Saturday, June 19, 2010

25 of 30: The Best of Rock

For three and a half seasons, 30 Rock was the reigning champion of television comedy. While edgy shows like Nurse Jackie and United States of Tara on Showtime tried to outdo the broadcast excellence of Rock much in the same vein as cable dramas like Mad Men and Dexter have, nothing could top Rock...

Until now, of course. This past television season saw Glee, Modern Family, and Cougar Town all outdo Rock on broadcast television on a regular basis, thanks to Rock's underwhelming second part to the fourth season. Since then, it's become popular to deride 30 Rock as "over" and "past its prime."

You know when the first time critics and audiences tried to kill this Tina Fey comedy was? Before it even aired. During the same television series that 30 Rock premiered, Aaron Sorkin's new dramedy Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip debuted. Guess which show the critics stood behind? Guess which show failed?

This post is to remind everyone out there exactly how good 30 Rock really is. I'm going to list the top 25 best episodes in order, with a particular point of personal satisfaction with the episode. (It'll be significantly more detailed for the top five.) Pretty simple. You might not always get the context, but hey, that's all the more reason to Netflix/buy the DVD sets and figure out exactly why this show is so damn funny.

25. "Don Geiss, America, and Hope" (Season 4) - the porn movie titles for Kabletown, such as Fresh-Ass: Based on the Novel "Tush" By Ass-Fire

24. "Jack-tor" (Season 1) - Liz's pep talk to Jack, plus the GE Product Integration video outtakes of Jack screwing up

23. "Dealbreakers Talk Show #0001" (Season 4) - the high-definition camera does different things to different characters, and they're all hilarious

22. "The One With The Cast Of Night Court" (Season 3) - Jennifer Aniston as 'crazyputty' Claire Harper

21. "MILF Island" (Season 2) - the breakout star of the titular reality show, Deborah, and Jack's fascination with her

20. "Emmanuelle Goes To Dinosaur Land" (Season 4) - Drew: "Hooks crossed!"

19. "The Funcooker" (Season 3) - Liz wants to be reborn like a phoenix from the ashes, but she doesn't mean to nearly set her co-workers on fire

18. "Secrets and Lies" (Season 2) - Patrice, one of Jenna's gays, to Liz: "Oh, Melissa? Your face is on the phone. Soccer practice is over, and you need to PICK IT UP!"

17. "Pilot" (Season 1) - A damn fantastic beginning (bonus: Jack's response to "We own Kmart now?": "No. So why are you dressed like we do?" was only his second line of the entire series and is still one of his best)

16. "Fireworks" (Season 1) - one of the all-around best episodes of the series, with the character development in Liz a highlight

15. "Mamma Mia" (Season 3) - You gotta love the Meryl Streep musical-imitating search for Jack's father, played by the magnificent Alan Alda (bonus: Kenneth to Jack: "As head of this tour, I'm going to deny your request")

14. "Kidney Now!" (Season 3) - "He Needs a Kidney" is the best charity song to ever not raise any money (bonus: The Vontella Martin Show)

13. "Episode 210" (Season 2) - this writers' strike-affected episode struck gold with Liz's drunken phone calls to the co-op board at her new apartment building (bonus: "Midnight Train to Georgia" as sung by the cast!)

12. "Generalissimo" (Season 3) - Alec Baldwin plays two roles while trying to get Elisa Padreira (Salma Hayek)'s grandmother to fall for him

11. "Hiatus" (Season 1) - the first and best appearance of Elaine Stritch as Jack's mother, Colleen Donaghy, was pure genius

10. "The Ones" (Season 3) - Liz to Elisa, la viuda negra: "Why are you so quiet when your parties are so loud?!" (bonus: Elisa's 'What the Frak?' shirt!)

9. "St. Valentine's Day" (Season 3) - the confrontation between Elisa and Jack in the church in front of the statue of St. Lucia, the patron saint of judgmental statues, takes an unfortunate turn when Jack will never touch Elisa's big boobs again

8. "Hardball" (Season 1) - Where to start? Jenna's voting for "Osama in '08," Liz makes Josh do the worm, and Alec has pictures of Josh rough-housing with Lance Bass at SeaWorld

7. "Cougars" (Season 2) - Val Emmich made us all "gay for Jamie," even if that's not a thing (bonus points: dance remix of 'Muffin Top'!)

6. "Tracy Does Conan" (Season 1) - Dr. Spaceman (pronounced Spechemin, naturally) is introduced, and LaDonica has not been real helpful to Kenneth the Page

The Top Five (A.K.A. where it gets real, y'all)

5. "The Rural Juror" (Season 1)
This is where 30 Rock became the genius show it is known as today. What other show would create an entire episode off of two words they just can't pronounce together? Jane Krakowski's Jenna Maroney character became not only funny, but pertinent to the story's development. Rachel Dratch had a phenomenal guest shot as a completely misunderstandable Barbara Walters. Fey's Liz Lemon wanted to be an actress, but she wasn't blonde. Lonny Ross' Josh had to let a security guard watch him pee to get a screener of Jenna's movie. Tracy Morgan's Tracy Jordan develops the Tracy Jordan Meat Machine, which isn't the worst celebrity product idea Baldwin's Jack Donaghy's ever heard of ("You're working out with Whoopi!"). The character development is in high supply, too. It's one of the finest episodes for the whole show, and definitely Maroney's personal best.

4. "Somebody To Love" (Season 2)
This ingenious episode introduced us to Celeste "C.C." Cunningham, a "D" congresswoman from Vermont who Jack hooks up with but then can't stand to be apart from, despite their need to be secretive. They meet at a party thrown by John McCain and Jack Bauer. Yes, John McCain is very real. Jack McBrayer's Kenneth Parcell loses Jack's suit pants and does ridiculous stunts to get them back. NBC's parent company, the Sheinhardt Wig Corporation, has been turning children orange. Liz is convinced her neighbor, Fred Armisen's pita pocket Raheem, is a terrorist, and becomes an American hero who saw something and said something. Finally, in what might be the funniest thirty seconds of modern television comedy, we find out that C.C. had a Lifetime movie made about her, "A Dog Took My Face and Gave Me a Better Face to Change the World: The Celeste Cunningham Story," starring Kristin Wiig's Candice Van der Shark. The clips of the Lifetime movie are mind-blowingly funny. This is how 30 Rock beats its competitors: it knows how to use its guest stars. Speaking of which...

3. "Believe In The Stars" (Season 3)
Oprah Winfrey on 30 Rock could have been stupid. It could have been ridiculous. It could have been forced. It could have been horrible. It wasn't. Instead, it was the most inspired bit of stunt casting in the history of television, weaving in Oprah brilliantly as a hallucination for Liz, when in reality, Oprah was nothing but a spunky 7th grader named Pam who, nonetheless, solved a race/gender conflict between Jenna and Tracy with class. Speaking of that conflict, we saw Tracy dressed up as Becky, Liz's college roommate and a white woman with a monster claw who was going to lunch with her girlfriends and wanted to sit outside. ("Lipstick!") We also saw Jenna, a black man, singing "Ease On Down The Road" from The Wiz. We found out there's no such thing as Olympic tetherball, which caused Kenneth to lose his faith in Jack, which caused Jack to break Kenneth. Jack met Maulik Pancholy's Jonathan when he thought he was M. Night Shamaylan. Oh, and did I mention Liz gets out of jury duty by pretending to be Princess Leia? One of the best-written episodes of the series, and Fey's best acting work to date.

2. "Blind Date" (Season 1)
It's no secret 30 Rock had some difficulty getting off the ground early in its run. What's often forgotten is the genius of "Blind Date," an episode that saw Jack set up Liz with his friend Thomas. That is, of course, Gretchen Thomas, the brilliant plastics engineer-slash-lesbian. Jack corrects Liz's file when he finds out she's not a lesbian, though her shoes are definitely bi-curious. But as it turns out, Liz does love Gretchen, just as the Gayle to her Oprah. But Gretchen shuts it down before they go to IKEA together. Meanwhile, Jack becomes obsessed with Kenneth Ellen Parcell, an unreadable poker player who defeats him because Jack can't discern his tell. He almost gets rid of Kenneth, but Jack decides to keep him around, because of what the Italians (who have never won a war or mass-produced a decent car) say: keep your friends close and your enemies closer. After all, in five years, we'll all either be working for Kenneth or be dead by his hand. For anyone who ever says that early Rock wasn't truly its best, just point them to this expertly executed third episode.

1. "Black Tie" (Season 1)
30 Rock doesn't get any better than this. A masterfully written, acted, subplotted, directed, and cast work, it includes the magnificent Paul Reubens, also known as Pee-Wee Herman, as a prince incapacitated by generations of inbreeding who dies for Jenna at his 25th birthday party. Literally. Jack asks Liz to accompany him to the party, where they run into Jack's ex-wife, Bianca, played brilliantly by Isabella Rosellini. When Jack panics, he introduces Liz as his live-in girlfriend, which sends Bianca into a wild rage. "The whole thing makes me want to vomit!" Meanwhile, Frank is tempted to cheat after a tiring altercation with his wife and kids ("How is that Elmo's fault? Did Mommy have some wine to drink before she called Elmo?") by Tracy and a woman with smooth jugs, but Kenneth talks him down in a brilliant spoof of the angel/devil dynamic seen, well, everywhere. The whole episode is entirely plot-relevant, yet it stands out in every way possible. When Glee wants to do a Madonna episode but manages to not advance a single plot, it should be reminded of "Black Tie": a fun, on-location episode that did something different but still developed its characters in truly interesting ways. Maybe one of the top five sitcom episodes ever written, "Black Tie" is a testament to exactly why 30 Rock has become the critical darling and audience favorite it is.

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