When 30 Rock premiered in the fall of 2006, it did so under the shadow of Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip, another new NBC series about the making of a TV show. Flash-forward seven years, and comparing Aaron Sorkin’s short-lived drama with Tina Fey’s sitcom seems silly now, as Fey and company bask in the well-earned plaudits and devotion of a few million viewers—mostly critics, over-educated/under-employed/over-opinionated bloggers (hi there), and less than 5,000 Germans. The heady style of Fey’s absurdist, self-aware, riotous, and sometimes surreal comedy show about a comedy show proved to be a lot of things to a lot of people (and it’s had a fitful relationship with female viewers, many of whom rightly took issue with the protracted treatment of Fey’s Liz Lemon as an unattractive schlub), but depending on your dedication to formalism, the jokes are always there.
However, what last night’s series finale highlighted, in addition to the jokes, is the show’s essential humanism. As insanely caricaturish as many of the show’s characters are, and as tempting as it would’ve been for the writers to turn some of them—namely Emmy/Grammy/Oscar/Tony winner Tracy Jordan (Tracy Morgan) and perpetual 29-year-old Jenna Maroney (Jane Krakowski)—into cesspools of viewer schadenfreude and ridicule, they never devolved into objects of outright derision or hate. In fact, in the finale, Tracy becomes the catalyst for one of the most touching moments in the show’s run. After TGS is cancelled at episode 149, it’s revealed that Tracy’s contract stipulates that if he fails to appear in the show’s 150th episode, he must be paid $30 million. The gang is then reunited for one last episode, and Tracy proceeds to behave exactly as he always has: as an infantile egomaniac shirking his actorly responsibilities, but more so than usual, ostensibly to secure his payday. When Liz tracks him down, he admits the reason for his disappearance from the set: He doesn’t want (or know how) to say goodbye. As Liz explains, empty promises like “Let’s keep in touch” or “I’ll have you over for dinner” are ways for people who wouldn’t otherwise be friends to cope with the emotional potency of having to say goodbye, and that as sad as it would be to part and then drift apart, the end of their relationship shouldn’t dilute the affection that built up between the two. Wistful stuff.
Of course, 30 Rock is a slippery thing, and just as it deflates the potential preciousness of Liz and Tracy’s scene (it takes place in a strip club…with the Skank Train rolling by), it does the same with Liz’s suis generis relationship with her boss, Jack Donaghy (Alec Baldwin), except at a more deliberate pace developed over the course of the last half hour. After achieving his dream of becoming CEO of
GE NBC Universal Scheinhardt Wig Company Kabletown, Jack realizes that that everything he’s done in pursuit of his corporatist goals is hollow. In confiding this revelation to Liz (in the midst of her overseeing the final TGS episode), he casts doubt on all the advice he’d given to her, professionally and personally, and she realizes that Jack has poisoned her ambitions. She was happy with her professional station before his brand of quantifying, biz-school-jargon-spouting Reaganism transformed her into an unsustainably striving, perennially dissatisfied neurotic.
A genius at grudges, Liz brushes him off, saying that she has no time for heart-to-hearts or sociopolitical metaphysics, and we’re witness to Jack’s spiral of self-loathing, culminating with an apparent video suicide note. Upon seeing it, Liz drops her grudge and races to a footbridge, only to see Jack jump off…and into a small sailboat. Of course, it was all a ploy to get them to reconcile, and when they do, he proceeds to sail off into the unknown to rediscover his values—and invent a transparent dishwasher that will surely define his legacy as a captain of industry. 30 Rock simultaneously embraces and distends and pokes holes and luxuriates in such conventions, balancing the maudlin with its meta-winking. In this world, everything exists all at once—logic and physics be damned.
Maybe another show will come along that will make another 5.005 million people laugh as hard and as often at such sudden, twisting, freshest, referential, inspired gags each week, but I’m not at all certain that such a show will have as deep a wellspring of heart and affection as 30 Rock. Dammit, I’m not crying, I just got a Teamster sandwich in my eye.