I had a surprise Friday reading Wesley Morris’ “30 Rock Landed On Us” piece for Grantland. Morris called Tina Fey’s show about the behind-the-scenes headaches of writing sketch comedy on a failing network one of the greatest shows about race that television’s ever seen.
I suppose I’ve always thought of 30 Rock as a comedy show first, feminist show second, and classist show third, with some very good points about race on occasion. But Morris isn’t wrong, and I think part of that is how well 30 Rock always hid their big themes. The dialogue spits jokes like a malfunctioning batting cage. The characters are outlandish and fit established TV archetypes. Relationships with beautiful guest stars begin and end. But a less passive viewing reveals how deep the show goes.
Whereas Chappelle’s Show explicitly foregrounds race, or Will and Grace foregrounds homosexuality, 30 Rock is ostensibly about making television. But it’s less Community-style meta-jokes and more The Office-style workplace/personal life drama. TGS is terrible and gets minimal screen time. We never see the writers working. So what has 30 Rock actually been getting at this whole time?
Maybe it’s as simple as the show’s title: a building. The two main characters are show runner Liz Lemon, toiling away on the 6th floor, and Jack Donaghy, fighting the corporate dogfight on the 60th. But the show isn’t about Liz’s ascent to the top of NBC or Kabletown. It’s not about Jack’s rise to CEO or fall to lowly television producer. It’s about how everyone in the building interacts.
Chappelle’s underlying point is “this is what the universe looks like for black Americans.” 30 Rock asks: “What happens when we’re all forced to acknowledge that we live and work together?” The characters are incredibly diverse, but not like some sort of checklist. Easy stereotypes are exploded: ruthless VP Jack has a heart. Feminist Liz gets married. Uptight Toofer learns to see beneath Tracy’s buffoonery. Bear-like entourage men Grizz and Dot Com are two of the most intelligent characters. Neurotic Jenna finds love with a drag queen who dresses like her, and that’s ok.
Much of the show’s comedy comes from an idea that all parts of identity—the parts that are socially constructed and personally determined—are fluid. No, you can’t escape your farm-boy Georgia past, but there’s an episode where Kenneth is Jack’s boss for a day. No, you can’t escape being black or being a woman, but there’s an episode where Tracy and Jenna dress like each other for a day. When we first meet Will Arnett’s Devon Banks, his homosexuality is treated like a plot twist. It’s funny for a number of reasons, but it’s smart because it makes us ask,“Why is it surprising that a corporate shark could be gay?”
30 Rock isn’t really about race, feminism, LGBTQ rights, relationships, or class. It’s about acknowledging all of those things and their complications and how goddamn funny it all is. It’s probably tempting for idiots to say 30 Rock ushered in post-racial, post-gender era of TV. That is wrong. 30 Rock was the perfect mirror for the Obama era. It shows how far we’ve come and how far we have to go while laughing the whole time. “The whole time” being a pantheon-level seven seasons.
All of this leaves me thinking we didn’t completely recognize just how great 30 Rock was as we were watching. It never took itself too seriously, but it never took an episode off, either. The show put out seven good-to-great seasons and walked away at the exact right time. And compare it to its NBC Thursday peers: the quality didn’t decline with age (Scrubs); its identity never wavered (The Office); people actually watched it (Community); it didn’t completely suck (Up All Night); and it won’t be ultimately forgettable (My Name is Earl). The only contemporary comedy with a strong argument for supremacy is Parks and Recreation—we’ll see what they do for the next two and a half years. So go ahead and mourn 30 Rock, everyone. We might not see something this great for a long time.