"30 Rock" kicked off its final season last night with the aptly titled "The Beginning of the End," which also happens to be the name of a 2008 "Lost" episode (hence the Dharma Initiative ice cream at the dinner party). Six years in, the show is still one of the better comedies on television, though it's not near the heights it reached in its second season, when episodes like "Rosemary's Baby," "Succession" and "Sandwich Day" were some of the finest and funniest the series has put out.
"30 Rock" feels ready to come to an end, mainly because the show has always seemed a little too smart to always reset to something like the status quo the way the sitcom format tends to demand. Liz Lemon (Tina Fey), Jack Donaghy (Alex Baldwin), Tracy Jordan (Tracy Morgan), Jenny Maroney (Jane Krakowski) and the rest don't feel like the same people they were when the show started, and like their real world equivelents, they seem like they should be ready to move on to new projects.
"The Beginning of the End" found Liz and Jack embracing the age-old technique of deliberately tanking a job to get out of it -- Liz so that she can get out of the impossible task of being Jenna's maid of honor and Jack so that he can drag NBC down enough that parent company Kabletown will want to sell it, possible to the owners of the Paas Easter egg dye company.
With just 13 episodes in this season, including an hour-long finale, there's a pretty good chance this will be an overarching story for this last year of the show, with Jack working to take over the network and to finally manage it properly -- "After seven years," he promises Liz, "you'll finally have a life!" But is that the ending we want for the show and for Liz, the promise of doing more of the same, with her and Jack riding off into the sunset, intent on continuing to put out a middling sketch comedy show with slightly less corporate interence and the additon of Taco Tuesdays at the cafeteria?
As much as the friendship between Liz and Jack is the anchor of "30 Rock," that doesn't seem like the finale the show either wants or deserves, which raises the question of where we'd like the "TGS with Tracy Jordan" crew to be when the show comes to a close. Jenna's getting married, Liz is in a happy, stable relationship with beta male Criss (James Marsden) and is trying for a baby.
Jack is aiming to be a CEO and Tracy's started his own studio. (And Kenneth, of course, has Jack's prediction to live up to: "in five years we'll all either be working for him... or be dead by his hand.") The characters all have end goals in sight, should the show choose to pursue them (or to jump into the future, "Weeds"-style, to see how these achievements worked out).
But as likable as Liz and co. have been over the years, "30 Rock" seems to invite a more "Seinfeld" type of ending rather than a cheery one. It's a prickly show -- it's one about coworkers rather than friends, and the friendships that exist are loaded, as seen in the way Liz strategically shirks her difficult bestie's wedding party duties. Liz herself has been one of contemporary TV's most fabulously flawed female figures -- smart but slovenly, a workaholic, awkward and ooky about sex, never as progressive nor as brave as she tells herself she is. To send her and Jack off into the sunset under new corporate ownership, still working together and continuing to crank out a middling sketch comedy show with the new addition of Taco Tuesday, doesn't seem like it would be true to spirit of the series nor its characters.
A lot of strange things can and probably will happen in the six and a half hours of airtime remaining for "30 Rock" -- but here's hoping that wherever it ends, its in a place as earned and as bittersweet as the show deserves. Workplaces change, and people move on or up and have to let go of more than just the microwave division. As goofy as the show can be, it's always kept a toe in the all-too-real world, and it'd be nice to see this reflected in whatever finale we're headed toward, with "TGS" ending and everyone heading to new gigs or Jack getting wooed away to some new company perch.
The characters can weather it -- and in fact, "30 Rock" has managed to make the relationship between Liz and Jack seem real enough that they would stay in touch even without an office in common. For a show that tends to choose gags over sentiment, the fact that its two dedicated coworkers have become, in fact, convincing friends may be it's greatest achievement -- and it's the kind of touching but unsentimental development that doesn't need to be called out in the end to be celebrated.