Thursday, October 20, 2011

Top 10 30 Rock Episodes, ranked in order of appearance because I can't decide which ones are better than others

Ho, hum. Another Thursday, another night without 30 Rock. All because someone (Tina Fey) is apparently more responsible and caring than her TV counterpart, and would rather look after her relatively newborn baby. And they say children are our future. A future without Liz Lemon sleep eating cigarettes is no future I want to be a part of.

Anyways, here's my list of my completely subjective top ten 30 Rock episodes, to tide we viewers over until the real thing comes back...IN FLIPPING JANUARY. WHYYY?

1. "Tracy Does Conan," S1E7

30 Rock had the whole hilariously offbeat thang going from the start, but its manic, hysterical edge gelled for the first time in this episode. Tracy does Conan, but first has to come down from "bugging out" on pills prescribed for him by one Dr. Leo Spaceman. Yes, this episode definitely would have garnered a place on the list by one fact alone: Dr. Spaceman's first episode.

"My, I'm certainly opening up to you, young lady!"

But the rest of the episode more than earns its place here, too. Tracy's antics reach comic heights of heaven, the best moment a relatively quiet one in this farce: Grizz gently rocks a shirtless Tracy back and forth in his arms as Liz talks on the phone with the deliciously smarmy and snake-oily Spaceman.

Scratch that, here's the best moment:

Conan is a great actor in this, by the way, very natural. I love the quick interplay between him and Liz, calling back to a few episodes previous where Liz implied a past romance between them. "Let's not do this, Elizabeth." And the ending is a classic, too, when Tracy's finally pushed onstage to tape the show. "Pants on! Pants on!" It really subverts the old comic trope that, hey, everything will work out in the end. Pff, who do you think Liz is, Gidget?

"AAAGH! Past Pete has come to kill Future Pete!"

2. "Episode 210," S2E10

Sometimes one scene is enough to earn an episode a place of honor on some creepy fanatical blog list. Here we have two scenes, each Liz-centric. First, her review with the co-op board, where she's bucking for her dream studio. It plays as a blind date from hell, with Liz dooming herself with each awkward word she says and with each questionable moment from her credit history revealed, until the board members can only stare at her in shock and pity.

"I love your apartment. Love!"
"Umm...there's...something coming out of your nose."

Then, continuing the date motif, you have a dejected Liz in her apartment at night, calling and leaving messages for the board over and over again with increasing pathetic loathing, and increasing drunkenness.

"I'm fine, because I know who I am. I feel sorry for you, co-op board."

We also have Kenneth's addiction to coffee. At first it didn't work for me. "Hopped up Kenneth" doesn't turn out as funny as everyday cheerful immortal Kenneth, but it soon evolved into the wonderfully weird "Midnight Train to Georgia" musical number. Who doesn't want to hear Edie Falco harmonize with Alec Baldwin?

"And I don't know why I lied, I guess I'm just nervous. But no, I did not read The Lovely Bones."

3. "MILF Island," S2E11

There's such a wonderful 12 Angry Men vibe in this episode, with all the writers sweating and cramped in Jack's waiting room, turning suspicious about who insulted Jack to a tabloid writer. None is more on the witch hunt than righteous Liz Lemon, until we find out....

I think "MILF" is also a  good showcase for just how stone-cold bitchy Liz is when cornered. Like when Kenneth takes the fall:

"What do you have to say to Kenneth, Lemon?"
"...You disgust me."

4. "Succession," S2E13

"Succession" has to be one of the most beautifully structured episodes in the history of ever. First, there's the underlying Amadeus theme--who else but the good folks at 30 Rock would think to link the searing, jealous complexity of Salieri and Mozart with Tracy's genius for creating porn video games, and Frank seething that Tracy was able to surmount the uncanny valley paradox?

Then you have appearances from Rip Torn, Will Arnett, and Dr. Spaceman's greatest entrance ever, as seen in the picture above: gratuitous cloak billowing behind him while Mozart swells in the background, as he stops at the candy machine. One of his best lines, too, when Torn fails to revive:

"Hello, 911? Diabetes repair, I guess." Shrug.

And then here's Liz, falling sway to the possiblity of CEO-dom, going, "Hey, nerds. Guess who has two thumbs, speaks limited French, and hasn't cried once today? This moi."

5. "Sandwich Day," S2E14

The best scenes are again Liz-centric.

And we mustn't forget the climactic scene at the airport, where her desire to make things right with Floyd conflicts with her desire to not abandon the delicious teamster's sandwich Jenna, Kenneth, Frank, Tracy, and Lutz won for her in a hilariously depraved drinking contest. I'd post the video of Liz's ultimate decision, but it's better seen with the whole episode's events behind it...and I can't find it on YouTube.

"I can do it! I can have it all!"

6. "Believe in the Stars," S3E2

Oprah in one of the best celebrity TV guest stints ever, mostly due to how a drugged up Liz reacts to her ("I'ma call you back. I'm snitting nexta Borpo"), and Liz's horrified realization at the end about who this Oprah really was. Fey talked about working with Oprah in her autobiography Bossy Pants (hilarious, go get it). This was around the time of the big Fey-as-Palin boom, where she was running back and forth to SNL's set and 30 Rock's fake airplane set, all the while planning her daughter's birthday party. Oprah--Oprah, mind you--was all, "Really? You're doing all that?" If the episode hadn't aired two seasons earlier, I'd have pegged the hectic pace of Tracy Does Conan deriving inspiration from the backstage shenanigans Fey experienced here.

Speaking of Tracy, this episode has possibly the best Tracy-Jenna subplot yet: their horrifyingly un-PC decision to masquerade as the other's race and gender.

"God, this is worse than the time you wore shorts to work!"

7. "Gavin Volure," S3E4

This episode doesn't get as much attention as it deserves, what with Steve Martin in an appearance to rival--possibly surpass--Oprah's. Martin brings his A-game to the corrupt fake agoraphobe of the title, returning to his roots as a gigantically spaced-out, pompous asshole. No Father of the Bride, Cheaper By the Dozen crapola here. His climactic scene is one of the best of the series:

"I've lost everything! I've lost my money! I've lost Liz! That...paint is drying weird!"
"Gavin Volure! Everyone wanted to be Gavin Volure! Well, Gavin Volure is going to juuuump!"

Tracy again gets another great subplot, a happily unsentimental journey through his paranoia that his young sons are going to kill him for his vast wealth.

"Daddy's home! Don't Menendez me!"
"And I want you to know, that if anything ever happens to me, you and your brother are going to jail."

8. "Dealbreakers Talk Show #0001," S4E7

If forced at gunpoint to decide which episode I'd put in the number one slot based on my preference alone, I'd first stand agog at just how far blog-followers are willing to go for an accurate idea of the blogger's taste, and then I'd choose this episode.

There's plenty of brilliance here (Will Arnett returns! Dr. Spaceman!), but again, it boils down to a key scene: Liz, after having her confidence burst into itty-bitty bits by a nervous, competitive Jack, tries to shoot the promos for her upcoming talk show. It goes disastrously, with Pete desperately throwing suggestions at her that she then turns into grotesque charades of human movements, like a malfunctioning sassy robot.

"Wave your hand! Wave like a human being!"
"Blow us a kiss! With your hand!"
"Give us some cleavage. No, no. Never mind." The way Scott Adsit and Alec Baldwin move back at the same time here is ingenious timing. Has there ever been a more courageous comedienne than Tina Fey, willing to let men react to her that way?

Oh, man, and then there's Liz standing behind the HD camera. Yup, no other braver comedienne. Same with Adsit, Baldwin, and McBrayer--or should I say, shirtless old man, young Alec Baldwin, and muppet?

That whole scene made me laugh harder than I think I ever have at any time, maybe tied only with Allie Brosh's Cake post at Hyperbole and a Half.

Gollum, mouth-crying Liz Lemon is pretty swell, too. Almost made me think twice about getting surgery on my own eyes.

9. "Verna," S4E12

I hate to keep going for episodes where it's just the one scene that sticks out, but come on. Any moment where Liz thinks she is triumphant and then has her dreams quickly deflated is a golden moment. She and Frank, temporary roomies, have sworn to kick their vices: Frank his cigarettes, Liz her junk food. Although Liz has been suffering, Frank seems easygoing as always, and so Liz leaves out his old carton of cigarettes and sets up a camera during the night. Noticing that two cigarettes are missing, Liz brings in the tape to show all the writers, little realizing she suffers from a "little understood parasomnia disorder."

(Pssst, over here at Hulu:

Jan Hooks does a wonderful, uncomfortably raunchy job as the titular Verna, Jenna's trashy mother, but really, can anything or anyone in an episode top a Lemon-Amorous Mail Lady duet of "Don't Go To Bed With a Frown in Your Pocket?"

Oh, and my new personal slogan: "You didn't believe in me. But I believed in myself. Just like the last scene of all movies."

10. "Queen of Jordan," S5E17

I've never seen a more apt send-up of anything--including politics, romances, war dramas--than 30 Rock's go at reality television here. Filmed as an episode of Angie Jordan's reality show Queen of Jordan, they get all the cliches, while still staying true--somehow--to 30 Rock's tone. I attribute this to the actors, who by now are so comfortable with their characters they seem, well, just like themselves even when the structure, music, and direction is totally different.

And I love that the writer (billed as "Tracey Wigfield" in quotes) remembers the insane details Angie outlined in "Mrs. Donaghy" quite a few epsiodes back when the concept for Queen of Jordan was born, featuring white divorced lady (Randi), Angie's meth addicted nephew, and of course, D'Fwan.

"....D'Fwan forgot his catchphrase."

Baldwin also has some of his finest moments, as he more and more deeply publicly humiliates himself with a series of accidents and mis-quotes.

"That was the chair, because I only pass gas once a year for an hour atop a mountain in Switzerland."

I also get a kick out of Liz getting billed as "Another Person." And Pete? "Powerless, bald."


So, there they are. You're welcome. Which ones was I a fool, a heartless fool, to leave out? There are so, so many.

"I'm a star, I'm on top, somebody bring me some haaaaaam!"

(By the way, you should probably strike while the internet is hot on the Youtube and Hulu clips. We all know how eager both sites are to take stuff down that people like).


  1. Great list! These truly are the best. Apollo, Apollo is one of my favorites, only for the chat line commercial at the end.

    1. Thank you! "Oh, I remember that girl. She cried all day."

  2. 30 rock is a really tough show to do a top-10-list, I think .. but I love all the episodes you picked out :)

    I also think, ''Succession'' shows us the most brilliant moments of Dr. Spacemen. The whole scene around Mr. Geiss' diabetic coma is so hilarious because of Dr. Spacemen (I still get such a kick out of the name alone).

    ''Queen of Jordan'' might just be the most well crafted on your list, in my opinion, because as you mentioned the actors are all really in tune with their characters, it comes so naturally it seems, almost as if it was an actual reality show.

    I could go on and on - basically, what I want to say is thanks for this list and your comments! Very interesting read ..

    1. Thank you for your thoughts, Astrid! I did pick an almost impossible task narrowing the episodes down to ten, especially since there have been so many more episodes since I wrote this.

      Yes, as brilliant as every Dr. Spaceman moment is, the ones in "Succession" particularly had me gasping for breath. You make a good point about "Queen of Jordan" being so well crafted--not only did the writers have to capture the reality show format, they had to integrate the characters as well, and they did it perfectly.

      Thank you again for your comments!

  3. Great choices but "Generalissimo" is pure brilliance.

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