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’30 Rock’ Finale – and the Limits of TV About TV

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The one-hour series finale of “30 Rock” — which airs Thursday — contains one of those great inside, self-referential jokes for which the show is known, with a network executive pointing to the word “quality” on a list of “TV No-Nos.”

No doubt, “30 Rock” can derive some consolation in having survived long enough to craft an exit plan, despite bearing the dreaded “quality” label. The show signs off with Tina Fey having established a movie career, Emmys in its portfolio and on its own creative terms, despite never having qualified as a “hit” ratings-wise.

Still, the circumstances surrounding the show’s birth were always more interesting to me than the show — highlighted an anomaly that says programs about TV generally don’t generate widespread interest, representing a “niche,” which happens to be another one of the words on the “No-No” list.

As I noted when “30 Rock” hit its 100th episode a couple of years ago, the decision to launch two backstage series about TV shows on the same network in the same season, “30 Rock” and Aaron Sorkin’s “Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip,” seemed seriously misguided at the time. And because Sorkin’s show had the superior pilot (before pretty quickly losing its way), I gave that a slight edge in terms of survival prospects. Shows you what I knew.

Still, just as Sorkin discovered with “SportsNight” and more recently “The Newsroom” (or HBO learned with “The Larry Sanders Show,” and later “The Comeback”), there are only so many people who yearn to see a series that pulls back the curtain on TV’s arcane internal machinery.

What’s changed, mostly, is the fact we have become much more of a niche world, allowing something like Showtime’s “Episodes” to be embraced by enough people (and perhaps more significantly, enough award voters) to sustain it with a tiny pay-cable audience, or HBO’s “Entourage” to live on in movie form. That was a luxury “30 Rock” didn’t enjoy on NBC.

As for the final episode, without spoiling anything, the last hour reflects what I wrote two years ago: The series “isn’t the great show that NBC’s comedic
standard-bearer ‘The Office’ has become, only truly approaching
greatness when Baldwin’s onscreen — the very model of a modern network
weasel.”

The finale earns points for ambition and nostalgia. There are the obligatory celebrity cameos, some very clever lines, a nifty callback to the pilot, and a kicker that exhibits a real love for television a lot of the audience probably won’t understand it. But the whole thing is a little too precious and yes, weird — frittering away too much time on the supporting players (another quibble of mine) before getting to the really good stuff.

By any measure, “30 Rock” beat the odds, avoiding the fate that befell, say, “Arrested Development.” (Oh wait, that’s coming back too? Seriously, doesn’t anything stay dead these days?)

It’s just that watching the last hour, all I kept thinking was, “Not bad. But left to its own devices, I wonder what a seventh-season finale of ‘Studio 60’ would have looked like?”

 

 

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