Thursday, May 08, 2008

30 Rock, "Cooter": The pen is mightier than the ketchup

Spoilers for "Cooter," the "30 Rock" season two finale, coming up just as soon as I sell my shares in Sabor de Soledad's parent company...

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?"

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.
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.

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.
What did everybody else think?


Mike said...

real quick, before Lost starts:

Disagree on Donny, but maybe my opinion's colored by my Paul Scheer/Human Giant fandom.

Anyone have a translation of the final Chinese dialog scene?

Anonymous said...

I absolutely loved Jack's delivery of "To adopt!" at the end. The very idea of a Jack/Liz relationship is unsettling on a visceral level, and the borderline-disgusted way Jack spat out the clarification was hilarious. I almost never actually laugh out loud when I'm watching something by myself, but that got me.

Anonymous said...

Kathy taking the race car out of her mouth, and then putting it back without saying a word

Has Kathy ever spoken, or is she purely a silent comedy bit?

Also...everyone knows that "Cooter" is Fey's favorite affectionate term for female genitals, right? (For all I know, I read it here.)

Abbie said...

Dennis 'the beeper king' Duffy's knowing look at the camera after Liz says he should come up to her apartment to change light bulbs. Hilarious! I knew it would be Dennis's baby scare, but it was a good payoff.

Anonymous said...

"This is a disaster! Not you, Grizz, you are excellent!"

"I memorized all my lines last night."


Anonymous said...

I was disappointed in this episode, a lot. I expected greatness and it had some terrific lines but was overall very flat and disjointed. And I have been a huge fan of the post-strike episodes, just not this one. I think having Jack out of the office really hurt the show and while I enjoy Paul Sheer, I don't enjoy the rival pages storyline. I love Kenneth in everything else he does though.

I thought my Thursday viewing was a bust, after weak episodes of both "The Office" and "30 Rock" but holy heck, did "Lost" redeem the night in spectacular fashion!

R.A. Porter said...

I think the best bit that hasn't been mentioned yet was when *Jack* popped a Sabor de Soledad.

SMM said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
afoglia said...

The last episode was pretty weak, but this episode was excellent. I don't think I stopped laughing once. The Kenneth-Donny rivalry was great, because it was so meaningless and poorly executed by the characters. The character fits well with Scheer's weak acting skills. (Pete's archery flashback didn't work though.)

I agree with Robert Bianco; the show has gotten more zany. But it's also gotten funnier. So it's more like NewsRadio than Mary Tyler Moore, but that doesn't mean it's bad.

I'm going to miss this show over the summer.

SMM said...

I think the post-strike episodes have not felt as well-oiled as the pre-strike episodes. Lots of great jokes, just not hitting as hard, or as smoothly. I've disagreed with Alan's ranking of every post-strike one. (I loved MILF Island and the sandwich one most.)

I wish I knew why the Paul Scheer stuff doesn't quite work-- Scheer/McBrayer is one of the best two-man improv shows I've ever seen-- but I think it's (a) because Kenneth's hillbilly is a bit overplayed, and (b) they don't let Scheer do high status. He looks and sounds like he should be low status, but his ineffectual character doesn't actually play to his comedy strengths.

On the other hand, everything Dennis Duffy does or says or looks is comedy gold. That is how you play high status.

The commercial for the Olympics, with Kenneth doing Olympic events, was not funny, it was cringeworthy.

Anonymous said...

My favorite lines:
-"I'm not prepared"
"I know, I'm not drunk either."

-"Peanut farmer!"

-"I've been sexually active since I was 25!"

Also, a translation of the final scene (from what I can remember).

Chinese lady: "I really like you. I think it's because you have a healthy [couldn't make out what the last word was]

[I don't remember what the guys says when he bursts into the room]

Kenneth: "Go figure"

Sorry for the gaps, I'll try watching the episode on tomorrow and try to fill in.

Anonymous said...

I loved the analysis that the "gay bomb" (something the pentagon reportedly really tried, for those who haven't heard), would be offensive to both the red states and the "gayer blue states".

Mo Ryan said...

It didn't all flow and connect brilliantly -- i.e. it wasn't a masterpiece of construction, which 30 Rock obviously can do at its best -- yet I too enjoyed it. I think partly because i know it's the last one of the season and the memory of four long 30 Rock-less months is very fresh.

I see what Bianco's saying -- again tonight, several different characters existed in very different, disconnected plots -- no story lines really affected each other. That is the problem other shows have been having after the strike and I'm not sure why. I could think of reasons but I'm too tired. And in any case, the show most affected most by post-strike franticness and non-funny outlandishness is Ugly Betty.

But I digress. When individual lines and bits pay off within each plot, as they did on an especially wacky but still enjoyable 30 Rock tonight, I can live with the disjointed nature of things.

"The Duffy men use them as ATMs!" Gotta say Dean winters has killed in this part every time.

Next season we need more Dotcom and Grizz. Those guys also consistently bring it.

Damn it, man, where is the Lost post?

Anonymous said...

Kenneth's "I will not fail you, Rainbow Chicken" Chinese speech by the elevator really busted me up. It probably helps a lot if you actually speak Chinese - we've got a lot of things like calling a peacock a "rainbow chicken". Just amazing that they had a joke that aware.

I think this episode did not suffer as much from the strike and seemed much more polished because it was the season finale, and thus probably "written" (in Fey's head) long ago with jokes saved for it's big season ender. I do agree with the USA Today article a bit in that I would like to see the comedy be more ensemble and connected, but even as separate threads, this show still has some outstanding jokes.

Matthew Broderick really nailed the desperate / denial / self-loathing politico act. I hope we see more of him and Cece in the future, like Dr. Spaceman.

Anonymous said...

The Washington scenes were superb. I loved that Jack got himself a presidential nickname : Jacker. At first, he seems rather chuffed and then he actually thinks about it and changes his mind within a split second.

K J Gillenwater said...

I agree with the criticism. It used to be that Liz cared about her job, not she's just one of the crazies at the office. You need at least one 'normal' person for the show to work. Now she's just as nutty as the rest.

I thought the 'gay bomb' was ridiculously stupid. The set up for the 'explosion' was too obvious and just...well...stupid.

I also thought the scene at the end with Jack showing up at Liz's apartment was creepy and out of place. Their dialogue was just off. She's never respected Jack's opinion on anything...thought he was a pompous blow hard...and now he's all friendly and actually father-like?

I don't know.

There were so great moments...the car in Kathy's mouth being one of my favorites. And the taping of the voiceovers for the porn video game. And the ineptness of the gov't workers...

But the rest fell very flat for me.

Anonymous said...

I can see Bianco's point about character consistency, though that really only applies to a small subset of characters like Liz and Jack (when have Tracy, Kenneth, or any of the writing staff ever been realistic?). But if he thought Liz and Jack were becoming too wacky, I can't see why he wouldn't mention Liz's phone call to Jack and Jack's immediate return to NYC. I think the show has suffered a bit in taking Jack out of the mix with the Geiss/Banks storyline, but the phone call sequence seemed to acknowledge that. (I will say, though, that with Jack out of the way it was a shame they didn't give Pete some more serious stuff to do.)

Moreover, the compromises made by professional women has always been a part of the subtext on _30 Rock_, and in thinking about the post-strike episodes it seems clear they were meant to build up to Liz's decision to adopt because of her lack of fulfillment in other areas of her life. So even if the show has seemed more wacky of late, I think it is due to slightly-less-than-polished scripts, not a lack of concern about its central characters.


Alanna said...

Few things in comedyland could rival my current crush on Dennis Duffy -- er, Dean Winters as Dennis, because yikes.

So much good in this episode, but two things bothered me:

I really like Kenneth, but I think the show's starting to toe the line of overusing him, as happens to many sitcom breakout characters. His weekly plots are beginning to feel too themes-and-variations.

And the Pete cutaway followed by "Peanut Farmer" came across as way too Simpsons for my taste.

TJ said...

"Only if we can call it a godfinger."

Anonymous said...

Incidentally, I will note that my response to the "gay bomb" storyline silliness was tempered by the fact that it is true. (Descriptive article here; actual memo obtained by the Sunshine Project here (warning:PDF) ).

Also, Liz has periodically turned to Jack for financial and professional advice (with mixed results); Jack's shift into caring is a little less motivated, but it has been seeded from his past actions (like un-booking the subway hero from TGS). This, again, felt like the rushed development of something that might have built more smoothly in a different season.


Anonymous said...

I have to thank Undercover Asian Man, as for some reason I simply never made the connection between "Rainbow Chicken" and the NBC peacock.

Perhaps the episode wasn't a masterpiece of construction, but it still managed to be hilarious throughout. I didn't see the "evaporated bull semen" line coming -- better yet, "that explains your hair's thickness and shine" -- the candle bit just killed, and Jack's W-given nickname was awesomely appropriate, coming as it did just after the adoption discussion.

But feel free to discount anything I say -- I also missed the Producers reference. Oh, and the Olympics callback didn't bother me one bit.

fukubun said...

the final scene goes like that:

"kenneth, i like you, because of your two, strong, kidneys."


- man comes in with gun-

Kenneth voices over "i never thought..."

I liked the episode alot more than the previous ones :)

Anonymous said...

Alan, have you seen the original pilot episode with Rachel Dratch as Jenna? I just discovered that it's leaked on the 'net and the differences are really interesting - is that something you would be able to write about, or would you get in trouble for it?

Mapeel said...

"We've looked into it, and it's not"

and the next beat, "Really, I'll show you the report" sadly hysterical.

Hal Incandenza said...

Personally, I'm partial to Cooter's delivery of "no crying in the bath for me tonight!"

Very good (if not great) episode. I think a stronger Kenneth storyline would've brought it up to classic status (though the translated final scene is pretty hilarious).

Anonymous said...

I just thought it was hilarious that Liz stated to Cerie that she had been sexually active since she's been 25...just because my understanding is that Tina Fey herself has admitted that she has only been sexually active with her husband, whom she met at 24 years old. Art imitateing life there.

Adam said...

It really is the little things on this show that trancend it above run-of-th-mill sitcoms for me. Two great examples of this from this week's episode are:

Realizing that we've probably never seen the inside of Pete's office before, thereby explaining why I hadn't seen the giganic bow hanging on his wall, and

Seeing that Dennis had a personalized Islanders jersey with his own FIRST name on the back. That is exactly the kind of thing his character would do.

I really love this show and I haven't really noticed any hiccups since the strike. I've been too grateful to have these characters and scripts back in my life that I haven't had any energy to complain.

barefootjim said...

I don't think that this was in the upper echelon of "30 Rock" eps, but as long as they have moments like Dean Winters' awesome "I'm gonna get laid!" smirk into the camera, I'll be just fine.

I also thought the Liz-gets-pregnant storyline (even if it turned out to be a false positive) was a nice meta-nod to "Baby Mama."

And I'm not so worried about the decline of TGS-oriented storylines: that show runs itself.

Anonymous said...

I thought this was the best show of the series. After reading the comments here I realize that I will have to watch it again and look for all the things I missed.

I esp. enjoyed the portrayal of the Bush admin falling apart. The nicknames are very funny, esp when you remember events like Bush commenting on the blind reporters 'cool shades' and the whole "We've looked into it, and it's not" (ceiling leaking)
"Really, I'll show you the report", the perfect summery of the Bush administration.

Oh, lets not forget Jack's "freedom search"!

I think that the 'gay bomb' will turn out to be a hoax, the staff will have 'turned gay' only because they are "in the closet republicans". This of course will force the firing of Jack and Cooter "it was a sandwich" Burger. Or perhaps leave them stuck there with 'better' jobs in order to keep them quiet? There is a lot there to run with. It will be fun to see where they take it.

Anonymous said...

For me the single best moment was Kenneth's delivery of "SABOTEUR!"

Count me among those who think the show is getting stronger as time goes on. This season was far superior to the first season, IMO.

Anonymous said...

i'm surprised no one has mentioned my favorite line (paraphrasing):

"How come you're the only one who gets to make bad sex decisions? What about the threesome you had with Roseanne and Tom Arnold?"

"Oh, come on, that was two years ago!"

I agree the show works best with a saner Liz Lemon. Someone said the post-strike "everyone's zany" episodes make it more like NewsRadio, but that show only worked, and worked so well, because of the brilliance of Dave Foley as the ultimate straight man.

Alan Sepinwall said...

Someone said the post-strike "everyone's zany" episodes make it more like NewsRadio, but that show only worked, and worked so well, because of the brilliance of Dave Foley as the ultimate straight man.

I would argue that Fey and Foley are the same type of "straight man" on their shows: saner than the other characters, but not in comparison with the rest of humanity. Some of the best "NewsRadio" episodes involved Dave losing his mind, whether it was the one where he gave up coffee or the one where he got addicted to the arcade machine by the elevator. Liz's behavior in some of these recent episodes hasn't been any more outrageous -- especially in comparison to the "30 Rock" ensemble -- than many of the wackier Dave episodes of "NewsRadio."

Maybe having a more explicit straight man would be better for ratings (or not; the days of Taxi and Bob Newhart are a long time ago), but creatively, it would be wasting the tremendous comedy resource that is Tina Fey.

Anonymous said...

Some of the best "NewsRadio" episodes involved Dave losing his mind, whether it was the one where he gave up coffee or the one where he got addicted to the arcade machine by the elevator. Liz's behavior in some of these recent episodes hasn't been any more outrageous -- especially in comparison to the "30 Rock" ensemble -- than many of the wackier Dave episodes of "NewsRadio."

That's a good point. And you're right, they are similar as straight man bosses. However, I think the difference is that when Dave went a little nuts--in the episodes you mentioned, or when he chooses to become "pure evil"--some in the supporting cast would take on aspects of the straight man role to counterbalance him. Whereas on 30 Rock, the support team remains just as zany, so there's no counterweight. Arguably, Baldwin could/would fill this role, but he was off in equally zany Bush administration land (however, on that note, I thought the voice mail scene and the one at Liz's apartment worked great, and were geniunely sweet and touching).

Anonymous said...

I've lived in DC, and Broderick was great. Regardless of the administration and the economy, there are tons of guys just like him in DC.

Unknown said...

Chinese dialogue at the end

Chinese lady: "I like you, because I've taken a liking to those two healthy testicles of yours."

Kenneth: "What?"

[man bursts in]

Kenneth: "Who'd have thought..."

Anonymous said...

its not testicles its kidneys for what the chinese lady said.

chinese lady: "i like you because I've taken a liking to your healthy kidneys."
Kenneth: "what?!"
Kenneth: "who woulda thought"

i typed "shen" in as pinying and found a match for kidneys. testicles in chinese is "gaowan".
haha rainbow chicken...

afoglia said...

@Kristin said... I thought the 'gay bomb' was ridiculously stupid. The set up for the 'explosion' was too obvious and just...well...stupid.

Really? I didn't see it breaking by accident. I was betting on Jack and Cooter threatening to break it unless their resignations were accepted. :-)

Unknown said...

I thought maybe Cooter was a code denoting Mike Brown as in "Cooter Brown". Everything else in the episode was a version of the Bush administration why not this name.

Concerned Citizen said...

I am a Peace Corps Volunteer living in China and I've spent 10 minutes on this, using two separate dictionaries and lots of reworking...It really would have been easier to ask a Chinese person.

Woman: "Kenneth, I really like you because I see you have two healthy kidneys."

Kenneth: "What?!"

[man bursts in]

Kenneth: "What a beautiful thief!"

Anonymous said...

Wow soo much enthusiasm in each and every one of these comments! I am most definitely going to get myself hooked on watching this thing! I have too many shows to start catching up on but i do kno one thing though, that im starting on this show b4 anything else!