The series finale of 30 Rock needs to be measured against other superb TV-show finales, if only because 30 Rock was television about television. Tina Fey’s Liz Lemon, overseeing the show-within-the-show, had to get one more episode of TGS on the air, and as Tracy Morgan’s Tracy told her, ”The night is young, and neither are you.”
In an hour crammed with references to the seven years we’ve been watching this exceptional cast, the finale invoked its own vast store of both in-jokes and insults. (I treasured this from Alec Baldwin’s Jack to Jack McBrayer’s Kenneth: ”You string cheese with a tooth in it.”) And it satirized another NBC series finale: St. Elsewhere‘s 1988 snow-globe-cradled-by-an-innocent, it’s-all-been-a-dream exit image. Fey avoided the trap of last-minute self-analysis that left the cast of Seinfeld in jail atoning for eternal grumpiness, and she scrupulously declined to go for the sentimentality of the final M*A*S*H.
30 Rock was never a mass-audience show, which made its presence on NBC all the more delightful — an art project to be cherished. Had it been on HBO or FX, it would have been just as funny, but it wouldn’t have had that extra coating of anxiety (over ratings, over standards and practices) or that exquisite feeling that Fey — and we — were getting away with something. And that something was keeping a brilliant, complex cult show front and center on supposedly old-school network television. Viva Fey’s revolution, now and forever.