Nothing Is Impossible, Except for Dinosaurs (and Smart Television)

Jack and Liz - 30 Rock

30 Rock is kind of like a microbrew. Ten or fifteen years ago, most Americans didn’t know there was an option beyond Budweiser or, if you were feeling really adventurous, Heineken.  Due to restrictive local regulations and the apathy of the American beer industry, we didn’t know that you could pack a lot more flavor (and alcohol) into a 12 oz bottle. But once you had a Ranger IPA or a Bell’s Two Hearted, why would you want to go back to Yuengling?

The same goes for TV. The sitcom has rarely been celebrated as an artistic medium, with the exception of the occasional M*A*S*H* or Seinfeld, but a number of new, smarter shows hit the airwaves in the last decade. Series like Community and 30 Rock stretched the limits of the sitcom and brought a new intelligence to the format, but they struggled to find an audience.  Most Americans, it turns out, would rather sit at home and pop open a traditional multi-camera sitcom like The Rules of Engagement or 2 Broke Girls.  Thankfully, though, 30 Rock endured in the face of low ratings and widespread public indifference.

It’s hard to believe that seven years ago 30 Rock was debuting alongside another unpromising TV metacommentary, Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip.  The misbegotten dramedy was one of about 45 attempts to revive the career of Matthew Perry on the small screen (a quest that goes on today), but it was also a preachy series that reveled in the self-importance of Aaron Sorkin’s writing and interested only those who were in the Hollywood bubble (principally, the writers and producers of the show).  Both 30 Rock and Studio 60 ostensibly dealt with the behind-the-scenes action of an SNL-style TV show.  Yet, improbably, one of the two survived long enough to become a touchstone of contemporary broadcast television.

That, of course, was 30 Rock.  The series finale tonight comes almost as the end of an era.  The “new golden age of television” that emerged with sophisticated cable fare like The Sopranos, Mad Men, and Breaking Bad coincided with a revival of the sitcom that followed a depressing, post-Seinfeld funk in which the brain-dead likes of Dharma and Greg and Everybody Loves Raymond were the only going concerns in TV comedy.  If any show can be credited with sparking this renewal, it is the short-lived, much-missed, and soon-to-be-resurrected Arrested Development, which crammed eccentric characters, dense wordplay, and political satire into a smart sitcom format.  Countless shows have imitated its intelligence and format (the single-camera vs. the traditional multi-camera style of sitcoms), and a variety of clever series from The Office to Parks and Recreation to Raising Hope have followed.  It’s hard to imagine Mindy Kaling eating cereal out of a Ronald Reagan mask when her dishes get dirty without there being a Liz Lemon.

30 Rock has somehow survived, despite the haplessness of a network (NBC) that has barely scraped by for a decade. When it debuted, viewers had reason both to cheer and doubt.  Tina Fey was a fresh comic voice that had enlivened Weekend Update and written the new teen classic Mean Girls; yet she was also the former head writer of one of the most relentlessly banal and unfunny shows in television history (i.e. SNL).  Would she succeed in the sitcom format, and would the seemingly navel-gazing, self-referential format of a show about a show (again, SNL) work?

The first few episodes of the show felt awkward, but it soon became clear that the dynamic between the show’s principals—conservative executive Jack, liberal head writer Liz, vapid showboat Jenna, anarchic comedian Tracy, and TV-loving hillbilly Kenneth—had the kind of spark and balance that make a sitcom ensemble work.  Over time, the show increasingly pushed Pete, the harried and miserable married man, to the side, and the Jimmy Fallon-esque cast member disappeared after the first season or so. The relationship between Jack and Liz became the emotional crux of the show, and the series even played with the typical will-they-won’t-they expectations of sitcom relationships in one of the final episodes, in which Liz wonders, in a meta way, why they never got together.

But 30 Rock always resisted the temptation to get Ross/Rachel/Jim/Pam together in the end, and the odd dynamic between the two characters became one of the classic TV relationships.  A critical observer might notice that Jack was almost always right; the writers may have tilted clearly to the left, but Jack’s cynical, cool conservatism trumped or outsmarted Liz’s sincere, naïve liberalism time and again. (Rarely did “the mentor become the manatee,” although Liz did eventually best Jack from time to time.)  This was part of the show’s appeal—its willingness to tweak liberal attitudes, at least a little, through both the greedy, competitive Jack and Liz’s lazy, pop-culture-and-fast-food loving character.

Much has been written about what Fey’s Liz Lemon does or does not represent about “modern womanhood,” especially as a middle-aged professional, and the choices of her character have been picked apart to no end: the boyfriends, from Dennis (why would a successful, educated woman date a moronic beeper salesman?) to Floyd (would she abandon her career for Cleveland?) to Kriss (did she really want to marry a hipster doofus who aspired to sell hot dogs?); the timing and nature of her wedding, which thankfully was not the culmination of the series; her tortured struggle with the idea of having kids; and so on.

Whatever greater symbolism people have read into her role, it is clear that Tina Fey created a show whose main voice was that of a single, professional woman, which was once rare in TV comedy.  When Murphy Brown decided to have a kid on her own in the early 1990s, it prompted outrage from social conservatives and Vice President Dan Quayle’s ill-advised condemnation of single mothers in general.  Liz Lemon received no such backlash in her periodic attempts to start a family, either because single parenting is more widely accepted today or because broadcast television commands much less cultural influence than it did twenty years ago (it’s probably a bit of both).

But the great thing about Liz Lemon is that she was not invented to advance an ideal of the modern woman.  She got creative when her underwear was dirty (it involves a plastic bag).  She got Life Alert because she was afraid of choking to death or slipping in the shower and dying alone.  She loved Star Wars, but not Harry Potter (she was not some kind of “nerdery slut”).  She was not particularly ambitious, preferring to write for her show than climb a corporate ladder, and her distaste for sex was a perennial joke (she hated the word “climax”).  This is quite different from shows like Sex and the City or Cougar Town, where feminist agency is closely tied to a frank embrace of sexuality.  30 Rock also has to be the only show that I can think of in which a woman’s mustache served as a major plot point (and even had a name – “Steve”).

It’s hard to say how history will remember 30 Rock.  Much of its humor was topical, referencing contemporary popular culture or politics; references to the Kardashians or Temptation Island or the 2008 presidential election may not seem as funny years from now as they were at the time.  In a way, the more timeless humor of a Cheers or Seinfeld might hold up better.  The show’s densely packed jokes arrive at a clip unseen in almost any previous show, but I remember watching The Simpsons twenty years ago and thinking it fired clever jokes and asides at an incredible clip.  Nowadays its pacing seems slow, especially compared to later series like Family Guy, Arrested Development, or Archer.

I don't know how to say this... DEE-uh-BOTT-eez?
I don’t know how to say this… DEE-uh-BOTT-eez?

30 Rock seems to boast a remarkable joke-per-minute speed, as when Jenna Maroney brags, “I’m an A-Lister… because I was on a list… to date Tom Cruise.  But I bailed before I got sucked in too deep. Praise Xenu!” or when the host of a ceremony to honor “80 Women under 80” is named Bonnie Badatmath.  Liz worries about taking fertility drugs in her 40s and having a child who’s a “ball of fingers,” and Jack replies that “Steve Forbes was born a ball of fingers.  He had the best surgeons money can buy, but you can still tell.”  Whereas a normal sitcom might just toss off a joke about fertility treatment and inadvertently having lots of kids, 30 Rock throws in a surreal image, a reference to a failed presidential contender, and the thought of Steve Forbes’s weird, finger-like face.  All of these jokes whiz past the viewer and it’s hard to catch them all at once, but it’s also possible that in a few years 30 Rock’s wit and pacing will seem old hat.

By focusing on form and context, though, we can lose sight of the very funny content of the show.  30 Rock gave us plenty of wonderful catchphrases (“Live every week like it’s Shark Week”), and hilariously surreal premises like Leap Day, the made-up holiday with its own traditional character, Leap Dave Williams.  (The Leap Day episode, one of the funniest in the show’s underrated later seasons, even included clips of a ridiculous holiday film starring Jim Carrey as Leap Dave.)  There was “reaganing”; a running subplot involving imprisonment in North Korea; and Jack’s supremely Irish Catholic high school sweetheart, played by Julianne Moore, who couldn’t abandon her Boston values (“In New York people are like, ‘Let’s get divorced! You marry the butler and I’ll be a gay octomom’”).  What other show would reference 70s softcore French porn in an episode called “Emanuelle Goes to Dinosaur Land”?

When 30 Rock is over, I’ll miss the constant references to Jenna’s self-destructive past.  (“Your new vibe is a double-edged sword, much like the kind Mickey Rourke tried to kill me with.” “Picking a lock is like riding a bike… they’re both skills you need to escape the Atlanta Falcons equipment room.”  “You think I’m stupid… just because my college got tipped over by those Miami Heat fans?”)  I’ll miss the horrible movies that Tracy starred in (Fat Bitch, Who Dat Ninja?Honky Grandma Be Trippin’), and the tales of his troubled childhood (“I watched one baby give another baby a tattoo.  They were very drunk.”  “I saw a pack of wild dogs take over and successfully run a Wendy’s!” “I watched a homeless guy cook a hot pocket on the third rail of the G train!  The G train, Nermal!”)

In the end, it’s hard to tell if these jokes are just fleeting pop culture references and non-sequiturs, or if they will hold up as genuinely funny commentaries on perennial themes of love, gender, class, friendship, and so forth.  One thing is for certain, though: shows like Seinfeld, Arrested Development, and 30 Rock raise the game by showing what is possible in television, making a degree of creativity and intelligence that was once new and unexpected seem ordinary and unexceptional.  That can only be good for TV in general.  In the end, the show will hopefully follow the path of Jack’s hateful mother, Colleen:

“I’m going out of this world the same way I came in – wearing a hat!”