Television

In Defense of '30 Rock' as the Best Show on Television

This week, we say goodbye to one of the best comedies TV has seen in decades. How influential has it been? How perfectly does it portray modern day popular culture?


30 Rock

Cast: Tina Fey, Alec Baldwin, Tracy Morgan
Network: NBC
Amazon

Quick, who said it: "It requires you to pay attention in a way that you don't always want to at the end of a long day, and I get that. I'm a professional comedy worker, and there would be days when I'm like, 'I love Arrested Development, but I don't want to watch it right now.'"

The answer? Tina Fey, while reflecting on the end of her brainchild, 30 Rock, to Rolling Stone writer Brian Hiatt for the magazine's most recent cover story. She's right, you know. Seven seasons, 138 episodes and one undisputed truth: Sitting down to watch an episode of 30 Rock is a lot like sitting down in a sauna with hopes of cooling off.

The show is thick with jokes, layer upon layer stacking up like an endless mountain of funny. The plot twists are strange and the characters are stranger. In the 22 minutes each episode runs, you can't leave the room for more than 30 seconds because if you do, you'll miss three or four genuinely funny quips, not to mention the various B-stories that advance in the same amount of time. Wander into the most normal household in the world with a stack of the program's DVDs and nine times out of 10, the response will be this: "I don't know. I don't really… get it."

But, you see, that's precisely what has made this NBC satire the most beloved show of the last seven years (note: "beloved" doesn't mean "popular"). It's also precisely what made it the best half-hour on television whenever it took to the airwaves. 30 Rock was a show made for people who enjoy a side of confusion with their comedic intellect. Virtually everyone who has loved the show has loved it for similar reasons: brainy culture references, wacky plot twists, unbelievable antics, lightning quick jokes, more double entendres than a stand-up comedian's Twitter feed, and a guest list to die for.

It's been the Seinfeld of a new generation, observational humor for the Pinterest set. We live in a world now obsessed with self-gratification and 30 Rock was the most instant way we could make ourselves feel smarter for liking something. It embodied sophistication in such a subliminal way that it became a badge of honor to publicly proclaim love for the show, most of us teetering along the line of entitlement each time we obnoxiously went to bat for it. I know this because I'm as guilty as anyone for trying to keep my balance on that high wire whenever expressing my own personal love for "The Girlie Show" (the show within the show on 30 Rock), and the antics that go along with creating it.

The only difference is that we don't have time for appointment viewing anymore, so we wait for DVDs or that one Sunday in March when we have time to catch up on all the shows we recorded. And because that's the method of television consumption most prefer these days, 30 Rock couldn't have come along at a better time, considering how nothing is viewed without a Rewind button within hand's reach. You can go through a single episode of 30 Rock six or seven times and still find new things to laugh at, making you almost instantly feel equally dumb (for missing it at first glance) and smart (for finally understanding what was going on) at the same time.

"When 30 Rock was on hiatus this past fall, it felt like certain shows, namely Happy Endings, were touted for how quick, joke-filled, and frankly funny they were, and rightfully so, but they never got to a 30 Rock-level of joke precision," Split Sider's Jesse David Fox wrote in May of last year when recapping the show's sixth season. "So when 30 Rock came back in January there was a certain 'don't call it comeback, I've been here for years' quality to it. The jokes hit harder, came faster, and went to weirder places than they have in years. No show has ever matched 30 Rock's ferocious commitment to getting as many great jokes in an episode as possible and this season seemed to feature a hit to miss ratio that is astounding for a show in its sixth season." ("Why '30 Rock' Was the Best Comedy of 2011-2012 Season", 25 May 2012)

Such is what has made The Little Show That Could so legendary in modern times. It's hard enough to craft interesting, mind-bending wisecracks anyway, but to do it with the amount of consistency that 30 Rock has is nothing short of extraordinary. Each time we were willing to give up on it -- and "we" includes Alec Baldwin, mind you -- another guest star would walk through the doors to keep our attention, another live show would redefine what modern-day television is capable of and another one-liner would grip us so hard that we would feel negligent to our own tastes if we walked away for good. It has become the smart girlfriend who somehow gets prettier each time another bombshell looks our way.

And that's why it's going to be uniquely sad to watch this thing go. Rarely does a television program come along and be as interesting as 30 Rock has been. Its brilliance lies within its contradiction -- you have to appreciate each episode's intricacies to appreciate how mindless they truly are. For as smart as the writing can be, part of show's appeal is how utterly unbelievable a lot of its premise appears. Finding obvious things to laugh about are almost as common as finding obscure things to laugh about.

The absurdity of Tracy Jordan is offset by the levity of Jack Donaghy. The naivety of Kenneth Parcell is offset by the seasoned Liz Lemon. The ugliness of Frank Rossitano is offset by the beauty of Jenna Maroney. The girth of Grizz and Dot Com is offset by the weakness of Pete Hornberger. The parallels in this alternate universe run deep and wide, thus making each move, each line of dialogue, that much more meaningful and that much more interpretive. In short, it's hard to come up with a more perspicacious show in modern day television.

Where the medium or the players go now is anybody's guess. Until 30 Rock came along, I was convinced television could never get more intellectually hilarious than Arrested Development. To see something come along and play on that level consistently for more than double the amount of time Arrested Development was given is so astounding and unprecedented that one has to think it will be nearly impossible to expand on the parameters this show has established.

As for the actors, you can't help but worry about what the future may hold for some of them. Tracy Morgan has more health problems than any patient who's ever appeared on House, and it's been no secret that this show's regimen has helped reinvigorate him as an individual. Alec Baldwin doesn't have the most admirable public reputation, though he was the most established actor coming into the project so conventional wisdom suggests that he should be fine. Everybody seems to like Jack McBrayer, though nobody seems to know what to do with him. Jane Krakowski has been doing television for 30 years now, so hopefully it won't be too long before we see her again on something (maybe HBO, or pay-cable?). Katrina Bowden has Star written all over her, if she wants it. Judah Friedlander will always have his hats. Scott Adsit has a resume that should keep him working in comedy for as long as he wants.

And then, of course, there's the peerless Tina Fey, who wrote this on page 190 of her pseudo memoir, Bossypants in 2011:
"There is one other embarrassing secret I must reveal, something I've never admitted to anyone. Though we are grateful for the affection 30 Rock has received from critics and hipsters, we were actually trying to make a hit show. We weren't trying to make a low-rated critical darling that snarled in the face of conventionality. We were trying to make Home Improvement and we did it wrong. You know those scientists who were developing a blood-pressure medicine and they accidentally invented Viagra? We were trying to make Viagra and we ended up with blood-pressure medicine."

That might be true, but no matter how much of a failure 30 Rock proved to be from a fundamental point of view, it sure helped cultivate a rabid fan base of people dying to be challenged by comedy again. Fey will be fine moving forward -- all geniuses are in times of transition -- but if there's nothing else we learned from the seven magnificent seasons that 30 Rock produced, we at least learned this: Sometimes the most disappointing failures can be the most inspiring creations.

And if 30 Rock will forever initially be considered a failure by some, why would anyone -- even in their wildest dreams -- ever want to succeed again?

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