i Need Media
30 Rock, we hardly knew ye
By Matthew Singer 02/07/2013
Last week, Liz Lemon went gently into that good night. After seven years, NBC pushed 30 Rock off the air, with an abbreviated season and a finale that, for those of us who lost track of the show a while ago, felt awfully anticlimactic; I hardly even knew it was happening until a day before the last episode aired. For a series that racked up more awards and critical acclaim than just about any other network sitcom of the last decade, it was a rather inauspicious end. But then, perhaps that should’ve been expected: I can’t think of another program for which the gulf between its accolades and its ratings has been quite so famously large.
It can’t be honestly said that 30 Rock met a premature demise. In the last two or three seasons, the show had grown so meta and self-referential, it started to become a snake choking on its own tail. As with The Simpsons, it continued to show occasional flashes of brilliance, but it started running out of gas around 2009, and in all truth probably concluded a year too late. But the fact that it disappeared with seemingly little fanfare — aside from blogs and Twitter, which tried valiantly to imbue the finale with grand cultural significance — shows us that, when it comes to televised comedy, we live in a deeply divided country.
It’s only going to get worse. In the next year, it’s entirely possible that both Community and Parks and Rec — two other shows with cults so devoted you’d think they were actually popular — are going to be canceled, and the vast majority of the country, too busy watching DVR’d Two and a Half Men episodes, won’t even notice. And just wait until the Arrested Development movie comes out and bombs at the box office, to the bewilderment of the small section of the population who will treat it as the greatest cultural event of whatever year it happens to get released.
Observers often talk about how the Internet has homogenized the planet into a monoculture. That’s clearly not true. And I’m glad it’s not. Because 30 Rock and Community and Parks and Rec are on a major network, and win Emmys and adulation from critics, there’s an assumption that those are the shows everyone is watching. But they turn out to be the shows that no one is watching, and that are struggling to stay afloat. And that makes me appreciate them even more. A part of me — the part left over from my idealist punk youth — still distrusts mainstream groupthink. I tend to value the things the majority often rejects, and though it’s a bit selfish, I enjoy having that validated, even if it means shows I cherish become martyrs. Besides, look at what popularity gets you: Maybe 30 Rock was a bit past its prime, but it died with greater dignity than The Simpsons and The Office have been allowed, kept alive only because of their ratings. As someone once said, it’s better to burn out than fade away, and that’s true, even on television.
I Need Media is a biweekly media column by Matthew Singer. Follow him on Twitter@mpsinger.