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30 Rock

30 Rock is a comedy about "TGS with Tracy Jordan" a sketch show (based on Saturday Night Live) run out of 30 Rockefeller Centre in New York. Head writer Liz Lemon has to deal with temperamental stars Tracy Jordan and Jenna Maroney while also appeasing her boss Jack Donaghy. NBC 2006-???

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Episode 12 - Larry King

25 March 2012

Synopsis: Tracy is a guest on Larry King Live as the Asian financial markets go into a heavy sell-off. Tracy’s mad advice creates panic at GE and on the streets of New York. Liz leaves her phone in a cab and the driver wants money to return it. Kenneth is the only one from NBC who will help her. Finally Jack tells Elisa that he loves her and asks her to stay with him instead of going home to Puerto Rico. The crisis forces him to rethink his priorities and he proposes to her but she ends up going home feeling that the crisis had forced him into a rash decision.

The Good: This feels almost like an episode of South Park. Where small events involving the regular characters somehow connect to global events and a crisis is whipped up out of nothing. That connectedness between Jack and Liz’ struggles and Tracy’s lunatic advice on Larry King really gives this episode a surging pace so that the next joke and twist in the story is never far away.

Let’s start with Tracy himself. He is on Larry King Live and begins giving out ridiculous advice on a dip in the Asian stock markets which sends many people in New York into a panic. It’s an idea that had two levels. On one it’s an excuse for Jordan to deliver whacky lines with sincerity and most viewers will either laugh or find them too stupid to take seriously. But on a second level there is real satire about the influence which people in the media can have on the behaviour of the wider public. In the face of a financial crisis (in the real world in 2009) which few in the media predicted, this story shines an amusing spotlight on the potential for those in the media to give out far reaching advice which may not be at all accurate.

As for the one-liners themselves, I am all in favour. The first shot of Tracy in the whole of 30 Rock was him running down the streets in his underwear yelling “I am a Jedi.” His whole character is based around a man renowned for substance abuse and mental health issues. So his zany advice is plausible enough to make me laugh (see Comic Highlight). The fact that he is on Larry King Live and randomly talking about the movie Teen Wolf makes it that much easier to buy him telling the public “Prepare your body for the Thunderdome, that is the new law.” And as for claiming he hides money everywhere, that is entirely in keeping with his behaviour (see as recently as 307) and even other celebrities in the real world (Floyd Mayweather made similar claims in 2008).

Lines like that also enable Larry King to deliver some fun moments and to involve the staff back at 30 Rock to get involved. I don’t know if Larry King realised that his own loosely researched questioning style is being sent up here but either way he is a good sport for playing along and delivers his lines really well. He doesn’t break from being serious at any point enabling him to deliver such surreal gems as “If you’re just joining us we’re with Tracy Jordan who is giving guitar icon Peter Frampton enigmatic clues about a secret treasure. Stay with us!” Less surreal but just as amusing was his demand for Jack to “Expand on that” when Jack mentioned that he was with his Latin girlfriend. Adding to the broiling pot of comedy and chaos came Lutz, Toopher, Frank and Pete all searching desperately for Tracy’s money at 30 Rock. It was a nice way to sneak them into the story and add yet another layer to the madness enveloping New York.

On the more serious side of things we have Jack and Elisa’s relationship. Jack is a fun character because he constantly struggles with how to prioritise his existence and find happiness. Just a few episodes ago (305) he became disillusioned with work and considered giving it all up to have a simpler life. Now he has to decide quite how big a crisis has to be to pull him away from Elisa. He finally chooses her over his job but she leaves him. If that is the end of their relationship it should be interesting to see Jack react to this hurt by going the other way and becoming focussed once more on his climb up the ladder. Within his story we get even more effective satire about the global financial crisis from Elisa: “What? What’s gonna happen? People are gonna die? No. You’ll all just get poor like the rest of us. You’ll eat cereal that comes in a bag and you’ll keep the free hand wipes from the casino. You might even have to spend some time with your children.” Again the depth and different layers of the comedy are really enjoyable and give something for different kinds of viewers to enjoy.

Finally Liz has to enlist Kenneth to help retrieve her cell phone. The threat of sending her explicit photo to all her friends is a perfectly plausible reason for her to not just buy a new phone. It also allowed for more silly jokes as Kenneth innocently cries “I can’t handle the truth” and believes Nena’s 99 Red Balloons was an “Anti-balloon protest song.” The final twist that Tracy’s money is in Kenneth’s jacket and so gets Liz out of a jam is a fun (and obviously convenient) way to give the story a happy ending. Just to complete everything Tracy is then interviewed on Good Morning America to answer for his stupidity and he finally remembers to plug TGS, the one thing he was asked to do.

The Bad: The Liz-is-a-man jokes should be left for less important characters. Liz is still the main character and mocking her like that makes it harder to take her seriously. Those kind of jokes are pretty cheap anyway because they are so clearly manufactured for this episode and haven’t been mentioned about her before. Peter remains a wasted character as well. He is meant to be Liz’ friend but refuses to help her because he can’t be bothered. It might have bothered me less if he had come up with an original way of turning her down and not using a joke which Phoebe made funny in the pilot of Friends.

Comic Highlight: Larry King does at least some checking on Tracy’s suitability to comment on the Asian financial problems. “Have you been to Asia Tracy?” Tracy replies genuinely “My work has taken me there, I was supposed to be in that movie ‘Rush Hour’ but two weeks into shooting I was replaced by Jackie Chan.”

The Bottom Line:  Reviews on the internet were decidedly mixed about this episode. I can understand why. Tracy’s advice and Larry King playing along with it are barely plausible if you apply the logic of the real world. But just like South Park it is the satire underlying the silliness which makes it work.

As an episode of television, even ignoring the details, this works really well. The plots all weave and interlock with each other, they all come to satisfying conclusions, there is a hook to keep viewers guessing where it’s all going to end, there’s a joke every minute and the characters behave in a consistent fashion. But for me the details then make this even better. Genuine satire, completely surreal humour, more conventional sit com jokes and character-based storytelling.

This is a rarity in any art form, a pleasant, unexpected surprise. 

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