Early in the series finale of “30 Rock” (tomorrow at 8 p.m. on NBC), the series makes a half-hearted attempt at going full-circle in its meta commentary, with Liz Lemon pitching new NBC president Kenneth on the idea of making a sitcom about her life, in much the same way “30 Rock” was itself (very) loosely adapted from Tina Fey’s experiences on “Saturday Night Live.”
Kenneth stops her right there, genially explaining, “‘Woman,’ ‘writer,’ ‘New York.’ Those are all on my list of TV no-no words." He then presents her with the full list, which also includes “complex,” “quality,” and “shows about shows” — all words that could describe “30 Rock” itself.
In Kenneth Ellen Parcells’ NBC, “30 Rock” would have no prayer of getting on the air. That it got on the air at the real NBC — and lasted seven mostly glorious, always low-rated seasons in the process — is itself something of a miracle.
Think back to the spring of 2006, after all, when NBC first ordered “30 Rock” as its other show about life backstage at a fictionalized version of “SNL.” The prize was supposed to be “Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip,” Aaron Sorkin’s return to NBC after being kicked off “West Wing.” The “30 Rock” pick-up was viewed as NBC doing a favor for “SNL” boss Lorne Michaels, who wanted to give Fey her own vehicle.
Twenty-two frustrating, self-important episodes later, “Studio 60” was little more than a punchline, while “30 Rock” was already well on its way to establishing itself as an all-time classic.
“30 Rock” didn’t emerge fully-formed, but took some time. Fey wrote the role of Jenna, star of the show within the show “TGS,” for her pal Rachel Dratch, only to be forced to replace her — in the sort of industry shenanigans “30 Rock” would spend so much time satirizing — with Jane Krakowski. In the first handful of episodes, the only character Fey and her writers fully had a handle on was Jack Donaghy, the charismatic network suit played with hilarious conviction by Alec Baldwin. (He gets the pilot’s most memorable line, telling Liz, “You have the boldness of a much younger woman.”)
The show’s early episodes aren’t bad, but they’re finding their way. It’s not until the seventh episode, “Tracy Does Conan” — an insane farce(*) in which Tracy Morgan’s erratic Tracy Jordan goes off his extensive regimen of meds(**) right before a crucial talk show appearance — that “30 Rock” becomes the show we know it to be now: a live-action cartoon that operated under its own brilliant, self-aware logic.
(*) The first few episodes had tried so hard to exist in a real-world context that I actually took a strong, instant dislike to the more ridiculous parts of “Tracy Does Conan.” Like “Breaking Bad” and a few other great series that chose to break with convention, I needed time to adjust to what “30 Rock” actually was, rather than what I expected it to be.
(**)Prescribed by Chris Parnell’s Dr. Leo Spaceman (pronounced spuh-CHEH-men), one of the show’s incredible stable of recurring characters, as well as the chief representative of its devout belief in the idea that funny names are funny.
Where “Studio 60” struggled in part because it kept failing to convince us that its own fake “SNL” was a dazzling work of satire, “30 Rock” very quickly abandoned any pretense that “TGS” was supposed to be good — or interest in “TGS,” period — and (to paraphrase one of Liz Lemon’s favorite works of literature) in so doing, became a more powerful satire than we could have possibly imagined. It was a show about television, but by ceasing to be about a specific television show, it gained license to be about everything.
“30 Rock” could be wince-inducingly precise in its take on racism and white liberal guilt (in one episode, Liz mistakenly assumes Tracy is illiterate; in another, she struggles to break up with a boorish guy because he’s black). Through Jack Donaghy, the show ruthlessly lampooned the excesses of corporate America and our nation’s deeply dysfunctional political system. And through Liz, time and time again, “30 Rock” smartly — and always in a humorous context, so it never felt like a lecture — analyzed the struggles of being a woman in a male-dominated profession, and world. (Even last week, the show was still finding new jokes on the subject: Jack starts listing trailblazing women through history like Amelia Earhart, Joan of Arc and Diane Fossey, then stops to observe, “Boy, women who try to do things sure get killed a lot.”)
But the show’s favorite subject was always television itself, a medium for which “30 Rock” felt equal parts adoration and fear. The writers came up with one horrible fake movie or TV show idea after another — among the best of the very long list: “The Rural Juror,” “A Blaffair to Rememblack,” “Fresh-Ass, based on the novel ‘Tush’ by Ass-Fire,” “Bitch Hunter,” “MILF Island” and “A Dog Took My Face And Gave Me A Better Face To Change The World: The Celeste Cunningham Story” — yet there was also so much affection for the medium and our communal history watching it. “30 Rock” came on the air near the start of what seems to be the death rattle of network television — it likely wouldn’t have lasted seven seasons with its ratings if NBC hadn’t been in such dire straits — and though Jack and other characters frequently commented on the terrible state of the business,(***) the show always viewed that with sadness. Kenneth was a character fueled by nothing except a love of television and a desire to work in it, which is why he spent so many years in the demeaning job of NBC page; when Jack improbably promoted him to network president last week, it was treated as a deserved outcome.
(***) When Fey and “30 Rock” won a pair of Television Critics Association Awards in 2008, she joked, "We thank you guys for making ‘30 Rock’ the most successful show cable show on broadcast television. It’s a great time to be in broadcast television, isn’t it!? It’s exciting! It’s like being in vaudeville... in the ‘60s!"
“30 Rock” was aware of all that came before it. The opening scene of the pilot includes a “That Girl"-esque theme as Liz experiences a very fleeting, expensive triumph over a jerk trying to cut the line at a hot dog cart, and there were nods to TV history throughout the series, whether it was a live episode celebrating a slightly alternate history of NBC (including Jon Hamm in blackface in an “Amos and Andy” spoof) or the way the series revived the tradition of the guest star. Other NBC sitcoms like “Will & Grace” had turned stunt-casting into something that seemed distasteful and lazy, but “30 Rock” inevitably found the perfect fit for its famous faces, whether it was Alan Alda playing to type as Jack’s liberal biological father (one of his appearances also paid tribute to the sentimental “M*A*S*H” finale), Oprah Winfrey being viewed by Liz and others as a religious figure, or Hamm reinventing himself as a game-for-anything clown.
“30 Rock” was always aware of the medium’s clichés, and made sure you knew that it was usually wise enough to avoid them. At every opportunity, the series ran from the idea of Jack and Liz as a romantic couple, recognizing that their unlikely friendship was far more interesting than a hook-up could have been. (One of the finale’s sweetest moments involves Jack pausing to again make this point clear.) Many of the show’s best jokes were built entirely on our awareness of how sitcom jokes are usually structured, like Tracy spinning away from expected punchlines by declaring, “I finally understand the end of ‘The Sixth Sense.’ Those names are the people who worked on the movie!” or that Foxy Boxing “combines my two favorite things: boxing, and referees!”
That rat-a-tat style was hard to maintain week after week, season after season, and there were long patches in the show’s middle years where “30 Rock” became too cartoonish for its own good. Kenneth and Jenna in particular suffered during those years, but even Liz stopped resembling herself for a while. Even the guest stars didn’t always work; one of the series’ flattest episodes is built around Steve Martin, who should have been money in the bank for an “SNL”-adjacent show like this.
Eventually, though, Fey and company remembered that the series was best when it had at least a tenuous connection to reality, and when Jack and Liz could express genuine emotion on occasion. As a result, “30 Rock” isn’t limping to the finish line like so many great sitcoms before it. It’s been sprinting through this victory lap season, giving all of its characters happy endings — Liz, for instance, got married to James Marsden’s imperfect but good enough Criss, and last week they adopted two kids who are essentially younger versions of Tracy and Jenna — revisiting past gags, and making the series’ end much harder to accept than if it had stayed a shadow of itself.
The one-hour finale wouldn’t necessarily make my list of the top 10 “30 Rock” episodes ever, but it’s everything that the series was at its best: a bittersweet salute to the past, present and future of television; a relentless joke delivery system; and a collection of genuinely warm farewells to these very silly characters.
In that scene where Kenneth shows Liz his list of TV no-no words, she insists, "I think TV can be successful without sacrificing quality." And if Tina Fey couldn’t make that a reality in terms of popularity, she sure as hell did in terms of creative success. “30 Rock” is one of the best comedies to ever appear on the medium it celebrated and mocked with equal measure, and it’s going out with one of the best final seasons any comedy has ever had.
Alan Sepinwall has been reviewing television since the mid-'90s, first for Tony Soprano's hometown paper, The Star-Ledger, and now for HitFix. His new book, "The Revolution Was Televised," about the last 15 years of TV drama, is for sale at Amazon. He can be reached at email@example.com