A jobless Liz Lemon, in Thursday’s series finale of “30 Rock,” visits NBC-page-turned-network-president Kenneth Parcell and pitches him a show that carries a ring of familiarity.
“I actually think there might be a show in my life – a woman writer, living in New York…” she starts, only to be quickly interrupted.
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Television audiences, wide-eyed hick Kenneth admonishes her, “don't want to watch some angry New York cranky-pants. I want to make shows that people actually want to watch!”
It marked a vintage meta moment from a series – and a finale – full of them. Tina Fey’s TV show about loving TV while lovingly mocking it went out like it came in: fast-and-furiously funny, while always letting the audience in on the in-jokes.
The hour-long finale, like much of the series, flew by on the wings of pop-culture references (Sting, Billy Joel, Mickey Rourke, Yoda) and stunt casting (Conan O’Brien, Al Roker and Nancy Pelosi, who decries right-wing CEO Jack Donaghy as an “economic war criminal”).
Much of the humor, like the Liz-Kenneth clash, proved self-referential: Jack decries “Baldwin” as among his liberal enemies. Jenna sings the theme from her movie, “The Rural Juror,” James Bond style. Liz and Tracy share a poignant, tender moment – in the sleazy strip club where they first bonded when he joined the “Saturday Night Live”-like “TGS” in the first “30 Rock.”
Even the kicker offered the most clever pop-culture reference since “Newhart” ended in 1990 with a dream that took us back to “The Bob Newhart Show.” The final image of Kenneth holding a snow globe of NBC’s 30 Rock headquarters while a young writer named Liz Lemon pitches him a show named “30 Rock” harkened to the 1988 ending of the NBC medical drama, “St. Elsewhere.” In that finale, we learned the whole show took place in the mind of an autistic young man staring at a model of a hospital in a snow globe.
So it proved fitting that the final episode of “30 Rock” centered on mounting one last installment of the show-within-the-show as the characters’ worlds are turned upside-down and shaken.
Not only does Kenneth run NBC, but egomaniacal Jenna loses her best friend – her mirror (Brian Williams needed it for his bathroom floor). Neurotic Liz and alpha-male Jack’s mentee-mentor relationship, the crux of the show, flips when he becomes a weepy, disillusioned mess after earning everything he’s ever wanted (“You’re just an alcoholic with a great voice,” she scoffs). Worst of all, annoying "TGS" writer Lutz gets to order the staff's final lunch – from Blimpie.
While the snow-globe capper evoked “St. Elsewhere,” the finale reminded us more of the last episode of the sitcom closest in spirit to “30 Rock,” even more so than Fey’s “SNL” alma mater: “The Mary Tyler Moore Show.” The comic calculus linking the shows (Liz = Mary + Rhoda, Pete = Murray, Jack = Lou, Tracy = Ted, Jenna = Ted + Sue Ann) carried through to the final summation. Like “MTM,” there’s nothing left when the show-within-the-show crumbles.
And like “MTM,” in which the gang shuffled off in a group hug singing “It’s a Long Way to Tipperary,” the “30 Rock” finale coated its sentiment with enough inspired silliness to maintain its off-kilter comic credibility – whether via Jenna’s overwrought “TGS”-ending song, Tracy’s emotional strip club moment of self-realization or Jack and Liz’ declaration of platonic love as he gets ready to sail off to nowhere.
The closest thing to an all-out sappy “30 Rock” moment came in last week’s penultimate episode, in which Liz meets her adopted 8-year-old twins, who turn out to be miniature versions of perennially childish Tracy and Jenna. Liz learned that her work on “TGS” prepared for the most important job of her life. For the rest of us, “30 Rock” ultimately became a lot more than just something to watch while eating our night cheese.
“30 Rock” might not have been a ratings blockbuster. But for all the TV and other pop culture references the show packed in its nearly 140-episode run, “30 Rock” carved an impressive niche in the medium it alternately mocked and embraced. “30 Rock” played by its own rules and at its own speed, which, even after nearly 6 ½ years, went by too quickly.
Hester is founding director of the award-winning, multi-media NYCity News Service at the City University of New York Graduate School of Journalism. He is the former City Editor of the New York Daily News, where he started as a reporter in 1992. Follow him on Twitter.