Friday, September 13, 2013

Weeks 16 and 17 of "My 25 Favourite Episodes of TV"

Trying something a little different today. I realized that the episode I was planning on writing about this week was very similar to another one on the list, so there doesn't seem much point in writing up two entries that are about basically the same thing. Woo hoo, I just saved myself a week! And let's be honest, I also saved you, a beloved reader, the chore of reading the exact same blog post twice in the same month. (Shut up, I know how many of these read as the same regurgitated garbage). And that's what matters most. Protecting my VAST readership. And, uh, ahem...*Rodney Dangerfield collar grab*

After the break: Would you like a full history of the professional relationship between Conan O'Brien and Jack McBrayer? I figured as much, so I anticipated your next move before you even got there. Like chess. SITCOM CHESS.

Today's double feature is:

30 Rock, "Tracy Does Conan"
First aired on NBC Thursday, December 7, 2006


Parks and Recreation, "Flu Season"
First aired on NBC Thursday, January 27, 2011

For some shows, you just have to be in the right mood or mindset to watch them - as Liz Lemon once said herself, "I'm never in the mood to watch 'Treme'" (who is?). For generally upbeat comedies like "30 Rock" or "Parks and Recreation" though, it's hard to not want to watch them. They're not going to make you feel sad, and if you're already feeling sad, they're a perfect pick-me-up. But when they go a little off-book or even wander fully into Crazytown, it's the mindset part they still need to deal with.

"Tracy Does Conan" from the first season of "30 Rock" and "Flu Season" from the third season of "Parks and Rec" both show viewers what it's like to be a seemingly normal person trying to tend to someone who is very ill. But even better, they contrast that with showing what it's like to be the person who is very ill (scarily enough, sometimes they're the same person). Sometimes it can double as a way to move story forward. Sometimes it's just screamingly funny. And sometimes, when we're dealing with shows as good as these two, it operates very well as both at the same time.

On "Parks and Rec," a number of main characters find themselves incapacitated by the flu, but aside from April tormenting her nurse Ann all day long, the two bed-ridden characters we're primarily dealing with are Leslie Knope and Chris Traeger. Almost all of what we see of Leslie's meltdown is presented through Ben's point of view, which the show uses to start planting the seeds for the eventual Ben/Leslie relationship. Ben is understandably very alarmed when Leslie, still very sick, sneaks out of the hospital to give a speech persuading local businesses to participate in the upcoming harvest festival, and she starts asking why the wall and the floor just switched, or she turns and faces a wall to start her speech with "Good evening, I'm Leslie Monster, and this is 'Nightline'". But then when it's really showtime, a switch just flips and Leslie is good to go, as if she'd been storing even the most minimal competency in reserves to bust out when she needed it. And as soon as she doesn't anymore, she brings Ben up to take questions by introducing him as "Give it up everyone for Scott Bakula from 'Quantum Leap'!" Ben realizes the woman he initially butted heads with when he first showed up in Pawnee to slash her department's budget is more than just a manic ball of energy - she's someone who puts that energy to work for her every minute of every day, who won't let any opponent stop her, even herself. Also, Ben has now seen the version of Leslie that is really just a manic ball of energy, and that's far nuttier than anything regular Leslie would do.

However the internal shutdown of Chris, a human microchip with almost no body fat to fight off disease, is seen entirely through his eyes. Sometimes even lit'rally, like when Chris is staring at himself in the mirror telling himself to "Stop. Pooping." I love the manic way that scene of him in the hospital is presented, giving us a glimpse into what really happens to Chris when, in his own words, the finely tuned machine that is his body is infiltrated by a grain of sand. All of the quick jumps between him on the floor, sprawled across his bed, and etc. are probably a good indicator of what it felt like to be Chris in that moment, and what he probably remembered about it once Ann nursed him back to health. And I mean come on. "Stop pooping." They had Rob Lowe say that. TV just doesn't get any better.

     Left: Tracy Jordan, stabbing robot. Right: Scorned late
     night talk show host Conan O'Brien.
Over on "30 Rock," Tracy has a similar medicinal episode - through some combination of a) being off his medication and b) reacting to whatever amount of medication he had taken, he's having hallucinations and being an all around psychopath, which is great timing since he's booked on "Late Night with Conan O'Brien" and Pete and Liz have to get him back on his meds before the taping. This is another case where the mania of the characters is reflected in the show itself - albeit differently from "Parks and Rec," in a way that is more true to the general pop culture parody-ness of "30 Rock" - as everything on screen just zooms right past you, with a good chunk of the episode scored to an old BBC radio theme by Charles Williams called "Devil's Gallop". You understand simultaneously what Tracy and Liz are both going through (the whole episode is kind of an eerie commentary on how Liz is the least well adjusted character in a show surrounded by some real weirdos, similar to Michael Bluth on "Arrested Development") and the execution is just superb.

It even becomes sort of a parody of itself at times, like in all of the scenes where Kenneth is sent to pick up Tracy's prescription at "the" Rite Drug on 46th and 8th only to realize there's one on every corner and has to wait in line at all of them. Jack McBrayer is so good and so funny playing the moment where he's standing in a long line of shoppers, bouncing up and down impatiently waiting for his turn, only to immediately give up his spot to an old woman behind him and go right back into looking like an impatient child. McBrayer is a one-in-a-million talent who can play such innocent insanity that Tina Fey and co. could usually let him fly off the rails, at least in the early seasons, to great comedic effect. And there are still very few "30 Rock" quotes that make me laugh harder than Kenneth telling the Rite Drug clerk, "Fine, I will try the other location, but frankly Ladonica, you have not been real helpful."

The lesson? More TV characters need to become stricken with disease, dammit! Seriously though, I'm not sure there actually is much of a takeaway's very easy to push characters into zaniness on a sitcom, but the success rate in doing so is marginal at best (like I mentioned, once they took Kenneth out of his page role and started shuffling him around everywhere and really trying to push him as a breakout character, it didn't work as well) (also I have to bring up an outstanding "Simpsons" quote here, "Too crazy for Boystown, too much of a boy for Crazytown"). Lightning doesn't strike everywhere at all times, but if you've got talented writers and actors like these shows had/have, the crazy can works splendidly. And because "Tracy Does Conan" and "Flu Season" pull off what requires such a rare and precise formula to work, they're two of my favourite TV episodes of all time and will be regular watches in my household for many years to come.

Some amusing footnotes:

- Aubrey Plaza (April on "Parks and Rec") has a quick cameo in "Tracy Does Conan". Plaza was an actual NBC page at the time and she is seen getting ready to seat the "Conan" audience when Kenneth runs out of the elevator with Tracy's prescription

- Dennis Duffy's idea of good names for kids: Shannon, Rick. Speaking of Dennis, I always enjoyed his insistence on using dead technology (he was, of course, "The Beeper King") but I wonder if back in 2006 the idea that Dennis would use a payphone was an added punchline or just the product of the fact that he obviously wouldn't have a cell phone. And why would he? He has his beeper!

- Rachel Dratch, the original Jenna in the unaired "30 Rock" pilot who then played various roles throughout the first season, appears in maybe her most demeaning role on the show as "The Blue Dude" who Tracy (and later Liz) keeps hallucinating. To give you an idea of just how varied her roles were, here's a short list: Lougretta, the cat wrangler hired to supply live cats for "TGS" sketches, Barbara Walters, a foreign maid named Maria who appears on the boat Tracy stole in the show's second episode, a fictionalized version of Elizabeth Taylor who physically assaults Josh for an impression he did of her, a prostitute that Jack hires so he can double date with Tracy and Angie Jordan on Valentine's Day, a conflict resolution leader who leads a racism seminar between Tracy and Toofer (the latter offended by the former's use of the N-word), and a woman who leads a boycott on "TGS" after Jenna is misquoted as making anti-war statements in an interview. After the first season, Dratch wouldn't appear on the show again until season 5's "Live Show," where she plays Jadwiga, the cleaning lady at NBC Studios - a variation of the maid character she played in "The Aftermath," but according to the Internet, not the exact same character

- Everything with Conan O'Brien (whose first "Late Night" episode aired twenty years ago today, I should add) is fantastic in this episode. We heard mention in a previous episode that he and Liz had a romantic past (Pete was running through a list of her terrible ex-boyfriends and mentioned "that gangly red-haired guy who played guitar all the time," to which Liz monotonously responds "Conan.") and we now see the awkwardness first hand when Liz tries to laugh off that she's still "going out with that guy from the pager store" and when she asks him "How's your wife?" Conan responds with "Let's not do this, Elizabeth." He doesn't get a lot of chances to do some actual acting, but he's very good all through the episode. Other Coco highlights include Jack threatening Conan to bring Tracy back on his show by forcing him to "host a live Christmas Eve special from Kabul every year until the War on Terror is won" if he refuses, and his reaction to Kenneth pretending to be interviewed on his set ("Well I got started in the NBC page program, and before you know it, I'm making hit movies with my good friend and roommate Zach Braff!") and showing off his clog routine to the empty studio - Conan simply walks by and says "you're a weird guy, Kenneth" and Kenneth, still smiling of course, says, "See you tomorrow, Mr. O'Brien!"

- Though this was likely his first significant work with O'Brien, McBrayer used to be a bit player in sketches on "Late Night" - if you search on YouTube for a blooper reel the show aired near the end of its run, you can spot him being shot while inside what appears to be giant VHS box for "Hope Floats". Once he got his big break on "30 Rock," McBrayer became a regular guest on, and participated in a number of sketches and remote segments for, Conan's short-lived "Tonight Show" and his TBS talk show "Conan" (he appeared in character as Kenneth to tour O'Brien's "Tonight" studio near the end of its run, telling his tour group, "Here's a fun fact: NBC spent more time building this studio than using it!"). He's one of a handful of guests (along with Tom Hanks and Jon Hamm) that I'd say is firmly in the Conan camp, rarely appearing as a guest on any other talk shows

- Some classic lines in these two episodes: Jack says his famous "It's after six, what am I, a farmer?" line to Liz when she asks him why he's wearing a tuxedo on "30 Rock," and Ron Swanson tells the story of his best work friend whose name he never learned over the course of three years on "Parks and Rec". "We still never talk sometimes," Ron says.

- I also still always chuckle when Andy tells Leslie "I typed your symptoms into the computer and it says you could have 'network connectivity problems'"

Next week: Initially, I planned to give next week's episode a numerical grade from 0 to 100 - 100 being a perfect score. But then I decided that might unfairly stigmatize shows that scored low on my evaluation because they followed reckless comedy practices or were otherwise not good at television. So I changed to a simple "PASS/FAIL" system. However, on reflection, I felt that system was too rigid, so I changed it once again to "PASS/PASS*". This seemed less judgmental and more inclusive. Eventually, at the show's suggestion, we dropped the asterisk and went with a "PASS/PASS" system. Tonight, I am proud to say that after being examined, next week's episode scored a PASS! Congratulations, mystery show!