Goodbye, '30 Rock'

Tonight NBC will air the series finale of its greatest show since Seinfeld, the fast flying, borderline manic, screwball masterpiece 30 Rock. Richard Lawson explains why Tina Fey's patois of obscure references and absurdist flights of fancy were so very much worth watching.

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Tonight NBC will air the series finale of its greatest series since Seinfeld, the fast-flying, borderline manic, screwball masterpiece 30 Rock, a show that has been heaped with praise but strangely never much connected in the ratings. Well, maybe it's not that strange. Backstage after winning a SAG Award last week, show creator and star Tina Fey said, "I hope [30 Rock] has a long life in syndication. I look forward to another generation of nerds finding it and enjoying it." Meaning, she recognizes that the show's patois of obscure references and absurdist flights of fancy does speak loudest and most directly to a specific group of weirdos and obsessives. And that's fine! It would be silly at this point to bemoan a wildly successful — by various metrics — show's specifically niche audience. After all, that particularity is what made the show so special.

Because 30 Rock was so defiantly strange and specific — while also being remarkably broad-reaching in its knowledge set — it galvanized and encouraged perhaps more "mainstream" shows to be weirder, to dig deeper into the writers' idiosyncratic senses of humor. While a startlingly oddball show like ABC's underappreciated Happy Endings may seem like a direct descendant of How I Met Your Mother, with its codified friend-language and social rituals, there's a lot of 30 Rock in there too. The two shows don't speak the same language, really, but they share a sense of confidence; Happy Endings revels in its peculiarities in a way that seems directly inspired by 30 Rock, a show that never flinched in the face of possibly going over (or under) people's heads. Same for New Girl, The New Normal, and The Mindy Project. Whatever you think about those shows — they do tend to wildly oscillate in quality — their strongest aspects all feel imbued with strains of Tina Fey's particularly piquant courage of conviction, her brassy assertion that she knows what's funny, has a keen sense of which sharp angle and left turn will work. There is nothing warmed-over about 30 Rock, little seems to cave to network pressure, and that strength of voice seems to have inspired other, and, yes, lesser, series.

So that's why, among other reasons, the show was good for television. But it was also good for the soul, wasn't it? I proudly count myself among Tina Fey's army of nerds, people who felt the show speak to them over the years in a way we maybe didn't previously think possible. There was something so particular about the show's humor that, when it premiered 2006, I felt as if someone had been siphoning thoughts out of my own head. Not that what's going on upstairs is anywhere near as funny as 30 Rock, it's just that the show had a certain rhythm to it that synched up with my brainwaves in eerily precise fashion. The long, elaborate jokes peppered with short-burst one liners, the flurry of its cultural references, bizarre callbacks to things that rational people shouldn't remember. The show thought like I thought, or at least like I wanted to think. There was a kindness buried in there too, an affirmation that it was O.K. to like things that were unabashedly silly, that didn't necessarily make sense. 30 Rock gave people permission to be flailing and wild and weird. There was no tight, pinched irony. It was a disarmingly friendly show for that reason, and it pulled me into its bosom quite tightly. Or maybe it was the reverse. Either way, we were close.

Of course, like any series, 30 Rock had its bumpy spots. There were some middle years there when things dragged. The antic references felt maybe a bit too strained, the plots knotted themselves into nothing. Look, a "bad" 30 Rock episode is still better than the most brilliant episode of The Big Bang Theory ever created, but for a while there the show didn't have quite the same crisp, celery snap that it once did. Which is forgivable. Doing 22 episodes a year, year after year, is hard enough to do without having to also maintain a show like 30 Rock's high-energy wit and spirit. They were allowed to have a few fallow years, and we were O.K. with that, but we fans of course always hoped, believed really, that the show would find its way again. And so it has in this final season. The jokes have never felt cleverer or brighter, the characters have shaken off the creaky sameness they had begun to wear like old suits in latter seasons. The show has evolved, too. Knowing that this is their last season, the 30 Rock crew have allowed themselves to let more warmth in. The show has pulsed with a lovely, surprisingly touching heartbeat in many episodes this season. Never in a cloying or treacly way. No, that would never be 30 Rock's speed. Instead the sentiment has been a bit mordant, definitely wry, always with a slight wink of acknowledgment. They know we know and they're letting us know that. Isn't that nice of them?

So, I will miss 30 Rock, no doubt. It's been such reliable fun over the past six and a half years. This last great victory lap of a season feels almost cruel — to remind us of just how good we have it right before disappearing forever. But, it is time. We would never want 30 Rock to truly languish, to get stale and repetitive in a way that even its weakest episodes never did. That's the fate of nearly all shows if they chug along long enough. This exit, then, feels well-timed. They are going out on the highest of notes, leaving the air buzzing with that precious 30 Rock crackle, ensuring that we will remember it as fondly as any show can be remembered. Sure it didn't have the overt emotional hook of many other dearly departed shows, but 30 Rock will resonate, for me anyway, as much as the ghostly, gone-too-soon My So-Called Life or the soul-rattling The Wire. Just, in a different way. In its own weird way. What a silly, marvelous thing they made. I'm so glad they showed it to us.

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.