’30 Rock’ Lived (and Died) By Its Own Rules

“There are no bad ideas Lemon, only great ideas that go horribly wrong.”

— Jack Donaghy

It’s a joke that goes all the way back to Season Three, wherein the characters in 30 Rock absolutely cannot believe that their show-within-a-show TGS with Tracy Jordan has lasted for over three years. In a Rolling Stone article that ran around 30 Rock‘s season finalé, Alec Baldwin could see how having two kids and being the creator, star, and writer of a much-beloved cult sitcom was really taking its toll on Tina Fey. The show was never a ratings powerhouse (then again, it was never intended to be), but the fact that it outlived the much-hyped Aaron Sorkin drama Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip was a miracle in itself that even it’s creators weren’t expecting. After seven years, Fey and Baldwin were happy to end the show on their own terms.

Thus, Season Seven tackles ground both familiar and new. For one thing, given the initial broadcast dates of these episodes were right in the middle of the 2012 presidential election, the show makes numerous jokes that are going to be very specific to its Millennial audience, but much like the Dan Quayle episode of Murphy Brown, will serve as an era-specific time capsule rather than a continually-referenced point for future joke writers. There are no less than three episodes that deal specifically with the presidential election (Jack referring to Mitt Romney as his “hair mentor” at one point), and while this is all fine and good, it dates and minimizes the rest of the impact of the season. It’s a shame too, because not only does 30 Rock go out with a bang, it hits emotional beats, too.

There are two main storylines that drive Season Seven: one of Liz (Fey) and her long-time boyfriend Criss (a warm, remarkably funny James Marsden) finally getting around to having a kid, although problems with fertility and adoption come up, complicating the issue for the couple. Jack, meanwhile, is happy with his post-divorce life, making Kabletown/NBC successful while also determining what makes him actually happy. Jenna (Jane Krakowski) is having a difficult time staging her spur-of-the-moment celebrity wedding, Tracy (Tracy Morgan) is learning how to run his own movie studio (“I’m sort of a black Tyler Perry” he notes), and Kenneth (Jack McBrayer) is running into difficulty living with his girlfriend, Hazel Wassername (Kristen Schaal), who remains as psychotically fame-obsessed as ever. During all of this, classic characters are brought back (Will Arnett’s Devin Banks, Chris Parnell’s Leo Spaceman), new ones are brought in (including a pitch-perfect Catherine O’Hara & Bryan Cranston as Kenneth’s parents), a zaniness ensues as always.

“Technically, I am an A-Lister now, because I was on ‘a list’ to date Tom Cruise.”

— Jenna Maroney

Once you step aside from the campaign-referencing moments, the show falls back on some of its most reliable tropes: Tracy’s conflicts with Liz, Jenna’s perpetual need to satisfy her own ego (when Liz claims that she’s not trying to steal any of her thunder, Jenna angrily retorts “My whole life is thunder!”), and the absolute mess of a network that is NBC. The season’s first episode, “The Beginning of the End”, shows Jack deliberately trying to get his boss to sell NBC by “tanking” the network, doing so by getting a show about Nelson Mandela made wherein the title role is played by Joe Rogan, making hunchbacks the sexy new follow-up to vampires, and creating a show called “Homonym” where players are asked to guess the multiple meanings of words, never getting a single answer right.

As noted in Season Six, Schaal’s character is hard to derive humor from, given how utterly insane/unsympathetic she is, and while she does get some worthwhile laugh moments (particularly in her ill-fated attempt to seduce Tracy over dinner), the fact that she exits from the show part-way through this season frees up the primary cast to focus on the dynamics that work best. Most welcome to all of this is the return of Liz & Jenna’s assessment of their friendship, from the jealous lows to the relatable highs. While it’s so easy to write a character as self-obsessed as Jenna with very broad strokes, the times we get to see warmth really help round her out, and make her final moments in the show all the more palpable.

Similarly, Jack’s mom Colleen (Elaine Stritch) has suffered a similarly downtrodden approach as the series has gone on, as we’ve seen her transform from simply being Jack’s opinionated, tough-loving mama to a casually racist stereotype and little else. She’s given a good sendoff here, which while not completely giving her the rounded nature that we grew to love about her in the show’s early seasons, is still relatable enough, and it serves as a good story point for the rest of Jack’s arc as the show winds down.

“You look like that flash card they told me means sadness.”

— Jenna Maroney

During this time, the show hits on a couple of long-burning questions, including the “will they or won’t they” dynamic that Liz & Jack have fostered for all these years, which comes to a head on “Florida”, the episode where Jack goes and clears up the remaining matters of his mother’s estate, suspicious of her housekeeper who seems to have met a completely different woman (hats off to her greeting though: “Where are my manners? This is Florida! Let me boil up a pot of hot Gatorade.”). Although Liz and Jack have had serious conflicts within the last few seasons (whether they be contract negotiations or, during their 100th episode, if Liz haphazardly robbed Jack of all of his business ambitions), they actually manage to reignite them with new energy over the course of the two-part series finalé (culminating with Liz’s revelation about the advice he has been dolling out all this time: “You’re just an alcoholic with a great voice!”).

To its credit, 30 Rock has been a show that has avoided moments of genuine emotional honesty — that was never the show Fey wanted to make in the first place. Thus, when “Hogcock!/Last Lunch” rolls around, it is genuinely surprising at how well it handles its turns of sentiment, ranging from Liz’s conversation with Tracy about why people don’t want to give honest goodbyes (which takes place at a strip club, naturally) to her final sendoff with Jack, wherein they find the words to say to each other that they’ve been keeping inside for all these years. Even during Jenna’s completely nonsensical song from the musical “The Rural Juror”, the show manages to even evoke a few tears in its final moments. Given the wild, zany, and occasionally haphazard nature of the show, the finalé is truly an example of a great way to end a sitcom.

The special features on this DVD set, unfortunately, don’t add up to much. There’s commentary on four episodes (five if you count the two-part finalé), and the writers handle themselves, but the commentary MVP, Jack McBrayer, is nowhere to be found. There is a nice half-hour tour of the sets of the show before they are demolished, with Fey discussing all the little bits of trivia that go along with it with her usual casual comedy manner (it’s very appealing, especially when describing how traumatized the crew’s kids were during their annual Halloween party, which tends to always take place when they’re filming the yearly Christmas episode). There’s no great revelations to be had, but the deleted scenes might very well be the best batch rounded up thus far, and the Donaghy Files web short — often a dumping ground for D-grade jokes and bits that never really worked — gets a fantastic revamp wherein Jack attempts to get a replacement for Madonna for the Super Bowl Half-Time Show, and encourages Michael McDonald, Childish Gambino (former 30 Rock writer Donald Glover), and a quite-funny Ryan Adams to do it while covering theme songs from long-canceled NBC shows. It works better than it has every right to, but hearing Michael McDonald cover the Saved By the Bell theme is an absolute treat.

All in all, even die-hard fans will have to admit that 30 Rock would never be able to match the peak of quality it had reached during Season Three, but it’s OK: even with the laudable seasons since then, Season Seven hits all the right nights, makes all the right moves, and ends the show on a sincere note that few would have ever thought possible. It may not be perfect, but it doesn’t need to be: 30 Rock always adhered by its own rules, and it’s for that reason that we’ll always remember it.

RATING 7 / 10