How 30 Rock’s well-plotted final season echoes The Mary Tyler Moore Show
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One of the most common sentiments swirling around the final season of 30 Rock has been that this might be the best final season of a sitcom ever. It’s been funny, nicely plotted, and, perhaps most surprisingly, deeply satisfying on an emotional level. 30 Rock’s characters have always been secondary to the jokes, but in realizing the long-lived dreams of Tina Fey’s Liz Lemon, Alec Baldwin’s Jack Donaghy, and even Jack McBrayer’s Kenneth Parcell, the final season has neatly revealed that even if these weren’t the deepest characters on TV, they were still people worth caring about. In addition, its final-season storyline—in which Jack tries to tank NBC—has unified the show in a way that it didn’t always achieve in the middle of its run.
So is it the best final season of an American sitcom ever? Not entirely, but the fact that it’s even in the conversation—and after seeing tonight’s excellent finale, I’d easily put it somewhere in the top 10—is a mark of how far Fey and her writing staff have brought the show from its darkest days, back in season four, when it occasionally seemed like the series had lost the plot entirely. What’s been so great about this final season of 30 Rock is that the show has now lasted long enough to pull off something that hasn’t been done in TV in a long time, mostly because TV comedy has been in such dire straits this last decade: It’s deliberately constructing the “end” of a sitcom story, a final season that closes a bunch of storylines fans didn’t even realize they were invested in, pulling back in loose ends from the whole run of the show. And when looking back at the history of that particular TV phenomenon, it’s useful to go all the way back to a show 30 Rock has often been in conversation with: The Mary Tyler Moore Show.
Mary Tyler Moore was one of the first popular sitcoms to have a planned final season, when its star decided the show’s seventh season would be its last. The series was one of the few to arguably get better with each season it was on the air, and while the final season isn’t the show’s creative peak, it’s close enough to it that fans of the program were sorry to see it go. (That oft-heard showrunner and actor comment about wanting to leave before the show gets bad? So far as I can tell, Moore and her producers came up with that one, too.) The show was an Emmy favorite, it spawned two relatively popular spin-offs (though the popularity of Phyllis was very short-lived), and it attracted lots of praise and attention from the critical press. The characters were rightly beloved, and the show was usually held up as the standard-bearer for the new “sophisticated” sitcom that was all the rage in the ’70s. So Moore deciding to take the show out at the top of its game (though not its ratings) was a justifiably big deal.
That final season played around with the idea of everything ending. While it wasn’t the first sitcom to do this—notably, The Andy Griffith Show feinted in this direction throughout its planned final season—it was the first sitcom to acknowledge the basic notion that the characters viewers loved wouldn’t be around in a year, and to bring them to points of closure, all while tipping its hat toward things fans had wanted to see for years. Pompous idiot Ted Baxter and his gentle wife Georgette adopted a child in the next-to-last season, and the series used that boy to humanize and deepen Ted throughout the final season, including a justifiably classic episode in which he has a heart attack and the newsroom staff ends up musing on the meaning of life. Viewers were treated to looks at places that had often been spoken of but never seen, like Sue Ann Nivens’ tawdry bedroom. And characters who’d been gone from the show for years, like Gordy the weatherman, came back for a final go-round. The show even resolved a long-running plot about a time Mary was held in contempt of court for refusing to divulge a source.
In the final five episodes, though, Mary Tyler Moore pulled out the stops. The first of these five deals with the long-running rivalry between writer Murray and Ted, putting a button on a relationship that had been one of the show’s most reliable comedic engines. In the second of the five, the three men at the show’s center fantasize about what it would be like to be married to Mary, the kind of fantasy sequence a show can only get away with in its final season. The third features Mary seeming to finally throw a great dinner party—complete with the rumor of Johnny Carson himself dropping by later in the night—only to have a blackout stop the party dead in its tracks. (Carson appears only as a voice in the darkness.) In the penultimate episode, Mary and Lou Grant, her boss, finally go on a date, something fans of the show had been talking about for years. (Arguably, the “should they become a couple” arguments about these two planted the seed that became Cheers’ Sam and Diane relationship a few years later.) And in the terrific series finale, the TV station Mary works at is sold, and everybody but Ted is fired, heading off to separate lives, knowing the seven years they spent together would always mark who they were.
Looking at that basic list of plot points from the final season means seeing the basic list of plot points every sitcom with a planned final season would use in the last days of its run. The following year, All In The Family dealt with seemingly every major issue it hadn’t yet, then put buttons on the richly textured relationships at its center, before sending Gloria and Mike off to California. (This season was so successful in the ratings that even though it was planned as the last, CBS brought the show back for one more year, plus four increasingly limp seasons of the spin-off Archie Bunker’s Place.) Cheers revealed Sam Malone was balding and brought back Diane Chambers. Friends seemingly turned into one long march to the end, with adoption subplots and questions of whether couples would end up together. And the ne plus ultra of the sitcom-final-season form, M*A*S*H, essentially turned into a full-fledged drama, culminating in the oversized series finale, which was basically a movie. But it all started with Moore, and the idea that a sitcom ending is less about a final point to the story and more about leaving the characters in a place where the audience knows they’ll be okay, even if this particular chapter of their lives is over.
There haven’t been a lot of planned sitcom final seasons that have traded in on Moore’s legacy in the last decade, however. Part of this has just been the fact that sitcoms haven’t been as popular, while another part has been that in the post-Seinfeld era, sentiment in sitcoms has been in less demand. In addition, in the wake of the success of Everybody Loves Raymond, smaller-scale sitcom storytelling was more in vogue than sitcoms that dealt with weightier issues or relationships. (Oddly enough, Raymond may have had the most purely satisfying planned final season of the last decade, trading in on a lot of the Moore ideas, including a series of episodes that examined what the lives of the characters would be like if Ray’s parents moved away. That’s the sort of story arc that can only be done in a sitcom final season, when it seems like it might stay permanent.) And a show like Arrested Development—which might have had a lot of fun with the Moore tropes in a final season—usually ends with an unplanned cancellation, which requires hastily tossing together a finale. For better or worse, 30 Rock is the first sitcom in a long time that’s in a position to have a planned final season, and to make that planned final season satisfying (unless you really want to stick up for the final seasons of King Of Queens or Weeds).
What’s made 30 Rock so satisfying is that it’s returned to all of those storylines Mary Tyler Moore pulled off, and it’s reinvigorated them, reminding viewers just how fun it can be to watch a long-running sitcom close up shop. Reading through that list of things Mary Tyler Moore did in its final season, it’s apparent which points resonated with what 30 Rock did in its final season. Liz finally adopting a kid, the show calling back plot points that might have seemed to have been abandoned, the teased idea of the Mary-and-Lou-like Liz and Jack ending up in bed together: The show has aggressively played around with what’s expected of a sitcom’s final season, and instead of undercutting these tropes or mocking the inherent sentimentality in them, 30 Rock has mostly played them straight. When Liz adopts her new kids, even if they’re mini-versions of Tracy Jordan and Jenna Maroney, the emotion is earned, as it is when her entire staff quits so she can run to the airport to greet those children.
What I’m saying is nothing new. Since it began seven years ago, 30 Rock has frequently been compared to Mary Tyler Moore. Even Fey has held it up as an early inspiration. But while I’d quibble with the direct lineage—the show has always seemed much more inspired by Norman Lear’s ’70s sitcoms and the sketch-comedy influences of Saturday Night Live to me—it’s clear that Fey has drawn almost directly from the final-season well Moore set up in its final season. It’s easy to see the lines she’s drawn between Mary Richards—who ventured into the world of work when her thoughts of having a family just didn’t prove as exciting to her as getting a job—and Liz Lemon—who found herself out of a job, but possessing a family. They’re two women standing on either side of the “women in the workplace” revolution of the last 40 years, and in their final seasons, they provide different answers to the question of what it means to have a meaningful job, as well as what it means to have that job taken away from you, even if they deal with what seems to be the exact same material. The final season of 30 Rock could have seemed like a cover version of the final season of Mary Tyler Moore, but by staying true to its own voice, 30 Rock has found a new way to play around with old tropes, while still respecting all of the ground Moore broke.