30 Rock: Season 6, Episode 7
The Tuxedo Begins
It should surprise no regular reader of this site when I say that I prefer my 30 Rock to be weirder than many others out there. To me, the show is at its best when it is completely absurd, utilizing its broadly drawn characters as the cartoons they basically are. A classic episode of 30 Rock is more like The Simpsons in its prime than it is like Community or even Arrested Development. Its a show that works better when it relies on popular culture as fuel for its absurdity more than as fuel for its plotlines. This is why "The Tuxedo Begins" is a difficult episode of the show for me to place, contextually. I've talked before about how I think the show tends to fail when it tries to take on big ideas or obvious parodies (in fact, its best parody is probably the Amadeus riff it did back in season two, a joke so obscure and so specific that it landed whether or not you were on board), and a lot of this episode was given over to a parody of The Dark Knight that was, at my most generous, incredibly contrived and probably not as funny as it needed to be. Yet this episode also contained some of the best one-off gags the series has done in a while, and with them came some of my biggest laughs of the season so far.
First, what doesn't really work for me: Liz Lemon deciding that the only way to live in this world is without rules (I am, of course, choosing my words rather carefully here). This storyline started off as clever, with Liz discovering that madness might very well be the key to making your dreams come true in New York City. It's a funny idea, and Tina Fey playing crazy old lady is amusing, but spiraling from that into Fey becoming The Joker, complete with poorly applied lipstick resembling his signature grin is nothing if not forced. The lengths the show had to go to in order to make the Liz-Jack confrontation happen meant that it sacrificed a lot of what was working about the story to shoehorn it into a parody of a movie that is four years old and already very ingrained into the cultural lexicon (to the point that it has already been parodied, numerous times, even by How I Met Your Mother which has a far smaller parody gene than this show).
The biggest sacrifice, I think, comes from a persistent flaw that has plagued latter-day 30 Rock for a few seasons now: the tendency to burn through brilliant stories without letting them grow. Back in season two, the show took seriously Jack's decision to work for the Bush Administration, and we got Matthew Broderick's turn as Cooter and other hilarities as a result. I think they idea of Jack Donaghy running for Mayor of New York City is a brilliant storyline for about 50 reasons (the thinly veiled Baldwin parody, the thinly veiled Bloomberg parody, and the glory that is Jack's political side among them), and the sort of plot that could have provided a structure, even an arc to the rest of this season whenever it needed one. This show avoids master-plots (other than the most simplistic "Liz and Jack want to have it all") like the plague, and that generally works out well for it, but this is a story with legs, and one that could have gone somewhere if the show weren't so focused on turning Jack's rich crusader for the city he loves into a Batman joke that was fundamentally so obvious the show actually briefly gave him a cape, in a gesture that would have seemed gleefully absurd had it landed but felt leaden the way it was executed.
Where the episode succeeded though (and when "The Tuxedo Begins" was on, it was a thing to behold) were in the smaller moments, and in the episode's C-plot, which had Jenna and Paul realizing they may be ready to settle down. Jenna has never been my favorite character on 30 Rock, but I give the show a lot of credit for the way it has figured her out in its later years. Jenna is at her best when she is aggressively weird, more of a sociopathic version of Tracy than a self-centered spotlight hog. This means I am always a fan of Tracy and Jenna pairings that let her sink to his level, of Kenneth and Jenna pairings that play his naivety against her malevolence, and of Paul and Jenna pairings which play the couple's vaunted depravity as the sort of thing that really is kind of sweet, in an absinthe enema kind of way. I don't think the "normal-ing" joke is a bit of genius or anything, but it gave a great pairing the show has devised some excellent moments, and it was the sort of story the show does well, sneaking in any sort of moral below so many levels of madness and sexual-walkabout plans that the sweetness actually comes through clearer than when the show tries to be schmaltzy on its face.
Ultimately, though, my favorite moments of "The Tuxedo Begins" are the ones you'll read about below, the amazing one-off gags in the first half of the episode that showed the writers just having fun with how weird this show has allowed itself to become. Things like the bright eyed young prostitute and Kenneth's dark admission, "I know they're condoms" kept this half hour running, even when the main storyline faltered. So "The Tuxedo Begins" is a mixed bag, sure, but it left me with much more confidence than I had in the show after last week, with a sense that what works well about 30 Rock still gives it the potential for greatness, even if some of the show's problems are growing more prominent of late. Be weird, 30 Rock. It's what we love best about you.
-"Three bucks, two bags, one me. Say, where does a young prostitute get her start around here?" This is, without hyperbole, one of the greatest one-off gags the show has ever done. I am laughing just typing it up.
-"Sam and Diane are the lesbian couple in my building who murdered each other."
-"Begin Snow Dogs phase!"
-"His knife was from Eddie Bauer!"
-"Did we mix up our days and accidentally both roofie each other?"
-"Are we one of those boring sitcom couples, like Mr. Brady and Tiger?"
-"Is that your gym bag? Aren't you a human woman?"
-Two things Jack Donaghy has survived: making eye contact with Michelle Bachman and being trapped under a boulder for one hundred and twenty EIGHT hours. Awesome.
Tags: 30 Rock