The last episode of 30 Rock ever aired last night, and it was great — particularly if you view last week’s episode (which wrapped up most of the major plotlines) as part one of a two-part finale.
The show pulled off a delicate balancing act by: providing closure, hitting key emotional points with the main characters, being legitimately funny, and feeling like both a typical episode of 30 Rock and something a little more special at the same time. Even more impressively, Tina Fey and pals managed to produce a hilarious, compelling final season overall in this, 30 Rock’s seventh year.
TV shows don’t age well. And 30 Rock aged far better than most. Of its seven seasons, two were spectacular (2 & 3), three were really good (1, 6 & 7), and two were bumpy though still funny in fits (4 & 5). 30 Rock had both a higher and a lower degree of difficulty than most shows when it comes to longevity. They had it easier in some ways because it was so cartoonish, and most of its characters were so one-dimensional, that the writers didn’t need to worry much about things like “plot” or “continuity” or “character development.” They had it tougher because of the sheer quantity of jokes the writers needed to come up with to maintain the show’s insane comic pace. In terms of both jokes delivered and jokes hit, 30 Rock probably leads any other sitcom ever. It’s like the Ichiro of sitcoms. Every year: 700 plate appearances, 225 hits.
So, this surprisingly wonderful final season and this predictably great final episode leave us with a few questions to consider in 30 Rock’s wake:
1) Where does the 30 Rock’s series finale rank all time? Now remember, many of the shows in the discussion for best sitcom ever are still on the air (Parks & Rec, Louie, Community…), while many others either dragged on far too long (Frasier) or just botched their finales (Seinfeld). So, the competition isn’t as thick as you might think. The finale of Cheers was definitely superior. But other than that, 30 Rock has a pretty strong argument for second best American sitcom finale ever. The excellence of Newhart’s finale was more about one surprising moment than a superb half hour. I would probably slot Arrested Development third, behind 30 Rock, as it showed a little too much effort in trying to bring everything full circle.
2) Where does 30 Rock’s final season rank all time? Again, very well. Stronger than Cheers, which was badly showing its age for much of its last season. Better than Seinfeld, which was slipping without Larry David around. Arrested Development passes 30 Rock here, but its 3rd season wasn’t its best, and it was obviously much earlier in the life of the series. Plus, I honestly have no idea how to judge/rank Arrested Development now with its forthcoming Netflix season/thingie. But again, 30 Rock probably takes second place here.
3) Where does 30 Rock as a series rank all time? Below Cheers, Seinfeld and Arrested Development. Probably below Parks & Recreation and Louie someday, but we don’t know that yet. Ahead of a lot of good to great shows like Frasier, Newsradio, Family Ties, Friends, Happy Days, All in the Family and Roseanne. Ahead of shows with potential that died before their time like Undeclared and Party Down. Behind The Office (UK), but we’re not counting British shows because that’s a whole different system with different variables. So…4th? Does that sound right? 4th-ish?
Regardless of exactly where you place 30 Rock on these all-time lists, it acquits itself surprisingly well in all three departments. Certainly somewhere around the mid-point of season five, I didn’t get the sense that I was watching an all-time top 10 sitcom. But the unexpected and pleasant rebound the last two years did much to boost 30 Rock ahead of a lot of shows on lists like these.
More perspective will come with time, but it feels right now like 30 Rock lasted basically the perfect amount of time: it’s not leaving too early, and it didn’t hang around too long. And it gave us two all-time great TV characters in Liz Lemon and Jack Donaghy. Fare thee well, old friends.