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NBC Comedy Recap: 30 Rock Continues to Reagan

Every week in this space, Grantland pop culture correspondent Andy Greenwald will run down the happenings and mishappenings in NBC’s Thursday comedy night done mostly right. (Note: The order reflects newsworthiness, not quality. Although occasionally the two just might overlap.)

1. 30 Rock

30 Rock has always been an immensely difficult series to cover. When the show is humming, recaps can aspire to be little more than laundry lists of jokes, dutifully scribbled by overwhelmed critics between bouts of laughter and desperate scrambles for the DVR pause button. When it’s not clicking, there’s even less to say. Unlike Parks and Rec, there are no real emotional arcs to track other than the subtly shifting sands of the Tracy Jordan/Jeremy the Iguana ‘shippers. And unlike The Office, when 30 Rock is bad it’s never really all that bad. It’s more often merely blerg, a disjointed collection of dazzles and disappointments, like Jenna’s BF Paul in a pink wig and no pants.

So what to say then about an episode like “The Tuxedo Begins”? That it was an all-timer, Reaganing from beginning to end with a remarkable girding of logic beneath its ever-spiraling lunacy? That it made good use of every character, even those spacey colonists usually relegated to the fringes of recognizable human behavior, Tracy and Jenna? That its only flaw was violating Chekhov’s little-known second dictum, that if you suggest the presence of an Indonesian sex monkey in the first act you’ve got to unleash it (or at least dry-hump it) by the third? Yes, yes, and oh god, yes.

I’m not sure if there’s much precedent for a sitcom returning to its prime so late in life. It’s possible that the entire writing staff spent Tina Fey’s maternity leave undergoing Jenna-endorsed leech treatments to remove draggy script ideas (and excess blood weight). But even within 30 Rock’s recent glorious run, this was remarkable, precisely because the high-concept kicker — that Liz, armed with a gray wig, her natural frown lines, and a ph-balanced stink bomb of a gym bag, was transforming into the Joker while tuxedoed mugging victim Jack was one vocal octave away from becoming a twisted vigilante of economic injustice — was cleverly linked to previously established behavior. We’ve known from the pilot that Liz is the sort of wildly aggrieved liberal who follows the rules (and buys all the hot dogs) as much for her own smug self-satisfaction as any sense of fairness. Jack’s unshakeable concern for his fellow one-percenters (“the lower classes are getting cranky about the upper classes earning all their money away from them!”) would naturally lead him to do something egotistical, foolish, and potentially downright fascist such as beating up hoodlums or running for mayor.

Frustrated by the pressures of life in the city that leads the world in King Kong attacks, Liz and Jack live out their dueling visions of Ghostbusters films. While the former smears lipstick on her face and eats hard-boiled eggs on the subway (but she won’t start putting plastic cups in the top rack of the dishwasher; she’s not an animal), Jack berates Donald Trump, doubles down on his column in Irish Arguments Weekly (“America’s only all-caps magazine”), and indulges both Tracy’s Chewbacca memories and his career aspirations. (“Begin Snow Dogs phase!”) Best of all was the b-plot in which Jenna and Paul push their kink to heretofore unknown levels by “normaling”: shopping at Bed Bath & Beyond, covering each other’s toes with afghans, and not sharing the same pink cardigan. When Pete points out that they’re one step away from Scattergories, the star-crossed-dressed couple decides to take a three-month break for a “sexual walkabout.” Here’s hoping voraciously single Jenna becomes the next scourge of the metropolis that so inflames and infuriates Jack and Liz. Like any decent superheroes, even when flying high they’re still only as good as their next nemesis.

2. The Office

I took no pleasure in my many months of castigating The Office. Precisely the opposite: It was painful watching once-interesting characters succumb to the same dolorous sloth the show once strove to satirize. And so the surprising sight of the veteran show coming alive in the Florida sun like Stanley in a drop-top rental is actually sort of thrilling.

Yes, Dwight’s literally gut-busting attempts to will his appendix back into place were uncomfortably over-the-top. But his sweaty intensity, while excessive (particularly when he held up his still-warm unnecessary intestinal tube at the close), served as welcome metaphor for a show straining to pick itself up off the mat. When the patient is nearly terminal you don’t want to wallow in ice chips — you want to see him put up a fight. And, besides, Dwight’s medical emergency (which wasn’t, it turned out, a Jim-administered poison that could only be cured by “true love’s kiss”) was merely the frenzied backdrop to the rest of the episode’s many subtle strengths. Catherine Tate, nearly hired as the new regional manager last summer, made a sparkling return as the newly installed head of special projects. Her casual belittling of Ryan coupled with her unconventional explanation of workplace gender dynamics (“So stop looking at my breasts and start looking at my penis!”) was a welcome reminder of what charismatic idiocy can look like. And the well-chosen Tallahassee crew were given plenty of special projects of their own to work with, from Cathy’s understated flirting to Erin’s jumping jacks and Jim’s return to the land of successful, clever pranking. Revealing cranky old Stanley to be an authority-bucking parrot head was an inspired move as well, proof that there is still life in the old bones of the show if only they’re given the right material or, at the very least, allowed to booze like pirates. (Back in Scranton, the revelation that Andy is better suited to be a receptionist than the boss, while amusing, was dangerous. By going for the joke, the producers basically affirmed the Nard Dog’s unsuitability for the top job.)

Like day-drinking spiced rum or choosing Loggins without the Messina, the show’s attempt to jump-start itself may be risky in the long term, but for now it’s plenty of fun. It’s also logical: Even Erin knows oatmeal cookies without raisins would sell better than any misguided Sabre PDA.

3. Parks and Recreation

Some weeks, the assignment of watching four sitcoms back-to-back-to-back-to-back and then writing about them at length can feel tedious, like being handcuffed to a urinal by a lovesick cop or whatever other forced analogy I can muster in an attempt to garner sympathy for the fact that I get to watch TV for a living. But then there are nights like last night when a crackle of excitement runs straight through, from 8 p.m. until … well, at least until 9:30, when patience runs out and whatever overmatched show is currently filling the Veronica’s Closet memorial dud slot takes over. Which is to say there’s no way Parks was the third-best show of the night — when all is said and done, it’s having the best season of any NBC comedy — but once again, it may have fallen victim to its own consistency.

Parks was at its delightful best in “Dave Returns,” again making the remarkably difficult seem effortless. This season’s election campaign has proven to be boon to both strands of the show’s DNA, allowing the silliness to boil over in terrific ways (April’s cymbal-crashing attempts to keep Duke Silver’s identity a secret; Ben’s pitch-perfect physicalized fear of cops) while still tending to the sweetness that permits Leslie and Ben’s relationship to feel vital and human, even with their epically nerdy love for things like “public policy” and “dessert.” Last night also brought back Officer Dave, the verbally clumsy galoot with a new life in San Diego (that’s in California, which is southwest of Pawnee) and a jelly-doughnut-size hole in his heart where Leslie used to be. Louis C.K. is wildly praised for his lived-in performance as himself on Louie but, to my mind, Dave is a more entertaining creation. Louie’s non-acting style of acting makes him the perfect hound-dog foil to Adam Scott’s birdlike anxiety, and it was nice to see Amy Poehler given the chance to play Leslie as a woman deserving of and confident in the adulation of two besotted suitors. After making peace with Dave and securing the endorsement of the retiring police chief, Leslie was also deserving of the endorsement of at least 10 beers into her mouth. It’d been a tough day.

After underplaying his way into a cocktail or two after the Valentine’s Day dance, Tom had his phasers reset to “douche” this week, awkwardly attempting to woo his “Ann-berry Sauce” via slow jams, baby’s breath bouquets, and waiting out in the rain like he learned to do from “movies.” This was the episode’s one questionable call, seeing as how it’s only been a few days since Tom let his Axe body-spray fortified guard down and showed Ann what a nice guy he can be. But who am I to get in the way of Aziz Ansari once again dipping into the syllabus from the Ed Hardy School of Dramatic Arts? It eventually did the trick — no girl can roll her eyes forever; medically, I mean — and it didn’t undercut the sight of Andy Dwyer having a Phil Spector-ish studio breakdown (and April’s naked adoration of her artistic husband’s “hot nonsense”). Perhaps it’s best to think of Parks as Duke Silver: more interested in quality — and deeply sexy sax jams — than in hogging the spotlight.

4. Up All Night

In last night’s brilliant 30 Rock, Jenna and Paul’s fetish-seeking dalliance with mind-numbing adult concerns was played as a brilliant joke about “normaling.” On Up All Night, “normaling” is the status quo and it’s always played straight. Even for a show so consistently enamored of its own ordinary problems, “Travel Day” went below and beyond its own navel-gazing standard. In their umpteenth attempt to prove their superiority to all other blandly rich parents, Chris and Reagan decide to pack up their Bugaboo and take Amy on her first plane ride. The destination? The Ava-officiated wedding of the Salt to her new jack swinging Pepa, played by a slightly dazed Alanis Morissette. But while Liz Lemon was brought low by her attempts to convince society of her righteous reasonableness, Reagan Brinkley has no such self-awareness. It was disturbing to see her airport survival strategy of berating African American employees for having the temerity to do their jobs and not notice the inherent specialness of both her baby and her expensive hand creams.

There most likely was a joke or two lurking somewhere in this diaper-bag deserving stinker, but showrunner (and episode author) Emily Spivey didn’t seem to have the patience to find it. Instead of satirizing Reagan and Chris for their entitled aggression, they’re cheered for falling back on the ultimate trump card of any harried yuppie: money. When Amy begins fussing on the plane, Chris buys a cabin full of patience by offering to put a round of Bloody Marys on his debit card. Then, with a stewardess making googly eyes at Amy, he and his wife repair to the lavatory with mini bottles of Merlot for a little illicit action. Hooray for wealth and privilege! It might not be able to buy you a cool Michael Keaton impression, but it can open limitless doors. Including, apparently, those that guard the entrance to the Mile High Club.