The Husband:

My Name Is Earl 4.13 “Orphan Earl”

In what is without question the best episode of Earl this season, it’s Christmastime in Camden, and inspired by the town mocking a traveling do-gooder hippie for building houses and raising money for much needed baby formula…

“What an idiot. The baby formula is man plus woman. Everyone knows that!” – Randy

…Earl takes it upon himself to tackle list item #201: Conned an old man out of 100 bucks.” Flashback to three years earlier, when Earl and Joy, while watching one of those Sally Struthers-type infomercials, get it into their heads that they can pull a major con on people by pretending to be representatives of a charity for starving African children. They only get one bite, an old man named Mr. Hill (Hal Landon Jr., Ted Preston’s father in one of my favorite films of all time, Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure), and get an easy $100 out of him.

You, too, can help this child finish spelling on his tee shirt.

You, too, can help this child finish spelling on his tee shirt.

Back in the present, Earl visits the man and discovers that the con didn’t end at the $100 – Joy has been scamming him this whole time, getting money for various new (and fake) charities such as Katrina relief and other such items to benefit the people who live in her trailer park. (My favorite touch is the picture of a “starving African child,” which is just her black son without a shirt on.) Earl knows that it’s his duty to retrieve all of the man’s money, but that takes a turn for the worse when Mr. Hill up and dies before he can change his will that declared that $280,000 of his assets were to go to the fake charities.

So what follows is a twisty, incredibly well-plotted back-and-forth where it turns out Earl fakes Mr. Hill’s death (giving him a free vacation), and then sneaks into the house to steal the will, gives a fake will to Randy for Joy to “steal” from him, tricks one of Joy’s friends into banging the will-writing lawyer (actually the hippie in disguise) for fake checks, and then finally getting all the money back to Mr. Hill.

When Earl and Mr. Hill visit the trailer park, though, they find that everyone there is living in terrible disarray, made worse by all the repo men coming and taking away the items Joy and her friends got through the con in the first place. Distraught that his charity money never actually went to any charity, Mr. Hill feels the Christmas spirit and gives his money back to the trailer park, for they are far needier than him. This inspires others to give in their own way (e.g. a buck or two with the Salvation Army Santa), and everything turns out a little bit better.

What worked in this episode was that no gimmicks were relied upon, characters acted in surprising ways, and it had a good moral without getting too treacley. I appreciated its complete lack of unnecessary guest stars, because even though I’ve seen Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure more than any other movie in my life (probably around 50 times), I still had to look up the guest actor’s name. The plot twists were also very well planned, and I never anticipated any of them. (Unlike the otherwise funny episode of 30 Rock this week, where I could have told you every twist of Liz Lemon’s plot from the moment they said “Letters From Santa.”)

The funniest part of the episode, though? The fact that Randy can’t enjoy the funnies in the newspapers, because his eyes follow the comic and then onto the next page, which is the obituary page, rendering every comic depressing.

The review of The Office will come some time this weekend. Such great material needs some ponderin’ time, dontcha know?

The Wife:

Kath & Kim 1.8: “Friends”

Kim, busy changing her MySpace status to single just to torture Craig, tells her mother and Phil that they are lame because they don’t have any friends and would rather spend time with each other and their brand new juicer than be social. Craig, seeing Kim’s status change, gets so upset that he actually cries for eight seconds, until his buddy Darryl convinces him that Kim’s just playing games with him. Like the good bro he is, Darryl takes Craig out drinking, which incites Craig to visit Kim’s house in the middle of the night. He drunkenly calls out to sleep-dead Kim, throwing rocks at her window to try and wake her so he can talk to her. Phil thinks that Craig is a robber and makes a fool of himself in an attempt to “scare” said robber away. Craig eventually leaves, just as Darryl is pulling out of the driveway, due to meddling from a nosy neighbor. Darryl almost hits Craig, which prompts Kim, gleefully, to drive her husband to sue his friend.

This is the most complicated, integrative plot I’ve seen so far on Kath & Kim so I have to give it props because it set up a pretty good episode. Not very funny (save for the ending), but for once, interesting to watch. From the robbery scare, Phil feels slightly emasculated and asks his mall cop friend for some self-defense lessons so he can protect his bride-to-be and his step-daughter should an actual robbery ever occur. Kath gets introduced to the cop’s wife, and the two ladies hit it off. Kath invites their new friends to a holiday party, per Kim’s suggestion that they get a life. With only their new couple friends, their nosy neighbor and Tina’s giant head of hair as guests, Kim and Craig think the party is super lame and want to leave. Tina tells them about the Circuit Surplus party, and Craig admits that, because he’s suing Darryl, his coworkers have uninvited him from their party. When a party bus of mall workers shows up to crash Kath and Phil’s party, Tina, Craig and Kim sneak out to try their chances at the Circuit Surplus party.

Oooh, yay! Now we get to wear festive holiday bows!

Oooh, yay! Now we get to wear festive holiday bows!

Once there, Tina hits on Darryl, who won’t let Kim and Craig attend the party. As Kim pulls out of the parking lot, Darryl takes his revenge by sticking his foot under her tire and threatening to sue. He agrees that he won’t sue if Craig doesn’t, and both parties drop the charges. Instead, they all head to the Circuit Surplus party to watch Tina make out with dudes dressed as Santa Claus. Left with only their new couple friends, Kath and Phil enjoy the holidays in a slightly quieter fashion. The couples enjoy their horrible Christmas sweaters and tell corny jokes to one another. Finally, the mall cop admits that he and his wife like Kath and Phil so much that they should all have sex together, Tom and Trina Decker style. This freaks out Phil and Kath so much that they immediately break their friendship with the couple and return to their juicer.

I am jealous at the high quality of tacky holiday sweaters featured in this episode. They put my black one with bejeweled Christmas trees to shame. Having the couple that’s just like Kath and Phil turn out to be swingers was a nice surprise – the actors actually made this pretty funny by pawing and clawing at John Michael Higgins and Molly Shannon like zombies hungry for brains. As for the rest of the episode, I am impressed with the structure and complexity of these integrated plots. Next time, let’s take this formula and make it funny, shall we?

30 Rock 3.6: “Christmas Special”

Filled with the holiday spirit, Liz Lemon signs up her writers to fulfill wishlists for poor kids who write to Santa through the US Postal Service’s Letters to Santa program. Because she is childless and doesn’t have her own family at age 38, her parents disinvite her from their holiday festivities, fueling Liz’s drive to make some poor kids happy. Jack, on the other hand, plans to spend Christmas in Rio. (Dear Gods of Television, Stage and Screen: Why do all wealthy business people like to spend so much time in Rio?) To facilitate this, he heads down to Florida early to spend some time with his mother, Colleen (Elaine Stritch). Everything goes swimmingly for Jack, until he accidentally hits his mom with his car, breaking the “Cartier” watch her bought her for Christmas and her hip.

“She’s fine. She’s better than fine. They’re giving her a titanium hip. Like the Terminator. Soon she’ll be more powerful than ever.” – Jack

Due to her need for constant care, Colleen is forced to stay with Jack, which drives him insane. Especially because he has to live with the guilt that he actually waited a full eight minutes before calling 911 for his mother. Liz defends Jack’s hesitance to call as shock and sets out to personally deliver the holiday gifts she bought for her poor kids. Upon hearing the neighborhood, Tracy tells Liz that she can’t go alone and that he, Grizz and DotCom will escort her there. When they arrive, two men open the door and pull the presents inside with nary a word of thanks or even a hello. Flabbergasted at this nonresponse, Tracy tells Liz that he believes she’s been scammed. More accurately:

“What’s the past tense of scam? Scrump? Liz Lemon, I think you just got scrumpt!” – Tracy Jordan

Scammed, Tracy. I think the word is scammed.

Scammed, Tracy. I think the word is scammed.

In an attempt to get away from his overbearing mother, who needs even more care that Jack has accidentally broken her other hip trying to draw a blanket out from under her like a magician pulling a tablecloth off without moving any objects, he forces the cast and crew of TGS to put on a live Christmas special, even if he has to pay them quadruple overtime. (Note to Jack: Judging from the blanket trick, Celebracadabra is not for you. Hal Sparks and C. Thomas Howell will totally own your ass.) Upset about the scam, Liz goes to the Post Office to try and sort things out to no avail. She asks Jack if he by chance he knows the Post Master General, to which he responds that they were once close, but had a falling out over a Jerry Garcia stamp.

“If I wanted to lick a hippie, I would have returned Joan Baez’s phone calls.” – Jack

With everyone working so hard on the Christmas Special, Jack thinks he has escaped Colleen’s clutches, until she shows up in her wheelchair, dressed like a tiny, old female FDR, and accuses her son of waiting 8 minutes to call 911. She presents him with the evidence: his call log from his cell phone, the watch he broke (on which he reset the time) and a flashcard demonstrating that “16-8=8.”

“Numbers, unlike children, don’t lie.” – Colleen Donaghey

Elaine Stritch, congratulations for making me jealous of this outfit. Now that Bettie Page and Nina Foch have left us, you are the hottest old lady in my book.

Elaine Stritch, congratulations for making me jealous of this outfit. Now that Bettie Page and Nina Foch have left us, you are the hottest old lady in my book.

Kenneth simply cannot believe that Liz got scammed, and so he heads uptown with her and Tracy to prove her wrong. (Grizz and DotCom had a prior commitment to go skating together at Rockefeller Rink and wouldn’t attend because their therapist told them to set boundaries.) This time when the apartment door opens, Liz is greeted by two children. Overjoyed, she asks them if they got their presents and liked them. She then tells them that she made it happen, which causes the boys to cry out to their guardians that the white lady at the door told them there’s no Santa Claus. The guardians tell Liz that she’s insane for telling children there’s no Santa. In short, Liz Lemon ruins Christmas.

“I’m trying to make a Christmas special that makes It’s a Wonderful Life look like Pulp Fiction.” – Jack

Back at 30Rock, Jack is losing himself in the Christmas special, trying to make everything perfect. He becomes extremely irate when someone tells him that they can’t run the Mrs. Claus sketch where Jenna (as Mrs. Claus), sings sultry piano ballads for the menfolk while taking off her stockings and hanging them by the fire. This is a part of Christmas that everyone knows, Jack insists, because his mother did this every year for whichever boyfriend she had at the time. Liz tells him that this actually isn’t a Christmas tradition at all and that Colleen was a Christmas whore in order to buy Jack and his siblings presents, knowing the meager circumstances whence Jack was raised. Every year, Jack admits, he had more than enough presents, especially the year that his mom dated F.A.O. Schwartz. In the end, Tracy invites his family to Liz Lemon’s for Christmas so she won’t be lonely and Jack apologizes to his mother and tells him he loves her. As Jenna sings “The Christmas Song” onstage, Jack and his mother are suddenly transported to a piano, where they continue Jenna’s tune.

For me, the best part of this episode was definitely that ending, seeing Broadway veterans Jane Krakowski and Elaine Stritch sing delightful Christmas tunes. Elaine Stritch is not that much of a singer, but she is famous for her role in Sondheim’s Company, where her character gets to belt out “Ladies Who Lunch,” a song that can certainly be performed by what Sondheim calls a disseuse (a talk-singer). “The Christmas Song” definitely works well for that kind of style, where the sentiment is sold in the performance rather than the high notes (just like “Ladies Who Lunch”). And man, Jack and Colleen putting aside their differences to relive a little bit of the Christmas whoring from Jack’s youth, that definitely hit me in a soft spot. When I’m that old, I want to look just as good in a lady-FDR outfit and a Mrs. Claus get-up.