Remember When 30 Rock Nailed Its Final Season?
I complained recently about one of my favorite shows, Parks and Recreation, going off the rails in its final season by taking its natural positivity and detonating it into continual happy endings so excessive they seemed like the promises you read in chain emails.
Now I want to remember a show that did pull off a kick-ass final season by pushing its characters into new directions (which they somehow rendered inevitable). That show is 30 Rock.
30 Rock was renewed for its 7th season in 2012 with the understanding that its 13 episodes would be it for the show. This is, incidentally, the same arrangement that Parks and Recreation got for its final season, which was also its seventh. Perhaps 30 Rock was thinking further ahead; a lot of the plotlines that pay off in season 7 were set up in season 6. Of course, you could say the same about Parks and Recreation. Basically, both shows seem to have had the exact same advantages and disadvantages, and while Parks and Rec provided a sweaty, dubious final season, 30 Rock’s was concise, heartwarming, surprising (and still funny!).
First, Alec Baldwin’s Jack Donaghy. Somehow the show managed to have Donaghy quit his dream job in the finale episode and make it seem like it was a long time coming. That’s because it was! The show just reminded us that the job had never been something for which Donaghy was well-suited—that he had had other ambitions his entire life, and that he did not believe that running a TV network was a plan for success with any longevity.
The show portrayed 30 Rock’s NBC being sold by GE and bought by a cable company (the fictional Kabletown) way back in 2010 (4-14 “Future Husband”), when the real-life NBC was being real-life bought by Comcast. Whether the writers knew it or not, this provided the perfect catalyst for Donaghy’s crisis of business faith: he hated Kabletown, how it was run, how little he had to contribute to it. The last two seasons were full of Donaghy branching out—his couch plan (6-15 “The Shower Principle”), his politics plan in 6-18 “The Tuxedo Begins” (again, really just the show nodding towards real-life events) –and so when he finally became president of Kabletown, and realized it did not fulfill him, it was not a surprise.
And how poignant was that fight that Jack and Liz had in the two-part finale (7-12 “Hogcock” / 7-13 “Last Lunch”)? How Liz was fine being unambitious, and Jack was fine living for his work, until they began their codependent friendship and spurred each other on to mutual discontent. “So we ruined each other,” recaps Liz, both right and wrong.
In the finale, Jack quits his CEO job, stages a suicide attempt to reconcile with Liz, and then sets out on a journey of self-discovery—which lasts a minute and a half before he has a breakthrough. This is all in keeping with the Donaghy way, because spirituality is really not his thing. The sixth season also brought us Jack commanding himself to “Meditate perfectly.” (“The Shower Principle,” again.)
As for Liz, after years of perpetual singlehood, she got married in the last season. They introduced the man an entire season early to let the characters build a rapport with each other and with the audience. They had him challenge her in ways that her previous boyfriends had not done (see 6-12 “St. Patrick’s Day,” where he asks her to try saying “I love you,” and she manages to give maybe the first sincere speech Liz Lemon ever delivered). I especially liked that the man, Criss Chros, was introduced as being a completely un-Liz type of man, down to the ludicrous spelling of his name. After dating a man who is too much like her (see 5-14 “Double-Edged Sword”) and having it fail, and realizing that her fantasy man (Astronaut Mike Dexter) probably doesn’t exist, she willingly sets out to be in a relationship with somebody who, on paper, should drive her crazy. Episode 6-2 “Idiots are People Two!” has Liz conjuring up a mental Jack who points out everything about Criss that should annoy her, and her ultimately deciding to fight that impulse. (As we stubborn, judgmental women must do from time to time!) In their wedding episode (7-7 “Mazel Tov, Dummies”), it is even revealed that the first thing Liz said to Criss is “Nice turtleneck!” which she meant sarcastically, but which he took as a sincere compliment, and then love improbably bloomed. That’s perfect.
Liz also finally got to have children, but with a wild twist that was a testimonial to the show’s skewed universe—she and Criss adopted a pair of interracial twins who turned out to be little Jenna and Tracy clones. Brilliant. (Also, interracial twins are real! Who knew?)
In terms of her career, the show-within-a-show, TGS with Tracy Jordan, ended more or less with a whimper. Jokes abounded for 30 Rock’s entire run about how low-rated the show was (meta-humor, often, because 30 Rock was also very low-rated), and how much of a chore its various woes were for the network. The character of Liz did not have any expectations of continuing to do her show indefinitely. Asked in season 2 where she sees herself in 5 years, Liz guesses “teaching improv on cruise ships” (2-13 “Succession”). So having TGS eventually be canned felt right, consistent and honest.
The show ending also indicated Liz’s growth as a person, as she learned to prioritize her home life over her work. Again, this is a plot that had been following Liz throughout the run of the show: “Are you eating right?” Dr. Rachel Dratch asks Liz. “No, but I am eating a lot,” she says. (1-21 “Hiatus”) In season 3 (3-14 “The Funcooker”), Liz is inspired by the arson trial for which she is on the jury and considers setting fire to her office, the better to rise from its ashes. In 3-17 “Cutbacks,” Liz commits sexual harrassment to keep the show financially afloat; she is put on leave in the next episode, 3-18 “Jackie Jormp-Jomp,” where she loves her leisurely life with a bunch of unemployed ladyfriends until she finds out they keep sharp by participating in a fight club. As late as the final season, in 7-6 “Aunt Phatso vs. Jack Donaghy,” Liz destroys her “foot babies” to rescue the live show from disaster. In 7-11 “A Goon’s Deed in a Weary World,” Liz finally chooses her new family with Criss over the show—both because she has more family and commitments than she has ever had before, but also because what is left of the show (after sponsor-required retooling) is not worth saving.
30 Rock was nothing if not sensible about its characters, however. Liz Lemon was not designed to be completely fulfilled by her home life; she just needs to find a balance. In the next episode, “Hogcock!”, Liz hates being a stay-at-home mom and pitches various new shows to Kenneth, the new president of NBC. One of her pitches is about the trials and tribulations of a funny woman writer in New York City. This show would have been a massive hit if a Parks and Recreation character had pitched it; 30 Rock instead spins a pretty good joke out of it, with Kenneth immediately passing on it, and also producing a list of things the network has determined are death to TV success (“woman” “writer” and “New York City” are all on there). At this point I could list all of the shows that were successes in the 30 Rock universe—there are billions and they are all brilliant (OK, here’s some)—but I’ll just list my favorite, which is Real Transvestite Hoarders of Orange County Penitentiary. (“Ugh, that show is upsetting. Why does the warden let Lady Extravaganza have so many spoons?” q.v. 5-12 “Operation Righteous Cowboy Lightning”)
The episode also comments on working-mom guilt (this is something Tina Fey knows about; read her book) by having Liz feel bad that she wants to work and her husband Criss feel bad that he doesn’t want to work. Criss has been working as a receptionist in a dentist’s office (a great use of his Ethnomusicology degree) and describes seeing kids in the waiting room who are bored, and who could instead be playing “Carpet Adventure” a game he clearly made up because he is a great, warm, involved dad. They realize what their proper roles are, and come to the decision that Liz will be their breadwinner so naturally and beautifully that it warms my liberal feminist heart.
Liz ends up a producer and probably writer on what we know is a hacky sitcom starring Tracy’s erstwhile entourage-mate Grizz. It may not be creatively fulfilling, but we see her chat with her actors on set about what would be funny to do, and we see her kids doing their homework in the background, and it all seems perfect for her. That is to say, perfect because it’s NOT perfect: it’s consistent, adequate, sufficient employment in her field, and it allows her to be present for her children, and that’s the best that most people ever get. As with her family, she has made compromises, but is better off for it.
30 Rock ended by proving that Liz was not special—she was just most people. And it’s great.