Thursday, January 31, 2013

30 Rock

Even though The Simpsons was my first and favorite foray into the world of non-children's television, 30 Rock always feels like my first real sitcom. Oh sure, I watched reruns of Seinfeld, Everybody Loves Raymond and, uh, The Nanny in syndication, but 30 Rock was the first I actually followed while it was airing. It was just about the funniest live action TV show I'd ever seen in my life. I grew up loving cartoons (still do!) and steadfastly refusing to really watch any non-cartoon TV shows going into high school. With this in mind, of course 30 Rock was going to be the show to hook me, because it's probably the closest a show can get to being a cartoon, minus the animation.

Obviously I have a lot of nostalgia about this show, which is why tonight is kind of bittersweet. After 7 seasons and 136 episodes, 30 Rock is finally hanging it's slogan bearing trucker hat. Originally a critical and ratings failure, it's hard to believe the show was not only able to hang around for such a long time but be consistently really funny, give or take a season four. Not only that, I would go so far as to say that it's final season has been one of the strongest runs of television in the past couple of years, up there with season two of Community and season five of Mad Men.

The average sitcom lasts about 4 or 5 years before it starts to noticably run out of steam. There are exceptions of course, seasons 4 through 8 of The Simpsons were probably the best years of the show. But as you look at shows like The Office, Scrubs, and modern day Simpsons, eventually the show just gets plain old tired. The writing staff changes, showrunners change, sometimes even actors leave. It's hard to keep people invested in the same characters over a period of years because one day you find that's you've explored pretty much all facets of the character. Sometimes characters suffer from Flanderization and become ridiculous caricatures of what they once were (see: Michael driving his car into a lake). How do you combat that sort of development from happening to your show?

Well if you're 30 Rock, you just go ahead and forget all about that.

Watching the pilot for 30 Rock again after seeing the whole show is weird because of how downright subdued it feels, and this is a show that has it's main character wearing a pantsuit in a stripclub next to a character who we saw running down the highway in their underwear and a lightsaber shouting "I AM A JEDI! I AM A JEDI!" The first couple episodes of the show are a bit off in terms of tone, partially because the best relationship on the show had yet to be established (Liz and Jack) but moreso because of how expository it feels. It's not bad or anything, but it's definitely less sharp and a lot slower. Yet by the show's 7th episode (Tracy Does Conan) the show finds it's footing and the way to stay so good for so long.

As I said, the show is essentially a live action cartoon, relying a lot on cutaways and pretty surreal visuals & events to showcase it's particular brand of humor. As a result, the characters themselves are cartoonish, blown up and out of proportion. There is no attempt to make anybody "real" or "relatable," instead they choose to be outlandish as possible for the sake of comedy. You can't Flanderize something when it's already doneso to itself. That's the reason for the longevity of the show. When you're show is a joke machine you don't need to worry about whether or not you are properly exploring new territory. It's hard to feel stale when you don't care if you repeat yourself at all, as long as you're funny.

The brilliance of this final season, however, is because for the first time since the end of season 2 the show is feeling real sentiment for it's characters. We've had 7 years to learn and laugh at everybody that, even without ever overtly doing so, the show has built up so much goodwill towards the characters in us. When Leo Spaceman declares "That's a series wrap for Spaceman!" it's both hilarious and a little sad. When Dennis Duffy gloriously returns, it's like seeing an old douchey friend all over again. And when last week we have Liz meet her adopted children, who look and act just like Tracy and Jenna, it's not just hilariously funny but feels so well earned.

I'm probably going to cry during tonight's finale, but they will be good tears. 30 Rock is not just important to me personally but is probably one of the defining sitcoms of the 2000s. It's end isn't just a sad day for TV nerds like myself but really the end of an era, and it is just so good to see a show not just end on a strong note, but do so in a way that feels, well, special. In conclusion, I want to take 30 Rock out behind the middle school and get it pregnant. That's from the heart.

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