When the Writers’ Guild of America announced its strike on 5 November 2007, 30 Rock had almost finished filming the 10th episode of its second season. As a writer, Tina Fey spent that morning on the picket line outside NBC Universal’s Rockefeller Center headquarters. As the show’s executive producer and creator, she had a contractual obligation to finish shooting. This real world backdrop of conflicting loyalties imbues the 30 Rock episode with a poignancy it wouldn’t otherwise have: it feels like a goodbye for this Emmy award-winning but underwatched show. With American Gladiators outdrawing its scripted predecessors, it’s hard not to feel a pang of dread that 30 Rock, the most writer-centric sitcom in recent memory, might become the strike’s first casualty.
The season began on a decidedly more optimistic note. Critics could no longer call 30 Rock the underdog. That other behind-the-scenes television satire, critical darling Aaron Sorkin’s Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip, had fallen by the wayside. And 30 Rock had beaten out The Office and Ugly Betty for the Outstanding Comedy Series Emmy, while Fey earned nominations for best writer and actress. She’d broken the post-Saturday Night Live curse that bedevils so many alumni.
For the second season, she and her cowriters tweaked the show’s winning formula, most notably adding more celebrity guest stars. But they did so with a self-awareness that made the cameos more than cheap ratings-grabbers. In the season premiere, for example, NBC boss Jack Donaghy (Alex Baldwin) introduced “Seinfeldvision,” a month of programming featuring a computerized guest appearance from Jerry Seinfeld. For Donaghy and the fictionalized NBC, the old Seinfeld footage represented a ratings gold mine and unrealized revenue stream. Seinfeld took issue with that perspective, threatening to buy the network and turn it into “the biggest Lane Bryant in midtown.” His rating-boosting appearance on 30 Rock, became a commentary on ratings-boosting cameos, but one that reinforced the golden rule: he who has the gold makes the rules.
Carrie Fisher’s guest appearance struck a similar note on the conflict between art and commerce. Playing Liz Lemon’s (Fey) comedy idol Rosemary Howard, Fisher chastised her for not taking enough risks. Howard wanted sketches set in a “New Orleans abortion clinic,” while Liz dutifully cranked out sketches incorporating products made by GE, NBC’s parent company. After standing up to Jack, she was fired; after seeing Howard’s apartment in “Little Chechnya,” she went back to him. Jack’s assessment — that Liz writes for money — seemed accurate, and the show didn’t apologize for it. Ironically, this episode aired just before the strike began: 30 Rock‘s protagonist cheerfully returned to her job the week before her real-life counterparts refused to do the same.
In the final episode for the foreseeable future, 30 Rock Liz’s pursuit of an ideal adulthood led her to buy real estate, only to have the co-op board rebuff her. Jack and his paramour C.C. (Edie Falco) tried to manage a relationship around their career-driven lives. Ultimately both Jack and Liz admitted that their vocations meant more than any relationships. “All this time I’ve been telling you we can have it all: success and happiness, the big office and true love,” Jack said. But it’s untrue, “because they both require everything of you. You have to choose.” But 30 Rock is more complicated than that, suggesting the solution to the perennial art-vs.-commerce debate is not so black and white.
The episode’s most poignant moments came at the conclusion, with the whole cast performing Gladys Knight and the Pip’s “Midnight Train to Georgia.” Describing an alternative life, leaving New York for a simpler, less mercenary existence, the song reiterates 30 Rock‘s fundamental tensions: love and career, commerce and art. It brought the whole cast together in a dramatic, possibly final bow. And yet the writers couldn’t resist self-deprecation: in the episode’s final moments, Gladys Knight herself appeared, telling everyone to quiet down so she could nap. As endings go, you couldn’t ask for much more.