By Robert Bianco, USA TODAY
It's hard to keep the sitcom fun going when funny is all you've got.
That may sound contradictory: "Funny" is, after all, one of the main
qualities most viewers look for in a comedy. But while it may be
necessary, it's seldom been sufficient, at least not to maintain an
That's why most popular sitcoms are built less on
jokes than on characters: Their growth and change provides years' worth
of plots, and on those weeks when the jokes falter, viewers can still
enjoy spending time with the imaginary people they've come to love.
30 Rock, however,
took a different approach. This once brilliantly amusing
behind-the-TV-scenes satire, which ends its seven-year run Thursday
night (8 ET/PT, NBC) with a one-hour special (** out of four), was
always more interested in the industry it was skewering than in the
characters working there. As you'd expect from a show created by and
starring a former Saturday Night Live head writer, Tina Fey, 30 Rock thrived in those early, Emmy-winning seasons by making you think you were watching the biggest and best SNL running skit ever produced.
It also had a cast SNL
would envy - at least when you looked beyond the show's fictional
writers room. (Quick, name all those characters without checking IMDB.)
There's no questioning the joy and skill provided over the years by Jack
McBrayer, Jane Krakowski, Tracy Morgan and, most especially, Alec
Baldwin. Each played a distinctly amusing character, each as broadly
comic as a Marx Brothers creation - and each as unbelievable.
And that's where the problem came in. Change did come to 30 Rock's characters:
As we greet Fey's Liz Lemon tonight, she's a stay-at-home wife and
mother, having left her now-canceled late-night show, TGS With Tracy Jordan.
But as the opening jokes make clear, nothing's really at stake in this
change; you're not meant to emotionally invest in her marriage, and you
For the first three years or so, that ironic approach
worked. But when a show can't rely on characters' personal journeys to
carry the load, it has to up the ante on the plots. And so with each
season, Rock's plots got progressively and more gratingly silly,
as if they were borrowed from the Telenovelas that once caused so many
problems for Baldwin's Jack Donaghy. The quality fell, viewership
dropped in half, yet the show rode on, dragging down a lineup that
already had problems finding fans.
Anyone returning, hoping for the old Rock rather than the new, is bound to be disappointed in this strained outing, which says goodbye to TGS and by obvious extension 30 Rock itself.
Crises glide by, old jokes return, and some of the show's worst
tendencies go back on display, including its willingness to sacrifice
the integrity of even its smartest characters for a stupid joke - or
are we really to believe Jack wouldn't notice that the acronym for his
latest plan makes a vulgar reference to the human posterior? There's
even an attempt to make some kind sentimental, emotional contact, which
feels like it was written for people who don't like, or don't have,
The producers sent a list of plot points they don't
want spoiled, which we will respect, but really, would it matter if we
didn't? If these characters all engaged in some massive murder/suicide
pact (they don't) or were transported to Mars (they're not), would any
viewer be particularly shocked? Anything can happen tonight, precisely
because nothing matters, leaving you with an episode that will most
likely convince those formerly loyal viewers that they were wise to drop
And that's what we're left with: a show that was great fun - just not nearly as long as it lasted.