The dirty little secret at the heart of 30 ROCK has always been that it doesn’t really have one–a heart, that is. That doesn’t make the show any less brilliantly written or superbly performed, but it explains why despite all its massive acclaim and zillions of awards, in 6 years on the air it’s never been much of a popular success. The show, for all its ingeniousness, is emotionally cold (much more so than Community, which wears its sitcom deconstruction on its sleeve but has enormous affection for its oddball population). Things happen to the characters, they claim to have feelings about them, but whatever emotion is supposedly being felt is wiped away, usually seconds later, by the next absurdist pop culture reference.
And so it was on tonight’s 6th season finale, written by Co-Executive Producer Matt Hubbard and directed by Michael Engler. A description of the plot could make it sound as though enormously important events took place during the half-hour: Jack (Alec Baldwin) and Avery (Elizabeth Banks) faced up to the fact that their marriage was over, and broke up at what was supposed to be their renewal of vows; while Liz (creator/showrunner Tina Fey) and Criss (James Marsden) realized that they really are a couple for the long term and decided to have a baby together. But by the end of the episode, the Jack/Avery marriage was just a memory, and if, upon the show’s return in September, Liz changes her mind about motherhood, or if she and Criss have broken up, it could well be dismissed with an airy one-liner and no weight at all, then on to the next episode.
30 Rock has always used the grammar of traditional network situation comedy at a distance, the better to poke self-referential holes in it. (Tonight’s tag had “Kim Jong-Il” doing a bit about the fact that everyone really wants Jack and Liz to get together, polished off with a nod to the old Stephen J. Cannell production company logo.) Because of this, it operates in the reverse of most sitcoms: its one-shot stunt episodes, like the recent spectacular live show (an all-you-could-eat buffet of TV references from the dawn of the medium) are more effective than the episodes that attempt continuing storylines.
The one exception to this, of course, is the only relationship the show takes semi-seriously: the bond between Liz and Jack. Despite Kim Jong-Il’s entreaties, the show almost certainly won’t ever send them down a romantic road–thank God–but they’re the one great love story of the series, thanks to the fantastic chemistry between Fey and Baldwin. Everything else is just fodder.
Notwithstanding all this, the show is often hilarious. Tonight’s episode had the usual grab-bag of crazy plotlines about Tracy (Tracy Morgan), who, after a visit from the real Dr. Cornell West, decided that he needed a worthy black role model (and chose Tyler Perry), and Kenneth (Jack McBrayer), caught in a trap by crazy page Hazel (Kristen Schaal). There was a Pixar double feature of jokes, one where Tracy described his character in one of their movies, and a delirious parody of one of the studio’s Randy Newman-scored sentimental montages. Mary Steenburgen showed up as Avery’s randy mother, representing the show’s amazing bench of guest stars.
Between 30 Rock‘s numbers and the difficulties of keeping a show with big-name talent on the air beyond its initial contract term, it was time for the series to start gathering up its things to go, and next season it will have a final 13-episode order, which will no doubt do a peerless job of exploring the concept of “series finale.” It’ll be smart, and funny, and classy as hell. Maybe it’ll even muster some genuine emotion for its departure. But don’t bet on it.