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Movies, television shows, miniseries, lost pilots, 40-minute movies put together by ambitious high-schoolers for their English project that updates Beowulf as a gangster film*: I watch a lot of stuff.
I enjoy a lot of it, either for its greatness or its awfulness. Most people do, it's why you watch movies and TV to start with. But when you invest in one, you develop a relationship with it rather than just observing and experiencing it. For some people this is never a thing; they're your friends who don't own TVs and canceled their Netflix subscription because they never used it except that time they watched The Wire and some French New Wave stuff, but they're generally not interested. I am not one of those people, particularly when it comes to TV. I watch bad movies because even if a bad movie is truly dreadful, you're out of there in two hours max; if I'm going to watch a TV show for several seasons, it's because to some degree I've invested in it.
30 Rock ended last night, closing an impressive run both chronologically and artistically. It's been a sharp satire, and a postmodern sitcom starring characters who were alternately sympathetic and unapologetically repulsive; it's been a lesson in selective continuity and humiliation comedy; it's been an avenue for Jane Krakowski to repeatedly shame the Emmys for not rewarding what she was doing, and an ongoing interrogation of popular culture.
But I invested, and so for me last night was like saying goodbye to a friend, one so smart and amazing to hang out with that when she sometimes drops a thoughtless rape joke it's stunningly disappointing. (The show actually had a searing 'good' rape joke when Liz, impressed by Jack's upcoming date with Avery Jessup, sums up the state of the culture and indicts the male gaze pretty summarily with, "Wow, she was on Maxim's I'd Rape That 100!" But it also gave us the joke about Pete and "sleep sex" with his wife - and this show knows better.)
There's an ironic distance in the surrealism that framed the show until it was effectively science fiction - the alternate universe that a TV show always is was actually, literally, an alternate universe being monitored by the benevolent immortal Kenneth. It was a show of delightful one-liners tailor-made for the Darmok and Jalad at Tanagra generation.
But if you are me, and are invested, you still get relieved when Liz and Jack race toward each other in Rock Center and shake hands on a deal as the camera spins giddily around them in "The Problem Solvers," and last night when Jack talked around the weirdest, most sincere "I love you" of his life, it was more touching than it had any right to be for a guy who is objectively the worst, excepting his love of horse paintings and his knowledge of what time of day is best for tux-wearing.
And I think that's often the part of the show that was sometimes strangest for me - it has just enough character development to drive home the little horrors inherent in the surrealism and the nihilism at the core of the show.
This nihilism is, I think, a divisive tentpole (A TENTPOOOOLE) in the show's intentions, and one of the reasons that the show itself sometimes struggles with its characters. It's not mean-spiritedness, which is easier to dismiss; it's just constant, ruthless acknowledgment that things will probably generally suck for the duration, glad that's covered, who wants lunch. It's a show in which the best solution to your boss threatening to cancel the show is sometimes to laughing-gas him - and your studio audience - just long enough to change his mind during the one episode of the show he'll ever bother to see.
It also means that to want good things for these characters is to acknowledge that they are all mostly the worst, and then make you hope they find happiness - or at least closure - despite. (This was succinctly illustrated by Lutz's revenge subplot in last night's finale.) Though the show also rewards kindness, when it can, and since Grizz and Dot Com are the opposite of the worst, maybe the happiest moment of the episode for me was the one-two punch of Dot Com being a writer on the show Grizz stars in.
There was always some narrative risk in trying to balance the dual concepts of character and joke supremacy - most specifically as the show gained cultural steam and Liz Lemon became a stand-in for All Modern Women - something the show refused to buy into, no matter how many sandwiches she chomped en route to declare love for her boyfriend, how many adoption workers she concussed, or how many bestsellers Lesbian Yellow Sour Fruit came out with. At the same time, Tina Fey became a meta-spokesperson for career women (successful in comedy, a mom), an image she's more comfortable engaging with, and one she takes care to keep separate from her fictional construct. That said, there was a lot of Tina Fey in Liz Lemon, sometimes offhand (the foot thing), sometimes confessional (her accidentally-vicious nerd teenhood, the moment last night where she laid some truth on Tracy Morgan without even pretending they were characters). And much of what resonated about Liz Lemon is in that enthusiastically prickly, hopelessly uncool worldview she seems to share with Fey - and a lot of others who have identified with her. (I am one of them. See also: Spatzen.)
There are dozens of observations and deconstructions of 30 Rock presented over its tenure, and more on the eve of its farewell. There will be more in years to come - for a show about a sketch show we hardly ever saw, we saw enough that, if nothing else, its recursiveness about the process of making television will by necessity be referenced by any behind-the-scenes serial that comes after it. It will be a milestone in modern television for a long time.
But last night was the very last new one, and I will miss it. Goodbye, 30 Rock, you sometimes-beautiful bastard. There really wasn't a party quite like your Liz Lemon party.
*Actually don't know if this exists, but just writing this made me interested in finding out, so I'll let everybody know if I find one.