Tracy Morgan defies racial stereotypes on ''30 Rock''
1. Defying racial stereotypes on 30 Rock
(NBC, Thursdays, 9:30 p.m.)
This week's episode, guest-starring LL Cool J as a co-conspirator in recording ''Muffin Top,'' the ridiculous song by Jane Krakowski's Jenna with Ghostface Killah, seems as good an opportunity as any to say that, in addition to getting funnier and looser every week, in addition to showcasing an Alec Baldwin who can make you laugh just by looking at the twinkle in his eyes, 30 Rock has also become something utterly unexpected: primetime's most interesting dissector of racial stereotypes. Tracy Morgan's Tracy Jordan started out as a caricature of out-of-control black celebrities such as Martin Lawrence and Richard Pryor at the most unfortunate points in their career. No good amusement could come of that, creator Tina Fey soon realized, and so she and Morgan have reshaped this Tracy. He's now a sly guy who uses whites' fear of a black planet to suggest the deep wittiness of much hip-hop culture, the paradoxical foxiness of a brainy guy who only acts crazy, and in the process confirm that the best black comics on Saturday Night Live blossom only after they leave the place. In life as in art, the proper context for performance is everything.
2. Tim Sale's heroic art for Superman Confidential
Sale's most high-profile gig is the artwork he provides for the precog artist-character Isaac Mendez on NBC's Heroes. Those paintings, glimpsed too briefly, don't suggest what Sale is capable of; his work in the new Superman Confidential comic-book series does. Sale draws with deceptive simplicity his Superman has the face of a muscular pudding; his Lois Lane is a series of almost abstract curves and he scrupulously avoids filling a panel with anything more than is necessary. My favorite current example of this is in issue 3 of Confidential, on a page midway through the adventure, which depicts Superman at his snowy Fortress of Solitude. It's simply a blank white panel, save the lower right-hand corner, where we see just a flutter of Superman's red cape. Sale's artistic gesture suggests cold, wind, and isolation with gorgeous economy. If you watch Heroes, you really need to see more of Sale.
3. How to read the great stuff in Howard Hampton's Born In Flames: Termite Dreams, Dialectical Fairy Tales, and Pop Apocalypses
(Harvard University Press)
Hampton's method of combining film, music, and literary references to make cases for low and high culture he admires or deplores can be overwhelming if you read this collection of essays straight through: The synthesizing brilliance Hampton has perfected over the past couple of decades is almost impossibly rich. So I suggest you let the book sit on a nearby table and regularly explore a chapter such as ''Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere,'' his enthralling gallop through rock music as it has been depicted, included, and misunderstood in movies ranging from Easy Rider to A Hard Day's Night to Carrie. In the latter, Hampton says, ''De Palma's Carrie realizes one of rock's primal fantasies: the bottomless pit of teen anomie made into macabre comedy, the ultimate eroto-destructive distillation of Alice Cooper's ''Eighteen'' and ''School's Out.'' And Hampton is right, as usual.
4. ''My Old Ways'' on Dr. Dog's We All Belong
(Park The Van Records)
The deceptively shaggy-sounding and looking Philadelphia band makes a rambling, open-hearted, uneven album that nevertheless contains a number of tight little song-jams. The best of these is probably ''My Old Ways,'' in which the singer laments his past bad behavior and uses his contrition as a horndog (as it were) come-on to his girl. Dr. Dog music also passes the baby-boomer test: it sounds great on a car radio.
5. The quality of mercy and great acting in Longford
Peter Morgan, who's written both The Queen and The Last King of Scotland, is also the author of this TV-movie, so you'd expect Longford to be classy. Working once again from real-life source material England's Earl of Longford's attempt to help Myra Hindley, who'd been convicted of murdering several children in the 1960s Morgan has created a far richer, more subtle scenario than either of his current theatrical films. Jim Broadbent plays Longford as a politician who's truly a Christian man; that is, a believer in the forgiveness of others, no matter how heinous their behavior. And Samantha Morton's Hindley has, from the opening moments, given up the possibility of ever being treated like a human being again. That their stories become complex and take unexpected turns adds drama to two great performances. Catch this on HBO's numerous re-runnings and on many cable systems' on-demand feature.