Friday, October 30, 2009

30 Rock, "Stone Mountain": Good for a few chuckles?

Quick thoughts on last night's "30 Rock" coming up just as soon as you come to see my cover band...

I had dinner with fellow TV critics James Poniewozik and Maureen Ryan the other night, and Mo asked me why I was being so hard on "30 Rock" lately(*), especially compared to a show like "How I Met Your Mother," which can offer up its own clunkers and, at its best, isn't in the same comic stratosphere as "30 Rock" at its best. And I told Mo that the difference is that "HIMYM" creates an emotional engagement with its audience, so that I actually like the characters and enjoy spending time with them even in the episodes that aren't particularly clicking. There was a time where I felt some affection for Liz Lemon, but Tina Fey and company have taken the show in an all-zany, all-the-time direction - maybe not "Family Guy" with better writers, but not that far off - and while that's fine when the jokes are landing, when they don't land, as they haven't for most of this season, then it's a lot more frustrating than watching a not-very-funny episode of "HIMYM" or "The Office" or "Parks and Recreation."

(*) And I should say that I feel like I've been hard on "30 Rock" pretty much since it came back from the writers strike late in season two. They've done some brilliant shows, and also some uneven shows with brilliant things in them, but I don't want to get labeled as a backlash-er when I've been saying this stuff for a year and a half.

In particular, I want this "real America" storyline to go away, immediately. All the jokes about it feel angry and uncomfortable, like Fey has had a lot of bad meetings with the real-life versions of Jack Donaghy of late and wants to vent. It feels like watching those episodes of "Designing Women" where everything would grind to a halt so Dixie Carter could deliver a long rant about whatever was bothering the head writer that week. Fey and company have tried to leaven the anger a little bit with fart jokes and Jack beating up Jeff Dunham's dummy, but overall they need to let go of this.

Tracy's Rule of Threes subplot had a couple of funny moments ("Can you get me on Charlie Rose?" and Tracy not knowing Jimmy Fallon), but there weren't enough to carry another mediocre season four episode.

What did everybody else think?

52 comments:

Lane said...

it had its moments... (one being the book Betty White was reading when Tracy called her.. "From Peanuts to President", a biography of Jimmy Carter written by Milton Greene, with a pic of Alan Alda as the author on the back)

Ryan said...

I agree it wasn't great, but the whole bit about the Pac Man guy dying was amazing. First, that in this universe there actually was an overweight guy who served as the inspiration for Pac Man, and then Tracy's immediate, solemn response of "I will eat a bowl of cherries and some ghost meat in his honor."

Also didn't Jeff Dunham's new show do crazy numbers for Comedy Central?

Anonymous said...

Not a perfect episode, but you can always count on 30 Rock to deliver at least one or two genuine LOL moments/lines.

"Ghost meat" still has me laughing.

I didn't stay up to watch Jimmy Fallon... was his first guest truly a dog that plays soccer?

elizs said...

Lane - I totally missed what book she was reading! Great catch.

I am with Sepinwall on this. I've laughed more at episodes of "New Adventures of Old Christine" than any of this season's "30 Rock." Quite disappointing. I'm even wondering if it's worth keeping "30 Rock" on my DVR's scheduled recordings. "Modern Family" is fast replacing "30 Rock"'s place in my heart.

drbluman said...

There was a time where I felt some affection for Liz Lemon, but Tina Fey and company have taken the show in an all-zany, all-the-time direction . . . and while that's fine when the jokes are landing, when they don't land, as they haven't for most of this season, then it's a lot more frustrating than watching a not-very-funny episode of "HIMYM" or "The Office" or "Parks and Recreation."

This is strongly reminiscent (for me, anyway) to the trajectory of Arrested Development: In its first season, the show managed to cram in approximately 372 jokes per minute while also (usually) having a soul. As the show went on, however, the episodes tended to get hijacked by the increasingly broad and decreasingly funny jokes, and the characters became less and less recognizable as human beings. And then, towards the end of Season 2 and throughout all of Season 3, you had the same sort of anger and frustration creeping into the show.

It does not leave me feeling especially optimistic about the prospects of a sustained return to form for 30 Rock.

It's okay, Tina Fey: we'll always have "Muffin Top."

Jenn said...

I completely agree about the "real America" storyline. I made a similar comment last night while watching.

But whenever I'm feeling down on 30 Rock, I just watch "Apollo Apollo" again and all is right with the world.

christy said...

I love Dixie Carter's long rants on Designing Women :)

I love Betty White. She can do no wrong in my eyes. But I wondered if it was weird for her to serve as a gag about celebrity death streaks when Bea was among the first of this summer's deluge.

I don't like Jeff Dunham. I don't find him funny. I guess I'm not a real American. But I do live in Sex Criminal Boat er, I mean, New York City.

Brian said...

Great relation to Designing Women because that was such a change for a clever show with went all rant-y and ruined the fun.

I laughed some, but you knew what was coming. jack would love it, drag Liz to see it, it would all fall apart.

Forever said...

I was confused about the whole Jenna-hanging-out-with-gay-people-so-Frank-and-gang-hang-out-with-Jenna thing. They explained it so fast that you'd almost need a DVR (which I didn't since I saw the episode in a hotel room) to figure out what the joke was. The punchline was for the guys to get hot women through the gay guys? It just didn't pay off for me.

I did like the "Rule of Three" subplot, though. I think I heard it somewhere as well, though it wasn't taken to such zany levels as provided here. Bonking Jimmy Fallon on the head was quite amusing.

I don't think you're being unnecessarily harsh on 30 Rock. It has been somewhat inconsistent with its comedy since the stellar first season (and even that one took a little time to get out of the blocks). I can remember some standout episodes through the following seasons, but I'm not as enamored with seasons two and three as critics and the Emmy voters have been.

ascot2 said...

I totally agree with the "real America" subplot needing the boot - I hate to admit it, but it's reminds me of Studio 60's lame attempts to take on the red/blue cultural divide - ie, what is lame.

James said...

I also don't think you're being too harsh on the show as this season has so far been a disappointment. As a Southern fan of the show, I'm kind of tired of the constant negative depictions that we don't "get" the show and that we're all dumb hicks that are supposedly more "realer" than LA/NYC people. Jack McBrayer is a laugh riot and his simple charms as Kenneth don't seem insulting, but I was insulted by most of the rest of the episode.

Loved the shout out to Gaffney though (South Carolina) and the news report was actually on the nose.

Anonymous said...

"I wouldn't ---- you with Elmo's ----."

Genius.

Toby O'B said...

My favorite sight gag in the show was a quick shot of Jack McBrayer in the Laugh Factory audience with a mustache.... They're probably all closely related in that area.....

LoopyChew said...

This episode had Cerie in a bikini.

As pigheaded as that is, it had Cerie in a bikini.

Also, I totally called either the puppeteer or the puppet being the third in the Rule of Three
(seriously hoping that this whole search-for-a-new-comedian thing will end with Josh being re-hired. For serious. Maybe Josh-in-a-goatee or something), and cracked up at Fallon's first guest being a dog, and his "yeah, I know, lame" shrug.

I agree that recently the show hasn't been as touching as it was in Season Two (Liz's voice mails at the end of S2 being probably the emotional peak, although Jack/C.C. would also be a good example), but I expect it'll come around eventually.

Also, Cerie.

Jamie said...

"Don't look at me like I'm a football game."

amyp3 said...

Dear Tina,
That backlash you've been fearing? It's heeeeere.

Sheesh, am I not one of the cool kids anymore because I laughed a lot at this? Just a lot of wackiness with the main plot, even though, yes, you could see where it was going, and I didn't like the ending of it that much.

And yes, I agree about the frustratingly wild uneveness (and downright thuddingly unfunny episodes) since at least the start of S3. (In fact, the complaints about not even getting the point of this episode remind me of The Natural Order(?)'s convoluted story about race and gender equality.)

I definitely prefer a show with more of an emotional connection (though not the CBS ones mentioned here). But maybe that's it - the heart of the show for me is Liz/Jack, and I was so thrilled just to see them onscreen together.

Michelle said...

As someone who lives in Middle America and doesn't care for the "comedy" of Jeff Dunham, I enjoyed this episode. I'm surprised they didn't skewer Dane Cook to boot. Or is he not "Middle America" enough?

I also got a kick out of Jenna's gay stereotype friends, Michael and Gay Michael. The whole, "I'm too tired to tell you so I'm just going to give you this facial expression" was hysterical.

And I'm glad that Alec Baldwin can laugh at himself. It's true, his giant head has it's own solar system.

Josh M. said...

The episode was one of my least favorites for one reason - sloppy research. As their redneck destination, they picked Stone Mountain - and as a lifetime Atlanta resident, I can tell you Stone Mountain makes Boston look southern.

Don't get me wrong - there are 500 other Georgia cities that could garner similar skewering. But the selection of Stone Mountain (a bizarre mix of socialites and places where a comedy club would look more like The Apollo) was baffling.

Anonymous said...

Am I the only one who loves Tracy's turn-arounds? Mixing the reactions for Halloween and Princeton cracked me up.

amyp3 said...

IIRC the PA town that's supposedly Liz's hometown is not anything like the real one. So I think it's ditto on Stone Mtn. too - that's just a name they gave to their own fictional place.

And hey, I'm from the Detroit area, where "the tornadoes put out the fires," so I know from 30 Rock disses. I figure that was written by one of the staff who had the great misfortune of growing up in Ohio.

J said...

Seemed to start strong, then faded. The "ghost meat" line was easily the best; that's two weeks in a row for Tracy.

I wouldn't mind the Real America stuff at all if they did it better. They have the right idea in trying to go after both sides -- really, couldn't Baldwin have been punching Dunham in the face? -- but need to skewer focused targets. I would love to see Tracy at a Town Hall meeting.

The "new character" search isn't going to provide any kind of throughline unless it starts rotating viable candidates through. And then you get into the whole Guest Star thing again.

Jobin said...

I used to love Tina Fey but I think Amy Poehler has replaced me as my favorite female comedian. There's only so many jokes that drive home the same points: Liz loves to eat; Liz doesn't have success with men; Liz was awkward growing up. How about some variety?

Also, they REALLY have to do something with Jenna, because she used to be annoying but entertaining, and now she's just annoying.

Michael G. said...

I don't watch 30 Rock much, but I did catch last night's episode. I thought it was pretty funny, but it's not going to inspire me to watch the show any more than usual.

I tried to figure out why I didn't feel the need to watch the show more, since it's "highly acclaimed" and, yeah, usually funny when I watch it. It's basically exactly what you said Alan--I have no attachment to the characters. I know any given show will probably be at least somewhat funny, but when nothing really happens to the characters on the show, I don't feel the need to tune in.

I guess that's why I've always been more of a Scrubs/HIMYM/The Office guy than Family Guy/Simpsons.

Brandon said...

While I'm with you on 30 Rock's inconsistence (a conversation we can have about a lot of comedies, especially contemporary The Office, which seldom has purpose beyond seeing what happens next), I enjoy the fact that it's like nothing else on television. Artistically, it's trying to be basic entertainment (jokes, interesting characters and situations), corporate television satire, and a play with what a television show can be. (Again, that's not to say its success rate hasn't been questionable lately.)

It's obviously a personal preference whether you enjoy 30 Rock's mainstream postmodernism (with constant meta commentary, a substantial portion of absurdism, and generally a dose of topicality--although in the case of Real America, they're a year late), but it's objectively pretty ambitious and original. Which is to say, even on an off day (I've mostly enjoyed these past three, but I take the point; none are all-timers), the original, experimental nature of 30 Rock is rewarding for me.

Bryan said...

I agree completely with Alan on this one and wonder if this years completely undeserved emmy will be the death knell of a once great show. It did have a few very funny lines but the show's nowhere near what it was.

Couple nitpicks too - I'm southern (ky) and don't consider the south "middle" america as Jack was defining it - that would be OH, In, Il Mo Ia etc i would think.

Also - I thought Kenneth was from around New Orleans - didn't he speak cajun at one point last year?

Eric said...

I think there's a meta level 30 Rock is going for with the "Real America" stuff that they're just not reaching, about how the network folks are really out of touch and all of their outreach seems flat, but I think Fey, Baldwin et.al. are just too close to the attitude they're trying to satirize.

And it's odd, because I think earlier in her career Tina Fey did have a lot of empathy for the middle class/middle America/whatever you want to call it and put it into her character. If I had to guess what happened, I think something shifted when she did her "bitch is the new black" piece on SNL, and was amplified by the success of her Palin impression.

Miss Heather said...

@ Josh M:

I agree w/you totally. I kept yelling at my television: "Stone Mountain is a SUBURB OF ATLANTA, PEOPLE!!"

Kind of reminded me of 'Sex and the City' when Charlotte tried to adopt a baby from a Charlotte, NC couple who were depicted as toothless hillbillies.

renton said...

Alan, you and I were thinking the same thing: this is a reaction to someone at NBC telling them to be more accessible to people in flyover country.

I actually thought the Tracy and even the Jenna subplots were the highlights of this one and the Jack/Liz material was tedious. We've entered Bizarro 30 Rock.

Bryan said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Anonymous said...

I'm with Mo. 30 Rock is still easily one of the funniest half hours on TV and Alan is way too hard on it.

Best part of last night's episode was when Jenna's friend said he was too tired to explain it to her and made that face. I nearly fell out of my chair.

Anonymous said...

The show had already established that Kenneth was from Stone Mountain in earlier seasons. If they wanted to use his hometown, and dress him up as a woman for an extra laugh, then they had to use Stone Mountain. And sorry Georgians, but the joke works for any city/town in Georgia not named Atlanta.

Bryan said...

well this is interesting - according to wikipedia Donald Glover (currently on Community) is/was a writer for 30 Rock and is from Stone Mountain , GA

Bryan said...

sorry -


http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kenneth_Parcell

Pete said...

@Brandon "...and generally a dose of topicality--although in the case of Real America, they're a year late)..."

I would disagree. If anything the "Real America" stuff has been amplified by the Birthers and health care reform.

I think this "Middle America" commentary has been interesting, despite its geographic issues. They have been afraid of the punchline, though. Liz delivered it but rather weakly last night. After going on about how America is America and at heart we're all the same and want the same things, she finally comes to the conclusion that what brings us all together is our mutual hatred of each other. One could add hatred of non-Americans to the mix too.

Josh M. said...

"And sorry Georgians, but the joke works for any city/town in Georgia not named Atlanta."

Yeah, but Stone Mountain IS Atlanta.

Anonymous said...

I'm from Cleveland and I can assure you that 30 Rock's depiction of Cleveland is completely fictional. They're pretty clearly not aiming for verisimilitude.

bsangs said...

"Ghost meat" was easily the highlight of an otherwise lame episode.

You're dead on Alan. It's been mostly - mostly - downhill since they decided to bring Oprah on last year. A few great episodes here and there, but not nearly enough.

Nicole said...

The middle America plot didn't work for me either. It felt like Al Gore wrote that part and was preaching at me. (I'm not even American).

It should have taken more risks and been more political, or just dropped altogether.

And considering such a big deal was made about Liz being from Cleveland and a total dork, it didn't make sense that she was classified as the New York elite.

Anonymous said...

All these comments and not one mention of the Po Boy with extra Chuckles?!??!? You all are missing the boat. Or the to be exact the SexCriminalBoat.

Jeff said...

This reminded me of the NewsRadio where Dave Foley and Phil Hartman get stuck in the St. Louis airport, only not as insightful or as funny.

amyp3 said...

“All these comments and not one mention of the Po Boy with extra Chuckles?”

And the look on Alec/Jack’s face when he realized what she was about to eat. (As I said elsewhere, Po Boy must've joined "morbidly obese" as one of the phrases 30 Rock writers just like.)

And looking at this episode I will say again - Jack & Liz might as well have sex occasionally because they’re like an old married couple in every other way.

Jon Delfin said...

@Toby O'B: McBrayer with a mustache, and McBrayer in drag. Were any other members of Kenneth's family hiding in any scenes?

cadfile said...

Not to be too over analytical but most of the shows on TV today are based on the coasts and written by people who live and operate in that world which is different than the majority of viewers like here in Ohio. New Yorkers and LA people think anything outside of those areas are "real America" and made up of a bunch of hicks when in truth they have their own biases about NYC and LA being all stuck up and elitist.

I think the point of the show was to make comedy out of those stereotypes we all create about people outside our worlds. The problem it was done very well at all. As someone mentioned the News Radio episode in the airport did it better.

I thought including Jeff Dunham and his puppet Bubba J was ironic since that character is based on a negative stereotype. While I like Dunham and his Walter and Peanut characters I never cared for Bubba J because of the negativity of it.

Also if it hasn't been mentioned, Kenneth was also the woman at the end who get's "Pumpkin"'s head.

I hope the show starts to get better.

Moses Taylor said...

I'm with Mo. 30 Rock is still easily one of the funniest half hours on TV and Alan is way too hard on it.

Sorry, this is the problem. It's not the funniest anymore. It really did used to be. But it's been passed by a couple of shows. At it's funniest, it's better than anything else. But endlessly beating this Middle America stuff to death is actively unfunny.

Different tastes though. And I'd like to think I'm not just backlashing. I defended this show during the "down" episodes last year.

Carl said...

The problem with this show now is that there is no straight man to anchor the comedy. EVERYONE IS CRAZY!!! Tina Fey let her ego get in the way. She is a brillant writer,and mediocre actor. She is the weak link on the show. Most successful sitcoms have one mostly normal character to anchor the show(ie;Arrested Development-Michael,I Love Lucy-Ricky,MTM-Mary Richards. Without that,the show becomes just one crazy after another. I am taking the show off my season pass. It's just not funny anymore.

Matt S. said...

i said this to someone just the other night---30 Rock is the kind of show you watch more with your ears then anything else--cause the show is all about paying attention to the one liners---the show is all about the screwball attitude and quick pacing and fast sight gags---the comparison to Family Guy actually isn't far off but its really worth noting that i never pay this much attention to the gags on Fam Guy because by now they're not really clever so much as tired and wheezy. (ironically that's a show that also now regularly slows down the action to have one of its characters deliver a windy monologue on what's bothering Seth McFarlane that week also)

I don't feel 30 is anywhere near that level of wheeziness just yet....but the whole Bladwin beating up the ventriloquist dummy thing has been done before.

The show is still well worth watching, and well worth preserving...but i do think the emmy needs to really go to another show this year....and it more than likely will---given how popular Modern Family is this year---and the fact that there's finally a "family comedy" that's actually popular AND good for once---i can totally see that snagging the big award this year---but that's of course assuming a lot.

(i think part of the reason why 30 Rock won last year was because the emmy committee wasn't so sure about who else to give it to--they weren't gonna give it to Entorage or Conchords for the same reason they never gave it to Curb Your Enthusiasm or Larry Sanders---the nod is the recognition....and they weren't gonna give it to Family Guy or 2 and a half men for similar reasons...and they weren't gonna give it to The Office again---altho now that i think about it i don't know why now..that leaves How i Met Your Mom--which i wish got the mainstream recognition it deserves but it doesn't have enough juice or light in the zeitgeist with the emmy voters i guess to bag the top prize the way their winners usually do. Modern family has that kind of quality that the emmy voters like---that in any other season--the show would have to wait a couple of years to win---but thanks to lack of comp--it's likely to bag it this year----Ironically the comedy catagory has the exact opposite problem that the drama cat does---How long has HOUSE been waiting to win now???)

CB said...

It was a crime The Office didn't win Best Comedy last year. They had an excellent year. That show is a great example of a show that after 6 yrs can still pull off a show like "The Lover" Brillant,brillant comedy.

belinda said...

Gotta agree, it was The Office's to lose last year.

And I can't believe people are comparing 30 Rock to Arrested Development. AD is one of the best comedies ever, period. There is no weak link in the entire cast. So, even when 30 Rock was at its best, which it isn't now, I don't think it's a fair comparison.

But, yes, for me 30 Rock was the strongest sometime between mid season 1 (remember the first few eps? Kind of dreadful!) and season 2 out of a 3 season run, so averaging 'the funny' out, it was fantastic for about 50% (1.5 seasons out of 3), I don't think Alan (or other critics) are being hard on it at all.

Anyway, I think I liked Jenna the most in the episode - that face off with Kenneth and her reading her gay friend's face were my biggest laughs. And if Jenna's the biggest laugh of the half hour, they're in trouble. Again, 30 Rock was the weakest link of NBC's thursday lineup.

Karen said...

And the look on Alec/Jack’s face when he realized what she was about to eat.

That was the moment for me, too. It was sheer genius. So subtle, too.

Anonymous said...

Donald Glover has said that TPTB in the 30 rock writers room liked the name of his hometown because it sounded rural and mountainy, and that's why it was used. Not as a reflection of a suburb of a large city.

Chuchundra said...

I tell you what really disappointed me. The best heckles that Liz could come up with were "Is this your first time doing this" and "Hayseed!"? Seriously? What a let down.

30 Rock is a summer catchup show for me. I had never seen it, so I watched all three seasons this summer (DVDs from the library and bittorrent) to see what all the buzz was about. No big surprise to long-time fans, but it was some great stuff.

With all that fresh in my mind, I can honestly say that they've lost a lot off their fastball.

magnoliasitter said...

I also felt like this episode bordered on the insulting for its attitude towards the "rest" of the country, but what really annoyed me was the laziness of the comedy.

Anyone who has ever been to Stone Mountain can tell you it is a hilarious place...it is named after a massive granite formation with the carved likenesses of three heroes of the Confederacy. It is one of the weirdest places I have ever been to and it would have taken them a 30-second Google search to discover this.