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30 Rock Recap: The Mentaliz

After learning that NBC has required a Merry Christmas promo from each of its shows except TGS, Liz Lemon smiles and says, “Good year, everyone!” And so it has been for 30 Rock — just shy of the season’s midpoint, the final episode of 2010 seems like as good a time as any to pause and reflect upon how this year has been marked by a level of writing that most comedies won’t ever get within sniffing distance of, much less hit consistently in their fifth season. Also because “Christmas Attack Zone” didn’t really have a lot of that and we don’t wish to be visited by Community’s bah humbugs. (Crossover recap, go!)

Certainly there wasn’t anything wrong with the episode and we’d take it over anything else our TV could think to offer on a cold Thursday night, but lines like, “Well, they both have had screaming fights with Wyclef Jean” and “I had a couple rich men die on top of me” landed with first-draft thuds; not to say that 30 Rock never has clunkers, but the ratio seemed just off. (One of several notable exceptions: “Obesity is killing the African-American community … with laughter!”) It’d be handy to make like Liz and channel The Mentalist to deduce clues from the cast’s body language, but we know where our remote is and thus have never watched the show, so we are resigned to the idea that we’re spoiled brats this Christmas — we want the Jessup family crest to be something funnier than a knight refusing to talk about his feelings, but if we knew what that something was, then someone would be recapping our brilliant workplace sitcom for a living.

Though Liz already plans to spend a drama-free Christmas Eve dining at the Kmart in Penn Station and watching Tootsie, Jack invites her over for dinner to help him deal with the visiting Colleen. Jack has yet to either tell his mother that he and Avery are having a child or that he’s been in touch with his real father, Milton Greene. (Avery, who has taken to hiding her third-trimester bump during her broadcasts by clutching a ham wearing a top hat, will be with her own family — a perk of dating older men whose parents are dead or senile.) Colleen takes the news as badly as Jack had expected, grumbling that her chums back at the Death Shore retirement community will be horrified to learn that her unmarried son has knocked up a Protestant, so Jack decides to embrace the Christmas spirit and shove her hypocrisy in her face, secretly inviting Milton to dinner to ambush her and remind her of her own bastard-childbearing past. (Once again, Elaine Strich will change the way you think about shrewish octogenarians.) Colleen exacts her own revenge in the form of a fake heart attack, and the whole setup feels somewhat anticlimactic and rote, right down to the druid-solstice gags courtesy of Alan Alda’s well-meaning hippie professor.

Meanwhile, Tracy Jordan, dressed in all black, including beret and diamond "POVERTY" necklace, is serious about his new serious image and buys the rights to the straight-to-DVD sequel The Chunks 2: A Very Chunky Christmas for fear that it will ruin his Golden Globe chances. And Jenna is upset that her breakup with Paul means they can’t attend Tom Ford and Elton John’s New Queer’s Eve gala. Kenneth handles the first crisis, accompanying Tracy to a Christmas Eve engagement (“Ladies of the battered women’s shelter, please be quiet, a man is talking”) to screen Hard to Watch, which will hold a mirror up to their own terrible lives. But Kenneth reminds him that people in trouble need laughter, too, so he plays The Chunks 2 instead, regaling in the healing power of a grown man in a fat suit falling down a flight of stairs. (Whatever the relative merits of The Nutty Professor, that movie has become cultural shorthand for “talented-but-lazy comic resorting to cheap gag”; see also: Jack Black in Tropic Thunder.)

Liz handles the Jenna problem, visiting Paul at his transvestite roller-skating restaurant to tell him he thinks Jenna misses him more than she’ll let on. He stops by Jenna’s apartment, not to get back together with her, and they realize that they both have the exact same killer idea for a year-end couples costume: He dresses as Natalie Portman in the movie Black Swan and she dresses like former Pittsburgh Steelers wide receiver and Pennsylvania gubernatorial candidate Lynn Swann — they’ll be Two Black Swans.

As Will Forte and Jane Krakowski sing “The Night Christ Was Born,” he in full Black Swan regalia and she in … blackface, we take in heartwarming images of holiday — sorry, Christmas — bliss, reminding us to accept and cherish family in all its forms. Jack Donaghy getting yelled at in a hospital room by both of his natural parents for the first time in his life. Liz Lemon boarding a crowded bus to her Aunt Linda’s meltdown in Whitehaven beside a guy with a parrot. A room full of hard-luck mothers and children watching fat people projectile vomit at the dinner table. And so we remember our 30 Rock’s blessings this year, even if some of these jokes were fruitcake-stale. God bless us, every one.

Photo: Ali Goldstein/NBC