Essay

Retrospective: The Best Valentine’s Story Ever Told

Holiday episodes for TV shows can always be a little schlocky, or stall character development for the sake of hitting the “beats” that are required for shows taking place on Christmas (someone has to learn the value of generosity or feel less alone thanks to a surrogate family, for example).  Valentine’s day is subject to this just as much and, generally, TV shows that do V-Day eps go one of three routes:

  1. Two characters that have had the “will they won’t they” thing finally “do.”
  2. A character realizes he/she has been in love with another character ALL ALONG, usually caused by seeing the object of their affection leaving with another person. (This then sets the rest of the season up to be driven by this character’s jealousy/unrequited love).
  3. TWIST ON # 1 ABOVE! Two characters break up because at least one realizes they aren’t right together what with all the true love that they are inevitably surrounded by on this day giving them perspective.

Lix Happy VIt’s no wonder that a lot of shows avoid the holiday altogether. There’s one show that largely avoided all three above, and did so on its first V-Day outing which, in my opinion, was one of many signs in its first season of great things to come: 30 Rock.

The season 1 episode, “Up All Night” manages to artfully convey a lot of the reasons why cynics scoff at Valentine’s Day without playing too hard on the pessimist route. We see a lot of the pitfalls of the holiday, but they’re largely self-inflicted:

Liz V Day ShamPete’s stress is due to his completely forgetting the holiday and rushing to try to meet some kind of superficial standard of what the holiday requirements are to his wife by checking off boxes in the gift to-do list.

Tracy and his wife try and fail to enjoy an intimate night together in a hotel because of Jack’s drunken intrusion. (It’s notable that this is the first episode where Tracy’s wife is played by Angie Jordan, who honestly may be the only actor who could stand toe to toe with Tracy Morgan as a believable spouse). All the other writers suffer through the holiday being locked in the writer’s room trying to rework an episode.

Jack CynicThe most notable plot lines of the episode have nothing to do with falling in love, but actually with subverting the weird expectations of this holiday having any true power, or requirement/attainable target. Alec Baldwin’s Jack Donaghy is finalizing the divorce with his wife finally, and the ending of a chapter prompts him to wrestle with his lingering feelings for her: love and hate in equal parts, while getting shit housed around NY with a prostitute played by Rachel Dratch (her first season cameos were amazing),  until Liz finally comes and takes him home.

Lutz KissThe other is the writers’ group speculating that Cerie, who’s being mistreated/taken for granted by her sugar daddy boyfriend, has some kind of a crush on Kenneth. In the end, Cerie is wise to the writers’ attempts to push them together, and tells Kenneth she’s okay with telling the guys that they did make out before she leaves. Kenneth of course flubs claiming the credit for it (just watch the episode, it’s hilarious), but this still fits neatly into the point 30 Rock brilliantly makes about the holiday and storytelling around a holiday in any show:

Human lives don’t turn and march in rhythm with these neat schedules we’ve constructed. Relationships take their own time, begin, end, continue in spite of these holidays. Whatever we may think Valentine’s means in terms of a milestone, an opportunity, or a tragic end date is purely self-projected.

Kenneth SmileMoreover, they make good comedy of people trying to meet the random expectations of the holiday for their loved ones as obligation rather than genuine expression of affection. That’s what this holiday is best for in my opinion, and we let the hokey Hallmarkiness of it sour us to that. Holidays like this are just reminders of how we should treat those we care for, Christmas is a single day that reminds us of all the people we love, and how good it feels to show our appreciation of them.

Valentine’s is, at its purest, a day where you’re reminded to show the person you consider your significant other your affection. Whether that’s with flowers or gifts, or by shutting out the world and putting on Netflix with a bottle of wine. The holiday is about showing how you feel, not obtaining some kind of gold star or “taking it to the next level” as a trophy like Hollywood often leads us to believe. 30 Rock did a great job showing us how wrong that is.

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