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Dead Tree Alert: 30 Rock–It Peacocks TV So Much

The whole series, and last night's episode, portrayed TV as a business, a farce, and, the one thing that gave sense to its neurotic characters' lives.

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Ali Goldstein/NBC

In my column in this week’s print TIME, I wrote a farewell to 30 Rock, which wraps up its seven-season run next week. The show, as I write, is about a lot of things, but above all it’s about TV: as a business, as a farce, and, often, as the one thing that gives sense to its neurotic characters’ lives. (I don’t think it’s coincidence that, in possibly my favorite scene from 30 Rock of all time, Jack Donaghy gives Tracy Jordan a therapy breakthrough by channeling the voices of Fred Sanford and J.J. from Good Times.)

If you have a subscription to TIME, you can read my full thoughts there. If you don’t you could just watch last night’s penultimate episode of 30 Rock, “A Goon’s Deed in a Weary World.” As Liz packed up her offices at TGS, it was also a meta-look back to the beginnings of 30 Rock itself, in which TGS started out as The Girlie Show, the woman-oriented comedy show that Liz channeled her mid-’90s Chicago improv passion into. As she begins to think saving the show is a lost cause and The Girlie Show logo falls to pieces, longtime viewers might recognize the strains of the “That’s Her!” theme from the pilot, rearranged here as a lamentation.

30 Rock is not a sentimental show; it says something about the spirit of the comedy that we began it by seeing the end of The Girlie Show, as Jack Donaghy brought in male movie star Tracy and renamed it TGS with Tracy Jordan. But this was a genuinely emotional moment, and a well-earned one. For seven seasons, 30 Rock showed us TGS–and by extension all of the TV business–as, first, a damn job, exhausting, compromised and full of overgrown children to manage. But that a TV show could be frustrating and ridiculous doesn’t also mean that you can’t genuinely love it.

From the show’s very beginning, the mouthpiece for 30 Rock’s affection for the TV it satirized has been Kenneth (“There are only two things I love: Everybody, and television”). So it was fitting that “Goon” would give him one last chance to defend his rose-colored perceptions of his electronic godparent from the likes of Jack. (“Kenneth, this is broadcast television. It’s a nasty, ruthless business.” “No, sir, it’s a magical, ruth-filled business!”)

By the end of the episode, Jack realizes that TV isn’t a logical enough business to turn over to someone simply for their business qualifications; he gives the network to Kenneth, on the reasoning that the only qualification for the job is to love TV. That may prove to be as terrible an idea as letting Homer Simpson design a car, but who would you rather watch screw up NBC, Kenneth or an MBA?

Over the years, 30 Rock has been both ruthless and ruth-filled about TV. It has savaged trends in the business generally and NBC in particular. And yet it’s done it from a place of abiding love for what TV can do and make people feel–see, for instance, the acerbic love letter to TV history that was 30 Rock’s second live show. Tina Fey’s satire over seven seasons have been hilarious and cutting, and yet in these final episodes it’s also been interwoven with just the right amount of sincerity.

Here, Kenneth’s storyline dares to say that it’s OK–however naive and uncool and unsavvy it may make you seem–to believe that a pop medium has a larger purpose and that it’s OK to expect it to be good, not just successful. Now, Fey is a smart enough writer that, if she’s going to make a sincere argument like that, she’s going to put it in the mouth of a ridiculous character rather than a righteous personal mouthpiece. That’s one reason, as I wrote back when 30 Rock debuted, that from the get-go it was better than Aaron Sorkin’s high-minded sketch-show drama Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip. But–as has always been 30 Rock’s great strength–it manages the perfect balance between satire and sincerity, realizing that they are not such incompatible things.

Again, the episode, like the show overall, was about more than just TV. One more time, there was a conflict between Liz’s work and personal demands, as she considered missing the twins’ airport pickup to work on the show. (It was a sort of gender-reversed version of the Pam and Jim conflict on last night’s The Office, but I’ll write about that separately.)

But even that, like so many of 30 Rock’s personal stories, ended up refracted through the language of TV. As Liz and Criss make it to the gate to meet their children, she sees that they are tiny versions of Jenna and Tracy. Is Jenna Liz ready to be a mother to two challenging children? It turns out she’s already done that for years. Who says you can’t learn anything from television?

Now the quick hail of bullets:

* “If you’re gonna get in bed with the Douche, it’s not just gonna be the tip. This is senior year!”

* “Show it again later on E! but have gay guys make fun of it!”

* “This is Bro Body Douche Presents The Man Cave, and I am Todd deBeikis!”

2 comments
sandifjm
sandifjm

30 Rock is one of my favourite shows ever. From the very first episode it has rarely failed to be funny, entertaining, and above all, smart. So of course it was doomed.  There are so few reasons to watch any of the networks these days.  I don't care about "reality" TV, and the news became a total joke sometime around September 12th 2001.  This week I have seen more coverage relating to a college football player's fake girlfriend, and a lip-synching pop star, than I have about the civil war in Syria, The World Economic conference in Davos, or the recent protests in Egypt - combined.  It's as if all popular culture is being driven by a small group of 12 year-old girls, operating out of a mall food court, somewhere in the midwest.

Sadly, there's no reason to believe that this trend will stop, for the simple reason that there's just no money to be made in treating people like adults.

TheHoobie
TheHoobie

@sandifjm "Doomed"?! It got seven seasons on a twitchy network, it will live forever in the honored pantheon of seminal sitcoms, and its creators are being allowed to end the show on their own terms. That's great!

Also, as a former mall food court--haunting 12-year-old girl, I take exception to your characterization of popular culture. It's adults who are eating up the Manti Te'o and Beyonce news. It's adults watching and reading recaps of reality TV. You know, or not; I actually don't know many adults who are mindlessly hoovering up all (or only) the "beneath-us-all" news you cite. 

Plus, if I had gotten my pop-culture way as a 12-year-old girl, Square Pegs, Airwolf, Little House on the Prairie, the first iteration of Battlestar Galactica, 3-2-1 Contact, and Anne of Green Gables would all still be on the air.