'30 Rock' recap: 'No one can escape the horror of Christmas'
Christmas episodes are a sitcom staple, but as we discovered last year around this time, they're also a risky proposition for a show like "30 Rock." Just how do you maintain the right balance between holiday cheer and year-round irreverence? It's a delicate formula, and on Thursday night "30 Rock" got it just right. That is, they leaned toward the former, delivering a Christmas episode full of cyncism -- but topped with just a sprinkle of sweetness.
Since "12" is the most Christmas-y number there is, here are a dozen highlights:
12. Mental-Liz: I don't watch "The Mentalist," but maybe I should. Liz, apparently a Simon Baker fan, can now accurately decipher the most delicate physical clues. If the whole TV writing thing doesn't work out, then at least she can offer her services as "body language expert" to US Weekly.
11. Avery's pregnancy camouflage: She hasn't spilled the beans yet at work, so Avery's using various objects -- like a ham topped with a Pilgrim hat -- to obscure her growing belly.
10. Jack and Avery's war on the "War on Christmas": "Happy Holidays ... is what terrorists say," reads their Christmas card.
9. Mr. and Mrs. Parcell: Tracy sneaks back into the TGS set after hours to get some serious clothes for a charity appearance, and there discovers Kenneth, celebrating Christmas all alone with a pair of trash cans with construction paper faces. "I certainly wasn’t going to pretend those trash cans were my parents." Sure.
8. New Queer's Eve: I was crushed by Jenna and Paul's breakup last week, and apparently, so were they. When Jenna gets her invite to Tom Ford and Elton John's "New Queer's Eve," she bursts into tears. How can she possibly miss out on the chance to eat shrimp of an old gay dressed as Baby New Year? If that's what it takes to get her back together with Paul, I'm all for it. These two -- and their strategically placed salamanders -- are meant for each other.
7. The wing at Jack's house designed by M.C. Escher: Liz heads in this direction to locate Colleen, and all we hear is her saying, "These stairs are weird." Also: Jack lives in a house?
6. Liz's drag doppelganger: Attempting to play peacemaker between Jenna and Paul, Liz shows up at the restaurant where Paul works as a drag waitress in rollerskates (what a cliche, right?). Paul sees Liz and mistakes her for a colleague. "I’m sorry, I thought you were a transvestite." Minutes later, we see a remarkably Lemon-esque waitress skating away.
5. Hippy-dippy Milton: One of the episode's many guest stars, Alan Alda reprised his role as Milton Greene, Jack's biological father and Colleen's "shameful sex secret." Jack and Avery can barely contain their contempt of Milton's crunchy ways -- allowing children to name themselves, celebrating the "Winter Festival of Lights," and penning a book called "There's No Wrong Way to Make a Family" (note the witch and burqa clad-woman on the cover).
4. Colleen's "Christmas attack zone": Elaine Stritch as Jack's tyrannical mother, Colleen, is easily one of "30 Rock"'s best recurring characters. Last night she was back with with a vengeance, aimed squarely at poor Avery (poor Avery: not something I say often). Jack has been withholding the news of Avery's pregnancy from Colleen, and it turns out he had good reason. Colleen is enraged that Jack has knocked-up a "Protestant," and welcomes Avery with this cheerful greeting: "I see you brought the bag that my bastard grandchild will come in." I'd also like to know more about why she killed Lydia's parrot.
3. Serious Tracy: The only thing I enjoy more than regular Tracy is serious Tracy. On a quest for a Golden Globe for his searing performance in "Hard to Watch: Based on the book, 'Stone Cold Bummer' by Manipulate," Tracy has ditched his flashy duds for a black turtleneck and beret and gives slideshows about Darfur. He even refuses to star in Kabletown's holiday promo, telling Liz, "As an actor it is my job to tell the truth, hold a mirror to humanity, and sell Proactiv." Worst of all? Going on "Charlie Rose." Was I the only one hoping that we'd get a clip of this appearance?
2. "Chunks 2: A Very Chunky Christmas": OK, I take it back. I think I like funny Tracy the best. To wit, his multiple appearances in the Norbit/Madea spoof, "The Chunks 2." Not gonna lie: My favorite was the clip of the Chunk family projectile-vomiting at Christmas dinner.
1. Two black swans-a-singing: After Jenna's "former lover" shows up at her door, the couple reunites at "N.Q.E." in a couple's costume they both thought of independently: Paul as Natalie Portman in "Black Swan" and Jenna as Lynn Swann, former Pittsburgh Steelers wide receiver and Pennsylvania gubernatorial nominee (obviously). The sight of the two of them -- Paul in bizarre drag, Jenna in (there's no way around this) blackface -- singing "Oh, Holy Night" was truly one for the ages.
The only thing missing from this episode? Carol. Just think of all the puns to be made. But otherwise, this "Christmas Attack Zone" was a present from TV Santa.
Happy holidays from Kabletown!
Photo: Jack (Alec Baldwin), Avery (Elizabeth Banks), Colleen (Elaine Stritch), and Milton (Alan Alda) are one big happy family on the holidays. Credit: Ali Goldstein/NBC