When a network airs four comedies across one night of television, you’re going to end up with a certain amount of unintentional repetitions of jokes, whether it’s different versions of the same Lady Gaga “Poker Face” gag (as happened on one NBC-Thursday Halloween some time ago) or, as we saw last night, two Leap Day-themed episodes of 30 Rock and Parks and Recreation. Similiarity is not the same as imitation, though, and the two shows handled the quadrennial event in ways that showcased their very different strengths.
I was glad, and pleasantly surprised, to see how much I enjoyed 30 Rock’s holiday episode, considering that the Valentine’s Day episode of just two weeks ago was one of the worst outings of the show I can remember, “Leap Day” suggested that things are very simple with 30 Rock: the difference between a very amusing episode and a deathly awful one is a single, fresh idea. Here, that was the notion that, in the show’s just-alternative universe, Leap Day is an actual holiday—complete with candy for the kids, Leap Day William emerging from the Marianas Trench and a cheesy Jim Carrey / Andie McDowell holiday movie–unbeknownst only to us and Liz Lemon.
Whereas it was a long slog watching 30 Rock trying to find something new to say about Valentine’s Day, it’s Leap Day concept played to the show’s structure—creating a bizarre alternative world that satirizes our own pop culture—and its reliance on unsettlingly funny visuals. (The image of Kenneth capering on a table as Leap Day William, tossing candy at a weeping Lutz and Frank, will haunt my nightmares for weeks—but in a good way!)
And while I wouldn’t call this a great episode of 30 Rock, what elevated it to very-good status was that all these gags, in each subplot, were tied to a theme: that Leap Day is a chance to “take a leap” and do things you ordinarily wouldn’t. Who doesn’t love a mulligan, even if it comes only once every four years?
(Indeed, one reason the Leap Dave Williams scenes worked as more than an extended parody was the way they resonated with the movie Groundhog Day—a real-life example of how our pop culture re-invented the meaning of a holiday to fulfill a need our traditional culture hasn’t provided for. Granted, we’ve already tried and failed at that with Leap Year, but isn’t this holiday all about second chances?)
The way those stories actually played out was nothing particularly special: we’ve seen the theme before of Jack using money to fill a hole left by his childhood, and Tracy’s Benihana’s Millions challenge was entertaining but slight. As for the A-plot, Liz’s pursuit of her billionaire admirer—Eastbound and Down’s Steve Little, a fitting addition to 30 Rock’s cast of comedy grotesques—probably doesn’t hold up to close scrutiny. (One would assume, e.g., that word of his wealth would have gotten out among the gold digger community long before now.) But I like episodes that let Liz realize that she can be and do more than her routine dictates. Yes, in this case, it’s a comically executed Indecent Proposal scenario, but really this story is about more than that. It’s about nerdy, neurotic Liz recognizing that she is, after all, a legitimate object of desire—a successful, smart woman who looks like Tina Fey—and embracing it rather than being freaked out by it.
There’s been a lot of discussion on the Internets lately about Liz’s character; Linda Holmes of NPR’s Monkey See blog made a compelling case that recently that the show has infantilized her character and made her overly silly. I tend to agree more with Emily Nussbaum’s recent rejoinder on the New Yorker’s website: that Liz is simply, like many of us, a nerd with issues, and that Tina Fey’s willingness to let her be weird (and even pathetic at times), rather than force her to be a positive example of confidence and power, is true to the character on her own idiosyncratic terms. You can tell me what you think; in any case, though, the concept of Leap Day was a perfect fit for a character whose greatest challenge is doing things outside her comfortable habits.
The approach that Parks and Recreation took to Leap Day in “Sweet Sixteen” was very different, in keeping with its own character. 30 Rock is about parody and world creation; Parks and Recreation is about the small-scale and community creation, so it’s Leap Day was about the individual quirks and customs of the central characters. In this case, Jerry’s own habits (celebrating his Leap Day birthday with a bath, a glass of red wine and an early bedtime) ran up against what we already know is a defining characteristic of Leslie Knope: being the team leader who makes sure everyone has the greatest birthday imaginable, come hell or high water.
“Sweetr Sixteen” wasn’t one of the best episodes of season four, though it had fine moments (Ron’s recollection of working two jobs in middle school, Tom’s horror that Ann does not recognize Ginuwine, the hilariously botched campaign signs). But it served what was probably a necessary functional role in the show’s larger story, shifting Leslie from the Parks Department (if only temporarily) to concentrate on her campaign for the final run of the season.
But you tell me: which episode did better by Feb. 29 for you? And do you have your blue-and-yellow clothing ready?