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Josh Bids Farewell to 30 Rock

I know I’m a little late on this one, but things have been busy, so I’ve finally caught up with the final episodes of 30 Rock.

It’s hard to believe we’ve arrived at the end of the seventh season of this funny little show that I never expected to run more than one or two years.  I’m sure I’m not the only one who thought that this TV show about the behind-the-scenes life of an SNL-like TV show would get trounced by the much higher profile OTHER TV show about the behind-the-scenes life of an SNL-like TV show that NBC launched back in 2006.  That would be Aaron Sorkin’s Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip, and while I think that show was somewhat underrated (no question it was a disappointment, coming after the brilliance of Sports Night and The West Wing, but I would have loved to have seen where Mr. Sorkin would have taken the series), after only a few weeks of the 2006 television season, it was clear to me which show was superior.

The moment of clarity came several episodes into the first season of 30 Rock, when they introduced the subplot of Jenna’s starring in a movie with an impossible-to-pronounce title: The Rural Juror.  I remember laughing so hard at that joke, and it was my first glimpse of the absurd comedic heights to which 30 Rock would often reach.  The other key moment for me, in that first season, was Paul Reuben’s brilliantly deranged guest appearance as an inbred Austrian prince (in episode ten, “Black Tie”).  Not only was this the first of many brilliant guest-star appearances from big comedy names (is there any show in recent memory that has had more success in integrating famous guest-stars in such clever, funny ways?), but it was a big step away from a show concerned with the “reality” at life behind the scenes of a TV show, and into a world of silliness where, as long as it was funny, anything could happen.

It took the show a little while to find its feet, true, but not that long.  The key for me was the switch in Jack and Liz’s relationship.  In the pilot, Jack was introduced as the obstacle for Liz, who was the hero of the show.  Jack was the non-creative money-man who cared nothing about television, imposing his will over NBC and over Liz.  But it was only a few episodes in (right around the time when they first introduced Dennis Duffy, one of the show’s magnificent coterie of recurring characters) when the writers shifted their relationship to one of mentor-mentee.  This was key, as Jack and Liz’s weird friendship and eventual co-dependent relationship would prove to be the centerpiece of the show, the key relationship that supported so much of the show’s story-telling.  There were a few weak patches in seasons five and six (for a while it seemed like they totally ran out of things for Kenneth, Jenna and Pete to do on the show), but over-all 30 Rock remained pretty consistently terrific throughout its run.

The core cast of this show was so solid.  Remember when Tina Fey was only known for Weekend Update?  I’m not sure what 30 Rock’s greater triumph is: allowing Ms. Fey to step into big-time comedy stardom, or transforming Alec Baldwin from a, let’s face it, past-his-prime action movie-star into a comedic performer of the highest caliber.  Surely Jack Donaghy is one of the great television characters of all time, am I wrong?  Jack McBrayer became famous as the sweet, dim-witted Kenneth the Page, and while I think his is the character that most ran out of steam after the second or third seasons, there’s no question that Kenneth was still a terrific invention, and Mr. McBrayer’s game-for-anything performance one for the ages.  Tracy Morgan and Jenna Krakowski shone as Tracy Jordan and Jenna Maroney, the two divas on the show, and the show never tired of using their character to lampoon Hollywood celebrity bad-behavior and self-involvement.  Since the beginning, I was always a big, big fan of Scott Adsit’s performance as poor, hapless Pete Hornberger.  I wish Pete had been given more to do in the show’s later seasons, as I think his character was never quite used to his potential.  Then there were the TGS writers.  As with Pete, there’s a part of me that wishes the show had done more to flesh out the TGS writers, all of whom were played by such terrific actors.  The show was content to portray them all as brainless idiots, which always seemed to me like an easy joke.  Also, I wonder why Judah Friedlander (Frank) got to appear in the show’s opening credits, while Toofer (Keith Powell) did not?  But the whole TGS gang was great, including the pathetic Lutz (played by, wait for it, John Lutz), the beautiful Cerie (Katrina Bowden) and, of course, Dot Com and Grizz (Kevin Borwn and, wait for it again, Grizz Chapman).  Who knew, back at the beginning, how central Dot Com and Grizz would become to the ensemble?

Then there were all of the amazing guest stars and recurring characters.  Maulik Pancholy as Jack’s besotted assistant/secretary Jonathan (mysteriously missing for a while, there, late in the series’ run, but thankfully returned for the final run of episodes).  Chris Parnell as Nazi doctor Leo Spacemen.  Dean Winters as Liz’s dim-bulb, on-again off-again flame, beeper-salesman Dennis Duffy.  Will Arnett as Jack’s gavel-voiced nemesis, Banks.  Sherri Shepherd as Tracy’s strong-willed wife, and star of the reality show The Queen of Jordan, Angie Jordan.  Will Forte as Jenna’s Jenna impersonator true-love, Paul.  James Marsden as Criss.  Jack’s women, most notably Elizabeth Banks as Avery Jessup, Salma Hayek as Elissa, Julianne Moore as Nancy Donovan, and Edie Falco as Celeste Cunningham.  Jason Sudeikis as Floyd.  Kristen Schaal as Hazel Wassername (such a great name).  Steve Buscemi as private eye Lenny Wosniak.  From the show’s early days, Rip Torn as Don Geiss.  Mary Steenburgen as Avery’s mom, and rival for Jack’s love, Diana Jessup.  Matt Damon as Carol.  Emily Mortimer as the fragile-boned Phoebe (another of my favorites from the show’s early years).  Chloe Grace Moretz as the scheming, teenaged Kaylie Hooper.  Matthew Broderick as Cooter Burger (another great name).  I could go on and on!

The show’s final run of episodes has been terrific.  I loved the “That’s a series wrap on Leo Spacemen, suckers!” moment from a few weeks ago.  And, actually, one of the very best jokes from the final run of episodes came at the very end of the penultimate episode, “A Goon’s Deed in a Weary World,” in which Liz and Criss finally are able to adopt kids — in this case, a boy and a girl who share a remarkable number of characteristics with Tracy and Jenna.  That was a phenomenal joke, as we see that Liz’s experiences corralling Tracy and Jenna for seven years at TGS have perfectly prepared her for parenting children.  Wouldn’t that have served as a terrific last note for the series?  I could have seen that closing scene as the end of the show’s finale.  But I digress.

The show’s final hour (the two-part episode “Hogcock!” and “Last Lunch”) were very strong.  I loved all the call-backs to earlier moments from the run of the show.  The Rural Juror pops up again.  We get to see Kathy Geiss one last time (inventing a method of caring for the elderly that didn’t quite work as planned).  Tracy and Liz return to the strip club from the pilot episode.  Julianne Moore and Salma Hayek re-appear, briefly, and in a great joke Ms. Moore gets to try out another outlandish accent.

The story-lines for the finale were all very clever, giving every character a nice bit of the spotlight, combining some very funny bits of business with acknowledging that the show had reached its end.  The writers’ competition with Lutz over the choice for their final paid-for-by-NBC lunch was spectacular, redeeming a lot of less-than-funny writers-room jokes from previous years, and finally giving the beleaguered, pathetic Lutz his moment of triumph.  I loved the idea of Jack’s Six Sigma pie-chart goals to true happiness, a classically Jack approach to reaching his personal goals.  And I was very pleased that Pete got a nice story-line in the finale, his plan to fake his own death.

There were many very funny moments.  I loved Liz waving off the Lorne Michaels executive producer credit at the end of the first half-hour.   I loved that, at one moment, Liz gained the ability to see the annoying NBC on-screen graphic, advertising other shows.  (In this case, “Grizz and Herz,” the last in a long line of very funny 30 Rock fake TV show and movie titles.)  I loved Jenna’s montage of memories of her mirror.  I loved the indecipherable lyrics to the Rural Juror theme song.  I loved Tracy’s summation: “That’s our show.  Not a lot of people watched it, but the joke’s on you, because we got paid anyways.”

The series finales of TV shows, in my opinion, live or die based on where they leave the main characters, and how satisfied we are with where everyone’s story-lines wrap up.  30 Rock did a great job with Jack and Liz’s final scene, as Jack prepares to take his boat ride to find himself.  (And his idea of see-through dish-washers was terrific.)  But it was in the final minute or two after the last commercial that the show really hit the ending out of the park.  In a magnificent sequence, we jump quickly from glimpses of all the characters’ fates, from Jenna flashing the Tonys; to the return of Tracy’s dad; to Liz working on the set of Grizz’s new TV show; to the peek at the far future, in which the ageless Kenneth, still supervising NBC, turns down a pitch from a geeky descendant of Liz Lemon.  This montage was so funny, and so perfect, that it left me with a big grin on my face.

I will miss this great show.  To quote Dennis Duffy, “Mazal tov, dummies.”  Congrats to Tina Fey and all of her very talented co-workers on crafting this terrific show, and thank you to NBC for not canceling it back in those uncertain early days.  I look forward to re-watching this series many times in the future, thanks to DVDs.  I want to go to there!

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