30 Rock’s improbable survival highlights the show’s study in contradictions

30 Rock’s improbable survival highlights the show’s study in contradictions

For most of the history of television, the barrier to syndication—and to profitability—has been 100 episodes. The shows that have made it to that mark are an unusual group. Many were big hits. Some found small cult audiences. Still others just hung on as best they could and never posted numbers quite low enough to be canceled. In 100 Episodeswe examine the shows that made it to that number, considering both how they advanced and reflected the medium and what contributed to their popularity.

There was a time when critical acclaim and Emmy awards might have gotten 30 Rock a second season, despite its low ratings, a time when it could have possibly hung on for another year before the network canceled it, turning into one of the great “what if?” stories of TV history, like Buffalo Bill or Frank’s Place. To be able to write about how 30 Rock reached 100 episodes—to be able to write about how it was about to wrap up in its seventh season—would have seemed like the sort of delusional fairy tale TV critics told themselves to fall asleep at night in the year 1972 or 1982 or 1992 or even 2002.

Yet here we are in 2012, and 30 Rock is about to wrap up its seventh season early next year, at which point it will go out with at least three Emmys for Best Comedy Series, the praise of many critics, and more than 130 episodes. Plus, the series is airing in local syndication in most major markets and in late-night on cable network WGN. For a tiny cult show—one that dipped below 3 million viewers a handful of times last season and has yet to top the 4-million viewer mark this season—that’s a remarkable accomplishment. For a tiny cult show that’s insider-y about the world of show business, a setting viewers have seemed allergic to in the past, that’s even more of an accomplishment. 30 Rock hasn’t always been perfect, but it’s going out at or near the top of its game. Through all those seasons, it hasn’t drifted into outright mediocrity or badness, like most other comedies that last that long. It’s always tried to create innovative, fast-paced TV comedy, and if it failed a couple of times along the way, it was inevitably ready with an even better episode the next week to pick itself up.

Most TV fans have this sort of scripture they repeat to themselves: Lots of the biggest shows of all time started out with abysmal ratings, then slowly picked up until they were the hits we remember them as. This applies to Cheers, Seinfeld, and Everybody Loves Raymond. Pick your favorite show from days gone by. Inevitably, there was a point early in its life where it looked like it would be canceled, before audiences cottoned to it and caught on. The thought goes that good, struggling shows would catch on if the networks just had a little faith in them or put them in their best timeslots or what-have-you.

Yet that hasn’t really been true in the last 15 years. Shows as diverse as Arrested Development, Parks & Recreation, and, yes, 30 Rock have lasted on networks intent on preserving the critical recognition those shows have received. They’ve been put into the best timeslots those networks have to offer. And they’ve been promoted heavily (at least for episodes in which the networks have had faith). And for the most part, those efforts have failed and the series have remained on the air thanks to network largesse. That’s certainly true for 30 Rock, which started its run in a terrible, out-of-the-way timeslot (Wednesdays at 8 p.m. ET) as an also-ran in the eyes of both its network and the public (after the much better reviewed and viewed—at least initially—Studio 60 On The Sunset Strip).

It moved to Thursday nights (where it has remained) midway through its first season, and its reviews picked up even sooner, largely thanks to how quickly creator and star Tina Fey and her writers pulled together the show’s many disparate elements and turned the series into less of an ultra-specific backstage satire and more of a wacky, generalized workplace sitcom. (There are still TV-insider jokes aplenty, but they’re rarely the funniest elements of any given episode. That’s a good thing.) Yet even as NBC gave the show its best timeslot—a post-Office slot every comedy on the network would have killed for—and even as the show won its first Emmy for Best Comedy Series, it was simply unable to begin the growth that would have taken it to another level. It always performed respectably after The Office, but it never hung on to enough of the show’s audience to suggest it could carry its own hour. And, indeed, after NBC moved it away from that protected slot, it slowly began to leak whatever audience it had.

This is not a complaint about the show. It’s simply a way to point out that the old axiom about networks just needing to trust in their shows to become big hits no longer really holds true in the age of complicated, ultra-busy single-camera sitcoms. These shows are catnip to a certain kind of audience, the kind that prides itself on being able to catch all of the jokes and references, and is quick with a DVR rewind button to catch jokes missed when laughing too hard at a previous one. But they’re anathema to another, bigger audience, which continues to prefer the sort of gentle setup-punchline humor that’s dominated television comedy since the dawn of the medium. Lots of these shows are good or have been good, and even The Office could be described as a traditional workplace sitcom with a mockumentary sheen atop it. But shows like 30 Rock have always felt as if they’re out at the edge of what current comedy is trying to do.

Part of 30 Rock’s problem—but also its saving grace—has been its network. NBC kept it around because it won awards, it was owned by NBC’s parent company, and it looked good on the schedule, even if it didn’t draw many eyeballs. At the same time, NBC was falling apart when it launched, suffering an identity crisis in the wake of losing Friends and Frasier in the same year. (The network attempted to replace them with The Apprentice, which never lived up to the hype of its blockbuster first season.) This not only gave 30 Rock a great satirical target—as its characters actually work at NBC—but it also gave it the sorts of stakes other series about show business had lacked. The characters on 30 Rock know they’re making shitty TV, and they know they work for a shitty network. They’re just grateful for a job. In some ways, it’s fitting that even as NBC sits atop the to-date ratings in the important demographics this season, 30 Rock is on the way out. It almost wouldn’t work on a network that was successful, to say nothing of the way that a more successful network would have canceled it outright three or four episodes into season one.

Yet even as 30 Rock became the standard-bearer for a new kind of TV humor, where the punchlines landed every five seconds instead of every 15, it remains remarkably old-fashioned. The series’ closest antecedents exist in the distant past of American comedy, on the Vaudeville circuit, where the sort of go-for-broke, laugh-a-second comedic routines that were popular with live audiences translated less well to movies and TV. Film and TV comedy created two new languages that audiences had to learn, languages that had to be slowly sped up until they could reach the pace and precision of live routines or farce. 

30 Rock wasn’t the first show to attempt a dizzying array of punchlines. Animated sitcoms had been landing almost as many jokes for over a decade when the show debuted. But it was the first live-action sitcom in a long time to employ audacious, bravura pacing and an anything-for-a-laugh sensibility. And without an audience laughing, Fey and the writers are able to cram in even more punchlines. Yet the show has never been all that sophisticated. It’s fond of big physical gags, silly wordplay as political satire, and inside-show-business jokes. It also contents itself with hauling out some of the hoariest TV plots, like going to a high-school reunion or a character getting his hand caught in a vending machine.

30 Rock was, and remains, a show constantly in conversation with TV’s past. It’s thought nothing of tossing together a live episode, performed before a studio audience, and is fond of hauling out famous small-screen stars of past and present, everybody from Tim Conway to Oprah Winfrey to the cast of Night Court. It’s happy to mock the state of present-day television, but it also understands that the past wasn’t necessarily any better. (Its second live show contains one of the most subversive blackface gags in TV history.) But where many series in constant conversation with TV’s past fell into the trap of being overly reverent toward it, 30 Rock is usually careful to undercut the old clichés, as when its main character goes to the aforementioned reunion and discovers everybody is afraid of her, instead of the other way around. It’s a show that’s smart about what it can and can’t do for a laugh, and it rarely concerns itself with anything else.

That “anything for a laugh” mentality has also been the show’s Achilles’ heel from time to time. Back before the show’s fourth—and weakest—season began, I wrote a blog post for this site about how the show’s relentless focus on gags, gags, gags meant that it was visiting an easily exhausted source of story. The problem with 30 Rock when it isn’t working has always been that the characters are so shallow and stereotypical that they become servants of the comedy, instead of the other way around. The show could take a figure like Jack McBrayer’s hayseed Kenneth Parcell and tell cringe-worthy joke after cringe-worthy joke about how he’s from a red state, where they believe in [fill in the ridiculous punchline about weird Christian sects here]. Or it could turn vapid celebrity Jenna Maroney into a constant string of punchlines about wacky celebrity behavior, to diminishing returns. 

Yet the reason 30 Rock didn’t go wrong is because the show has always had an ace in the hole. In Liz Lemon (Fey) and Jack Donaghy (Alec Baldwin), the show has an extremely strong comedic pairing, a goofy mentee-mentor relationship that has steered clear of unresolved sexual tension and made both characters stronger in ways that allow them to wander off to deal with the show’s less-defined figures. Instead of flying off into the atmosphere with no connection to reality, as so many comedies focused exclusively on jokes have done in the genre’s past, 30 Rock hangs on thanks to Liz and Jack. Sometimes, the mere presence of one of the two, there to undercut the absurdity of the latest Jenna or Kenneth storyline, is enough to keep the show on the level. Fey is as good as any TV writer at cramming her show full of jokes, but she’s equally good at finding ways to give them meaning.

In some ways, 30 Rock will always be living in the shadow of what it accomplished in 2007, when it ended its first season and began its second (which was interrupted by that year’s writers’ strike). The 22 episodes aired in that calendar year make up as good a stretch of TV comedy as the American system will ever turn out, and if the show never quite matches them, well, what could have? Yes, the show probably feels less fresh now than it did then, but it’s seven years old. What’s most remarkable about 30 Rock is how it sped things up and seemed to change TV comedy, even while remaining connected to TV’s past, how it has found a way to pile joke on top of joke without losing itself, how it always course-corrects when it needs to, sometimes at the last minute. At its best—and at its worst—30 Rock is dedicated to having as many cakes as it can cram into a half-hour, then eating them too.

Next time: The Lawrence Welk Show