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'30 Rock' recap: Joan of snark

February 25, 2011 |  7:15 am

 

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Whether or not she likes it, Tina Fey has come to epitomize the somewhat confused state of contemporary feminism: whip-smart, funny, and at war with herself. It's Fey, after all, who coined the term "bitch is the new black" and who, for almost five seasons now, has played Liz Lemon, an extremely successful but self-loathing woman thriving in the male-dominated field of comedy while bemoaning her single status. Gender politics have always played a crucial role on "30 Rock," but Thursday night's episode took this to an unprecedented level. "That's exactly the problem. Men infantilize women and women tear each other down," Liz tells Jenna. But is she right?

Questions arise when Jenna discovers that "JoanOfSnark.com" has been writing about her. The so-called feminist website--"where women talk about how far we’ve come and which celebrities have the worst beach bodies," Liz explains--has singled out "TGS" for its mysoginistic writing. They seem to have a point: There are lots of jokes about famous women getting their period and going ballistic. This plot is, clearly, a riff on the controversy that erupted last fall when the feminist blog Jezebel posted a lengthy critique of "The Daily Show." Jezebel claimed that the ostensibly liberal "Daily Show" had a "woman problem." The show had only two women on its writing staff and their lone female correspondent, Olivia Munn, was, prior to "The Daily Show," best known for diving into a giant chocolate cream pie while dressed as a French maid. The controversy raged for weeks in the blogosphere.

Liz half-heartedly tries to defend the show's writing. "That was an ironic reappropriation…I don’t know anymore," she admits. Taking the criticism to heart, Liz decides to hire a hot young female comedian, Abby Flynn--emphasis on "hot." Much to Liz's horror--and the male staffers' glee--it turns out that Abby is a busty, pigtail-wearing blond who speaks in a high-pitched voice, sucks her thumb, and regularly makes inappropriate jokes about molestation and lesbian orgies. (Abby is a nightmare, but the actress who plays her, Christin Milioti, is a marvel. Maybe "The Daily Show" can hire her?) In the shadow of an Eleanor Roosevelt statue, Liz tries to have a frank and constructive talk with Abby about her behavior, but it backfires. Abby tells Liz she's a judgmental hypocrite, Liz tells Abby she's a disgrace to "TGS" and the female race.

In a third-act twist, Liz discovers that Abby Flynn is actually Abby Grossman, a naturally flat-chested brunette who used to make jokes about erasable pens ("I always thought that but I never had the courage to say it," says Liz). In the "TGS" writers' room, Liz confronts Abby about the image overhaul, but it turns out the young comedian is actually hiding from a homicidal ex-husband, not caving in to "like, pressure from society."

The conclusion is funny and, of course, intentionally absurd, as "30 Rock" ought to be. But on some level it also felt like a demurral. It's not that I want "30 Rock" to turn into an After-School Special, but this episode brought up some very intriguing questions. Is Jack correct when he claims that "female jealousy is an evolutionary fact"? Are the Liz Lemons of the world motivated by righteous feminist indignation, or by their own gnawing insecurity? And Abby's sexy baby act is appalling, but should it even bother Liz? Ultimately, the lesson from this "30 Rock" is that for women who try to live by their feminist beliefs, it's a case of "damned if you do, damned if you don't." This, I suppose, is its own sort of feminist message, though it's not exactly an inspiring one.

The real feminist role model in this episode may be Kaylie, Hank Cooper's ruthless 14-year-old granddaughter. Unlike her flaky parents, Kaylie has dreams of one day taking over the Kabletown empire. Jack does too, so he makes it his mission to steer Kaylie into another career. When he discovers that the seemingly guileless Kaylie has a passion for marine biology, Jack arranges a private tour of the Natural History Museum given by none other than Bob Ballard (sadly, the real-life explorer did not make a guest appearance in this episode; I can only assume it's because he is underwater somewhere). Unfortunately, the plan backfires. All the talk of deep-sea exploration re-ignites Jack's boyhood passion, and he momentarily flirts with the idea of ditching the corporate world and pursuing his dream of bringing the gift of language to walruses. In the end, Jack discovers that Kaylie was playing him, which leads to one of the most amusing showdowns in "30 Rock" memory.

A 14-year-old Justin Bieber fan bringing  a corporate bigwig to his knees? Talk about girl power.

Joke of the night: The flashback to the summer of 1998, when Jenna invented sexy baby talk.

Most sexist statement: "Maybe I can help her realize some other life goal to become a doctor’s nurse, or a lawyer’s mistress, or the president of the United States…Shopping Assn." --Jack

Most politically incorrect statement: "Well, that's understandable. 'Grossman' is a little bagel-y." --Jenna, regarding Abby's name change

Symptoms of "Trust-fund Disease": Habitual pot-smoking, painting, sailing inflatable castles across the Atlantic.

Things Bobert "Bob" Ballard has discovered: The Titanic, the Lusitania and a guilt-free cheesecake recipe.

Most unfortunate wording: "I'll complete the seduction after Bob Ballard and I double-team her." --Jack, regarding Kaylie

Where Liz lost her virginity: The makeup room of a clown academy.

Meanest thing about a former co-star: "Comedy’s freshest female voice. Take that, Courtney Thorne-Smith." --Jenna

What's in Jack Donaghy's safe: His will, a negative of a photo of Jacques Cousteau, and some Beanie Babies that he thought would be worth more.

Reason why Abby should be careful around the crew: A New York state tax break for hiring sex offenders.

Best way to insult a male teacher: "Quiet, chalk hands. A real man is talking." --Jack

Best way to insult Jack Donaghy: "I hate the ocean. It’s for tools." --Kaylie

Best comeback to above insult: "The ocean is awesome and for winners. You’re for tools." --Jack

Winner of the episode: Kaylie, who manages to outsmart Jack Donaghy.

- Meredith Blake
Twitter.com/MeredithBlake

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 Photo: Tina Fey as Liz Lemon, Christin Milioti as Abby Flynn 

Credit: Ali Goldstein/NBC

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