Friday, May 01, 2009

30 Rock, "The Natural Order": Trading places

Spoilers for last night's "30 Rock" coming up just as soon as I send a gibbon to join the Italian Parliament in my place while I make my own soda(*)...
"1959. Boy, it would've been fun to write back then. You could get away with crazy plot twists, because audiences were so much less sophisticated." -Liz
I've been using the phrase "funny forgives a lot" in my reviews of this very uneven "30 Rock" season. But while "The Natural Order" had a number of funny things in it, what elevated the episode above the "collection of amusing gags that never quite come together" level of so much of this season was the straight dramatic scene between Jack and his mom.

Colleen has never been one of my favorite recurring characters. It always feels like the writers believe Elaine Stritch is so innately funny that they don't have to give her much to do to get a laugh, and I don't share that belief. But that moment with Jack, when she shared her own version of the many departures of Jimmy Donaghy, then realized what her son has been carrying with him all these years, was just impeccably played by both Stritch and Alec Baldwin. When Jack and/or Liz get to occasionally show some humanity and vulnerability inside the otherwise cartoonish "30 Rock" world, it makes everything around them that much more interesting. Plus, her delivery of the line about how you can't say no to a Florida man who can drive after dark was perfect.

As for the rest of the episode, I found Liz and Tracy's rivalry hit-or-miss. For every gag that worked (Pete warning Liz not to accept the Race Card), there were one or two that didn't (I'm a fan of slapstick, but Liz's long battle with the water cooler never clicked for me). The idea of a professional Tracy (complete with Cosby sweater and reading glasses) was terrific, but they never really sold Liz forcing herself to be more like Tracy. (After all, didn't she go with him to a strip club in the pilot without being nearly as horrified? Still, I liked Tina Fey's delivery of "Let's go see some naked daughters and moms!")

And Jenna and the gibbon? Well, monkeys are inherently funny, as David Letterman proved in the one shining moment of his Oscar hosting stint. (Go watch that clip, not only for the young and svelte Alec Baldwin, but for how Paul Newman owns everybody with his audition. Seriously. I can wait.) Still, the best part of that entire subplot was a throwaway line, when we heard Kenneth tell a tour group that they were "standing on the very spot where Gracie Allen took Jack Paar's virginity."

Good to see Steve Buscemi back, even briefly (and wearing an unseen costume under his clothes), and to see Pete getting more to do the last few weeks. Not a classic episode, but solid enough, in the end.

What did everybody else think?

(*) Sorry. I couldn't pick just one "as soon as" this week.

38 comments:

Fred Earle said...

Oh,dear Sepinwall,my favourite blogger..

bsangs said...

Thanks for the link Alan. Wow, was that a flashback. I didn't even hate Rosie O'Donnell then.

As for last night's 30 Rock, eh, very uninspired. And I'm glad you called out the water "gag" because it was one of the lamest bits they've ever done. Liz isn't that stupid. Subpar episode overall.

Although I have to admit, I laughed long and loud when one of the farts in the writer's room made Liz's hair blow back. Call me sophomoric I guess...

Bryan said...

I'm glad you mentioned that strip club scene. My first reaction was "why is she crying - she's been in strip clubs before" I just couldn't remember when it was

Adam said...

Forget about svelte Baldwin ... how about svelte Tom Hanks and a still-worthy-of-being-included-in-things-like-this Michael Keaton?

bitingsarcasm said...

Alan, how did you not love Liz dropping the bombshell on Tracy--that he had to stay behind to give notes on the script--only for him to gasp and say "TWIST!" Amazing.

Rachel said...

I loved the "TWIST" thing too. I've already used it this morning.

A good, not great episode. I too loved Colleen's line about finding a man who could drive at night. Hilarious. The water bottle gag was sort of lame.

Anonymous said...

Yes. For some reason the while "Liz/women can't change the watercooler" bit really really annoyed me. So, a so-so episode for me.

Mattie said...

I thought the best line was when Kenneth said the pig "bit off my nut sack... which I kept on my belt to feed the squirrels"- genius (I'm not sure if I got that line right but it was something like that)

Bryan said...

I also did not like the water cooler gag at all - what got me is aren't all those coolers now pretty much spill proof (they have litte cap that pushes in when you place it on top) I used to have that problem when I was a kid but that was 35 years ago. I mean what's next Liz not being able to change the ribbon in the typewriter?

Brendan said...

Thanks for the YouTube clip. To this day, I still hear Michael Buffer saying "MONKEY!" every time I see one.

Kensington said...

I have to defend the water cooler gag -- not its comedic value (it had little) but its credibility. Having changed more than a few water bottles in recent years, let me assure any doubters that spillage is still very much possible.

As for the overall quality of last night's episode, by the time I read this blog post I'd already forgotten almost everything. Before reading I couldn't even remember the premise, which means either I'm losing my marbles (possible but less likely) or this episode was unusually mediocre (more likely -- I hope).

lara said...

The water cooler thing left me cold, too, because on one of Ellen DeGeneres' (many) sitcoms, she did the same thing and it was absolutely hysterical. I don't think Tina Fey's got the same gift for physical comedy. We're comedy zombies who love her for her BRAINS. oh, and she's hot.

Kendra said...

The water cooler did not bother me, perhaps because I find myself having to change it at work, while the guys mostly watch and always end up spilling it on myself or the wall or the floor.

So I felt Tina's pain with that darn water cooler!

Henry said...

I loved this episode. It was a worthy follow-up to The Office. I loved Pete's quick warning to Liz about not taking the Race Card from Tracy. Of course, the good feeling was spoiled a little bit by Tracy and Liz's little upping the maniacal laughing war. I thought the same EXACT thing about Tracy when he got "all professional": I actually asked to no one in particular, "Is he TRYING to be Bill Cosby?!" And honestly, the water cooler gag worked for me. Great payoff later when Liz does the same thing and Frank punches her. "That gland thing is no joke!"

torontomeridith said...

I was bothered by the water bottle gag too. Especially since I routinely had to change water bottles in one office in which I was the only woman and later in another office which consisted of nothing but women.

reuben said...

this episode like much of this season I found fairly unfunny and too eelf-satisfied. I am afraid that this year with the parade of guest stars (what I refer to as the Will and Grace syndrome) we've lost the consistent efforts of the supporting cast. Jenna is a caricature and Tracy has been phoning it in. really many episodes are just not that good anymore and a faint shadow of the success of season 1. it's a shame as I am a fan of Tina Fey but the episodes this year are mostly not compelling. overall I think the show has become too smug and lazy - the whole is less than the sum of its parts week in and week out.

Brad W said...

The show has pretty much committed to a frantic, Arrested Development cram a joke in every second style. When the jokes are working it's great, when they're not, it falls horribly flat. And by staying firmly in surreal land 99% of the time it just never earns the right to a poignant human moment, unlike The Office, a show that knows how to take a breath.

Lizbeth said...

I actually laughed at the water cooler slapstick because as a petite woman (5 foot even) I used to dread the prospect of finding an empty water cooler, knowing I'd have to refill it.

The feminist in me may hate asking for a man's help with "heavy lifting"...but those things are just so darn hard to pick up, and flip, and get exactly in place -- especially for us shorties. Maybe if they made them a different height, we wouldn't have the same problem.

Anonymous said...

I'm the only male in an office with six women and it's forced me to become the de facto IT/printer-repair/water cooler replacer guy. I had to pause the tv I was laughing so hard at the water cooler reversal.

Dee said...

I'm 5' 1" and I've had no trouble changing the watercooler since, oh, about 11. So, adding the fact that Tina Fey, while funny in many, many ways, is not the best physical comedian, the joke really fell flat for me. And I'm not sure if the staff room bit worked too well for me either. I kept looking for the other female writer on staff while they did all the 'oh, men are gross farting machines' bit. Where is she?

Though, I really enjoyed the Jack and Jack's mother bit. But, on the whole, I agree, kind of an unmemorable episode.

bonita sarita said...

I hate saying this but I think you need to be a woman to really appreciate the water cooler joke. Yes women can change the jug like the dudes but it's the fear of spilling it everywhere that hits home for me.

Fenwick said...

Man, I can't believe that some of you guys found that episode "mediocre" or "uninspired".

I laughed my ass off from start to finish. The pace was so quick, I saved it on my DVR, knowing that I missed at least a dozen jokes.

The "throw away lines" on this show are funnier than just about everything else out there.

J said...

This episode was really flat, and a lot of that's because both Liz AND Tracey are smart enough to realize that "equality" doesn't mean that people are all equally good at everything. And having to dumb both characters down enough so that they wouldn't make an argument against the premise makes them totally unsympathetic.

Fey is just lousy at slapstick. It was one of the things she tried to do with her character in the pilot, it doesn't work, she's not good at it. (Krakowski can be good at it, if it involves vegetable oil and a rubber chicken.) The only positive about the water changing thing is that they made it go on forever, so I'm guessing they knew it wasn't working and went the Letterman route.

Also, harrumph, loved the Letterman Oscars. I don't think any other host's passing one-liners has stuck with me the way "Uma... Oprah" has. His subjugation of the ceremony could only work once, but it worked brills.

I'm a giant lover/forgiver of this show, but Better Off Ted has been better then 30 Rock as far as peculiar pleasures go.

Tara said...

The thing I appreciated about the water cooler gag was that it went on and on - no cuts. And was framed perfectly. I was seriously crying at the end.

Anonymous said...

Great throw away line: The doorman has a beard and she doesn't feel like getting raped.

Nicole said...

This episode was okay, but not a classic. The laugh out loud line for me was Kenneth's line about getting his nutsack bit off.

I didn't find the farting thing funny because while I know the characters are supposed to be emotionally stunted, I didn't think that farting would be the thing that guys are afraid to do around women they work with.

Anonymous said...

Liz's hair being blown back after Lutz said another was coming was a great touch. Disgusting, but funny.

I agree the water cooler scene was not great but mainly because it reminded me of a far superior scene involving chili that I had seen about 45 minutes earlier.

Savvy Veteran said...

While I think that The Office has been a more consistent show ever since the Super Bowl episode (which I hated), it still hasn't made me laugh like 30 Rock. I obviously am a bigger fan of the comedy niche that 30 Rock has carved out for itself, so I feel like you've been too hard on this season. I know you've said that funny forgives a lot, but in my mind this has been their best season yet (parade of guest stars? Bad as an idea. Still terrific and funny in execution though), and it surprises me when you are disappointed each week.

Also: I would agree that the water cooler thing was not funny. But when we saw an exasperated Liz finishing putting another one in a second time about 10 minutes later (I think it was in the writer's room?), yet again completely soaked, it really had me laughing.

But I definitely agree with the other commenter who said that Better Off Ted is the funniest show currently on TV. Such a pleasant surprise.

Anonymous said...

Gibbons are not monkeys; they are apes. Monkeys have tails; apes don't. I was very disappointed to see an ape (nonhuman ape, that is) in this show. Their conservation status is not good, and demand for apes to be used in entertainment can threaten the wild population. Because they are rare, they are very valuable. Greedy, unscrupulous people will steal babies from their natural habitat, killing several adults in the process. Apes should be left in the wild and not appear in movies, on TV, or on greeting cards.

I think you can tell that this plot really affected my enjoyment of this episode.

Ryan said...

I thought that Liz's watercooler scene was funnier than the standalone gag with Kevin and the chili. I think the chili gag was out of place on "The Office," especially as a cold opener.

Karen said...

Well, I have to say I found the Letterman monkey clip funnier than that episode (oh, man, especially John Turturro's Burt Lancaster impression, which I would not have predicted in a million years).

I may be a woman, but I did NOT find the water cooler joke funny (would it have been OK if a woman helped her??). And I was so irritated by the equality plot--Liz has privileges because she's their BOSS, not because she's a woman.

There were gems among the dross--"TWIST!" and the Jack & Colleen scene among them--but this left me pretty cold. Count me third on the enjoying-"Better Off Ted"-more front.

Anonymous said...

My favorite moment was Liz's, "Twist!" when Jack realized Jimmy wasn't his father. It both echoed Tracy's earlier "Twist!" when Liz demanded his notes on the script, and referenced Liz's own "crazy plot twists" observation delivered mere seconds before.

And now, permission to stray off topic?

1. In the Monkey Auditions reel, who is the blond crying woman?

2. Related to Letterman's Oscars show, did you see Jon Stewart's Late Show conversation with Dave on the subject of hosting that extravaganza?

Okay, feel free to disregard #2 for going too far afield, but I still can't identify the crying blond.

Michael

Alan Sepinwall said...

It's Madonna.

Anonymous said...

Thank you, Alan.

Michael

qrter said...

The watercooler thing was also done on Joey, of all places (and they did it better..)

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9Svw-OjYBk8

keyser soze said...

I'm surprised by how many commenters are focusing on the water cooler gag... is it the Two-Cent Snowball effect?

Personally, the A-storyline didn't work because it simply didn't make sense. Liz Lemon is rarely -- if ever -- treated as a woman on the show. In fact, there's nothing about her that's even slightly feminine. Just a few weeks ago, during the open (where Jack seeks out Liz's advice on Jalisa), there were three or four references to Liz identifying with the male sex. I'm not saying that lacking femininity is a bad representation of women -- in fact, I would argue the opposite -- but constructing a plot that goes against the basic foundation of a character is contrived and unnecessary. This type of plot would have been more appropriate for Jenna. Liz has never been given unfair treatment for being a woman -- ever. Most people don't even recognize her as a feminine being.

Anonymous said...

As an editor, my favorite moment all season was the "time cut" gag where Tracy suddenly appears at the bottom of the stairs. Inspired!

Re: water cooler gag: I kept wanting Liz to stand up and say "No, we have staff people who do that. Kenneth!"

I strongly agree with an earlier poster who sid that Liz and Tracy (Liz especially) are too smart for that equality=hegemony game. It was frustrating because it was treading on familiar sitcom territory.

That said, I, too am getting really tired of Alan saying "funny forgives a lot" every damn week. 30 Rock, on its worst weeks, is better than anything else on Television. How many "smart comedies" make you laugh out loud 10x more than the "dumb" ones?

Hell, on its worst weeks, its on par with most of Arrested Development. There, I said it! :-)

Karen said...

Great episode! 30 Rock keeps on getting better and better.

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