30 Rock: Season 6, Episode 5
Today You Are A Man
There's a conventional wisdom about 30 Rock that I believe has held true throughout the show's run, even in weaker seasons: If you have a strong Liz-Jack storyline, you have a good episode on your hand. The best episodes of the show mix a solid Liz-Jack A-plot with an equally solid B-plot and a successful runner. There's a reason this is true, and it is one we have discussed multiple times over the years: Liz and Jack are the only truly developed characters on 30 Rock, and that means the relationship between those two is the only genuine one the show has in its tool box. I have never seen this as a weakness for the show; in fact, the relative lack of shading in characters like Tracy and Jenna allow them to be as completely absurd as they want, filling in details about their lives with whatever ridiculous joke, hilarious faux-anecdote, or insane quirk the episode needs. In short, their rough nature as characters makes the show funnier, and that's what we're all here for, right? 30 Rock is a show about two characters trying to have it all, sure, but its always been willing to eschew that central theme for a more Seinfeld-ian "no hugging, no learning" rule if there are more laughs here. I would argue that's what makes 30 Rock great. Its a show that puts the laughter first because that's always what its been about.
This is all a round-about way of saying "Today You Are A Man" is a very solid episode of the show, because of how well it uses the elements I just discussed. The A-plot uses the Liz-Jack dynamic as its driving engine, but it also leaves plenty of room for laughs. The show knows it isn't doing anything particularly new here (a self-awareness I feel it lacked in its two outings last week), but it also knows what its doing will always work. Liz' contract is up for negotiation, and she refuses to just sign the same one she signed six years ago. She decides instead to negotiate with Jack, not using her hilariously useless agent Simon, but by using Jack against himself in the form of a series of video-tapes training people in the art of negotiation. Jack catches on to her strategy relatively quickly, but this excites him. As he puts it, this is "Jack Donaghy. Playing with himself. It's a Jack-off."
Jack vs. Jack was bound to be funny, and it played out wonderfully, allowing Baldwin to fight himself in a scene that became so hilariously complex and multi-faceted, it echoed the classic season one scene in which Jack impersonated Tracy, his extended family, and upstairs neighbor during a therapy session. While Jack-on-Jack doesn't reach those comic heights, it at least displays the show repeating one of its peaks instead of playing right down the middle. In the end, Jack learns to use emotion as a weapon (as he should have previously from the poetry of Jewel), but decides that he wants Liz to have everything she wants anyway. Its a sweet moment, but not overly sentimental, the type of ending that lets the show have its cake and eat it too. There's a bit of sweetness if you want some heart, but there's also almost immediately a joke about how Kenneth can have whatever he wants because "He's a white male with hair, Lemon. The sky is the limit."
The B-plot follows Tracy and Jenna as they learn an important lesson about their own self-deluding tendencies while pretending to be Transformers at a bar-mitzvah. Smartly, this plot line never tries to go for the real sentimentality in the Liz-Jack counterpart, playing this realization for sheer comic effect (as when Tracy wrestles to hold back his selfish tendencies and tells Kenneth to run from him) and mostly just letting the Tracy-Jenna pairing be played for as much absurdity as possible. Jenna is a character the show has often had trouble using well, but in the last few seasons, they have learned how to pair her with Tracy to accentuate her insanity or with Kenneth to bounce off her blind self-interest with blind selflessness, and both pairings are winners. Jane Krakowski is at her best delivering ridiculous one-liners about her absurd Hollywood lifestyle, and the more of that the show gives us, the better.
The runner is the thinnest plot line here (as 30 Rock's C-plots usually are), but it avoids the general mistake of feeling undercooked by baking in some serialization and ending with an actual step forward for a character. Kenneth, feeling under appreciated after no one noticed his absence last week (various staffers mistook a trash can and a broom for him in his absence), switches places with Kristen Schaal's Hazel Wasserman to show the TGS gang how much they need him, but the plot line takes an inspired turn when his time away does not make him realize he needs them as much as it makes him realize he can only be appreciated if he moves on with his life. Schaal is an inspired bit of casting, one of the few actors out there who can match Jack McBrayer's wide-eyed, naive ambivalence, and I hope her Hazel sticks around for a bit, but the real reason this plot is carried off is the movement at the end. Having Kenneth leave the page program is an inspired bit of plot movement that I hope will pay off in weeks to come, and gives this runner enough meat to make it feel more substantial and meaningful than its screen time would suggest.
It would have been easy for "Today You Are A Man" to tie each plot line up with this "we learned a lesson this week" bow, and to some extent it does this. But mostly, the show leaves the schmaltz in Liz and Jack's storyline, where it hits home, and undercuts any "lesson" learned by Tracy and Jenna. What Kenneth's departure from the page program will mean remains to be seen, but its an ongoing plot line I am excited to see, a rare beast in the mostly episodic world of 30 Rock (where multi-episode arcs are usually reserved for increasingly annoying love interests of Liz or Jack). "Today You Are A Man" is the type of ideal 30 Rock episode where every plot line works well, and when the show is going off without a hitch, its still a marvel to behold.
-"I owe him a call. I bet he's going to tell me I can't write off my shoplifting."
-"Getting paid to help a boy become a man? Kind of my wheelhouse."
-"When was the last time I said, 'No, Senator, YOU'RE out of order!'?"
-Jack is such a skilled negotiator, he married a dog and a cat. Great visual gag, and I love how straight faced Baldwin was.
-"You couldn't even get Gina Gershon?" "My nemesis?"
-"I'd hate for people to realize your charity is a front and has done nothing to protect America from Godzilla attacks." "We were trying to INCREASE the likelihood!"
-"I'm negotiating against YOU, you magnificent bastard." Something about calling someone a magnificent bastard will always make me laugh.
-"Shia Labeouf is in trouble. This is the part of the movie where I fell asleep."
-"How old are you?" "Don't worry about it." "How much have you saved?" "Are you talking about saving squirrels from hawks? Zero!" Kenneth is immortal jokes? Never not funny.
-"Yes. May I speak to pizza?"
-"Who's on First! That's the phrase I couldn't remember!"
-"You can tell us. We're in SAG."
-"I'm everything I hoped I'd be."
Tags: 30 Rock