Tina Fey’s 30 ROCK left the building very much the way it entered 7 years ago: with a million gags (at least ten thousand of them meta), a bit of sentiment (usually followed instantly by undercutting silliness), and a gnawing taste for the hand that fed it.
If there was any surprise in the one-hour series conclusion (first half credited to Executive Producers Jack Burditt and Robert Carlock, second half to Fey and Producer Tracy Wigfield, the entire episode directed by Beth McCarthy-Miller), it was that, as 30 Rock event episodes went, it was relatively ungimmicky–certainly as compared to the live episodes of recent years. The cameos were fairly restrained (Julianne Moore, Salma Hayek, Conan O’Brien, Nancy Pelosi and Richard Belzer and Ice T in an SVU bit), and a St. Elsewhere reference aside, it wasn’t much concerned with pointing at classic TV finales. After the opening scene of the first half, we didn’t get another look at the mini-Tracy and Jenna who are Liz Lemon’s adopted children, and husband Criss (James Marsden) had a minimal presence.
Instead, the show concentrated on its heart, the crazy production of TGS. Last week, Kenneth the Page (Jack McBrayer) had been appointed as President of NBC, and he discovered that Tracy’s (Tracy Morgan) contract contained a $30M penalty if 150 episodes weren’t produced–and the show had been canceled after 149. That brought everyone back for one last episode, as Pete (Scott Adsit) plotted his fake suicide, Jenna (Jane Krakowski) plotted her next career move, and Lutz (J.D. Lutz) plotted forcing the staff to eat Blimpy’s for its last free lunch.
With Liz more or less settled emotionally, the show’s major crisis belonged to Jack Donaghy (Alec Baldwin), who discovered that having his dream job as CEO of Kabletown wasn’t making him happy. (Nor were singing in a church choir, bringing in a homeless man as new co-host of the Today show, or having a 3-way with Moore and Hayek so fierce that it wiped out their accents.) He quit, and prepared to sail around the world after coming as close as he could to using the word “love” (non-romantically) to Liz, before quickly coming up with a new product to turn Kabletown around.
Despite its many jabs at network TV–as NBC President, Kenneth has a list of “no-no words” that includes dramedy, New York, politics, complex, niche, quality, shows about shows, and Justin Bartha, and Tracy bids farewell to the TGS audience by saying “Not a lot of people watched it–but the joke’s on you, because we got paid anyway!”–30 Rock had little interest in challenging TV conventions. It was mostly about very smart silliness, with characters no deeper than the next gag required, and the friendship between Jack and Liz as the only cohesive strand. Even with all its accolades, it was never a tremendous hit with viewers, and by lasting 7 years, its main contribution to TV history may have been helping to lower the ratings bar for acceptable network success.
The departure of 30 Rock, and soon The Office, and very possibly the revamped Community, leaves Parks & Recreation, New Girl and not much else in the world of network sitcoms that have a truly distinctive voice. Like so much else on 30 Rock, Kenneth’s no-no list was a joke… but not really. On the other hand, with Fey having recently signed an expensive, long-term deal with NBC’s home studio, there’s reason to think that voice, or something like it, won’t be absent for long–Jack Donaghy’s real-life equivalents don’t throw around deals like that without expecting some return on their investment. That could turn out to be the last, and best, 30 Rock punchline.