S5: E10 Whereas its Thursday night buddy, Community, manages to tread that line between heartwarming moments and zany comedy, 30 Rock continues to succeed on its ability to deliver laugh after laugh – some of which come so fast that you don’t even notice them until you give it a second viewing. (This is why it’s become my practice to watch every episode at least twice, if not more.) That’s the 30 Rock schtick – non-stop laughs. That’s why many of us groaned when the show took its unwelcome dive into the personal lives of the characters last season and partially this season; we care about them, but as much as this year’s Christmas episode hoped we would. When characters on other shows spew lines about family and Christmas, we all breath a collective, contented little Christmas sigh, but when Liz or Jack do it, we take as a joke and only a joke. The characters on the show may not be incredibly deep, but that’s not why we watch. We watch to have ridiculous humor thrown in our faces so we can work off our dinners of cheesy blasters with a half hour of belly laughing.
“Christmas Attack Zone” served up plenty of killer one-liners, but in the end we expected to have a little Christmas revelation. This worked back in season 3 when Jack and his mother (Broadway legend Elaine Stritch) closed the episode with a side-by-side Broadway style rendition of “The Christmas Song” but now, the characters are so wildly comedic that it’s hard to reign the audience back in. Still, considering all the obstacles they had against them, I think in the end they pulled off the closest thing to heartfelt that they could manage.
The episode opens on Liz “Pie-thieving Grinch” Lemon getting an invitation to Christmas Eve dinner from Jack since his mother likes her and she’ll be around avoiding her family drama – really Liz? Your aunt’s friend Alcoholism sounds like a hoot. Yikes. Back on the TGS set, there’s even less Christmas spirit – Tracy’s new bid for a Golden Globe has him wearing all black and trying desperately to be as serious as possible (no “Merry Kristmas from Kabletown?”…sad) and Jenna can’t even stop crying long enough to relish in the fact that Tracy’s act makes her the sole star for the TGS promos. Sadness overcoming narcissism? No way. And the star on this Christmas tree of sadness? Pete gets word that NBC wants promos from every show except TGS. Merry effing Christmas, guys. I guess even that giant Christmas tree outside can’t spread the cheer around these parts.
A long awaited appearance from Jack’s darling Avery (guest star Elizabeth Banks) comes just in time for the holidays and her pregnant belly is beginning to show. She’s mostly been hiding it by holding objects in front of her to avoid suspicion – cut to the ham wearing a pilgrim hat she held in front of her body on Hotbox with Avery Jessup. Avery’s off to her own family’s Christmas celebration but not before the MentaLiz works her magic (thanks to a lost TV remote and reruns of The Mentalist) to discover that Jack hasn’t told Colleen about his lovechild. Whoops. Colleen’s the only person scarier than Jack, and now she’s going to be really pissed. Avery understands his need to keep feelings down – the Jessup family crest is a knight that refuses to express his feelings, yikes – but this whole baby thing is kind of a big deal. Avery reasons that Colleen did the same thing so she should understand and once again Jack’s caught in another lie, Liz works her Mentalist magic and outs him for not telling Colleen about meeting his estranged father, Milton (Alan Alda). Of course, Colleen screams at Jack when she hears that he “knocked up a Protestant,” so he quickly jumps on the phone to get Milton to the city so he can rub Colleen’s past in her face. See what I mean about all this personal drama? These characters just aren’t built for this much inner turmoil.
Tracy is getting serious about his new thespian lifestyle – a.k.a. making people cry and stealing Steve Jobs’ favorite mock turtleneck. He’s purchased the rights to his second Chunks movie (nice dig at Eddie Murphy’s Norbit bad luck charm, writers) to avoid it interfering with his serious acting. Kenneth tries to convince him that laughter is important too, but Tracy’s not listening. It’s kind of like the comedy version of Clarence the angel from It’s A Wonderful Life…well, sort of.
Jenna is uncontrollably emotional, but Liz thinks it’s all because she missed Paul. They were supposed to think of a joint costume for Tom Ford and Elton John’s super gay New Year’s party, but now she’s left to go by herself. Of course Jenna is a delusional space cadet and has convinced herself that she’s illogically crying for no reason over a party that she’s invited to and plans on attending. MentaLiz swoops in to save the day, catching Paul at his roller skating tranny restaurant to get Paul to come back. The best part of Liz dropping by a transvestite bar? The Lemon lookalike rolling by on roller skates. Win.
Liz makes it to Jack’s Christmas dinner, which has since become a “Christmas Attack Zone.” Happy holidays, y’all. Jack is stoically stirring as he awaits the giant ambush he’s planned. Liz tries to prevent it all, spilling the secret about Jack’s plan to anger Colleen. Milton’s on board: he’s angered by Colleen’s hypocrisy. Avery shows up and she’s seeing red and she plans on giving Colleen a piece of her mind. Jack’s just received the best present he could hope for: a room full of people who hate his mother. Liz tries desperately to stop the whole process and she insists that this can’t happen at Christmas (says the women who wanted to spend it at the corner café at the Penn Station Kmart) and she heads off to find Colleen in the Escher wing of the house. (They may not be big on character development at 30 Rock, but there’s nothing quite like a well-placed shout-out to M.C. Escher.)
Colleen finds her way out of the Escher wing, and comes down to dinner in time to take a stab at Avery for carrying a bastard child. Milton surprises her and berates her for depriving him of hippie road trips with Jack (“Yeah…or other stuff.”) With that, Jack gets his second present of the year: Colleen’s total silence. Of course, like father like mother, Colleen’s got her own Christmas Attack Zone planned.
Jenna is still in pain, flipping through pictures in a photo album that looks suspiciously like the one my 12-year old self dedicated to Justin from *NSYNC, when she finds a picture that sets off an idea in her head. Of course, she has no one to share it with and Liz shoes her off the phone so she can deal with Jack’s drama, so she has no choice but to return to Paul. He shows up at her door to say hi, but he can’t stay for an absinthe enema and he just wants to get something off his chest (no not his fake breasts, he seems to have left those back at his apartment this time). They simultaneously announce their tandem idea to dress at Natalie Portman from Black Swan and Lynn Swann – two black swans, one slightly uncomfortable racial reference, and an excuse for Jenna to cross dress and offend some people by donning black-face make-up at the Tom Ford party.
Tracy is still on his serious warpath – ruining Ludachristmas with his Darfur slide show – and now he’s doing his Christmas Eve charity work: showing his film Hard to Watch to a group of battered women at a shelter while donning a diamond encrusted chain with the word “Poverty” dangling from the bottom. Pardon my language, but holy shit. Kenneth his hiding behind a doorway and whispers about laughter being the best medicine and just like that Tracy changes his mind and shows the sad women his DVD of The Chunks 2 instead. All is well again.
Back at the Christmas Attack Zone, Colleen fakes a heart attack to win everyone over again and it works. Avery melodramatically pleads with her to hang on so she can meet their daughter, little Colleen. (Enjoying this little taste of General Hospital?) They all join around Colleen at the hospital and determine that they should share all their secrets (sorry, Liz, your crush on The Mentalist wasn’t that much of a secret). Avery and Jack decide to have a wedding with family instead of eloping, Liz decided to hop on a bus so she can handle the misery of Christmas amongst her own family, and Jack basks in the glory of both his parents yelling at him at the same time. Jack places some carefully chosen insults to inspire even more joint berating as Liz retreats to New Haven. (See, even the writers are uncomfortable with letting this end with too much sentimentality.)
A befitting end to a 30 Rock Christmas comes as Jenna and Paul sing “Night Divine” – a decidedly religious Christmas carol – while donning their cross-dressing and slightly inappropriate swan costumes. And where they should have ended on that high note, the tag takes it too far, giving us more of Tracy’s Chunks at the Christmas dinner table. If I wanted to see more of that, I would have gone back to the original Eddie Murphy movie that inspired it all.