It’s been almost a decade since the debut of 30 Rock, which means two things: 1) you’ve had nearly 520 weeks to live like they were Shark Week; and 2) the show is far enough back in your memory that some of its best bits have probably vanished from your mind-grapes, making it the perfect time to dive back in. And once you do, I’m guessing you won’t want to stop.
In fact, for the last month or so, Tina Fey’s frenetic Funcooker of a show has been just about the only thing I’ve wanted to watch, despite the pile of prestige dramas begging for attention, and despite the fact that I’ve already seen most of its episodes multiple times. Every night, a gazillion viewing options open up in front of me, but I always go back to 30 Rock. What can I say? It gets me pregnant every time.
It’s not just 30 Rock’s astonishing joke-per-minute ratio that pulls me in–though, even today, the amount of A++ gags stuffed into each episode seems unreal. The one-liners zip-zap-zop across the screen with so much speed and energy that they wind up getting into everything, like stray tinsel after a post-Christmas clean-up. And while 30 Rock’s rep as a quote-machine remains intact (“Never follow a hippie to a second location,” etc.), what makes these re-watches especially joyful is the way the show finds room for every phylum of funny, whether it’s smart-dumb puns, borderline-absurdist asides, callback flashbacks, wisely on-target pop-culture invocations, or even the occasional Chamillionaire gag (the show debuted in October 2006, back when he was still worthy of a Chamention). With its numerous Emmys and quick-to-GIF gags, 30 Rock was hardly under-appreciated during its day; yet re-watching it now is a happy, astonishing reminder that something this spry (and occasionally very sneaky) was allowed to air on primetime network TV for seven seasons.
Still, there’s a deeper allure to 30 Rock, one that’s only become evident in the past few months, during which the world has has gone blerg, as though a giant sludge-cudgel has been used to divide us in every imaginable way. At a time when Twitter has turned into a 24-hour test kitchen for rhetoric-roiled racists, and “Donald Trump Defends Size of His Penis” is an actual headline on CNN.com, 30 Rock offers a soothing alternative to reality: A series in which a bunch of at-oddsballs attempt to openly (and clumsily) talk about racism, sexism, ageism, homophobia, and classism–all without shouting each other down. 30 Rock is a very silly place populated by actual grown-ups, and in 2006, that was enough to make it a happily exaggerated workplace fantasy. In 2016, though, it feels like a dispatch from some far-off utopia. The universe of 30 Rock is one where discourse is flawed but patient; where common ground is closer (and sturdier) than everyone thinks; and where you can toss out a Dagobah-deep Empire Strikes Back reference without worrying if anyone will get it.
The cozy conflicts of 30 Rock stem, of course, from its diametrically opposed inhabitants, who’ve been given the difficult task of coexisting without killing each other. There’s Liz Lemon (Tina Fey), the overextended, cheese-loving showrunner-slash-talent-babysitter; Jack Donaghy (Alec Baldwin), the pragmatic, privileged TV exec and all-around art-of-the-deal-er; Tracy Jordan (Tracy Morgan), the perma-coddled comic and star of such movies as Who Dat Ninja; Jenna Maroney (Jane Krakowski), the attention-needy drama-kid with an award-worthy commitment to narcissism; and Kenneth (Jack McBrayer), the Kenneth. Most workplace sitcoms, from The Mary Tyler Moore Show to Cheers to Veep, have to draw on at least a few character archetypes–the Dip, the Snoot, the Boss, the Naif, the Zinger-Dispenser, etc.–to keep the story moving. But a big pleasure of 30 Rock is that, as firmly in-place as its denizens are, they easily slip from role to role. One day, Tracy can be the Dip–actually, on most days he’s the Dip–only to become the Unexpectedly Wise Sage on the next. Jack is always the Boss, but he also makes for an excellent Sidekick. And Liz wants to be Everyone’s Best Pal, but she’s actually better at being the Boss than she’s willing to admit. (Kenneth, meanwhile, is just kind of everyone, sometimes all at once.)
None of these characters would have chosen to spend more than an hour with each other in the real world, not even at a Werewolf Bar Mitzvah. But on 30 Rock, they’re all thrown together for a noble cause–to create a mediocre, catchphrase-driven sketch series called The Girlie Show–and the gig’s close quarters and late hours set up all kinds of personal and ideological battles. The longest-running battle, of course, is the philosophical face-off between Liz and Jack: She’s a late-blooming liberal creative-type with a far-reaching guilt complex and a barely existent checking account; he’s a master-of-the-universe Republican with an endless repertoire of market-tested buzzwords and his very own vineyard (Donaghy Estate Sparkling Wine: “Contains no lead, and is not fatal–if swallowed”). Throughout the show’s run, the two of them argue over everything from intra-office political strategies to whether “businesswoman” is a real word to which city is better, Boston or Philadelphia.
But watching 30 Rock now, what stands out is not just why everyone argues, but how–especially Jack and Liz. For all of his insults about her hair and wardrobe, their back-and-forths are seldom cruel or petty; instead, they’re rooted in a kind of begrudging empathy. Like pretty much everyone else on 30 Rock, Jack and Liz have more in common than they care to admit, as both are failure-fearing workaholics with deeply embedded family issues and a chronic inability to sustain a romantic relationship. They know each other as well as they know themselves.
And when things do get bad between them, their acrimony never lingers. In the Season 2 episode “MILF Island”–20 MILFs, 50 eighth-grade boys, no rules–Liz accidentally (and anonymously) tells a New York Post reporter that Jack is a “class-A moron” who could “eat my poo.” She says it mostly to blow off some steam, and Jack, after toying with Liz, ultimately forgives her. But throughout the episode, Liz’s anxiety about hurting Jack’s feelings grows more pronounced, and more sincere: He really can be a moron at times–but so can Liz, and she knows how easily their situation could be reversed. That might be why Liz and Jack always operate from a position of mutual respect, if not downright affection, when butting heads.
That’s not how our world works, obviously–it’s not even how the ever-screamy sitcom-world normally works. But 30 Rock ran from late 2006 to early 2013, allowing the show (and its characters) to bow out before parts of the the web devolved into a full-on pretty hate machine, one where conversations quickly turn caustic, and where ideologies trump ideas. Today, we expect pretty much every exchange to grow heated, no matter how banal the topic, nor how smart the combatants. In the fantasy that is 30 Rock, though, even the stupidest, most blind-sighted behavior can be seized upon as an opportunity for learning, not burning: In “Idiots Are People Two!,” Tracy is caught making a series of dunderheadedly homophobic comments–an incident based on a real-life incident involving the actor who plays him. While the rest of the world rails on him, Liz instead tries to make him realize his own myopia (“Tracy, do you know how many of your hardworking and dedicated coworkers are gay?,” she reminds him, before trying to discern what category Lutz falls into).
Jenna on Hardball from SFL-TV on Vimeo.
And in the Emmy-nominated “Hard Ball,” Jenna accidentally makes a statement in Maxim disparaging the military, and then trips up even further by pledging to “vote Osama in 2008” during a live appearance on Hardball. The whole thing turns Jenna into a pariah, and it would be have been easy for the 30 Rock writers to build an entire episode about her TGS coworkers distancing themselves from her, or disowning her altogether. But a frustrated Liz–who didn’t want Jenna appearing in Maxim in the first place–doesn’t tear Jenna down, nor even engage in a well-deserved told-ya-so; instead, she rallies to her side, offering to ghostwrite a New York Times op-ed column blaming the media for the dust-up and staging a ludicrously over-patriotic live number.
“If my friendships and my job are incompatible, I choose my friends,” Liz says at one point during the episode. She’s not talking specifically about Jenna, but she is getting at one of the underlying philosophies of 30 Rock: Namely, that you’re not always going to like the people you work and struggle alongside every day–but you can find some way to love them. In 2016, such a notion seems nearly as antiquated as a Haldeman sketch, which may be why 30 Rock has become my escape-pod from our modern world. It’s a show that doubles as a vision of what discourse could be like if we all put forth the most patient, reluctantly sympathetic versions of ourselves. No wonder I want to go to there.