"30 Rock" Made Network TV Better for Everyone, But Its Legacy May Be Lost

"30 Rock" Made Network TV Better for Everyone, But Its Legacy May Be Lost
Tina Fey as Liz Lemon, in the last episode of "30 Rock"
(© 2012 NBCUniversal Media, LLC. / Photo by Ali Goldstein)

After seven miraculous seasons, “30 Rock” will take its final bow tonight via a two-part series finale. The NBC sitcom, created by Tina Fey in the wake of her departure from “Saturday Night Live,” was initially billed as a companion to NBC’s “The Office,” the new building blocks of a restructured Thursday night comedy lineup. In reality, the two shows couldn’t be more different. “The Office” always reached for sweetness within its bored-at-work comedic subplots – there’s a hint of seriousness hiding behind the comedy at Dunder-Mifflin. “30 Rock” is its zanier and wittier cousin, built around a rapid-fire barrage of skillfully crafted one-liners and jabs. The plot, when it exists, doesn’t even matter; character development becomes another joke in the arsenal. Viewers may have been rooting for Liz Lemon to find peace among the crazy cast of characters who surround her, but part of you was always secretly rooting against her. The chaos is too much fun.

In the last week, various eulogies for “30 Rock” have compared it to “Seinfeld,” the modern-day touchstone for network comedy. In some ways, the comparison is apt: both are set in New York; both delved deeper into the surreal as the years went on; both were given room to grow in a world of television that hardly lets a show premiere before its network cancels it. The common phrase associated with “Seinfeld,” that it was a show about nothing, could easily be attached to “30 Rock” as well. The joke, of course, is that both shows meant a lot of things to a lot of people, and over their runs, made stars out of their cast members (or, in the case of Alec Baldwin on “30 Rock,” revitalized his stalling career). 

 

But thinking about the show over the past week, another comparison seems more appropriate: “The Simpsons.” The Fox animated sitcom, which has been on the air for a whopping 24 seasons, is the obvious precursor to “30 Rock” and its method of layering meta-joke upon meta-joke. Both shows used celebrity cameos to mock the notion of celebrity and relentlessly taunted their respective networks – NBC and Fox – in ways that would get most people fired. Both shows didn’t care about having the audience relate to the characters on any direct level – it was more about creating a world, and throwing the viewer inside it. “The Simpsons” and “30 Rock” are shows built, in a way, to last forever.

Sadly, these types of shows are on the way out. ABC’s “Happy Endings” and “Don’t Trust the B,” two recent and obvious successors to the brand of comedy pioneered by “30 Rock,” are in danger of cancellation. “The Simpsons” will be left alone to wither and die. Networks are taking fewer risks and shows that deal with similar subject matter and remain fairly tame will prosper. Outlandishness and surrealism don’t easily fit into a demographic. The saddest thing about “30 Rock” finally leaving us is that, simply, there may be nothing like “30 Rock” on network television ever again. Even if you weren’t a fan, that fact that it existed made network television much more interesting for everyone.