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The Best Critical Writing on the End of '30 Rock'

As we brace ourselves for the finale of 30 Rock tonight, we’ve scoured the internet for the best critical takes on the show. From astute discussions of gender and race to thoughts on New York and what makes the ultimate comedy, here’s a roundup of the best we found.

Jen Chaney’s pithy article on Slate may be titled “The Liz Lemon Effect,” but perhaps the headline should better be appended, “The Liz Lemon Effect – On Women.” Chaney’s piece, which gracefully undercuts the gender barrier still prevalent in television today, ponders the legacy of Liz Lemon and her “real-life alter ego,” Tina Fey, and in particular, how Lemon and/or Fey have helped “usher in a fresh, fruitful era for funny ladies on television.” Chaney draws links between 30 Rock with other shows where women are either at the helm – like Girls The Big C, Enlightened, New Girl and The Mindy Project – or very close to it, as stars of programs like Parks and Recreation and Veep. While Chaney makes the fair argument that men aren’t, of course, entirely disposable, since “[m]any of the shows we look forward to might not be on the air if some influential and smart men hadn’t championed them,” she concludes that “though more opportunities for women now exist, TV comedy, like TV in general, still remains an unquestionably male-dominated field,” and “[t]he story of the show within the 30 Rock show reflects this reality… Sure, there’s a lot more lady business on TV these days. But ultimately, the place is still Bro-Town.” Nevertheless, Chaney leaves on a pretty positive note, with Fey’s advice from lady comedy bible Bossypants: “My unsolicited advice to women in the workplace is this. When faced with sexism or ageism or lookism or even really aggressive Buddhism, ask yourself the following question: ‘Is this person in between me and what I want to do?’ If the answer is no, forget it and move on… Do your thing and don’t care if they like it.”

Yet The Nation’s Michelle Dean, for whom “30 Rock has always been a different kind of hit,” notes that “Liz Lemon, and her alter ego, Tina Fey, do not have spotless records, not even on the level of comedic genius.” Dean suggests that Liz Lemon “wasn’t revolutionary, not exactly,” and that “Liz owed a ton to Maude and Rhoda and Mary Tyler Moore, just for starters.” Amid the buzz surrounding 30 Rock, Dean observes that the general perception “is that 30 Rock helped women storm the barricades of pop culture. There’s a lot of chatter now about the proliferation of women on television, as well as the numbers that don’t really back that up, but it’s not just a matter of numbers.” Instead, Dean – quite rightly – suggests, “It’s a matter of talk, of recognition, and of respect.” Part of that respect comes in moving away from talking about women in and on television simply as “role models,” Dean argues. Though she sees Liz as unexceptional, Dean allows that Fey’s character “opened up the possibilities for some of us. Not only were [women] now free to sacrifice a lot for our jobs, we were free to do so in comfortable footwear and air-dried hair.” This, in part, qualifies Phase One – the “Embrace” portion – of “a new, more interesting cultural cycle” that Dean argues 30 Rock was the first to successfully spin, and which pushes society forward. The other phases that make up Dean’s theory are “Backlash,” as “[s]ome noticed early on that Liz’s vision of liberation was narrowly tailored,” while the third, more elusive phase is on teetering between self-criticism (pounced on by the media as woman-hating) and self-confidence (pounced on as Women & Women First-type women-loving). “Feminists often presume solidarity rather than recognize it as a process, and one riddled with a lot of mistakes,” Dean keenly observes. “Funny that of all people, Tina Fey, who works in an industry where women are not just not allies, but often actively competitive with each other, would understand that best. Or, perhaps, not.”

LA Times TV critic Robert Lloyd also discusses the legacy Liz Lemon will leave for the world of television, arguing that, though Fey is “a role model for ambitious nerd girls everywhere… It’s not fair to say that there’d be no Mindy Kaling or Lena Dunham without her” – but he does acknowledge that, in Fey’s absence, “their paths would have been different and surely more difficult.” Overall, Lloyd praises the show, in spite of its low ratings, for being elaborately stupid and spontaneous, for “’Why not?’ [becoming] its guiding principle.” Since “[t]he humor was so unmistakably smart and self-aware… the writers could get away with the most sexist, racist or scatological remarks and still smell fresh,” he writes. “Seven seasons of 30 Rock seem to me a triumph… After a good episode, I feel a little less burdened, a little more awake, a little more alive and a little more hopeful. If such things are possible, what else might we not do?”

Like Dean, the A.V. Club’s Todd VanDerWerff returns to The Mary Tyler Moore Show, shining a revelatory light on the uncanny resemblance between the final season of 30 Rock and the prolific ’70s series. Though it’s “[n]ot entirely” the “best final season of an American sitcom ever,” VanDerWerff – who’s already watched the finale – puts it up there in his top ten. “What’s been so great about this final season of 30 Rock is that the show has now lasted long enough to pull off something that hasn’t been done in TV in a long time… It’s deliberately constructing the ‘end of a sitcom story, a final season that closes a bunch of storylines fans didn’t even realize they were invested in, pulling back in loose ends from the whole run of the show. And when looking back at the history of that particular TV phenomenon, it’s useful to go all the way back to a show 30 Rock has often been in conversation with: The Mary Tyler Moore Show.” Very meta, indeed.

It’s not all lady talk, though. Alyssa Rosenberg argues that “30 Rock’s become more of a cartoon over time, but its initial premise was as much a racial one as it was about gender, and one with resonance both for our political environment and the arguments we’ve had about race on television.” Rosenberg argues that the show’s black characters are realized “as individuals without reflecting back on African-Americans as a whole,” which in itself has become a crucial theme of the show. She mentions Tracy’s entourage of Grizz (Grizz Chapman) and Dot Com (Kevin Brown), “who are also sensitive, thoughtful, and in Dot Com’s case, highly intellectual men,” in particular as fully realized, interesting characters. While Rosenberg applauds Liz’s white guilt – as a foil to discuss larger issues of race in the show – The Atlantic’s Ta-Nehisi Coates commends 30 Rock’s rejection of white guilt, and writes that he has “a hard time thinking of a mainstream show (one that wasn’t a ‘black show’) that better handled race.” 30 Rock doesn’t get “enough credit for… how it handles race” – which it did, Coates observes, “by not actually handling race or black characters so much as interrogating whiteness.” Though Coates admits that he’s unaware of how many black writers the show’s had, naming Donald Glover and Hannibal Burris, he notes that “[s]ome of the best scenes on the show come from the portraits of whiteness and a kind of white maleness… And they did this without apologizing for being white, without giving a diversity lecture, but by just being the thing.”

In his superb Splitsider piece, John Mahoney wonders what else New York might do post-30 Rock, and what it “will… take to lure the next great network comedy away from LA to NYC.” Baptizing New York as “the true second city” of film and television, he admits that though “LA isthe industry… where NYC has consistently matched or even bettered LA in influence is in comedy: home to…SNL, Letterman, Fallon, The Daily Show and Colbert, and fueled by one of the country’s most active improv and standup scenes.” There’s a bunch of pros – better tax credits, and therefore ample production funds, as well as the Mayor’s increasing push for film and TV production. Still, Mahoney points out that, like the majority of New Yorkers, TV shows are having trouble finding space in this cluttered, ever-morphing city. But little space has its benefits; we’re closer to each other, Mahoney argues, and so we work better together. He predicts other shows like Girls and Louie might come close to filling the “TV comedy vacuum in New York” 30 Rock leaves in its wake, though ultimately “few shows can or will probably ever channel the New York entertainment and comedy world as specifically and brilliantly as 30 Rock.”

Emily Nussbaum similarly waxes lyrical about the poetry of New York in 30 Rock in her hilarious New Yorker piece, as she reminisces about the show’s relationship to spots in the city, and the New Yorkishness of all its New Yorkers – though it really only has one native New Yorker, Tracy – from Jack’s work ethic to Liz’s fury. Nussbaum points out that Liz embodies a “version of the New York dream — she may be an artistic sellout, but she’s wildly successful,” concluding that “[t]here will be other New York shows set in New York — you may have heard about a few that are set in Brooklyn. But there won’t be another 30 Rock. Instead, we’ll have to carry in our hearts Liz’s immortal words, words that will echo in reruns: ‘It doesn’t matter how long you’ve lived in New York. It’s still fun to pretend all the buildings are giant severed robot penises.’” Thus, 30 Rock has forever enriched the way we look upon the skyline.

With jokes like the one about robot penises, it’s no wonder Colin McGuire’s PopMatters piece makes a convincing case for 30 Rock as one of TV’s most unique comedies, in spite of its overall unpopularity – since its singularity is what has made the show “beloved,” as opposed to “popular.” McGuire insists that 30 Rock has “been the Seinfeld of a new generation, observational humor for the Pinterest set… in a world now obsessed with self-gratification… 30 Rock was the most instant way we could make ourselves feel smarter for liking something.” As McGuire points out, the show’s undeniably funny, but not everyone gets it – that’s what makes it “as interesting as 30 Rock has been,” though. For McGuire, it’s a comedy that’s hard to trump, since “[i]ts brilliance lies within its contradiction — you have to appreciate each episode’s intricacies to appreciate how mindless they truly are. For as smart as the writing can be, part of show’s appeal is how utterly unbelievable a lot of its premise appears. Finding obvious things to laugh about are almost as common as finding obscure things to laugh about.” McGuire predicts that “Fey will be fine moving forward…but if there’s nothing else we learned from the seven magnificent seasons that 30 Rock produced, we at least learned this: Sometimes the most disappointing failures can be the most inspiring creations.”

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