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Bad TV: A Love Letter

"TGS" is terrible. That's one reason "30 Rock" is awesome.

NBC Universal

When “30 Rock” airs its final episode Thursday night, it will end its seven-year run as one of the decade’s most celebrated sitcoms, with a pile of Emmys to its name. “TGS with Tracy Jordan,” the live sketch comedy show that Liz Lemon (Tina Fey) struggles to pull together every week, can’t say the same. For the past seven years, Fey has created a brilliant comedy about the making of an abysmal one; the terrible quality of “TGS”—and the likelihood of its being imminently cancelled—is often the butt of jokes. “Remember, this isn't TGS,” warns NBC executive Jack Donaghy (Alec Baldwin) after giving the staff a new task. “Let’s not shoot for the middle this time.”

While the show’s scope has expanded over the years—the last few seasons featured both Condoleeza Rice and Kim Jong-Un, and Nancy Pelosi will appear in Thursday’s finale—”30 Rock” has always been grounded in workplace satire, in watching Liz Lemon balance Jack’s  corporate demands with the needs of her childish performers—Tracy Jordan and Jenna Maroney—and her immature writers. In a 2010 interview with Movieline, Keith Powell, who plays one of those writers, revealed something rather surprising: “When we started '30 Rock' five years ago,” he said, “I had asked if I could sit in on the writers’ room. I like doing a lot of research to prepare for roles. I sat in on the writers’ room, and it’s actually a lot like what we film.”

And “what they film,” in this case, is a den of mediocrity filled with sad sacks: Toofer, a preposterously pretentious writer who fills both the “Harvard guy” and “black guy” slots; Lutz, a chubby, middle-aged man with an unspecified gland problem; Frank, a childish pervert with full sideburns, a fondness for older women, and an impressive collection of obscene hats; a gaggle of schlubby dudes who don’t talk; and a couple token women, one of whom, Sue, earns a personality and a few lines part way through the third season. According to the evidence on “30 Rock,” not much actual writing happens in the “TGS” writers’ room. Instead, it’s a place—a filthy, smelly place—where the writers watch YouTube videos of “TGS” disasters. It’s a place for games of poker in which producer Pete Hornberger bets and loses his own wedding ring; a place where Liz’s loser boyfriend Dennis tries to sell beepers. It’s a place to play “Marry, Boff, Kill,” using people actually in the room; a place where Tracy Jordan gets served with a paternity suit by a man who’s disguised himself as a writer. And that’s just the first season.

When the writers are shown doing their jobs, it’s only briefly: they’re either immediately thwarted, or trying to wriggle out of responsibility. In the first season, Jack decides he wants to be part of the writing process, despite knowing nothing about comedy. His suggestions include turning a personal story about possibly running someone over while on a boat with Tom Brokaw into a skit, and starting with catchphrases—“Nuts to you, McGillicudy”; “Who ordered the wieners?”—and working backwards. Another early episode finds Pete working late while Tracy tries to distract him with alcohol and a bevy of seductive women. In the sixth season, when Liz goes up to talk to Jack, she warns the writers to keep working in her absence; she turns around to find that they’ve all dematerialized.

It makes sense that “30 Rock” would choose, on the whole, not to show the writers doing the actual work of producing scripts; there are few things less visually compelling than watching a sweaty man in his mid-thirties typing frantically on his MacBook in the middle of the night. Unlike Aaron Sorkin's “Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip,” which also premiered on NBC in the fall of 2006, “30 Rock” never tried to get the audience to believe the sketches its show-within-the-show was putting on were important, or even funny. But if there’s little drama surrounding the creation of skits, there did seem to be, early in “30 Rock”’s run, interest in using the writers’ room as a forum to explore the intersection of gender and power in the workplace. In episodes from the first season, though Liz technically runs the room, she’s unable to control it, and her attempts to join in on the juvenile fun the writers revel in frequently backfire.

“30 Rock” has always been at its best when grounded in workplace satire: its writers, producers, and actors know and love their work well enough to parody it expertly—the absurdity never overwhelming the plausibility; the plausibility never shading into the mundane. Perhaps those themes have been exhausted. Certainly, as “30 Rock”'s plot lines have gotten more cartoonish and complex—a G.E. succession crisis; Jack’s romantic travails, which had him entangled, at various points during seasons three and four, with guest stars Salma Hayek, Julianne Moore, and Elizabeth Banks—the writers’ room has become somewhere between nonexistent and purely functional: a convenient place to deliver information to a majority of the cast; a staging ground for comedic set pieces.

Which is not necessarily a critique; “30 Rock”’s baroquely constructed jokes are central to its appeal. In season five, Liz rants to Jack about the fake name plates the writers keep putting on her office door: F. Krueger; Fart Barfunkel; Paul Simon (“I don’t get that, but it hurts”); Lez Lemon; Winona Ryder in a Hundred Years. If Liz’s inability to win the respect or approval of her staff has become a throwaway gag, at least it’s still a funny one.

And it’s one the viewer can all but sense Tina Fey smiling at too. “30 Rock” may have caught flack, especially in its early seasons, for its insistence that the obviously charming, attractive, and competent Fey was doomed to an endless series of Friday nights alone on the couch, munching off-brand “Sabor de Soledad” chips or slicing cheese in a snuggie. But seven seasons in, it’s clear that Liz is hardly the only hapless individual in the writers’ room: chronically immature Frank’s most meaningful relationship is with the eighth-grade teacher who was sent to jail because of their relationship; perennial failure Pete not only left the band Loverboy to study “TV Budgeting,” but also choked while trying to qualify for the Olympics as an archer. Liz herself is perpetually single more because she has a legitimately challenging personality—she’s a bitter workaholic who hates sex—than because she’s not young or pretty enough to attract a suitable boyfriend. These are broad caricatures—the wounded pervert; the frustrated screw-up; the neurotic basket-case—of the people you’d expect to find in a network sitcom writers’ room; they’re playful, recognizable.

For unlike Tracy and Jenna’s more outlandish behavior, the writers’ room antics seem authentically imported from Fey’s day’s at SNL, as does her character’s self-hating affection for them. The look on Liz’s face in season two after she tries to take a principled stand against Jack and loses her job is stricken. Ultimately, the traumas of the writers’ room—the verbal banter that quickly turns to bullying; the gross-out sexual humor; the dearth of women—pale in comparison to its rewards. Liz Lemon loves her job, even if it largely involves mothering the overgrown children and painfully weird people she employs. And despite all their pranks, the weirdos love her back.

And so perhaps it’s not surprising that the writers have been the impetus for some of this biting sitcom’s most emotionally resonant moments. In season five, in the wake a bad breakup, Liz comes to work wearing a fanny pack and toting a cat carrier to announce that she’s given up. “I am making my graceful transition into spinsterhood,” she says. “I have adopted this cat, named her Emily Dickinson.” But instead of taking advantage of Liz at her nadir, the writers—along with Jack, Jenna, Tracy, and Grizz and Dot Com, who comprise Tracy’s entourage—pull off their most ambitious prank yet. They throw together a Liz Lemon-themed club, convince her to go there, and hire a guy—stocked with knowledge about her likes and dislikes—to pick her up and restore her faith in love and life’s possibilities.

Last week’s episode, the series’s penultimate, struck a similar chord precisely midway between “sentimental” and “satirical.” Determined to save “TGS” from a sudden cancellation, Liz convinces Pete to slash the budget—no sets; green screen only—while she courts a grotesque sponsor, Bro Body Douche. When the sponsor insists on calling the show “The Man Cave” and taking Liz’s name out of the credits, she persists, even at the expense of greeting her two newly adopted children at the airport. But then her entire staff—from Tracy and Jenna to the silent, unnamed male writers—quit. They sacrifice their jobs knowing that as long as the show exists, Liz will continue to sacrifice her personal life for its benefit.

Some might see this as Liz finally choosing family over a hectic work life. But it’s also indicative of her almost perversely strong passion for work and for making television—and the bonds that the writer’s room builds. “30 Rock” has always been a love letter to television and to show business, even its uglier and coarser elements: the obscene reality shows ("Milf Island"), the obvious product placements. Fey slyly romanticises the backstage process, in all its messy, vulgar glory, even when the product is as terrible as “TGS” and the people making it as gross as the “TGS” writers’ room.

Miranda Popkey is on the editorial staff of Farrar, Strauss, and Giroux.