How do you end a show like 30 Rock? The NBC sitcom’s ostentatious self-consciousness ensures that this week’s series finale can’t hit the usual show-ending notes. It can’t barrage us with last-minute, high-stakes developments — not ones that would mean anything — because season seven has already served up milestones, including NBC executive Jack Donaghy (Alec Baldwin) burying his battle-ax mom, Colleen (Elaine Stritch), and lifelong single Liz Lemon (series creator Tina Fey) marrying her doofus-y boyfriend, Criss Chros (James Marsden), and planning to adopt a kid. It can’t ape the sitcom-Beckett ending of Seinfeld, which locked its supremely selfish characters in a jail cell, because Fey’s show was never a withering comedy of no manners, and it doesn’t have a punitive bone in its body. It can’t un-ironically yank our heartstrings after spending seven seasons mocking pop culture that does. It can’t cut to black like The Sopranos because it’s never made any pretense of being deep. What’s a kooky-brilliant sitcom to do?
What it’s always done, of course: Be 30 Rock, a show whose creative evolution is snapping into focus as its end draws near. When Fey’s sitcom premiered in 2006, critics hailed it as a bright spot in a weak year. Over the next few seasons, as it honed its distinctive style, it became a critical darling. Then came the inevitable “It’s not what it used to be” complaints, which were couched as a qualitative slam but could also be taken as a simple statement of fact. 30 Rock’s creative arc is similar to a lot of sitcoms that started out peppy yet faintly realistic, then got loopier by the year to keep the cast and crew amused and challenged. Seinfeld is a good comparison point, and not just because it was a fast-paced comedy that took place in New York City and dwelled on narcissism and social interaction. If you watch Seinfeld episodes from, say, seasons one and seven back-to-back, they feel like installments of different shows that happen to feature the same characters. The earlier seasons were slower and more mundane, building whole episodes around the search for a lost car in a parking garage or the wait for a table in a Chinese restaurant; later ones were faster, more abrasive, and so outrageous that when George’s fiancée died from licking toxic envelopes and he tried to get a date with Marisa Tomei right after the funeral, it seemed like a logical extension of the show’s increasingly illogical vision.
Likewise, 30 Rock has evolved from an inside-showbiz farce with sporadic fourth-wall-breaking sight gags and meta dialogue to a weekly cyclone of surreal tomfoolery. During season five’s two-part 100th episode, two characters had a flashback, and when it ended, a third character said, “I saw that. How? Am I dead?” Jack’s eulogy for his mother received a heroic assist from Kermit the Frog; the mourners didn’t seem baffled, instead merely impressed. Last season’s brilliant “Leap Day” — a massive escalation of season two’s “Ludachristmas” — devised an insanely detailed mythology for its made-up titular holiday, and repeatedly winked at the fact that no one on the show had mentioned it four years earlier; the episode ended with “Leap Day William” delivering a twinkly-eyed monologue straight into the camera, as if we’d known and loved him our whole lives.
The more straightforward-seeming a 30 Rock moment is, the more likely it’s a comment on the art, science, and business of television. The show’s escalating density and self-awareness mirrors the growth of social media. It debuted in 2006, just as the Internet was becoming a virtual watercooler that gave TV writers instant feedback. Like Lost before it, 30 Rock mastered the art of talking to its fans through its fiction. The show acknowledged co-star Tracy Morgan’s offscreen DUI scandal by writing his ankle bracelet into “Ludachristmas.” It winked at NBC-Universal’s creative and financial woes by having Jack’s network schedule MILF Island, Tank It, and America’s Kidz Got Singing and making him answer to a déclassé new parent company, Kabletown. It even turned culture-page think pieces about other current shows into 30 Rock plot fodder (The Girlie Show’s “women problem” was a comment on The Daily Show’s hiring Olivia Munn). Some sitcoms hang meta humor on substandard writing like Blanche DuBois’s lampshade. On Fey’s sitcom, meta was the bulb illuminating the world, the characters, and the audience, and the light got brighter and hotter by the year. The show’s recent incarnation suggests what The Dick Van Dyke Show might have looked like if it had been directed by Ernie Kovacs.
30 Rock is always and foremost a parody of sitcoms, and increasingly of itself; the knowing quality makes the poignant moments fascinating. When a sitcom foregrounds its artifice as strenuously as 30 Rock — making up alternate histories of American broadcasting in its second live episode, or scoring a “tender” closing montage to a moppet pealing “Camptown Races” — there’s no earthly reason why we should feel for any of its characters; and yet we do, because the very tropes that 30 Rock loves to mock are embedded in our TV-watching subconscious. The show says, “Look at how shamelessly television pushes your buttons!” while hammering on those very same buttons. The epic chronicle of Liz’s love life has tweaked society’s prejudice against autonomous single feminists, caricatured irritating real-world boyfriend-types, and goofed on rom-com clichés, and yet when Liz got married, we accepted it as a life change rather than a betrayal and rooted for her happiness. Both Jack and his mom were always more exuberant doodles than flesh-and-blood humans; but when Colleen died, you still felt the depth of Jack’s loss and turmoil even as he was bragging about delivering the greatest eulogy of all time. And when Jack and Liz chastely shared a bed and wondered why they’d never slept together — despite plentiful opportunities and a will-they-or-won’t-they chemistry — Jack’s theory, that their friendship-mentorship thing was more interesting, worked as both a critical exegesis of Liz and Jack as TV characters and a true statement from the heart. 30 Rock is uniquely skilled at eating its cake and having it, too, while crowing “Isn’t cake ridiculous?” and making you crave cake. A show this unpretentious yet assured can end however it wants and get away with it. Maybe the final scene will happen live while NBC stagehands dismantle the sets, pack up the props, and remove the actors’ wireless mikes. And we’ll cry anyway.
30 Rock. Thursday at 8 p.m. NBC.
*This article originally appeared in the February 4, 2013 issue of New York Magazine.