Looking Back at ’30 Rock’

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One of Liz Lemon’s greatest and most forgotten sexual conquests: the time she hooked up with James Franco and his Japanese body pillow

For a long time, steady fan such as myself it’s been gratifying seeing the outpouring of appreciation for 30 Rock that’s come about in anticipation of the show’s series finale airing tonight.

Though most TV critics are still repeating the in my opinion completely incorrect conventional wisdom that 30 Rock suffered a significant decline in quality somewhere in the middle of its seven season run, it’s good to see the show getting the respect it deserves as it enters the rarefied realm of those few sitcoms which are able to end their run on their own terms and near the top of their game.

Regardless of how the series finale tonight goes, 30 Rock was the best comedy of the last decade (yes, better than Arrested Development, better than Community etc.) and in the conversation for best television comedy of all time. What its detractors, and even those fans who think the show fell off in its fifth and sixth season, fail to grasp is that 30 Rock was always first and foremost, as Alan Sepinwall says, “a relentless joke delivery system.” While it handled sentiment surprisingly well at times and seems to be really going for sentiment with the way it’s handling its end game, the major innovation of 30 Rock was bringing an unprecedented sophistication, speed, and density of jokes to television comedy.

As Matt Zoller Seitz outlines in his excellent appreciation of the series 30 Rock followed an arc similar to that traced by other long running television comedies, especially Seinfeld, in moving from the realistic and mundane to the absurd and surreal while also becoming more and more self-referential.  Like most television comedies, 30 Rock took a few episodes to find its footing, but virtually every single TV critic and fan of the show agrees exactly when that happened, with Season One Episode Seven, “Tracy Does Conan.” Though the previous six episodes had moments of brilliance, they were still largely grounded in reality; the show still mostly a conventional showbiz satire concerned with Liz’s relationship with her best friend Jenna etc. With “Tracy Does Conan” the series found a new style of outright breaks with reality, cutaway gags, and a rapid fire, breathless pace that it for the most part never abandoned from that point forward.

Along with bringing an unprecedented speed and layering of jokes and breaks with reality for a non-animated comedy, 30 Rock‘s other big innovation was bringing an entirely new approach to the well worn genre of the self-referential show business satire.

TV shows about TV, along with movies about the movies, are almost always surefire bets to get lots of awards and critical acclaim. After all, they’re about the very industry which the people who give the awards either work in or are obsessed with. “Argo” winning best picture awards over far superior movies due to its meta, move about movies nature, and its gratifying for the film industry message that everyone’s a movie fan at heart is just the latest example of the phenomenon.

The trouble with almost all alleged “show business satires” is that whether they’re as as lightweight as Entourage  or allegedly more hard edged and cynical, they still ultimately tend to treat show business as some kind of sacred calling, and the show within a show (or movie within a movie or whatever) as a matter of earth-shattering importance and a brilliant work of art.

From almost the very beginning 30 Rock made it clear that TGS—(technically The Girlie Show Starring Tracy Jordan and currently the Bro Body Douche Man Cave not that it ever mattered) the Saturday Night Live like show-within-the-show of 30 Rock—was hacky and terrible. 30 Rock of course premiered the same season as Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip. At the time much was written about the absurdity of two NBC shows about the behind-the-scenes goings on at a show obviously modeled on Saturday Night Live airing at the same time. Looking ridiculous in hindsight, most critics were of the opinion that Studio 60 was the better show and was likely to last longer.

But where Studio 60 treated the creation of a Saturday Night Live show as a matter of national importance and its creators as brilliant (if flawed) in typical Aaron Sorkin fashion, 30 Rock made it clear that the creators were just plain deeply flawed and the final product they put out was mostly a series of recurring sketches about farting. That is, that seemed to be the case when the show focused on the show-with-the-show at all. For long stretches it abandoned the central conceit of being a behind-the-scenes showbiz satire at all for ever more absurd flights of fancy, and this was often when 30 Rock was at its best.

For its part, Studio 60 collapsed under the weight of its own pomposity, lasting only one season. Need it even be said that Tina Fey won the argument over Aaron Sorkin? Sorkin’s later hilarious cameo in an episode about the uselessness of writing as a skill in the contemporary media landscape just seemed like a final victory lap for Fey.

But, regardless of what innovations 30 Rock brought to the TV comedy form, for obsessive fans like me the most important thing about it was how such a silly show was able to speak to us on such a surprisingly deep level. Richard Lawson capture this beautifully in his moving appreciation of the show here. I felt exactly the same way he describes when he writes:

There was something so particular about the show’s humor that, when it premiered 2006, I felt as if someone had been siphoning thoughts out of my own head. Not that what’s going on upstairs is anywhere near as funny as 30 Rock, it’s just that the show had a certain rhythm to it that synched up with my brainwaves in eerily precise fashion. The long, elaborate jokes peppered with short-burst one liners, the flurry of its cultural references, bizarre callbacks to things that rational people shouldn’t remember. The show thought like I thought, or at least like I wanted to think. 

While it may seem strange to rank the series finale of a show as determinedly silly and self-effacing as 30 Rock on the same level, as say, the finales of much more self-serious shows like The Sopranos or of overtly emotional shows like Lost, for us fans  it will hit just as hard and somehow be just as emotional. Of all comedies ever made it was the one that seemed to speak most directly to my sensibilities, thought processes, and obsessions.

Sure, there are and will be other comedies with fast paced gags, obscure references, and self-referential humor (Archer and Happy Endings are carrying the banner admirably right now) but there will never be anything else exactly like 30 Rock. 


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