"It's been over three years, and it still hurts like it was yesterday."
Ask anybody about 30 Rock and that's the response you're most likely to get.
Well, that and "IT WAS AWESOME, DUDE!" or some variation of it.
Now you know weary I am of hearing these sorts of things about long-completed shows - retrospect only makes the audience and the critics more biased and the reasons they lay down before you as to why you should watch the show are passed through some rather heavily rose-tinted glasses to a point where objectivity has taken a swan-dive out the nearest window and it's just secondhand adulation compelling you to watch the show.
The result of such a process is that your expectations often aren't met because you're expecting something transcendent, which very few things in life are, and most certainly not a TV show. It doesn't help matters that the first season of the best of shows is slow, sets up characters and is not an accurate reflection of what the show in question is going to be.
As I started my summer-binge of 30 Rock a month ago, I felt that way after a couple of episodes. As I finally completed the series earlier today, I cried--no, I flat out bawled like a baby. And that's coming from a man who sat straight-faced through Hachiko, Inside Out, and Titanic.
What can I say? I'm in love.
This show has all but changed my life, and I'm never going to view television the same way again. Now I know a lot of people think the show is overrated or way too hyped, but I'm gonna politely disagree and say they're wrong. There is a special kind of nuance to 30 Rock that you don't find in most dramas, let alone sitcoms, and it's this understated yet thoroughly outrageous brand of comedy that makes 30 Rock the seminal work of art it is.
This special type of comedy was introduced by the similarly ahead-of-its-time Arrested Development (another personal favorite), and the truth is no modern sitcom would exist without it, but while AD chose to take a subtle, experimental and set up-y approach to its (absolutely hilarious) punchlines that may or may not have worked for most audiences (it was cancelled, but then Netflix boosted its popularity into the stratosphere in this decade), 30 Rock always let its freak flag fly, and came in all guns blazing when it came to the absurdity department, and all the better for it.
The two shows share a lot of similarities (meta humor, cutaways, etc.), but I'm not gonna touch upon them because more respected writers than me have covered that topic in great detail already, and this piece I'm writing is supposed to be for my own emotional catharsis and aims to reflect on what makes 30 Rock great.
Arguably the list of factors that make the show great is too long to ever be typed, but I have identified some broad categories (and some obvious ones) that the show's genius can be compartmentalized into.
1. The Leads
I don't have to tell you that any good show lives or dies by how appealing its characters are - the best of scripts fail in the absence of characters to care about, and that's something Tina Fey seemed to have paid special attention to while writing, because the two leads, Liz Lemon and Jack Donaghy are incredibly well written characters that you just can't help but get attached to, right from the moment they're introduced, one a carefree semi-introverted and lazy writer for a sketch show (drawing loosely from Fey's experience on SNL) and the other a ruthless corporate shark tasked to oversee television and microwave oven programming (that's 30 Rock for you).
What really pleased me was how these hilarious and completely different characters grow and change over time, and their bond becomes so strong that they'd do literally anything for each other.It's pure love, what they share, but not the romantic kind, it's a whole another level. A lot of fans wanted these characters to get together, but I'm glad they didn't, and apparently so is Fey, because it allowed them to explore various degrees of their dynamic without being beholden to the romance angle. Of course, praise must go to the actors too - without Tina Fey's comic sensibilities and Alec Baldwin's willingness to commit to the absurdity, the show could have come across as really fake, but their commitment and genuine chemistry makes it shine, and we all wish we can find a love like theirs.
2. The Writing
If we were to talk about writing, 30 Rock would be The Sopranos of sitcoms.
No, there's no intrigue or mystery at play here, but the jokes are fantastic, the rat-a-tat banter is on point, the humor is topical and referential and to top it all off, the universe is populated with terrific characters, from the main cast to the occasional guest stars.
Someone calculated how there are an average of 10 jokes every minute in each episode, and that's actually the case, but I'm really not surprised with the way everything flows with the signature reliance on cutaways and rapid fire editing.
And it's not just that, everything is so funny! Jack in particular is an endless quote machine, and the sheer amount of catchphrases and newly-coined terms alone make the show worth it. The show may have started out "normal", but as the seasons went on, it became more and more unhinged and all the better for it.
30 Rock is the prime example of how throw-everything-at-the-wall-and-see-what-sticks storytelling should be done, simply because everything it threw at the wall bloody well stuck, and when 7 years of it comes to a head in the series finale, you just can't help but cry at how perfectly everything wrapped up.
3. Commitment to Absurdity
There is so much that is so crazy about 30 Rock, I feel like I could type out an entire 10,000 word thesis about the sheer insanity that prevails throughout the series' run.
There have been articles attempting to make a list of few craziest moments, but really, every episode has about 5 hilariously absurd moments that will make you Liz with laughter.
Characters eschew any sense of realism (Kenneth especially!) and have their fair share of quirks, and all of this works wonderfully because of the fantastic cast (right down to the mind-blowing guest stars) who are all fully committed to the insanity unfolding onscreen and in case of Tracy Morgan, Jack MacBrayer and Jane Krakowski, often are at the eye of it.
It's really baffling to think that this show used to be "normal" once, but I suppose that was due to the fact it opened the same year as another show on the same theme which was of perceptibly higher pedigree, more on which later.
30 Rock opened against a show based on the same behind-the-scenes scene of an SNL-like program and nobody expected anything of 30 Rock.
Why? The show it opened against was Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip, created by Academy Award winning writer Aaron Sorkin (who later cameoed on 30 Rock lampooning himself) starring heavyweights like Matthew Perry.
Naturally NBC devoted most of its time promoting the other show while 30 Rock quietly bowed. While Studio 60 was an hour long drama, 30 Rock was a sitcom, and the former was much better received and highly praised as compared to the latter which garnered modest reactions and low ratings.
No one expected 30 Rock to make it to a full season, but surprise, something happened and Studio 60 imploded and became such a huge trainwreck that NBC cancelled it while 30 Rock found its footing and its niche.
Where no one expected it to last a full season, it lasted 7, being nominated for and winning countless well deserved Emmys for its writing and Alec Baldwin.
You know what made any of that possible?
In Jack Donaghy's words, "innovention". Once 30 Rock found its footing and settled on what kind of a show it was going to be, it steadily kept increasing its wacky quotient as it kept getting away with it, and everyone loved it for the same.
In the beginning there'd be very few meta-references and cutaways, but later 30 Rock became a weekly cyclone of the same and defined by those very devices.
The fictional show-within-a-show setting (God, do they rip into NBC) augmented by a cast of gifted improvisers opened up 30 Rock to endless possibilities, none of which are summarized better than by the two live shows it conducted and its eality TV spoofs, neither of which can be summarized in any mount of words.
I guess that is it, really. 30 Rock showed a whole different kind of television to us that hasn't been there since it went off air. There's just so much about it that appealed to me, in ways I can't even begin to describe.
I know what you're thinking - is it the greatest sitcom ever?
No, it's not. It lacks timelessness due to its reliance on topicality and references, and there will be a lot of the subtle gags that will be lost over time, unlike FRIENDS and 10-15 years from now, I'm not sure its absence will be enough to sustain the insanity.
Similarly, while the editing and cutaways define the show, it's Arrested Development that first introduced these devices and is rightfully known as the father of modern sitcoms. 30 Rock, in that sense, is the child that perfected it.
The two potential quibbles aside, as an audience that knows everything 30 Rock is trying to sell and having experienced FRIENDS and Arrested Development beforehand, I still can't help but feel I loved 30 Rock more, even though it may not be as perfect, simply because I ended up caring a lot about these characters.
In the end I'm inclined to say that's what love is about, it doesn't have to make sense, it's something deeply personal and at times utterly insane, but goddamn if it won't change your life.