"She's just a writer with zero performing experience!" -DevinThese words were no doubt said by a nervous executive when Lorne Michaels wanted to put Tina Fey behind the Weekend Update desk, and I'm sure some variation was uttered even when "30 Rock" was being developed. But we know by now that Fey is as talented and fearless an actress as she is a writer, and in by far the funniest "30 Rock" this season(*), we got an astonishing reminder of that.
(*) I spent most of yesterday struggling with a review of the first two episodes of "Better Off Ted" season two, which had some funny moments but overall didn't live up to what that show was doing last spring. Those kinds of columns - writing about a show in the context of episodes that aren't representative of what makes it special - are always a bear to get through. Ultimately, I settled on the idea that joke-driven shows like "Ted" and "30 Rock" have much farther to fall when the jokes aren't quite there than character-driven shows like "The Office" do. So of course I file that column, come home and watch a "30 Rock" that made me laugh until my jaw ached. It doesn't exactly disprove my thesis - this was just an episode that was executed better than "Season Four" - but I do feel like I need to go back into that story before it's published to include an allusion to this episode.
The whole "Dealbreakers" storyline was a funny take on the neuroses of being an actor versus being a writer, and the standout scene was Liz's disastrous attempt to film an opening credits sequence for the show. The combination of Scott Adsit's despair as Pete tries to coach her ("Smile... with your mouth!") and Fey moving as if Liz were an alien not understanding what humans look like led to the single-funniest moment on the show since the honkies shot Jack during therapy with Tracy. And the high-def camera gag - with Liz looking like a crone, Pete like a naked old man, Kenneth (again) like a Muppet and Jack like Alec Baldwin circa "The Hunt For Red October" - was the perfect capper. There were times when I watched that scene last night (and you know I watched it many, many times) where I was struggling to breathe, and yet I had to go back and do it again and again and again.
The show's attempts to lean on role reversal sometimes feel strained - here, Frank turning into Liz felt a little too predictable, albeit well-played by Judah Friedlander - but Liz turning into Jenna was both hilarious and an important moment in the ongoing struggle between the sensible writer and her narcissistic, neurotic actors. A great story, and a much better closing point to the "Dealbreakers" plot (which I'm assuming this was) than Liz's baby fever ever got.
Some other thoughts:
• Speaking of characters wanting young'uns, the Tracy subplot certainly had its moments, from the visit to Yakov's Nubian Bling Explosion to the various awful lyrics to Tracy's cynical songwriting ("You're the product of doing it!").
• Best Dr. Spaceman scene in a long time, wasn't it?
• Astronaut Mike Dexter is now a running gag, I take it?
• Once we saw Whoopi Goldberg, on the heels of another appearance by Sherri Shepherd as Angie, was I the only one wondering if the show was going to find a way to squeeze in Joy, Elisabeth and/or Barbara before the end of the episode?
What did everybody else think?