Episode: “Verna” (Season Four, Episode 12)
Summary: When Frank moves in with Liz after a fire at his place, they each vow to help the other kick their bad habits: eating unhealthily for Liz and smoking for Frank. Jenna turns to Jack for help when her unfit mother, Verna (Jan Hooks) shows up, but Jack is skeptical when it appears she’s turned over a new leaf.
Review: By the time Me Cat, the animated mascot for Cheesey Blasters, pops out of a pregnant Liz into the arms of Dr. Tracy Jordan, you should’ve already known whether you were going to love tonight’s episode of 30 Rock or not because after Liz wakes up from her strange dream, the episode stays the course of absurdity.
Primarily, the absurdity focuses around the pairing of Liz and Frank, who are paired up after Frank, needing a place to stay, moves into the extra space in Liz’s apartment. They each vow to help the other kick their bad habit, but as we (and the entire TGS staff) know, Liz is a titanic fan of junk food. Frank apparently smokes too, though the fact that this has never been mentioned in previous episodes can be forgiven because the ensuing shenanigans are well worth it. Of course the harmony of the two quitting cold turkey doesn’t last when Liz becomes skeptical of how Frank can be doing so well when she’s suffering physically and emotionally from her body’s dependency on the chemicals in junk food. Tied into this thread is Pete, who’s convinced Liz needs her junk food release to function properly and whose incredibly stressed family life combined with his incredibly stressed work life have left him very little “Pete Time.” Tina Fey and Scott Adsit, as usual, show great chemistry during their downward spiral into misery and the revelation that Pete has begun jamming thumb tacks into himself “just to feel something” is hilarious thanks to some great pacing and Adsit’s expressive face. Liz and Pete, of course, don’t believe that Frank is legit in his quitting and scheme up a way to prove he’s not.
But more on that later. Jenna, upset that her no good mother is coming back into her life, asks for help from Jack, who has plenty of experience dealing with unwanted matriarchs. As it turns out, Jenna doesn’t even need to enforce Jack’s advice (“no, low, go”) when Verna, wont to ask for money in the past, instead begins making efforts to pay back her exploited daughter. Hooks, an SNL alum, does an occasionally exceptional, but mostly sufficient job at portraying the redneck mother. The jokes written for her aren’t that funny, though it is equal parts great and awkward when Verna finally partakes in the mother/daughter duet she skipped out on when Jenna was 11…to Captain and Tennille’s “Do That To Me One More Time.” In the words of Jack:
- Liz: How are you not moved by this?
- Jack: I’m listening to the words.
Based on how Verna is built up to be this horrible women but appears to be genuine in her apologies, we spend the whole episode waiting for the let down, wondering what her real motivations could be. Well, eventually we find out: Verna, who knows how to push Jenna’s buttons, wants her own reality TV show revolving around her and her daughter. This reveal, along with Jack’s response, is the only part of the episode that didn’t really work for me and was, in my opinion, a glaring weakness. For one thing, this seems like a really stupid and flimsy reason for the appearance of the Verna character because we’re not given enough information to think this is a valid motivation. For another, Jack’s stepping in on the part of Jenna to try and force Verna to be a better mother seems a bit too altruistic for the character and by introducing bribery into the equation (he agrees to pay her $3000 if she visits Jenna four times a year), it’s hard to feel there’s been any emotional or moral victory. I’m not saying it’s not nice to see Jack’s soft underbelly, but it doesn’t make sense to see it in this context.
It’s later. Liz and Pete figure by laying out cigarettes and setting up a hidden camera in Liz’s apartment (“Like the nanny cam I set up to watch our nanny sleep”), they’ll be able to capture Frank smoking in secret. They don’t, but what they do capture is comic gold:
- Liz sleep walking
- Liz sleep eating
- Liz sleep ordering a pizza
- Liz sleep eating said pizza
- Frank getting frisky with an overweight woman from the NBC mail room who lullabies him to sleep
- Liz sleep eating Frank’s cigarettes
Liz’s junk food habit has been a running gag since season 1, but to see it played with in such an absurd and subsequently hysterical way shows the writers can make repetition funny and had me almost peeing my pants with laughter.
Favorite Quote: [Jack] – “I developed this presentation in 2002 when Colleen attempted to lengthen her Christmas visit to Martin Luther King Day or as she calls it, ‘that day in January when the post office is closed.'”