Last week’s series finale of “30 Rock” generated an outpouring of critical commentary and praise. It’s hard to believe that the departure of any other series this year -- including “The Office” -- will be saluted with as many huzzahs.
Not that it doesn’t deserve them. For several seasons “30 Rock” was the funniest show on television, dishing out more humor in a single episode than many sitcoms do in a year. The show existed in the land of Absurdistan, where joke piled on joke, nonsequitors abounded, and no plot premise was off-limits.
Much of last week’s analysis focused on Tina Fey’s legacy as a female icon and television glass-ceiling shatterer. The New York Times explained, “Before Ms. Fey there were almost no women on network television who created and wrote their own shows and starred in them.” I don’t know; this seems like a stretch, given the previous achievements of Lucille Ball, Mary Tyler Moore, Carol Burnet and Rosanne Barr.
This focus on gender misses the essence of the show, which is that it had no agenda other than to be as farcical as possible. To the feminists’ chagrin, Liz Lemon was always a bit of a loser – her personal life was a mess and she barely exercised any authority as producer of her fictional show “TGS.” Not exactly a great female role model like, say, Harriet Tubman (who had the honor of being parodied on the show by Alec Baldwin).
“30 Rock” was perhaps the most politically incorrect show of all time, mocking every liberal and conservative premise it could find. It satirized its corporate overlords at GE and Comcast and they loved it. It skewered mommies, hipsters, the Irish, poor white trash, and most all identity politics. If Mel Brooks had a TV show, it would be something like “30 Rock.”
In a brilliant essay on Grantland,, Wesley Morris shows how fearless “30 Rock” was with one of the most taboo subjects on television: race. Tracy Morgan’s portrayal of a stereotypical “ghetto” comedian gave the show a way to spoof white liberal guilt, but it also exposed his character flaws, which were borne out of both victimization and entitlement. “30 Rock” did things no other show would dare (John Hamm and Jane Krakowski each appeared in blackface at one time or another, for pity’s sake) but because the jokes came so fast and furiously, and because they were equal opportunity offenders, it was hard to object.
To the extent that the show was “about” anything, it was about television itself. Write about what you know, they say, and Tina Fey took it to heart, creating a parody about her alma mater “Saturday Night Live.” The joke was that “TGS” was not a very good show; nor was much of the other programming on the slightly fictionalized NBC. Indeed, in her final scene, Liz Lemon is producing “Grizz & Herz,” a mediocre three-camera sitcom with lame jokes and a laugh track – the antithesis of everything that “30 Rock” came to represent.
In the season finale Kenneth Parcells, the new NBC president, hands Liz Lemon a list of things he doesn’t want to see on the network: “Conflict, Urban, Woman, Divorce, Shows About Shows, Writer, Justin Bartha, Dramedy, New York, Politics, High Concept, Complex, Niche, Quality, Edgy, Blog, Immortal Character, Foreign.” This is a typical two-second “30 Rock” gag, full of inside jokes and acerbic commentary. Justin Bartha, of course, is actually already on NBC in “The New Normal,” and “30 Rock” itself is a high concept urban show-about-shows starring a women.
Even if it’s a joke, it’s probably not fair to put “quality” on that list. After all, despite its chronically low ratings, NBC did support this particular quality show, giving “30 Rock” seven seasons of its best real estate on Thursday night. For all their philistinism and focus on the bottom line, networks seem to understand the value of prestige programming. Emmy winners usually get premium ad rates, help attract other talent to the network and amortize over years through DVD sales, syndication and online streaming deals.
In the end, the manic, self-referring, inside joking of “30 Rock” was too demanding for a large mainstream audience (myself, I couldn’t stop laughing at all the “rural juror” jokes, but the appeal of that gag is probably not universal.). As Tracy says at the conclusion, "That's our show. Not a lot of people watched it, but the joke's on you, because we got paid, anyway." This is obviously meant to be the epitaph of “30 Rock” too.
When all is said and done, Tina Fey should be an inspiration not just to women, but to everyone with aspirations to make great television. Write what you know, and if it’s legitimately funny, there’s probably room for it someplace on the schedule. Not every show needs to be “Grizz & Herz.”