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30 Rock Review: "Verna" (4.12)

February 5, 2010  |  9:15am
30 Rock Review: "Verna" (4.12)

For quite some time, 30 Rock has seemed content to spin its wheels as far as character development goes. Sure, the show’s undergone some changes due to episode arcs, like my much-hated Dealbreakers one late last year, but its characters have remained pretty well entrenched in their basic roles; at their worst moments, nearly to the point of self-parody. The show’s mantra could in some sense be summed up by Jack Donaghy in last night’s episode: “People don’t change.”

"Vera" picked up this theme and brought in two contradictory answers to Donaghy's assertion. First there’s Jenna’s mother Verna visiting, which is the first time we’ve met this character. This bodes poorly for Jenna, who reminisces about the terrible things her mother put her through whilst leeching off of Jenna’s talent. Despite her horrible ways, it appears as if she’s arrived at 30 Rock to make amends for the past and has changed her ways. That wouldn’t be particularly interesting, now would it, so it turns out that she’s actually hanging around to pitch a reality TV show to Jack about the way she screws up her daughter’s life. Despite appearances to the contrary, she’s just doing the same old thing and still hard at work screwing over Jenna in new and creative ways.

Liz is busy with her own business, such as avoiding Jenna’s mom, which leads Jenna to look towards Jack for support during this trying time. Oddly enough, she finds it with him, and the pair bonds over their mutual hatred of abusive mothers. Jack not only counsels his young protégé in the ways of hating and avoiding your mother, he takes her through a sublime video-slideshow presentation that stresses his “Say no, talk low, let her go” philosophy and leaves her with the self-confidence to shut her mom down. Verna  throws this off balance by acting nice for once, but when this flips around later Jack steps in again and literally begins paying Jenna’s mom off to be nice to her daughter.

Jack has long had a sort of surrogate father thing going on with Liz, not to mention Tracy and Kenneth, but this is quite a display of affection from him towards Jenna. It’s a real change of heart from his usual ruthlessness, and shows that it’s not just Liz but the entire TGS group that has been growing on him—he gives a damn about them as people now. Contrast that with season one and you’ve got a pretty meaningful change. Jenna, on the other hand, has lately tended towards cartoonishness, and her character has begun distracting from more interesting things going on during episodes. In this sequence she becomes much more of a real person and her reactions, for once motivated by more than “look at me, I’m a star” impulses, are interesting beyond simple throwaway gags.

Outside of this main story, things weren’t slow either. Frank moves into Liz’s place (the reasons are typical sit-com nonsense), but rather than focusing on stupid feuds between the two the episode instead has the pair quitting their vices together. Frank gives up smoking while Liz gives up junk food. Despite the hackneyed nature of this whole affair, solid writing keeps the story afloat until things culminate in a Paranormal Activity parody that somehow feels natural and original. Laughter wasn’t constant during the episode, but the direction it moved in kept interest even when jokes were sparse. That being said, some of the material, especially one-liners from Tracy and the videos that framed the episode, were pretty great by even the show's lofty standards.

Stray Observations:
Liz’s fantasy at the beginning of the episode is random but not particularly funny.  I am a fan of Meat Cat, though.

“His name is Mr. Wiggles, and his cat’s name is Benson.”

"I’d like to pre-apologize for clogging your tub, sink and toilet."

"Say no, talk low, and let her go."  - If anyone tries this out, I would like to hear about their success or failure stories.

"Wow, an old white lady yelling at me while wearing microwavable socks. This is so different than living with my mom."

"Manufactured in a facility that also processes food."

"I took the elevator all the way up here without losing my breath."

“Could a bad mother raise a daughter who was engaged to a congressman when she was sixteen?”

“You didn’t believe in me but I believed in myself. Just like the last scene of all movies!”

The singing horribly inappropriate songs gag isn't exactly original, but that doesn't mean it doesn't work.

"OK, I don’t mean to e the black guy at the movie … but you need to move, girl."

“You’re a good man, Jack Donaghy.”   “Thank you Meat Cat.”

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