What more praise is there to heap upon NBC’s “30 Rock,” the show that was an advanced spin class for the pop-culture brain, the sitcom that was the equivalent of a whole platter of “night cheese”?
The final two episodes, smooshed together for a one-hour farewell Thursday night, will pretty much say it all: Tina Fey’s Liz Lemon finds almost instant dissatisfaction as a stay-at-home mom; Alec Baldwin’s Jack Donaghy finds similar ennui as the newly-crowned chief executive of Kabletown. Neither Liz nor Jack was meant to be the things they thought they most wanted.
But why even bother with plots, wrap-ups or potential spoiler alerts? The real joy in “30 Rock” was never in its linear storytelling; it was in its complete absurdity. In all that chaos brought about by Tracy Jordan (Tracy Morgan) and Jenna Maroney (Jane Krakowski), there was a show that offered some of the sharpest, up-to-the-minute cultural criticism around. “30 Rock” demanded that you keep up with all the junk that infiltrates our lives, and, rather than reject it or turn a superior nose to it, you instead must come up with the most witheringly funny comment about it.
This can be exhausting for those of us who are willing (or required) to play that game, and that was also part of “30 Rock’s” message — the dispiriting ubiquity of snark and egocentricity in our lives. As Liz, the showrunner of a flailing sketch comedy hour on NBC, Fey wore a world-weary look of concern on her face at all times, a semi-constant sense of being aghast at the world and the people around her.
“30 Rock” miraculously lasted seven seasons, gathering trophies and accolades if not ratings. It even outlasted NBC’s General Electric era, which it took such delight in mocking, until Comcast’s acquisition of the NBCUniversal hodgepodge made the corporate jokes somehow even funnier, and more meta. “30 Rock” never felt like a broadcast show and probably would have had a decent life on HBO or Showtime, but it was all the better for existing amid the ongoing disasters of NBC’s prime-time schedules, like some sort of constantly whirring fan that keeps the hard drive from melting.
Thursday night’s episode finds tidy and appropriately ironic endings for nearly all of its characters. There is a particularly moving scene between Morgan and Fey, when once more Liz is forced to beg Tracy to finish his work on one last episode of “TGS.” The abandoned child in Tracy’s psyche is afraid of empty goodbyes. So Liz lays it to him straight, the “hard-core truth” of all workplace relationships:
“We were forced to be friends because of work, and we’re probably not going to hang out after this,” she says. “Working with you was hard and you frustrated me and you wore me out, but because the heart is not properly connected to the human brain, I love you and I’m going to miss you. But tonight might be it.”
What I’ll miss most when “30 Rock” is gone is the conduit it provided into whatever was on Fey’s mind. As “30 Rock” found its way and sharpened its blade, Fey became the unofficial spokeswoman for a niche demographic — feminist, but also post-feminist; courageous critic, but not a scold; political pragmatist, but not a politician; Gen-X realist, unafraid of aging. She needs a better forum for all this than the occasional rom-com can ever provide (in her next movie, she plays a college-admissions officer opposite Paul Rudd) and I’m not alone in hoping she finds it.
And by “it,” I don’t mean a talk show.
(one hour) double-episode finale airs Thursday at 8 p.m. on NBC.