30 Rock has been off the air for more than six years, but I rarely go a day without thinking about it. Part of it, I’m sure, is the fact that the sitcom, which introduced a new kind of female protagonist, imprinted on me at a formative time of my life, when I was trying to figure out what kind of woman I wanted to and could be. Liz Lemon, played by creator Tina Fey, is the head writer of a live sketch show called TGS (a more disaster-prone version of Saturday Night Live, where Fey became the first female head writer in 1999) who is smart, ambitious, and conscientious—but also cranky, petty, slovenly, and rigidly sex-negative. When it came to race and gender, Liz had lofty goals of inclusivity, but she also had to work within a corporate structure where compromise was valued over creativity. I remember frequently gasping that such a contemporary-feeling show could exist. Liz Lemon didn’t look like me, in our current representational parlance, but I’d never encountered—and still haven’t—a series that so reflected my sensibilities and concerns. Turns out, 30 Rock was that show for a great many people.
Though a critical darling and an awards magnet, the NBC series was nonetheless never a ratings juggernaut. (In fact, one of the sitcom’s running jokes was about its own network’s rock-bottom ratings, especially after the heyday of Friends and Seinfeld.) But part of why I think about 30 Rock so often today is that its influence can be found everywhere, especially on shows about female nerds, female leadership, and showbiz meta-commentary. Much of what made the show so distinctive, even revolutionary, comes from Fey’s auteurist vision. Its joke density was a marvel, especially for network TV, often rewarding second or even third viewings with missed gags. Its sense of humor—sly, biting, go-for-broke topical, and unafraid of going over some viewers’ heads—was a bounty for the pop culture– and media-obsessed. Viewers disappointed in Fey’s mishandling of race on Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, her follow-up project, should find fewer faults in 30 Rock, in which Liz Lemon isn’t just another lovably quirky white lady, but one whose occasionally bumbling whiteness is acknowledged and appropriately mocked.
There to mock her—and to be mocked themselves—are four equally memorable characters. Jane Krakowski’s TGS co-star Jenna Maroney is a sociopathic dingbat who combines every negative stereotype about actresses into one weirdly personable package, while Tracy Morgan plays a fictionalized version of himself as disgraced movie star Tracy Jordan, a self-styled truth-teller who’s wrecked by fame in a whole different way. Jack McBrayer broke out early in the show’s run as Kenneth Parcell, an eternally cheerful NBC page with a zeal for TV and a seemingly endless supply of stories about his hometown of Stone Mountain, Georgia. And Alec Baldwin enjoyed a career-revitalizing turn as network president Jack Donaghy, a pompous, self-made one-percenter ever on the verge of a nervous breakdown, whose dynamic with Liz is the show’s heart.
30 Rock would eventually become one of the very best comedies of the past 20 years, but the show didn’t find firm footing until midway through the first season. For newbies, then, a good starting episode is “Tracy Does Conan,” the seventh of the series and the first to showcase what would become its signature manic pace. Written by Fey, the episode guest-stars Conan O’Brien (playing himself), Aubrey Plaza, Chris Parnell, and Rachel Dratch. It also introduces two of the show’s most enduring jokes, the aural incomprehensibility of the phrase “rural juror” and Jack’s reasoning to Liz about why he’s wearing a tux seemingly for no reason: “It’s after 6. What am I, a farmer?”
The goal of the episode is simple: get Tracy to the Late Night With Conan O’Brien set by 6 so he can promote TGS. It should be an easy day for Liz, except there’s no such thing as an easy day for Liz. After giving blood in the morning (and left scrambling for sugar for the rest of the day), she has to contend with a jealous Jenna seething over having her Conan appearance bumped for Tracy; a needy Jack repeatedly calling her into his office to write jokes that are funny but not too funny for a speech at a GOP fundraiser; a nervous Conan who takes every opportunity to remind Liz that Tracy tried to stab him the last time the actor was on his show; and, most pressingly, a hallucinating Tracy, who’s suffering some kind of psychological meltdown after he runs out of his medication. Waiting for her at home is a long-overdue breakup with her on-again, off-again boyfriend Dennis (Dean Winters), who represents everything Liz is settling for because her life is too hectic to get together.
Arriving so early in the series’s run, “Tracy Does Conan” can only gesture at the profound depth the characters will eventually accrue. But it’s a fine example of the ensemble’s crackerjack chemistry, the show’s thematic tapestry, and the tireless joke factory that the show would become. Many other comedies have since taken up its batons, but few can rival the sharpness of its writing, the brilliance of its performances, or the relatability of its concerns. And given the expiration date built into its breezy topicality, I suggest you start before it’s too late.
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