Last night’s episode began with Frank’s overbearing Italian mother calling Liz a whore, then kissing her on the mouth and offering (threatening?) to defrost an ox for her. It was a promising start, and the show didn’t underdeliver, exactly, but this is probably not the episode you’d screen to win over new fans.
Frank still lives with his mom, Sylvia, who’s played by Patti LuPone. But for the past year, he’s been in a secret romance with Lynn, the teacher who seduced him as a kid. Sylvia hates Lynn for reasons no one can remember, or maybe because Lynn is a child molester. (Lynn: “We prefer the term adultophobe.”) So when she finds a letter signed “L” in Frank’s pornography collection, Frank lies and tells her the “L” stands for Liz.
The idea is that Liz will pretend to be Frank’s girlfriend until Sylvia dies, or until Lynn dies, whichever comes first. Liz, however, has no interest in going along with this creepy scheme. Cue Lynn: “This is creepy? In prison I was part of a fake family with a bald woman and our son was a basketball with a wig on it, but okay, this is creepy.” Susan Sarandon’s naturalism almost makes up for Julianne Moore’s Boston accent. Also, in a world where there are never enough parts for older women, can we just take a moment to appreciate that this show has found cameos for Sarandon, Lupone, Mary Steenburgen, Elaine Stritch, and Carrie Fisher?
Liz advises the star-crossed lovers to tell the truth, because “living a lie will eat you up inside, like that parasite I got from eating sushi on Amtrak.” But Frank is desperate, so when Liz refuses to come to dinner, he and his mom appear in her apartment with a whole meal prepared. (Criss, lucky for them, is in Canada.)
The joke here is that Liz loves the idea of having a surrogate mother who wants to stuff her face with antipasto. If you felt like it, you could read this as some sort of corollary to NPR’s essay about 30 Rock’s increasing infantalization of its lead character: Not only does Liz need Jack to be a daddy figure all of a sudden, but now she also needs a faux mom?
But you could also argue, I think fairly, that Liz just really loves delicious Italian food. In fact, she’s so into the whole mother-in-law treatment that she’s even willing to eat prosciutto out of Frank’s mouth — but that’s where Frank draws the line. He fesses up about Lynn, Sylvia kicks Liz out of her own apartment for a family debate, and at some point, Lynn shows up for breakup sex. And then the relationship is officially over.
It’s sort of funny that Liz’s own parents are so bland, given how many characters on this show play bizarre parental roles. Pete is the embarrassing office dad of the TGS writers’ room, so maybe it’s no surprise that the gang steals his whiskey and drinks it without him. When news of the crime emerges, Jenna goes straight into CSI mode. Like all blonde actresses, she once starred in a pilot about a tough female cop. It was called Goodlooking, and Jenna played Alexis Goodlooking, a lady police officer who was good-looking and also good at looking, for clues. Tracy decides to help her because like all black actors, he has experience playing wise black men who are good at getting white people to do things.
With her memories of the pilot script to guide her, Jenna quickly solves the mystery. Lutz and Toofer drank the scotch because they wanted alcohol but didn’t want to hang out with Pete. Jenna can’t stand to hurt Pete, so she doesn’t tell him. She broke the one rule of the force, she tells Tracy sadly: Not “Don’t fall in love with your car,” but “Don’t let it get personal.”
But Jenna also doesn’t want the writers to get away with it, so she goes rogue. She and Tracy know for a fact that Lutz and Toofer have been scamming free Nerf guns and video games and porn (like “Ten Poles Rammed In,” the porn version of Temple Grandin) by pretending they’re necessary for the show. So they cut a deal: The writers will hang out with Pete all week, or else Jenna and Tracy will turn them in.
As for questionable father figure Jack Donaghy, he’s trying to help young (or is he?) Kenneth find a new job. Given Kenneth’s skill set, he seems best suited for the standards department, where he can apply the advice his actual father gave him right before he died: “Son, if you want to get ahead in this world — oh God, this hurts. Tell your mother I’m gay.”
Jack’s advice might not be that much better. He warns Kenneth that he needs to crush standards department brownnoser Bradley before Bradley can destroy Kenneth. But Kenneth has never crushed anyone, except accused witches. So Jack tells him the inspiration story of Henry Warren, an old friend he ruthlessly demolished to help his own career.
Being nothing if not thorough, Kenneth goes to find this Henry Warren to learn what happened after Jack destroyed him. Warren is now a publisher of encyclopedias with a leased Lexus, a nubby suit, and two sons who are magicians. Also, he’s Stanley Tucci, which kind of means he wins even if Jack’s sofa is made out of Seabiscuit.
Inspired by Kenneth’s visit, Warren shows up in Jack’s office, where he admits that he always thought he and Jack were buddies, not rivals pretending to be nice to each other in order to gather ammunition. Moved, Jack realizes that he has to stop Kenneth from sabotaging Bradley. But he’s done too good of a job teaching Kenneth the ways of business. Now Kenneth is so paranoid that he’s worried Jack is trying to sabotage him.
It seems like we’ll hear more on that plot next time, so let’s wrap up with the conclusion of Frank’s twisted romance. He swears he’s fine without Lynn, but Liz can taste the tears in the meatballs he made her. So she tricks both older women into meeting in her office with Frank to work things out. (Sylvia, who has been led to believe Frank is sick, appears with a live chicken and asks, “Where can I kill this?”)
Liz attempts to win Sylvia over with a speech about how Frank and Lynn are like meatballs — you wouldn’t think the ingredients go together, but they do. Lynn, who hates Liz, thinks this speech is terrible, so she takes over and makes a speech of her own. Hearing Lynn’s true feelings, Sylvia realizes she and her son’s inappropriate girlfriend have a lot in common. So she gives Lynn a hug and announces, approvingly, to Frank: “This isn’t creepy because you’re dating your teacher. It’s creepy because you’re dating your mother.” Still not as creepy as a basketball in a wig, though.