The end of ’30 Rock’
Tonight the funniest comedy on television ends its seven-season run, and I feel compelled to say a word of farewell to 30 Rock. I came late to the show, in part because everyone I knew who enjoyed it kept talking about how great Alec Baldwin and Tracy Morgan were. I had trouble believing either claim. And for what it’s worth, I was right about Tracy Morgan — he was and is just as limited and barely adequate in his performance on 30 Rock (playing a version of himself named Tracy Jordan) as I’d always thought he was on Saturday Night Live. Fortunately, it doesn’t matter much; if the show is often funny in spite of rather than because of his presence, it’s still very, very funny. On the other hand, as Jack Donaghy, an NBC exec, Alec Baldwin was a revelation. I still find him fairly odious as a celebrity/public figure, and I’m still scornful of his under-rehearsed, cue-card-dependent appearances on SNL and elsewhere. He even seemed bizarrely unfamiliar with his own show when the cast appeared together on
Jimmy Kimmel Live Late Night with Jimmy Fallon (whoops) last week. But on 30 Rock, Baldwin is a one-man master class, turning in an utterly disciplined performance with consistently perfect comic timing. Even in the two live episodes they did, Baldwin brought his A game. He is indeed a major reason for the show’s success.
The major reason, of course, is Tina Fey, 30 Rock‘s creator, star, and guiding sensibility. The show is ostensibly based on her experiences as head writer at SNL, but it’s really about the character of Liz Lemon, who happens to be the creator of a lame sketch-comedy show on NBC. The writers’-room stuff has always been hit or miss; the personnel connected with the show are often funny but, on the whole, disappointingly one-note (in part because there are so many of them; certain minor characters disappear for such long stretches that the show cracks nervous jokes about it when they return). The writing is always sharp and original, and every character has quotable one-liners. But it’s Liz quirks, and her fraught relationships — with New York City, with work, with success, and most vividly with Jack, her boss — that make 30 Rock satisfying and, for a lot of viewers (say, young women balancing careers and life and various insecurities in NYC), amazingly familiar. Liz is specific and finely detailed, and while I’m reluctant to start picking her apart as a feminist role model/betrayal to the cause of womanhood (as many have done and still do), I will say that I see in Liz a kind of womanhood-on-television that I haven’t seen anywhere else: fully individual, smart and driven but also flawed and human and hilarious, and frankly anxious about the very questions of What Should a Woman Be? that critics and commentators project onto her. (A recent episode found Liz fretting about the trappings of being a bride. Her supportive boyfriend told her, “Liz, it’s OK to be a human woman!” prompting her to moan, “No, it’s the worst! Because of society!”)
A word, too, for Jane Krakowski, who plays Jenna Maroney, the vain, self-centered star of Liz’s show, TGS. The character of Jenna has shifted over the course of the show, from (as Fey put it in a recent interview) “TV best friend” to “bananas and an awful person.” She was never an especially credible best friend for the uptight Liz Lemon, and the “bananas” role she took on in later seasons has stretched whatever consistent character Jenna had precariously thin. (I had very little patience for Jenna’s kinky romance with a Jenna Maroney impersonator, played by Will Forte, a joke that lasted well past the point of diminished returns. And for a stretch, “Jenna opens mouth, makes reference to freakish past involving Mickey Rourke” was such a predictable part of any scene that I found myself bracing for my own Liz Lemon eye rolls.) [UPDATE: I am pleased to note that the final episode included a joke about how overdone the Mickey Rourke gag was.] But Jane Krakowski is a master at her craft, and as Fey says in that same interview, she “has grown Jenna into this ridiculous comedy powerhouse.” Her performance, like Baldwin’s, is incredibly disciplined (though in this case I wasn’t surprised, having admired her in other shows/films, and especially on stage). As an actor she is Jenna’s opposite: always listening, always giving her best to every moment of every scene. There have been times I’ve rewound the show just to rewatch her react to a line I didn’t even find funny.
My favorite example, which of course I cannot find a clip of online: Jenna and her TGS costar Tracy teamed up at one point to form an inept team they called “The Problem Solvers.” That episode ended with a brief promo for their services, with both wearing shirts that said “THE PROBLEM” (“SOLVERS” was supposed to be, but was not, printed on the back). At one point Tracy had a punch line about finding a stripper passed out on your boat. I found the joke too effortful and Morgan’s delivery typically halting, but Krakowski’s reaction — a fleeting expression of confusion and horror, suppressed and turned back into a sunny smile for the sake of the camera — makes me howl every time. And she has found ways to make the character seem fleshed-out despite Jenna’s ever-shifting countours. She’s been nominated for an Emmy 3 times, so she hasn’t exactly been overlooked or unsung (see also this appreciation from Grantland’s Molly Lambert, which features some of Jenna’s great moments). But it can’t be said enough. [UPDATE: The finale ended with an amazing callback to one of my favorite early 30 Rock jokes, Jenna's role in a film with an impossible-to-understand title, The Rural Juror. Krakowski wrapped things up with a song that somehow hit all the right emotional notes while also being one of the funniest things I've ever seen on this or any show. Watch her perform the title song from the musical version of The Rural Juror at New York's Vulture blog, where they also went to the trouble of deciphering the lyrics.]
In her farewell to the show at The New Yorker, Emily Nussbaum focuses, appropriately, on 30 Rock‘s dedication to and evocation of New York. Unlike a lot of shows set in NYC, 30 Rock was really shot here, and NYC life is one of its richest sources of material. And I’m not talking just “Hey, we’re in New York, let’s eat bagels and read the Times on Sunday,” but real, specific references to the city’s annoyances and oddities — like the cops with enormous guns checking purses at subway entrances, or (as Nussbaum recalls) a “bakery in the Bronx, located on the corner of Malcolm X Boulevard and Guy Who Shot Malcolm X Boulevard.”
Thanks to Boston-bred Jack Donaghy — and Liz’s regrettable ex, blue-collar meathead Dennis Duffy — there were also plenty of Irish and Irish-Catholic gags (and some forays into Catholic practice, with the usual mixed results; Jack in the confessional was funny, but his devout Hispanic girlfriend, played by the humorless Salma Hayek, would have been much funnier if more of the Catholic stuff was “right”). And, praises be, many appearances from the riveting Elaine Stritch in a recurring role as Jack’s harridan of a mother. (She once made reference to a parish in their old neighborhood, “Our Lady of Reluctant Integration in Waltham.”)
It’s hard to say goodbye, but it’s probably time for the show to go. Nothing gold can stay. The good news is, if you haven’t watched 30 Rock, it’s never too late. And I do mean that; the show is in syndication now, so reruns air several times a week, and unlike with certain very demanding dramas, you don’t need to start from the beginning. Fellow fans, report back here after tonight’s finale. We’ll have a good old Irish wake, sharing stories of favorite memories. Let’s work through our grief together.