I remarked earlier today that future cultural historians will look to old 30 Rock episodes to tell them what the broadcast TV system was like in its declining days. As we wait to see what happens in the series finale this Thursday (and whether they’ll have Liz turn out the lights in the building after everyone else has left), I wanted to expand on that a little. 30 Rock wasn’t simply the show that proved a live-action comedy could have the joke density of classic Simpsons; it was like a little mini-history of broadcast television in its decadent phase. If a good comedy is usually about something serious, then 30 Rock was really about something the people involved had every reason to take seriously: the impending decline of broadcast television in general and of NBC in particular.
Especially after the Bush administration was over, removing some of the politically charged humour, the big over-arching story of the show was of people who are trying to squeeze the last drop of success, power and fulfilment from a business model that’s about to become obsolete. Liz Lemon is writing a sketch comedy even though sketch comedy is a dinosaur; Jack Donaghy is trying to gain power at his company even though he’s in television and away from where the real business is done; Kenneth the Page is so in love with the mostly irrelevant and forgotten history of the network that he barely notices what it’s become. The real-life history of NBC was incorporated in fictionalized form – the takeovers, the terrible programming decisions – but it didn’t really have to be NBC; it could have been about almost any network in the decadent phase of broadcast television.
30 Rock will also be useful for cultural historians because it records some of the things that were on the minds of people in TV in this period, particularly writers’ love/hate relationship with reality television. The show began at a moment where TV scriptwriters feared for their very existence, after years of seeing networks move toward cheaper, faster and (often) more immediately successful “unscripted” programming. Some of that fear has worn off for now, as new media have made it more essential to build a library of scripted content, but that fear is still in the back of a lot of people’s minds – yet many writers, while hating what reality stands for, also can’t help watching these shows. And that comes out in the “MILF Island” and “Queen of Jordan” segments, as well as Kenneth’s Deal or No Deal-style game show with the briefcases full of gold. Reality, game and singing shows played the role on this show that they played in real life: omnipresent threats to the survival of writers and the TV business they got into, but also something they just couldn’t help being kind of interested in.
There’s a lot of other topical cultural history embedded in the plots of 30 Rock – for example, the episode about the “Are Women Funny?” controversy, which will hopefully be a relic of the past someday. But the backbone of the show is the story of television as it was in 2006 and currently remains today: caught in limbo between the glorious past and the new business models of the future, which everyone can see coming but no one can implement just yet. It has resonance beyond the TV business because, unlike a Sorkin-style story of people trying to make the best television they possibly can and restore the medium to its glory days, it tells a more familiar and identifiable story of survival – just trying to hang on as long as you can in a business with an uncertain future. The story of people trying to continue making a bad sketch show is probably more realistic, and certainly funnier, than if they were trying to fight for the right to make the greatest sketch show in the world.
So apart from being as funny as it was, I think 30 Rock will remain TV’s best chronicle of a time when it had a lot of problems. The fact that the show never quite got popular, in a way, helps with the themes it tried to convey: though 30 Rock is a good show and TGS is not, they were both concerned with simply staying on the air in a time when broadcast TV’s old promises – a huge international audience, superstardom – were fading away, and people were learning to settle for an era of scarcity. In TGS’s case, staying on the air at all was a triumph; in 30 Rock‘s case, making a good show with a long run was the triumph. And 30 Rock captured that period in TV so perfectly that it may be the first thing we think of when we’re remembering how TV used to be from 2006 to 2013.