How To Go To There
January 31, 2013
When 30 Rock takes its bow on Thursday night, it will do so to a fairly small audience. Tina Fey's chronicle of a sketch comedy show's cast and crew (loosely based on her time at Saturday Night Live) has been around for seven years, but it's never excelled in ratings. Like Arrested Development, few recognized just how special and singular of an entity it was until it was too late. If the measure of a show is in number of viewers, than 30 Rock is an oddity. Just one more pop culture trinket in the boob tube's vast rerun bin.
But if the measure of a show is its influence, innovation and courage, then 30 Rock is in a class of its own. When it debuted in 2006, there was almost nothing like it. To quote The New York Times, "There have been plenty of female comedy writers before [Fey] came along—Diane English (Murphy Brown) and Linda Bloodworth-Thomason (Designing Women), to name but two, as well as notable performers who created their own characters and carried their own comedy shows like Lucille Ball, Carol Burnett, Tracey Ullman and Roseanne Barr. But before Ms. Fey there were almost no women on network television who created and wrote their own shows and starred in them."
30 Rock blazed a number of trails in its history, and it's not only changed television (The New Girl, Parks and Rec, The Mindy Project and Girls all almost certainly owe part of their existence to it) but it's given a few lessons worth taking into our own lives as well.
1. Jack and Liz's Friendship
30 Rock's cornerstone, the friendship between Alec Baldwin's square-jawed, white-collar television exec, Jack Donaghy, and Fey's endlessly flustered, unapologetically dorky show producer, Liz Lemon, provided television with a rarity. Although coming from opposite ends of the financial, political and social scale, the two managed a friendship that was based on mutual respect and genuine care for each other, even as they refused to compromise their own identities and principles. While Jack was staunchly Republican (he referred to success as "Reagan-ing" and Obama as "your President"), and dizzyingly wealthy, he still managed to speak into the lives of his generally progressive, often slovenly, always financially strapped crew. And while Liz liked to think of herself as a champion of the middle-aged dork, the show was at its best when it portrayed her and Jack struggling to understand each other's worlds. And, in the midst of it all, finding it not as hard to do as they thought. Capitol Hill could learn a lot from 30 Rock's friendships. So can we.
2. Kenneth's Moral Compass
Kenneth, the incurably pure NBC page, is forever shadowed by his oft-mentioned past as a supremely sheltered country bumpkin. His unfailing moral fortitude, paired with his utter cluelessness, was one of 30 Rock's strongest running jokes, but through it all, Kenneth was perhaps the most likable member of the cast. While the rest of the TGS family was confounded by Kenneth's nature, they were also often humbled by it. Though just a page (and, of late, a janitor) Kenneth provided the show with a moral center nobody else could. The show often made him the butt of jokes about religion, culture wars and homeschooling, but it also made him the necessary opposite to every other character's need to get ahead. Kenneth was unfailingly gracious, kind and servile. It was taken advantage of and it made him an outsider, but it also made him the only person anyone knew to turn to. And, if you've been paying attention this season, you know that it's been rewarded.
3. Liz Lemon's Feminism
Nothing on 30 Rock has been so heralded as what Liz has done for women, and it is an impressive feat. While Fey courageously tore down barriers for women in the television, her greatest act of defiance against the male-dominated industry was making feminism such a casual part of Liz's character. Feminism's most frequent critique (generally from men who fail to understand it) is its militancy, but Liz Lemon doesn't have a militant bone in her body. She lives for pajamas, microwaved donuts and reality television. She's funny, smart and competent, but she's also easily overwhelmed, often misguided and prone to shouting "Blerg." She's the every-woman—and she's not at all unlike the every-man. Much like Ripley in the Alien franchise, 30 Rock's refusal to shine a spotlight on feminism ended up making it a focal point of the show.
There is more that could be said, and plenty of places will be rolling out tributes over the next few days. It remains to be seen what, if anything, the television industry will learn from 30 Rock, but that's OK. It's already taught the rest of us plenty.