S6E13/14: This week, 30 Rock delivers a two-part episode of sorts. The two separate episodes are connected by the plot of Jack developing a TV movie to create public awareness of and gain support for the kidnapping of his wife Avery by the North Korean government—it’s an epidemic, you know.
Most of what goes on through the 30 Rock double-header is business as usual. Liz does her socially inept faux-feminist shtick. Jenna is increasingly vapid and selfish through two different plots. Tracy doesn’t know what’s going on. But the night must be praised for delivering at least one very unexpected, very interesting turn of events. The conclusion to Jack’s unbridled efforts to bring his wife home offers something that the show seems to have been brewing for some time now—something that many a 30 Rock fan has thought about, but few have expected might ever come to be.
“We’ve found that if people are actually on NBC, they are four percent more likely to watch it.” – Jack
The first episode of the night, “Grandmentor,” picks up after yet another failed attempt to utilize the media to bring Avery home—damn Matt Lauer. Soon enough, Jack gets the idea to produce a TV movie about his wife’s kidnapping. The idea comes from Jenna, who has starred in more TV movies about kidnapping than she can remember (who am I kidding? Jenna remembers, and cherishes, every single thing she has ever done). Without further ado, Jack thrusts himself full-force into this new project.
Of course, Jenna has her own motives here: playing Avery would guarantee her an Emmy. As you’d expect, Jack isn’t exactly keen on the idea, as he doesn’t see any of his wife’s intellect or glory in Jenna—but the actress is determined.
“Oxygen is already working on a movie about the baby miners.” – Jenna
“Then we’ll have to slow them down. Gabriel, send a bunch of pies to the Oxygen network!” – Jack
Jenna stages an elaborate ruse to trick Jack into believing that she is, in fact, Avery, returning home from North Korea to greet him. Jack realizes immediately that it is Jenna trying to dupe him, but he is so impressed with her cunning, her deviousness, her unwavering self-interest—all qualities he admires in Avery herself—that he awards Jenna the part.
The Jenna problems I have had all season are front and center on this week’s first episode. Jack outright calls Jenna a “monster,” an accusation in which she hardly takes any shame. The show is well aware that it has turned Jenna into a completely heartless, inhuman demon with no regard for anyone—even Liz, or Kenneth, for whom she used to bend over backwards out of the goodness of her heart. The character has always been self-absorbed. But back in the early days, it just seemed desperate and insecure. Now, it’s sociopathic. These issues aren’t new, they’re just refreshed by the week. It’s sad to see Jenna so far gone, especially when she’s supposed to be our hero’s best friend. But c’est la vie. You are missed, old Jenna.
“Do not write another sketch about Krang from Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. No one knows who Krang is. It would be a waste of time to talk about Krang on television. No more Krang.” – Liz
Liz takes it upon herself to mentor a lost soul: Hazel (Kristen Schaal), who is all broken up about Kenneth usurping her page responsibilities. Hazel has a pretty ostensible fascination with (and crush on) Liz, first introduced in the musical number at the end of the Valentine’s Day episode, and is eager to take her tutelage. Liz is just as eager to take on the put-together role model position for once, as it’s a rarity that anyone sees her in such a light. Unfortunately, Liz’s one piece of advice to Hazel—to break up with her sleazy, adulterous boyfriend—makes her protégée furious. Hazel becomes hostile with Liz, and throws herself deeper into her toxic romantic relationship.
All of Liz’s advice to Hazel is stuffed with adamant feminist themes. It makes sense that Liz would revive—and kick up a notch—her all-but-dead feminist values at the first opportunity to teach anyone anything. Liz has never had a willing protégée before. Obviously she has never had the child she’s always wanted. Cerie is too self-satisfied an airheaded to take any of Liz’s advice. But Hazel might well be Liz’s ticket to personal idolatry. So as far as advice goes, the gloves come off.
“What’s your problem?” – Hazel
“Oh, my. Well, my parents were technically brothers.” – Kenneth
Hazel’s professional life isn’t going so smoothly either. She feels threatened by Kenneth, who begins taking on some of the responsibilities of his old job, specifically caring for Tracy. Kenneth is dissatisfied with the way Hazel has let Tracy run wild—eating anything he wants, not taking his medication, drinking and gambling. Hazel takes issue with this, and makes it her mission to keep Kenneth away from Tracy…who doesn’t really seem to have any idea what is going on. Obviously.
The only way Kenneth can actually get some time alone with Tracy to speak to him candidly about Hazel and his own well-being is by entering and winning a TGS essay contest, wherein fans of the show write in to win a non-speaking walk-on role on the upcoming episode of TGS. The catch: NBC employees cannot enter. But Kenneth loves Tracy so much that he quits his executive job in order to tell him—on live television—how much he cares about him, and how he’ll always be there for him. And thus, at the expense of the story Kenneth had been building for weeks, the brotherhood between he and Tracy is rejuvenated.
“Speaking of Halloween, are you dressing up this year? Because I’m going to be Mitt Rom-mummy. I called it.” – Liz
“Why wouldn’t you be Mitt Zombie?” – Jack
“Because I’m an idiot!” –Liz
The second episode of the night, “Kidnapped by Danger,” is the superior of the duo, if only in its eruption of self-awareness regarding everything that has been going on with Jack, going as far back as Season 4. Jack has enjoyed a good many romances over the course of his 30 Rock existence—Bianca, C.C., Elisa, Nancy. And his relationship with Avery, the woman he married and fathered a child with, is hardly the most passionate, romantic or compelling of the bunch. Up until this week’s episode, I chalked this up to the show losing its touch for writing romance. After all, Liz’s most recent relationship—that with Carol—didn’t have anything on the sentiment of her earlier Floyd rendezvous. But apparently, there’s more to Jack and Avery than this.
Jack asks Liz to write the script for his TV movie about Avery’s kidnapping, Kidnapped by Danger (followed by an endless array of subtitles). To Jack’s chagrin, Liz writes the script completely true-to-life, including the prominent character of Nancy, who Jack nearly chose over Avery before finding out that he had gotten the latter pregnant. Hired to play Nancy, complete with over-the-top accent, is Cynthia Nixon. And for Jack, we have an up-and-comer whose character name and details are far overshadowed by the awesomeness of his casting: Billy Baldwin. We were wondering when the Baldwin brothers would find their way onto the 30 Rock set, and the payoff of the wait is satisfactory.
“‘Jack looks across the wedding reception. His friend Liz—think Courteney Cox—dances with a handsome pilot—think a young Fred Grandy.’” – Director
The younger Baldwin plays a method actor who throws himself full-force into the role of Jack Donaghy. Basically, what we have is two Baldwins playing two Jacks. It almost seems like the kind of thing they didn’t even really need to write a script for. Tina Fey could have simply said, “You two. Be each other,” with cameras rolling—instant Baldwin brilliance.
Jack sets out to rewrite Liz’s script, insisting that his relationship with Avery be treated with the reverence it deserves. He brushes off the validity in Liz’s accusations about the questionability of their relationship and sets out on the same path of denial he has been embracing for quite some time. And, just in time to prove Liz right once again, the show welcomes Avery’s mother Diana, on whom Jack has a very requited, but very inappropriate crush.
Diana shows up to make sure that Jack is handling the TV movie with class and propriety. But the minute she walks back into his life, all class and propriety are thrown out the window, as their mutual lust starts heating up once again. Diana satisfies her urges by bedding the Billy Baldwin character—a guilt-free Jack—but Jack wrestles with confusing feelings about his mother-in-law, and the increasingly obvious realization that Liz is right about his relationship with Avery.
“Here I am, starting back up the ladder to my dreams. My career dreams—not the dreams where those two tennis sisters chase me.” – Kenneth
As he often does in times of crises, Jack turns to Kenneth for advice. Almost immediately after quitting his job, Kenneth starts back up the corporate ladder again—although this time, he begins as a janitor, as this is the only position open at NBC. If you’re like me, you might find some frustration in this seemingly eternal detainment of Kenneth’s progress in the business world after years of alluding to his eventual success. But if you’re even more like me, the single shot of Kenneth ecstatically plunging way at an NBC toilet—all too thrilled just to be working at the company he loves—is enough to quell your frustration.
But we find out this week that Kenneth is more human than he comes off. When Jack asks Kenneth how he manages to stay so upbeat and positive in the face of the tidal wave of resistance that is his life, Kenneth very curtly and very darkly admits that he lies to himself. Every day when he wakes up, Kenneth lies to himself about how things will be “okay,” and that he doesn’t know how much longer he can go on like this. This might be predicting the alternative Kenneth conclusion that has been alluded to: the one where he snaps and kills everyone he knows. But if you are disturbed by this less-than-angelic view of Kenneth, just think of the plunger scene.
“I eat pizza! I eat cheese! I eat lots of broccolis!” – Jenna
Jack realizes the truth about his marriage to Avery. It’s not perfect—perhaps not even good. But he also realizes that he needs to get her home. So he takes a page from Kenneth’s book and decides to lie to America. Jack puts on the most over-the-top, action-hero-style TV movie imaginable, undoubtedly raking in tons of viewers. As Billy Baldwin might say, it’s “off the charts, Kimosabe.”
“Kidnapped by Danger” also features the fun guest appearance of Weird Al Yankovic, who parodies the melodramatic song that Jenna has written for Jack’s movie. In an effort to avenge her career as a songwriter, Jenna and Tracy set out to write a song that Weird Al Yankovic cannot possibly parody. Eventually, Jenna realizes that in order to be unparodied, her song itself must be parodious (just go with it). So, she writes a tribute to pizza and gastrointestinal functions. Surely, there is nothing Weird Al can do to make that even sillier.
But he goes the alternate route, rewriting Jenna’s song into a solemn tribute to soldiers and fatherhood. A reverse-parody. The stuff only a genius like Weird Al can do. It’s a silly, short and largely inconsequential guest appearance, but it’s one that is very Weird Al.
“We’re always looking for the next generation of janitors. Throw your resume away on the fourth floor and we’ll be in touch.” – Janitor
Although the two-part episode is largely unmemorable by 30 Rock standards, Jack’s admission to his fractured marriage is really interesting stuff. Few sitcoms have the guts to come out and condemn an established relationship two years into it. I’ve been hoping for a resurgence of Jack’s never-quite-settled romances of the past. Maybe Nancy will come back, reminding Jack of just how torn he was between the two women, and that it was only the promise of a baby who pushed him toward Avery. Maybe Elisa, the woman Jack once decreed “the One,” will find her way back into his life. Unlikely, but it’s exciting to think about a prospect like this. At least they’re finally being honest about Jack and Avery: everything about them seems hollow, and post-marriage Jack is not as happy as a romantic like him should be.
So what does the future hold for Jack? Will he rescue Avery, only to have his marriage end? Will we be seeing loves of Donaghy past reappear? Is Jack meant to be with Liz, as the audience, Jeffrey Weinerslav, and his mother have believed for quite some time? Let us know what you think in the comments section or on Twitter @MichaelArbeiter.
Charlie (Michael Douglas) has been a mess for quite a while. A jazz musician who has battled schizophrenia and manic depression for years has spent the last couple living in a mental hospital. His 16-year-old daughter Miranda (Evan Rachel Wood) has been living on her own in the family home (mom is long gone) having quit school and gone to work at McDonald’s to make ends meet. When Charlie is released and comes home the pair begins to tentatively rebuild their relationship. The good news is that Charlie is taking his meds and handling the real world reasonably well; the bad is that he’s developed an obsession with a legendary cache of Spanish gold doubloons reportedly buried near their dusty California home. When Charlie begins to convince Miranda that he really isn’t crazy--at least when it comes to the treasure--together they begin a Don Quixote-like journey that cements their fractured relationship back together. Forget Michael Douglas as Gordon Gekko the ultra-smooth Wall Street guy or as dashing Jack Colton of Romancing the Stone fame. These days Douglas now 62 has said he needs a really good reason to leave his family so this role where he can play a scraggly bearded wild-eyed edge-of-nuts guy is just the ticket. Douglas gives one of his best performances ever as Charlie striking just the right balance of intellect insanity and inherent love for his no-longer-little girl. Plus the man whose on-screen persona has often been all about male vanity is anything but that in King of California. He’s a scrawny whippet of a guy rather than a hunky leading man and it’s a transformation that just may get him another Academy Award nomination. Meanwhile 20-year-old Evan Rachel Wood proves that she really is an acting force to be reckoned with giving a gently nuanced performance as a girl who has had to grow up way too soon yet still completely loves the father who has struggled to care for her as he struggles with his personal demons. First-time writer/director Mike Cahill has done a first-rate job of bringing this quirky funny and slightly poignant story to the screen. Perhaps the reason he’s been so successful is in the company he keeps. A film-school friend of Oscar-winner Alexander Payne (Sideways About Schmidt) Cahill enlisted his producing help for his film along with Payne’s Sideways partner Michael London. King of California bears Cahill’s own stamp however--a combination of terrific visuals that often make wry satiric statements deftly melded with an assortment of memorable characters and situations. Perhaps his biggest strength is in the casting of the film in his choice of the two talented actors who bring a believability and sense of real family ties to their roles. With King of California Cahill begins what looks to be a long and beautiful friendship with moviegoers who love to be transported to interesting and funny places.