’30 Rock’ Review: “Aunt Phatso vs. Jack Donaghy”
This week’s ‘30 Rock‘ pits Jack against Tracy in a battle of the wits — but things don’t go exactly how you might assume. Meanwhile, Hazel continues to be a total basket case and Liz treats her feet like babies.
Liz has to relinquish her duties this week when she needs quadruple bunion surgery, inspiring Hazel to manipulate her way into becoming Liz’s assistant so she can take advantage of her laid-up boss and sneak onto TGS. There’s this elaborate to-do with Hazel squeezing info out of Kenneth to use against everyone on the show, and while she’s less grating as a character than she’s been in recent weeks, the build-up ultimately pales in comparison to the third act payoff. Yes, Hazel surprisingly gets some of the best lines of the week, like when she appeals to Liz’s feminist convictions with, ”Sisters helping sisters, glass ceiling, legitimate rape,” and besides working on Liz, it’s Kristen Schaal’s most effective work on the show to date, though it may be her last.
When Liz finally figures out what Hazel’s been up to while she’s unable to walk on her recovering feet, she rushes down to the stage (set to music from Swan Lake, giving the sequence an awesome semi-’Black Swan’ vibe) and fires the nutty page. Kenneth, who earlier confided in Jenna his feelings about his weirdo girlfriend, turns to the actress for help in clearing Hazel’s name, but since Jenna was too busy thinking about what a good listener she is (and pondering if she should be a “slutty ear” for Halloween), Jenna has no help to offer. ’30 Rock’ has struggled most in the first part of this final season with balancing the supporting players — Kenneth can be a bit much, so it’s best to not have entire episodes revolving around him; Jenna’s self-centered schtick can feel redundant and eventually becomes as grating as she is (see this season’s election-themed two-parter); and Hazel’s ‘Single White Female’ thing at times feels too forceful for its own good.
This week it’s the stuff with Jenna and Kenneth that feels weakest even though their parts are minimal, but the problem is that it feels as though it has no bearing on the Liz/Hazel plot, which leads to a conclusion that feels natural and inevitable, with or without Kenneth’s feelings involved.
Meanwhile, Jack is annoyed that Tracy’s using a villainous character named Jack Donaghy (who looks and acts like Jack, but older and bald) in his Tyler Perry-esque films featuring Tracy in drag as a sassy woman named Aunt Phatso (read: Madea). This gets Jack wondering if he really is a villain, and sets Tracy and Jack at odds as they try to outsmart each other, with Jack wanting to prove he’s nothing like Tracy or Tracy’s idea of him, and Tracy just wanting to win because that’s how Tracy rolls. This leads Tracy to paying off the Philharmonic orchestra with a hefty donation to play a four-hour rendition of the ‘Sanford and Son’ theme, ruining Jack’s fancy night out, and we’re treated to fun facts, like Tracy once had a Saturday morning kids’ show called “Uncle Tracy’s Black Teletubbies Rip-Off.”
Ultimately, Tracy surprisingly out-maneuvers Jack by backing him into a corner with his libel suit — if Jack stops Tracy’s new movie, then the profits slated to go to a local orphanage will evaporate and the orphanage will be closed, thus proving that Jack is just like the movie-version of himself, which means he can’t successfully sue Tracy for libel. It’s always fun when ’30 Rock’ finds new ways to have Jack and Tracy interact with one another, and the writers successfully find a middle-ground by highlighting the ways in which the two are similar (they’re both stubborn and wield their power in absurd ways with money) and then setting them against each other with the very qualities that unite them.
But Liz has the biggest issue this week: can she juggle the career of her dreams with having the family she’s always wanted? It’s not something she’s really stopped to think about, since this is Liz “I can have it all!” Lemon. But it’s also not something I expect Liz Lemon to honestly ask herself, much less ask for Tracy’s advice on the matter. In all fairness, the sappy moment is undercut by a boob joke from Tracy’s Aunt Phatso movie, which brings a layer of self-awareness to a moment that otherwise doesn’t fit in with the Liz we know. She thinks, like Jack says, that if she can’t even take care of her own feet, how can she expect to take care of a baby, and beyond that, a career as well. But the real Liz Lemon would think this is baloney. She can, of course, do both, though I admire the earnest attempt at bringing out Liz’s insecurity, which reinforces how relatable she is — but Liz is the most relatable when she’s at her most wacky, like calling her gynecologist last week to ask if she left a bag of Burger King in the doctor’s office. I’m not saying that Liz can’t ask questions like, “Should I choose a family or a career?” but the directness of the line rings false after we’ve spent six seasons knowing that Liz wouldn’t ask a question like that — and neither would Tina Fey.
Instead, the rest of the episode does a good job of asking that question via Liz’s foot problem, and the moment where she asks Tracy if she should have a family or have a career feels like it was added in just in case viewers missed the point. Yes, we know Liz is wondering if she can juggle her career and taking care of something delicate — we don’t need her to say it in such plain words. It’s just so damn awkward. But then again, that kind of is Liz, right?