Meta to the End: Saying Goodbye to '30 Rock,' The Show That Got to Say Goodbye to Itself


30 Rock aired its finale last night in the fashion all television could only hope to do. The beloved show and its viewers knew it was coming, and both sides could anticipate and plan, in their own ways, for the end. The critical flurry surrounding 30 Rock this past week only goes to exemplify how much The End still means to us as television viewers – a formal farewell seemed only right to a story arc so formally conclusive as 30 Rock. Such closure was nearly Austenian (Pride and Prejudice was itself celebrated in classic form this month), and that there would be a release of tears no one could doubt. Viewers, of course we cried.

How does one say goodbye to something like 30 Rock is a question for both the show and its audience. For showrunners and writers, it’s about setting down a show that has always been known for its slight out-of-control-ness, like a plastic bodega bag fluttering a few steps before us, the metaphors generated by 30 Rock were potentially endless. Viewers who loved the show knew these metaphors well, and they wondered how, and why, they should let them go. Characters this energetic couldn’t just disappear from our screens.

For critics, the act of saying goodbye has been a commendable one, and rarely do we experience a moment where so much cultural commentary is directed at a single show. If Internet recaps and reviews were as vibrant during The West Wing or The Sopranos as they are now, the goodbye might not feel as urgent, but, whatever — those were dramas anyway. “This isn’t HBO,” Liz Lemon warned us in the pilot, “This is TV” – and whatever 30 Rock has done for creative women, women on television and in comedy, or the representation of black characters, Tina Fey has changed television, and how we engage with the TV comedy, for good.

Even while saying goodbye – while thinking goodbyes had already been said – 30 Rock got to have a final word last night, and then some. The show could have very well ended with Liz embracing her newly adopted children, but possibly that seemed a little too straightforward and cloying a way to end. At one point during the finale, the writers’ room realizes that they’re no longer in Season 7, but actually Season 8. This kind of having it both ways is classic 30 Rock, which has kept us on our toes, being neither here nor there, for seven (or is it eight?) seasons now. (Just kidding.) (Wait for a Grizz and Herz spin-off though.) Even while trying to wrap things up, 30 Rock continued to offer insight about its characters, making revelations through flashbacks, showing what might have been if Liz used social media more, and asking, via Kenneth, where are all the baby pigeons?

One question last night clarified for me was why the show never had a musical episode. All technicalities considered, it still felt like 30 Rock was, more than any sitcom, primed to showcase its NYC having-it-all influences through a nod to Broadway. There were short raps, Jenna often broke out into song, and Liz sometimes belted about ham, yet no episode was entirely dedicated to the musical. To me, though, it seemed inevitable, especially considering Liz’s love of musical theater plus Jenna’s (and Jane Krakowski’s) roots in dram-ah and Broad-way. The final episode took us halfway there, and I understood that halfway was all we needed. Jenna sings a song from the Rural Juror musical, and for half of the song I nearly forgot how 30 Rock plays on her classically obnoxious theater kid qualities, drawn in by Krakowski’s powerful voice. The show was giving Jenna a moment to shine, to be a wholehearted star, and it was enough to inspire catharsis. Finally.

If 30 Rock had given us a musical episode, its closest example would have been “The Tuxedo Begins,” which parodies Christopher Nolan’s Batman Begins. Unlike the rest of 30 Rock, “The Tuxedo Begins” turns increasingly cinematic, even if the characters maintain the same level of histrionics (in fact, all their theatrics begin to look more natural under Nolan-esque lighting). When I watched “The Tuxedo Begins” with my mother, she asked if it was the finale, and I wonder if an episode that hewed too closely to the aesthetics and logic of the movie musical would have threatened to tip 30 Rock into finale-land as well. It’s as though, throughout its run, 30 Rock could never stay in one camp – could never riff on or cite one cultural object – for too long. Fey’s voice and her show’s perspective can never be subsumed under another genre, at least not completely. If this happened, 30 Rock would no longer be its familiar meta self, and the finale ending went to show exactly how important this self is. The final scene emphasizes how the show is not only referential but, in its final moments, almost purely self-referential: a view of the Statue of Atlas (while snowing) fisheyes and dissolves into a snow-globe version of the same scene, held in Kenneth’s hands, while he asks a Latina woman named Miss Lemon: “So the whole show just takes place here at 30 Rockefeller Plaza?” If you pull the camera away, the layers of meta-referentiality compound, but almost everything stays the same. Except this: Miss Lemon looks different, and the thought that the creative eye overlooking 30 Rock is not, in fact, a white woman – while currently too epically inconceivable – remains touching.

I keep wondering, “How does one say goodbye to a show that gets to say goodbye to itself?” This wasn’t my adored Gilmore Girls, which withered in its final seasons with Amy Sherman-Palladino long gone (thank god for Bunheads) and me still desperately holding on. This wasn’t Deadwood, which hinted at its grand, death-by-fire ending throughout its script, yet never got to deliver (will someone please resurrect the film idea?). For 30 Rock, the voice of the show – Tina Fey’s voice – is too strong, its ending too deliberate, for us to imagine how it might have gone. That’s the point. Further, by attempting to give its characters all they’ve ever wanted, 30 Rock has left less for us to dream about – that is, at least, less to dream about for it. I can’t wait for what’s next, and I hope that, after we digest the end of its era, NBC won’t waste much time following in its spirit, and continue to experiment with the television comedy. Really, I can’t wait.