Tuned In

The Morning After: The Taste of Solitude

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NBC Photo: Nicole Rivelli

The secret to most good 30 Rock episodes is that they strike the right balance between character comedy and farce. That balance generally is: one, maybe two characters get to be real people, while the rest are free to be cartoons. (I love cartoons, by the way, so I mean that as a compliment—in the good, Simpsons/Futurama kind of way.) Every once in a while, for instance, Pete is going to be a middle-aged sad sack trying to work out his marriage, and other times, he gets to be a deranged, frustrated Olympic archer firing arrows at pages in the studio.

In the very funny season finale of 30 Rock, Liz Lemon got to be the real person (as well as Jack, for let’s say half of the episode), and the episode worked on both the character and the zany/satire levels. First with the zaniness: Matthew Broderick was brilliant as “Cooter” in the send-up of the twilight of the Bush administration. And it was to the show’s credit that it managed a someone different take than other White House satires we’ve seen recently: it cast the administration as not ingeniously evil but rather foundering, inept and in denial. (Probably not a bad tip for the Democrats this election season, for what it’s worth: incompetence is ultimately a more damning argument than malevolence.)

I haven’t seen better political metaphors in a while than the leaky ceiling in the Homeland Security office (“The ceiling appears to be leaking.” “No, it’s not. We’ve looked into it, and it’s not”) or the pen fiasco (loved the hasty “We’re not in a recession”), topped off (literally) by the arrival of a box full of pen caps. The Bush administration 30 Rock showed was not so much the Death Star as a desert island, with Broderick’s pitiable Cooter stuck in a job he loathes with a Bush-coined nickname he hates. (“Cooter because I look like a turtle. Burger because he saw me eating a hamburger–one time!” And that petulant “One time!” shows how 30 Rock knows how to put a cherry on top of a good joke.) Kudos as well to the scene of Jenna recording porn voiceovers with Grizz (and revealing that “I was told there’d be no nudity!” is the only sentence she knows in Chinese).

Meanwhile, Liz’s story handled very deftly something that could have become maudlin or cliche, Liz’s discovery that she wants to have a child, as well as the reassertion of her unlikely friendship with Jack, who offers to help her adopt. (I also loved the moment when she thinks he’s offering to conceive a baby with her—Jack and Liz hooking up would be the sitcom thing to do, and it undoubtedly crossed the audience’s mind, but 30 Rock has always sensibly avoided going there, while acknowledging that it knows you’re worried it might go there.) Liz’s progression in the voicemails she left for Jack—terror, regret, acceptance, excitement, disappointment—was nicely played out too. Fey’s a great writer, but she does more with Liz as an actress than I’ve given her credit for.

After a few hit-or-miss episodes, a nice send-off, and I’m looking forward to seeing next fall what Liz does to wash the sabor de soledad out of her mouth.

Meanwhile, the penultimate Office of the season was decent but nothing special. The premise of the golf story—that Jim is in the dread situation of acknowledging that he wants his job and of having to take it seriously—had a lot of potential, and maybe it still does. But the end of the episode seemed to write off its implications a little too easily, giving Jim a victory with the sale and a big kiss from Pam. (Pam’s visiting her old high school and applying for the graphic-design job—and discovering she has none of the computer training she needs—is a promising route, though, as the show has neglected her career frustration for a while. Frankly at this point I’m more interested in Pam than Jim.)

If Jim hadn’t made the sale, of course, it would have been a downer for him, since he’d be looking at losing his job just when he can’t afford to. But in a way, knowing Jim’s character, making the sale—and becoming the kind of guy who pushes to make the sale—is the worst thing that could have happened to him. Blocking someone’s car for 15 minutes, even if you’re self-deprecating about it later: that’s an Andy move, and Jim must know that. But so much of Jim’s identity is invested in the idea that he’s not an Andy type—that he’s in the office but not of the office.

There are several ways you could play this. On the one hand, you could have Jim moving to some kind of realization of where he’s going, and wondering if he wants to become that guy. On the other hand, you could argue that Jim, as funny as he is, has a kind of above-it-all smugness that can be off-putting (there have been hints that his coworkers feel this about him) and that actually becoming a guy who wants to be good at his job and cares about it will be good for him. The problem with this episode is that it didn’t go either way (though it still could down the line)—it just sort of petered out. (Though Michael’s “Kiss her hard” was priceless.)

Nonetheless, with a big finale coming up next week, there are a lot of pieces potentially set up to be played before the end of the season (what’s going on between Dwight and Angela?). Your thoughts?