Sunday, July 22, 2012

30 Rock : "Believe in the Stars"

Season 3, Episode 2
Original Airdate: November 6, 2008
Writer: Robert Carlock
Director: Don Scardino
Executive Producers: Tina Fey, Lorne Michaels, Robert Carlock, Marci Klein
Cast: Tina Fey, Alec Baldwin, Tracy Morgan, Jane Krakowski

Every television show can land a guest star, but only a few know how to use them. “Believe in the Stars” was produced at the zenith of “30 Rock’s” popularity (this is a relative term since, though it was always a critical and pop culture darling, it never lit up many Nielsen boxes) when some of the best popular and character actors out there were regularly appearing on the show. Oprah Winfrey was the special guest star here, and the next few episodes would feature Jennifer Aniston, Steve Martin, Elaine Strich and Salma Hayek in roles just as engaging and memorable as anything they could have found on film or stage.

Winfrey appears as herself in the episode, sort of. Liz Lemon (Tina Fey) must fly quickly to Chicago to get out of jury duty (by pretending she is Princess Leia) before “TGS” implodes for the umpteenth time. Turns out she is seated next to Oprah Winfrrrrrrrrrrrrrey (and yes, her classic vowel elongation is poked fun of early and often) on the flight back, which of course triggers immediate and complete overshare, made all the funnier because I’m pretty sure everyone would do just about the same thing in the situation.

Though it got off to a rocky start, “30 Rock” quickly became one of the most consistently great comedies on television, and has remained that way since (its seventh and final season begins in the fall). The show is certainly an odd, eccentric duck even considering what other modern comedies have hit the air in the past decade. Part of this is because it carefully toes the line between screwball, emotionless humor and more grounded, heartfelt storytelling. The Jenna (Jane Krakowski) and Tracy (Tracy Jordan) stories and subplots often fly off into space tonally (Jenna decides to marry a prince so disfigured he has ivory hands, Tracy decides he wants to go into space…right now), but the friendship between Liz and Jack (Alec Baldwin) gives the show its heart, pulling us back and making us care no matter how crazy the shenanigans get. 

This episode is one of the funniest in the show’s history, with writer Robert Carlock supplying viewers with a steady stream of quotable quotes. Like this one:
Tracy: “I watched ‘Boston Legal’ nine times before I realized it wasn’t a new ‘Star Trek’.”

Or this one:
Jack: “Did you know President Bush’s approval rating was almost as high as 15 percent following the Olympics?”

Shut up! Okay, one more:
Jenna: “How can you defame someone who was arrested in three Chucky Cheeses?”

The Winfrey scenes in particular merit multiple viewings to even begin to even get all the gags. In the entire 21 minutes, there is only one (one!) joke that doesn’t quite land (a late one involving Kenneth that doesn’t merit being written here because the rest are so good). More than that, Carlock was brilliant in the way he bled Winfrey’s presence into the subplot involving Jenna and Tracy bickering over who has it harder in America, women or black men.

Both call Liz while she is on the runway to talk about how they are right. Tracy screams into the phone:
“It’s about race! It’s about being a woman! It’s about money! And being on TV! No one understands all that!”

At that exact moment, Oprah sits down next to Liz. Perfection. This being “30 Rock,” Carlock takes the battle to the extreme, putting Jenna in black-face and Tracy in white-ish face (with a hand-claw because they ran out of make-up).

The twist that comes later is that Liz was in a drug-induced haze and hallucinated that Oprah was a feisty tween (if only my hallucinations were half as fun), which gives the entire sequence on the plane another layer of humor. At first, it just seems as if Oprah is mocking herself (and, of course, she is), but the twist gives Carlock the opportunity for even more gags later when Liz remembers all the things she really Really REALLY should not have done (like showing her boobs or forcing wine on the girl). Because I love you, dear reader, I’m going to provide you with the genius word vomit Liz unleashes on “Oprah” the moment she sits down. 
“I’m trying to adopt a baby but my job is making it impossible because my work-self is suffocating my life-me. I’m Liz Lemon and I lost my virginity at 25. I saw the show about ‘Following Fear’ and it inspired me to wear shorts to work. It didn’t go great. Do you know Tracy Jordan? Meh, I took a pill earlier. I didn’t get my September issue of ‘O Magazine’ do you have the number for subscriptions? Haha, why would you? Blah! I eat emotionally. One time at summer camp I kissed a girl on a dare but then she drowned! Aaaand here comes some more stuff. I hate my feet, and one time I had a sex dream about Nate Berkus but then halfway through he turned into Doctor Oz. Has that ever happened to you?”

Tired from her monologue.
Any one of these lines would have been enough to make the show memorable, but schmushed all together into one fantastic monologue is enough to make the episode a masterpiece. But then there’s another yet to come, where Oprah sends up her “Favorite Things”:
“Here, try this. It’s salt water taffy from Rhode Island. I have so many wonderful favorite things this year. Sweater capes, calypso music, paisley tops, Chinese checkers, high heeled flip flops that lift your butt and give you a workout.”

The list is funny already, but later becomes even funnier when we see Liz and other “TGS” employees wearing the high-heeled flip-flops (which, apparently, do exist outside the episode). Carlock has written some of the best episodes of the series “Apollo, Apollo” and “Today, You Are a Man” come to mind), and seems to approach the series with a “no amount of jokes is too many” mentality, which suits “30 Rock” and its fast-talking cast wonderfully. At times it can feel like “Bringing Up Baby,” in the best possible way.

When I watch an episode of “30 Rock,” I never feel like I’m being talked down to. The dialogue is fast and furious, but it’s also smart. The plotlines are interesting even if you are over the age of ten, and it’s not afraid to throw in archaic references that you may or may not understand…because if you do it’s still damn funny. It’s the little show that could, and has already earned its place on the shelf next to other classic workplace comedies like “Cheers” and “The Mary Tyler Moore Show.” All that and Oprah Winfrey? What more could you ask for in a show? 

“Believe in the Stars” is available on the third season DVD of “30 Rock,” on Amazon Instant VideoiTunes and is probably being re-run on Comedy Central right now-ish.

No comments:

Post a Comment