’30 Rock’ Recap: Idiots Are People Three/ Ballad of Kenneth Parcell

James Marsden 30 RockS6E3/4: Last night, we got a double dose of 30 Rock, so excuse me while I do my best two deliver two recaps combined to make one giant one. And it seems that my observations during the Season Six premiere continue to be true: the veteran NBC series has lost its insane pace and incredible penchant for timely commentary, and instead has settled into the comfort of middle age. It’s where 30 Rock belongs these days and the sooner we accept that, the better off we’ll all be.

First up on the roster is the conclusion of last week’s story with an episode appropriately titled “People are Idiots Three!” We find out just how far Jack will go to convince Liz her boyfriend is a loser, how obsessed Devon Banks (Will Arnett) is with besting Jack, and that Kelsey Grammer is a very convincing Abraham Lincoln. There were parts of the episode that were clearly reaching, but watching the fatherly realm enter into the Jack/Devon rivalry was disturbingly touching, and thinking we were about to see Liz Lemon lose everything once more just before it turns out alright was a refreshing change.

“He inserts himself into my business and now he’s inserting himself into this.” –Liz

That’s what she said.” –Criss

James Marsden is still around as Liz Lemon’s adorable, but potentially ambitionless boyfriend. She tells him he has to give Jack’s money back (and he tries to!) but not before it causes a rift between the pair. But hell, if Liz Lemon screwing things up with her boyfriend always resulted in her drinking scotch, staring out a window and saying “Good God, Lemon” then I’d be a lot more inclined to see the woman break up time and again. Jack won’t let Criss return the money an instead tells Criss that he is officially disapproving, basically breaking up with him for Liz. Criss – the only adult in the room is apparently the guy who’s trying to open a hot-dog truck – asks Liz what she wants. Liz is once again visited by her ghost Jack and a princess-jedi version of herself to help her make the decision, but she says she wants to stay with Criss as long as he fixes all the things Jack disapproves of. Wrong move, Lemon.

“We’re new, we’re called PEEN.” –Devon

“What is that an acronym for?” –Jack

“Acronym?” –Devon

Devon has a clip of Tracy saying everything that could possibly be offensive to anyone and he threatens to expose the clip, re-opening the can of worms that is Tracy’s issues with the media, unless Jack calls in favors to get his “gaybies” into the most exclusive preschools in New York. He admits that Jack won, so now he’s trying for at least a few consolation prizes. It’s great to see them at each other’s throats as usual, but the real treat came when they had to pretend to be pals. Jack and Devon act like buddies to get a member of the preschool’s board to get Devon’s triplets into the school, but the big wig wants a donation from the Giess Foundation – which is still run by Kathy Giess. Her request in order to relinquish the money: NBC’s new mascot is a unicorn. Why not? Maybe people would pay attention to the network for once. “NBC: We have a magical horse?” isn’t testing that badly, after all.

This gets Devon off of Jack’s back, but the schemer points out that he just tricked Jack out of all the favors he should have used for Liddy, but Jack finds the upper hand. Devon came from wealth and Jack came from nothing, yet Jack still came out on top in his life. So Liddy may not attend the best preschool, but she’s a Donaghy, so she’ll best Devon’s kids – besides she’s got more brains already and Devon’s education sounds like 15 years of smoke-blowing. It was refreshing to see Jack abolishing his elitist ideals to be realistic for once; perhaps Papa Jack is a new Jack? (Though not completely new, we hope.)

“Pete’s our friend, Kelsey.” -Jenna

“Damnit, no names!” –Kelsey Grammer

In order to get Pete out of his drug haze – which they still think they caused by breaking fluorescent bulbs though it was really caused by Pete’s self medication – without allowing the blame to fall on them, Kenneth and Jenna team up with Kelsey Grammer. His brilliant plan? Distract the TGS staff with a rousing one-man show about Abraham Lincoln. At intermission, Kelsey helps them put Pete in his office with a dirty magazine and the fixings for autoerotic asphyxiation. Pete wakes up and says it was Kelsey Grammer, but his Lincoln performance serves as the perfect alibi. The Best Friends gang strikes again – even if Subas turns on the lights and proves the whole thing was completely unnecessary! The only reason this plot didn’t make me angry is that Grammer – as much as reports of his personal life make me want to dislike him – is just so damn good at what he does. Offscreen he may be a daunting presence, but onscreen, he can turn a lackluster plot into something hilarious, merely by showing up and doing his job.

“Tracy, I have been calling your cell all day.” –Liz

“My ring tone is the chicken dance, if I answer it, I can’t hear the whole song.” –Tracy

Meanwhile, Tracy and his idiots organization are still protesting against Liz for her “harsh” comments about, well, idiots. And they have some demands, my favorite of which is broadcasting Denise Richards’ music video “J’adore La Piscine” – a direct and well-played dig at the Real Housewives of New York’s Countess LuAnne and her terrible video, “Chic, C’est la Vie.” The biggest request is that Liz reads the apology they wrote for her. She can’t bring herself to read the Idiots’ speech, instead blaming them for things like The Golden Globes and the fact that there may be an Entourage movie (take it back, take it back!). And in the course of her speech, she spies Criss and realizes that she’s the idiot (aww).Criss lets her win at Monopoly and actually likes all her quirks – plus, he’s played by James Marsden, so there’s that. After Liz makes up with her man, Jack finally gives Criss a better approval rating, with three months to become a man worthy of Liz. We think this is pretty reasonable, so long as Jack doesn’t expect Criss to legally change his name, get a degree from a college other than Weslean and stop being so boyishly good-looking. We’re going to assume he’s talking about the getting his business off the ground part so we can “aww” over how much Jack cares about ol’ Lemon.

And while I said the series is hitting the notes it needs to hit, I can’t help but be scandalized by some of these changes. Jack not promoting elitist ideals over everything else? Liz Lemon choosing happiness over Jack’s opinion? Where are we? Who are these people? They’re still funny, but they’re just so…different.

Next up is “The Ballad of Kenneth Parcell” which is an episode I didn’t hate, but I feel like I should have liked it more. The concepts were hilarious, but I found myself appreciating them and smiling occasionally instead of laughing out loud like I normally do.

“Jenna has become a huge star on this network. She’s bigger than Malik Pancholy on Whitney.” –Jack

Jenna shows everyone the trailer for her new movie: Marin Luther King Day. This is also where we find guest stars Andy Samberg and Emma Stone as the platonic friends who could be more at the center of the cut-and-paste film in the style of New Year’s Eve and Valentine’s Day. I would be annoyed that the show has managed to work in two big jokes about the Gary Marshall movies in a matter of weeks, but after sitting through New Year’s Eve I will gladly listen to any ridicule these writers want to throw its way. That movie is so bad it may single-handedly bring about the demise of our nation. But I’m getting sidetracked. The movie has blown Jenna’s ego out of proportion; she’s cutting off Liz’ ponytail and going to Jack to go over Liz’ head. Jack’s solution: use the friendship to read Jenna and best her.

But two can play that game. Jenna is using leeches for her skin and using blood weight – along with the Demi Moore reference that garners more weight now than the writers likely anticipated when they wrote it. Yikes. Liz suggests they do lunch like they used to – provided Jenna hilariously removes the leeches from her face. They dine on bloomin’ onions at Outback, but it’s all just a ploy for Jenna’s endorsements. Plus, she’s being chased by paparazzi and lets Liz take her winter wear in order to distract them while Jenna gets away. While Liz does the Jenna impression that I feel is far to infrequent on this show, she is hit with red paint and Jenna taunts the PETA people for drenching “a nobody.” Liz determines this is nuts and breaks up with Jenna – and we find out yet another sad sack Lemon story about college. Jenna is fine, she’s got celebrity friends like the fourth Kardashian sister (who I wish would have been played by Nasim Pedrad – come on, she’s just down the hall at SNL, you guys!) and Charlie of “Charlie Bit My Finger.”

Liz tries to befriend a group of girls meant to parody Sex and The City – really, 30 Rock writers? But they just serve to help Liz figure out that she’ll more likely meet a new best friend like her in places she would normally go – like the Barnes and Noble bathroom. (Oh hey, a reference to life in New York! Imagine that.) Liz and her new best friend, Amy, spend 10 minutes complaining about everything – but it feels like hours – and Jenna is overwhelmed by the extreme narcissism of her three new “famous” best friends. They both realize that they need their vapid besties, but at least they have the decency to dramatically run down Fifth Avenue to get back to them. Now this was cute and funny in the golf-whisper laugh sort of way, but once again, I was appreciating the idea and the commitment to the characters more than I was laughing, which is a strange way to watch 30 Rock.

“There is a story that turned out to be true about a virgin and her son who had some pretty wacky ideas. That virgin was my sister and her son Lyle has a learning disability.” –Kenneth

This quote is my way of saying Jack is shutting down the Page Program, hoping that a bold cost-cutting move to impress Hank Hooper. Kenneth makes a plea for keeping the pages, Jack says they can automate all the pages’ duties, orders them to leave their uniforms. Jack offers to find Kenneth another job at NBC because he’s such a hard worker, but he isn’t interested, and he’s found the one thing machines can’t do for the pages: give tours. Enter Not Kenneth, the robot voiced by Rachel Dratch who knows everything about NBC. Once again, it’s cute, but I’m not lizzing over it.

But it turns out Jack does need pages. Hank Hooper is upset because Jack didn’t send a Businessversary gift, but he did, he just accidentally sent it to the 6th floor instead of the 60th. Jack made a dumb mistake Hank is not pleased that he made a “woman’s mistake.” Plus, his attempt to post up memos saying that the automated system confuses 6 with 60 is easily thwarted by Lutz. Let me say that again: LUTZ. Obviously, Jack needs the pages back.

“Tray I hate seeing you like this. Sitting in her, listening to your depressed thoughts CD.” –Dotcom

Tracy is upset because the invitations for his birthday party say “donations to charity, no presents” because he already has everything. He really wants the presents but the notion that he already has everything starts to make him ask, “What’s the point of living?”

To bring him back from the edge, Dotcom and Grizz go to Long Island to find the old lady who used to make pies in Tracy’s old neighborhood, and have her bake him a banana crème pie to show he doesn’t have everything because the shop is now closed and he wouldn’t have been able to get one of those pies. But, it turns out that he really just wanted to make his point about them telling guests not to bring presents to his birthday. His schedule “was light this week” – an apparently, so is the well of Tracy jokes. This plot was a bit weak, writers.

“Dump sir, dump all over me.” –Jack

And it all comes full circle when they use the soundtrack from Martin Luther King Jr. Day to play while Jack and Kenneth making up by Kenneth taking all the blame for Jack’s mistakes, Liz and Jenna hugging and becoming friends again, and Tracy getting all the presents he already has. Like I said, that was cute 30 Rock, but where were all the laughs?

Get at me with all your rants or raves on Twitter @KelseaStahler