that and eager to explain why
• Tracy's childhood dream of going into space includes "killing the Ewok"
• Tracy is totally on his game in the meeting with Liz, with the clever wordplay and the quoting of Robert Browning
• Jack threatens to "Benjamin Button myself" if he can't find out what was in the box
• Pete once dreamed of following his dad into Congress, if not for that one DUI in high school...
• Jack assumes from watching "24" that video technicians can analyze anything from any image
• For that matter, the mere fact that Jack watches "24"
• Everyone Jack brings in to solve the mystery thinks they're there for a job interview
• As Tracy and company do their own version of the "Right Stuff" slo-mo walk (the second NBC comedy of the week to do so), Kenneth makes perfect "Star Wars" creature noises (do any of you want to try to identify exactly what creature that was?)
• Tracy in the simulator: "I'm Lizzing! Hah hah! Lizzing! I'm Lizzing!"
• In Jack-vision, Kenneth is only worth seven bucks
• Every single damn thing about Liz's Chicago phone sex commercial, from the hairstyle to the teeth to the random eating of pizza halfway through
• In addition to Frank, Lutz's horrified reaction to the Jacking -- "What just happened?!?!?!" -- was pretty great.
Feel free to add your own favorites if I've left any out.
What did everybody else think?