What ‘30 Rock’ Taught Me About Television

When 30 Rock premiered on October 11, 2006, I wasn’t a television critic. I barely had the credential that Tracy Jordan would later use to try to sell his Thomas Jefferson biopic, “television watcher.” I was newishly single, living in a newish city, and had recently become the first person in my family to acquire a subscription to cable. As I settled into the rhythms of adult life, one of the things I learned was how to watch television*, whether I was marathoning Law & Order: Special Victims Unit (a useful source of valuable tips for how to avoid being murdered in the big city), scarfing down Sex and the City, which I got on disc from the Blockbuster that once stood on a corner two blocks away, and discovering the wonders of my first broadcast television season.

30 Rock was the first network show I fell in love with, the first thing—in the days before I got a DVR—that I made appointment viewing, that I introduced to my parents. In retrospect, it was perfect training for a television critic. 30 Rock was a clinic in how to balance long-arc character development with a mind-boggling joke density and quality A, B, and C plotting week to week. But it was also a show that taught me how television got made, and that ended up informing my reporting about what happens along the way from a show’s conception to its arrival and survival on the air.

30 Rock didn’t just have a novel-for-television setting: it drew its procedural elements from actual and substantial issues in television. Over the past several years, and aided by the rise of social media and the infiltration of general-interest media sites by trade reporting about everything from ratings data to showrunner hirings and firings, knowing a lot about the business of television has become part of being an engaged television fan. But for me, and I’d imagine for a lot of other people who were watching the show simply as fans rather than as reporters, 30 Rock was an early introduction to a lot of the facts about how the television industry worked. 30 Rock got episodes out of the fact that product integration is both a cost savings for shows, and the result of corporate consolidation that made media companies part of larger conglomerates; that women and people of color in television writers’ rooms are often paid by diversity fellowships that get them their initial jobs, but are structured such that studios have disincentives to promote them to positions where their salaries wouldn’t be covered by fellowships; that Standards and Practices departments can be enormously arbitrary places that question everything from the intensity of the yellow in a urine sample to a couple’s shift in position during sex. The show made clear that these rules and practices were hilariously arbitrary, but also that they were something you had to accept if you wanted to work in the business, and the only way to live with them was to laugh at them, very hard, and to see what space it was possible to create around them.

But for all that 30 Rock could be hilariously pessimistic about the conditions under which television was created, and the extent to which those conditions ground down even the people who had the greatest hopes for what they could do with the form on network, the series has gone out on a subtly hopeful and ambitious note. Sometimes, it suggested, when Jack Donaghy turned NBC over to Kenneth Parcells, people who adore television get to make it for a living. And even if Kenneth represents a kind of cheerful mediocrity—he presented Liz with a long list of “TV no-no words” when she tried to pitch him a new project after TGS ended—30 Rock suggested that progress will continue anyway.

In the pilot of 30 Rock, Tracy told Liz that he was excited to work together because TGS was their chance to work together to defeat the ambitions of white men who wanted them to fail. “Affirmative action was designed to keep women and minorities in competition with each other to distract us while white dudes inject AIDS into our chicken nuggets,” he explained over chicken, waffles, and beer. As Liz explained to him last night, back at Dark Sensations in the Bronx, working with Tracy never became a truly fulfilling experience for her. And one of the long-running jokes of 30 Rock was that TGS, despite Liz’s stated ambitions for it, was profoundly mediocre, a show that intended to talk about race and gender, and wound up with a fart machine.

So it was something lovely when the montage at the end of the 30 Rock revealed that Liz was running Grizz & Hers, the show starring long-suffering entourage member Grizz as a bed-and-breakfast proprietor in California—and that Dot Com, Grizz’s intellectual, melancholy partner in Tracy’s care, was working with her on it. Tracy Jordan’s dream is still alive. Seven years of dealing with standards and practices, winning the NBC Followship Award, and embracing product integration, Liz Lemon may understand that she sold TGS not on the strength of her feminist pitch, but on the appeal of Jenna’s ass. But she’s still making television, and not just television, but a black family sitcom not for a cable channel like TBS, which has a long-standing relationship with Tyler Perry, but for NBC—a kind of show that’s almost entirely unimaginable in today’s television.

For all its cynicism, 30 Rock still believes in progress in television, even if what kind of people are represented on it and the quality of the content don’t necessarily advance in tandem. Even the revelation during the tag that 30 Rock was actually a pitch Kenneth’s receiving as NBC president years in the future was a nod to that hope. 30 Rock was the kind of show a lot of us hope will be both common and successful in the future. That we got it seven years ago, and kept it for so long, is a reminder that even with television in ratings decline and what often feels like a kind of creative stagnation—and in fact because of those factors—remarkable things can happen.

*I grew up essentially as a non-television watcher, and the only show I caught with any regularity was Early Edition, which both is the kind of show Kenneth would greenlight, and means I was on the Kyle Chandler Express long before the rest of you.