Last night, literally dozens of people tuned into NBC to watch the series finale of 30 Rock, one of the more underappreciated and thoroughly brilliant sitcoms the world has ever known. I say “underappreciated” because, despite its 94 Emmy award nominations and the buzz that gripped social media leading up to the finale, it never reached the masses the way it should have. In a few weeks, The Office will leave the air as well and the public outcry will be immense because, even though the show peaked several years ago, it found a wide and diverse audience that 30 Rock never did. Just about everyone I know watches or at some point in its run did watch The Office whereas very few people in my everyday life have watched 30 Rock. Even I, a self-appointed master of identifying funny things, didn’t grab onto 30 Rock immediately, a lapse in judgment that haunts me to this day. I’ve thought a lot over the last few weeks about what I wanted to write in regards to this end of an era but I confess I’m not sure I could do this show justice. In the beginning, I was going to make this entire week about 30 Rock with one day devoted to the 10 best episodes, another to the 10 best lines, another to the 10 best guest appearances, etc. (And I guess I may come back and do a little bit of that this weekend if I have the time).To prepare for this, I watched the entire series from start to finish and made notes on the highlights but in the middle of season three I gave it up because season three of 30 Rock is possibly the greatest season for a sitcom EVER and to pull a few loose moments from it would be to pull threads out of a cashmere sweater (or something that’s more luxurious, I’m a t-shirt kind of guy). It’s basically perfect. Instead, I’m just going to simply highlight five of the elements of the show that made 30 Rock such a treat to watch week in and week out.
NOTE: There are a TON of outstanding 30 Rock-related articles and lists out there that I strongly encourage fans of the show to browse through. Vulture has the definitive collection of such articles here. I particularly enjoyed this and this.
5. Originality Watching an episode (or a season) of 30 Rock is an experience unlike any other. It clearly draws influence from many of the best sitcoms TV has ever given us (Saturday Night Live, Seinfeld, Arrested Development, The Simpsons, and even The Mary Tyler Moore Show) without ever coming across as a replication. It is not a direct descendant of any of those programs. Instead, it seems to have learned under the tutelage of each of these great comedies and then shaped that knowledge for its own uses. In essence, 30 Rock is the child of those great shows all mixed together in a comedy lab until it gestated into the perfect sitcom for the 2000s. It pushed the envelope and took chances (the second live show is, in my book, one of the five best episodes the show ever did) that made it stand out from the crowd.
4. Guest Spots If you’ve ever seen an episode of 30 Rock, there’s a very good chance you’ve caught a guest appearance. I would hazard to guess that no sitcom in the history of television has brought in so many “names” to fill supporting roles and moreover, I would say that no show has ever used these resources the way 30 Rock has. When I began my complete series viewing a few weeks ago, I started making notes about the best guest appearances and cameos but they came so frequently and with such excellence that I gave up quite quickly. Steve Martin plays an eccentric billionaire with a secret. Matt Damon is a pilot with an emotional disorder (probably my favorite guest spot though I am biased toward Damon). Jon Hamm is a gorgeous doctor who happens to be brutally stupid. Will Arnett is a closeted gay adversary for Alec Baldwin’s character and he always shows up at just the wrong time. Oprah Winfrey, Brian Williams, Al Gore, David Schwimmer, Salma Hayek, Elizabeth Banks, Tim Conway, and the list goes on and on. 30 Rock has drawn Oscar winners, politicians, musicians, stand-ups, and just about any other performer you might think of, to the point that it might take less time to list out the performers who DID NOT do a guest spot at one time or another.
3. Characters If I were to make a list of my ten favorite TV characters from the last 25 years, the list would pretty much become a Who’s Who of 30 Rock and Arrested Development characters with Michael Scott and Ron Swanson mixed in for seasoning. Liz Lemon (Tina Fey) is one of the greatest female characters ever on television and an important one at that. Jack Donaghy (Alec Baldwin) is the perfect straight man and if you’re not a Baldwin fan (as I wasn’t), his magnificence in this role WILL change your opinion of his talent. Tracy Jordan (Tracy Morgan) is a one-liner machine who delivers more bang for the buck than perhaps anyone on the show. Jenna Maroney (Jane Krakowski) is the quintessential narcissistic blonde actress and she comes through with some of the show’s most memorable moments, usually involving an absurd joke or a complete meltdown. But it is the supporting characters that really take 30 Rock to new levels. Kenneth the Page (Jack McBrayer), the writers, and my personal favorite Dr. Leo Spaceman (Chris Parnell) always seem to strike the right chord in relation to the leading actors, providing insanity when Liz is trying to get things under control and stability with Jenna is having a rage stroke. Even the best shows usually bring around an ill-fitting supporting character from time to time but 30 Rock always seems to hit the nail on the head when it comes to crafting terrific entertainers.
2. Writing Comedic Styling If there was some organization out there that kept track of sitcom stats like baseball stats, 30 Rock would undoubtedly lead the hypothetical league in jokes per second. In watching the entire series through again, I was not only reminded of some of my favorite bits the show has done over the years but also made aware of many more I’d either missed initially or just forgotten due to the sheer volume of comedic excellence. In just about every episode, 30 Rock brings the jokes from start to finish and often piles one joke on top of another so that you have to really pay attention. Nothing was off limits, either, and the show continually pushed the boundaries of what was acceptable to joke about, especially when it came to race, gender, and religion. Even still, nothing (or at least very little) about 30 Rock was ever presented in a harsh or overly vulgar manner. One of the reasons why shows like Family Guy and South Park can get away with their content is because they make fun of everyone. 30 Rock does the same but it is never mean-spirited, a difference I've always appreciated.
30 Rock has a sketch show sentimentality with a sitcom-like devotion to story that never gets in the way of a great joke. That is to say, over seven seasons, there are plenty of story arcs that carry over from week to week and season and season but during the episode, the writers have the liberty to take it wherever they see fit, no matter how over the top, as long as it’s wrapped up in a way that fits with the overarching narrative. Moreover, one of my favorite things about 30 Rock is the presentation of obvious jokes. The show always gets credit for its wit and the jokes that require thought but in some ways the ability to take the joke that everyone knows is coming and still make it laugh-out-loud funny is even more impressive and 30 Rock does that like no other. And if all that wasn't enough, the show consistently delivered genius lines that have found a permanent place in my vocabulary, along with thousands of other fans.
1. Consistency Of all its many strengths and merits, the thing that truly sets 30 Rock a part from the rest of the pack is its enduring consistency. Over the course of my TV watching career, I would say I have come to truly love six shows: Boy Meets World, Friends, The Office, Parks and Recreation, Arrested Development, and 30 Rock. Plenty of other shows have a place in my heart but none of them hold as much value as those six. Aside from Arrested Development (again, unfair to put it in the equation), each of these shows has, at one point or another, taken a dip in quality…except for 30 Rock. The Office and Boy Meets World should have ended a couple of seasons earlier, Parks and Recreation wasn’t very good until the middle of its second season, and Friends fizzled during its middle years (though I think the final season is great). But for seven seasons and 139 episodes, 30 Rock endured, a remarkable feat given how popular its cast and crew has become and how long its run has been. The back half of season five isn’t quite up to par with the rest of the episodes but even still, there’s not a single episode of the show that I wouldn’t gladly watch again…and again…and again. Every week, Liz Lemon and company would show up and make me laugh for 22 minutes, sometimes to the point of tears and/or pants wetting (“I’m Lizzing! I’m Lizzing!”). To do so for seven seasons without ever throwing out a legitimate dud is a feat that few, if any, sitcoms have ever managed to pull off and just knowing that those guaranteed laughs won’t be around on Thursday nights anymore has made the TV landscape a little darker than it has been for the last seven years.
Those are some of my favorite things concerning 30 Rock. If you’ve been a fan of the show, feel free to share some of yours in the comments. And if you haven’t been watching over the last few years, the first six seasons are on Netflix Instant and I highly recommend giving it a shot. Thanks for reading. Now I will return to my Comedy Bunker and cry until the new season of Arrested Development debuts.