IMAGE: 30 Rock (NBC)
In this, the latest and confirmed to be last season of 30 Rock, the show’s extraordinary writers have once again found a way to self-reflexively speak to the experience of guiding the journey to its end. Already aware going in that this will be their concluding chapter, they have decided to acknowledge a familiar, if disheartening truth about episodic television: that frequently it all ends as an embarrassing, turgid mess. Far too often a program that was once a joy, perhaps compromised by the lust for ratings and longevity, overstays its welcome, becoming little more than an unrecognisable shadow of its former glory. Thankfully 30 Rock itself is at no risk of fading away or tipping over into drivel, but rather – as it so frequently does in its rapid-fire wit and self-aware irony – is acknowledging and gleefully riffing on this sad truism.
Loosely inspired by creator/show-runner/actor Tina Fey’s several years experience on Saturday Night Live, 30 Rock was born out of television production, and has remained acutely aware of its medium’s minutia – both on and behind the screen. It is informed at every level by a love of narrative tropes and genre convention, and with a surety that appears deceptively effortless, it mirrors these textual paradigms back in order to celebrate, malign or subvert them at any given moment.
And this latest season continues this ingenuity, once again masterfully weaving the expectations of the show, its creators, and the audience itself into the very fabric of its fiction. The central conceit of these recent episodes, established in the season opener, revolves around the primary characters, NBC executive Jack Donaghy (Alec Baldwin) and show-runner/writer Liz Lemon (Fey), who have desperately strived for the previous six years to keep the program they produce, TGS with Tracy Jordan, on the air, now knowingly trying to destroy their own creation, and by extension, bring down NBC itself in the implosion. The show, they realise, is now a millstone around their neck, and in order to be free they must destroy it, or it will destroy them.
The term they use is ‘tanking it’ – which essentially means throwing the game; intentionally doing badly so that you can be freed from the obligation of doing a job that you either despise or recognise is impossible. Liz attempts to ‘tank’ her obligations as a bridesmaid, throwing a wearyingly sad hens night with elderly neighbours and a dreary clown; Jack knowingly fills NBC’s broadcast schedule with unwatchable garbage (at one point hilariously illustrated in a non sequitur commercial for one of Donaghy’s new guaranteed programming failures: a collection of old men in tank tops wandering around confused, actually entitled ‘Tank It’).
In both cases, both Jack and Liz reason that the burden of success is too high – too much responsibility, too much effort; a wearying, endless struggle that will only be met with complaint and criticism anyway – so they decide to blow it all off. They realise that the expectation they are facing – from viewers, from executives, from the staff itself – is impossibly high, so they decide to do the inevitable: own the screw up, bring the whole production down on their own terms. The meta-analogy being drawn to 30 Rock’s own circumstance is pointed: having announced that this will be their final, truncated year (13 episodes rather than the usual order of 22), expectation is high to see if 30 Rock, back-to-back three time winner of the Outstanding Comedy Series Emmy (2007-9), can do what so many other shows have failed to, and deliver material worthy of its critical (if mystifyingly not always ratings) success in its concluding run.
And with this notion of ‘Tanking it’, 30 Rock’s writers appear to be comically acknowledging that this upcoming season will present an almost impossible directive for them to fulfil. Hopes are high and their record is stellar; so they inevitably face the most unnerving television reality: that a satisfying finale is more the exception than the rule; that a show’s final season, perhaps crippled with expectation or too far removed from its original premise, often proves to be barely a shadow of its former glory.
Indeed, it is a pattern that has sadly repeated again and again, from anarchic sitcoms to sombre dramas; from sweeping sci-fi epics to the character portraiture of primetime soap opera.
To use but a few examples, in its final, ninth season, Scrubs went from playfully snarky nonsense to become an uncomfortably mean-spirited, sullen affair, that made the fatal flaw of mistaking narcissism, aggression and incompetence for character quirkiness. Many of the most beloved characters were moved on to be replaced with a fresh young brood of hotlings, and old recurring gags (that had probably outstayed their welcome) like JD and Turk’s bromance were awkwardly slammed up against attempts to fashion new running shtick that had little time to get traction.
Meanwhile, in its final year (weirdly also a season nine), Rosanne utterly disembowelled itself, forgoing the central premise of the entire program: a working class family getting by in a recognisable world, for nonsense indulgence: they win the lottery and go all Beverly Hillbillies on everyone. In no time Rosanne was having Steven Segal-inspired action movie fight sequences with terrorists on a train; Rosanne’s sister Jackie was falling in love with a Moldavian prince; Dan’s mother was trying to murder her son (weirdly played for laughs); and the entire run of the show was revealed in its final moments to be a reworked fiction of the central character’s own life – thus everything that the viewer had been invested in for the past almost-decade was fabrication, a novel written by Rosanne herself that obscured some uglier truths.
In truth it was an audacious final move to make, but rather alienating and self-destructive for a show that, until that final season, celebrated ‘realities’ not usually shown in a sitcom genre – or in some cases on television in general: domestic abuse; eating disorders; divorce; death and loss. To be told that this repository-of-life’s-harsher-truths-made-palatable-by-humour was in fact all just an elongated fantasy concocted by the titular character may have been a nice self-reflexive nod to Rosanne Barr’s purpose in devising the show, but it left the audience’s suspension of belief and investment in the fiction irreparably damaged in its wake.
Even in other more procedural, dramatic programs this loss of identity can erode the fabric of the show, ultimately undermining its premise, as the final season of The X-Files revealed (a series that also ended on season nine – perhaps the real lesson here is that people just shouldn’t make ninth seasons of anything… maybe that should be a rule or something).
Bafflingly, The X-Files made the fundamental misstep of presuming that it was not in fact the collision of believing Mulder and sceptic Scully – faith and mind embodied in a symbiotic duo – that was at the heart of the show, but rather the monster-of the-week premise. In place of the two central leads – David Duchovny’s Mulder left into the nether-sphere of non-recurring peripheral characters in season eight (which totally made sense considering he had fought tirelessly and sacrificed his career to open the X-Files and keep them running), and Gillian Anderson’s Scully was benched to become the Yoda for their two replacements – the show was handed over to new agents, the T-1000 (I’m being flip, but Robert Patrick is great) and new-agey faithful Monica Reyes (Annabeth Gish), who from that point onward did the majority of the fieldwork. With the paradigm flipped and less compelling protagonists pushed to the fore, the show swiftly slumped and was retired, ending on a muddled clip show that fleetingly returned Mulder to try and iron out the almost decade-long Mobius strip conspiracy narrative that some viewers had barely tolerated anyway. The truth may have still been out there, but at that point few people cared to look for it.
But for me (and I know all of my examples thus far have dated me horribly, and that this will only add to it), the best example I can think of is one of my favourite programs ever, a show that at its best was a beacon for all that the medium of episodic television was capable of producing, and at its worst was a sign of the blind, production-line mentality of serialised narrative: Northern Exposure.
If you didn’t see it, Northern Exposure was a beautiful, deceptively unassuming show about a New York doctor who is contractually obligated to work, against his will, in rural Alaska to pay off his tuition. Superficially it was a fish out of water story with a cast of lovable eccentrics, but in actuality – at its best – it was a wondrously multifaceted text, effortlessly blending philosophy, literature, social science, absurdity, snappy dialogue, and unapologetic sweetness, all into a warm, affectionate weekly package. I would happily posit that its third season may be one of the finest twenty four hours of any film fiction ever produced.*
Its final season is abominable. No excuses. No take-backsies. It’s just bad. For me, every decision they made in that season was dead wrong. Perhaps it was in good part a tonal shift due to the primary show-runner and producer leaving (although it was still being stewarded by David Chase – a guy who knows a thing or two about great television thank-you-very-much-The–Sopranos), but the show itself turned peculiarly unpleasant. Not just of-lesser-quality, but disagreeable – genuinely unlikable. Beloved characters became selfish and unappealing; new tedious characters were introduced with maudlin problems that had no place in that world; the central character of the series, Joel Fleishman (Rob Morrow), was written out of the show in a faux-mysticfarewell half way through the season. He literally went on a metaphysical quest and disappeared into a netherworld vision of New York that was left intentionally – almost aggressively – nonspecific. (…I wish to the Mighty Thor that I was making that up.)
In short, the final season (season six, not nine for once) gave its best shot at undoing everything that made the first five seasons grand. The romance percolating throughout the years was revealed to go nowhere; the principle character, whose integration into the community was the driving force of the show’s mission statement, was lost in the vapours of who-the-hell-knows-what; and most criminally of all, the town of Cicely Alaska suddenly seemed far less magical. And the peculiar thing was that many of these episodes were still being written by the regular series writers – people who had proved their skills repeatedly – it seemed they had simply lost their way.
Lest I be accused of having a myopic vision of the early years, I should point out that even in the great seasons (the years still produced by the original show-runners), there were flaws. Indeed, there’s an episode in the second season, ‘War and Peace’, that infuriates me, that (like the final season), I actively have to obliterate from my head-canon of the show. It is an episode that tries to be so postmodern and self-aware that it utterly fractures the viewer’s suspension of disbelief and the fiction collapses in on itself. In the narrative, in a microcosm of the cold war and its chest-thumping escalation theatrics, belligerent American capitalist Maurice becomes involved in a pistol duel with stubborn soviet Russian Nikolai – but at the point of calling ‘Draw!’, the characters step out of the scenario entirely. Members of the onlooking crowd speak of themselves as fictional beings within a television narrative act-structure; they reference the nonsense mechanics of the tropes that they are impossibly locked within; and then ultimately abandon the conclusion, actively un-resolving their way out of an arbitrary conflict.** …Bah! I hate it! It burns!
(…And yes, I do appreciate the seeming contradiction in chastising Northern for leaving a crack in the fourth wall when a show such as 30 Rock busts through it like the Kool-Aid Jug in every second line – but 30 Rock has always embraced its plasticine ‘reality’, while in every other episode Northern went to great pains to carve out a cohesive, ordered world that the viewer could invest in, and which in this moment is irreparably abandoned.)
In spite of the many flaws that mar Northern Exposure, however, my abiding love for the show remains nonetheless. Despite entirely derailing itself in its farewell year – like so many shows before it and since – I will defend to the death (not really; I am an abject coward and ‘death’ is pretty harsh) the worth and artistic merit of that show. When it shines brightest it is truly glorious to behold, and looked at from the right angle you can barely see the dints.
I’ve not seen the end of 30 Rock (currently scheduled to screen January 31st, 2013) – no one has yet, save perhaps the makers themselves – but I feel fairly certain that the concerns that have plagued innumerable other programs (whether knowingly or not) at this final point of their life cycle need not be applied here. As they have already proved repeatedly in the past, the ingenious writers, producers and performers of this sparklingly witty show are all presciently aware of the pitfalls and challenges they face heading into this concluding phase of their narrative; and thankfully, as always, have proved themselves adroit critics of their own creative act, playfully mocking themselves before they ever actually risk becoming the butt of the joke.
IMAGE: Northern Exposure (CBS)
*A season that culminated in the Peabody Award winning ‘Cicely’ – one of two such awards the show received along with its smattering of Emmys.
** You can watch the scene in all its metafictional fourth wall breakingafication here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uu6_BtlJ7yc