With next Thursday’s premiere, the show dives right back into NBC’s financial wreck, with winks at 30 Rock’s indie status. “We’ll trick those race-car-loving wide loads into watching your lefty homoerotic propaganda hour yet!” Jack says. A few of the early plots are limp, including a Three’s Company–like misunderstanding about Liz and Pete. Harder hitting is a parody of the writers’ strike, a scenario that explodes when Kenneth discovers Jack’s paycheck—so big it folds out, despite Jack’s demands for company-wide cuts. Led by Kenneth, the pages picket NBC. Kenneth is incorruptible, he even sees through all of Jack’s lies. But the plot resolves with a cynical twist, a reflection of the union’s willingness to settle for token gestures. It also suggests an unsettling shift in the series itself: With Liz co-opted, Jack’s antagonist is now Kenneth, the lowest man on the NBC totem pole, someone so pure, so easily gulled, he’s no threat at all.
Still, I have to admit the last line of the show literally made me gasp. I don’t want to spoil anything, but it was the kind of fuck-you to NBC and its flagship properties that would seem incredibly subversive if it weren’t for the fact that it’s airing on NBC. And by the second episode, the series has found its juicy rhythms again, with rat-a-tat riffs on government bailouts and the return of Will Arnett as Jack’s corporate enemy, who has been busy infiltrating the Obama administration through playdates with Malia.
30 Rock has made me laugh harder in the last few years than practically any other show. But I do wonder how it’ll fare in reruns: Will it last 40 years, like Monty Python, or is it more like SCTV, an influential series that now feels musty, its targets having faded long ago? I’ve been reading John Ortved’s unauthorized oral history of The Simpsons, a pleasurably nasty account of collaboration and backstabbing. Ortved captures the excitement of the series’ radical beginnings, back when Bart Simpson was considered a dangerous role model and the first President Bush complained that families should be “a lot more like the Waltons and a lot less like the Simpsons.” (The writers wedged Bart’s comeback into the intro: “Hey, we’re like the Waltons! We’re praying for the end of the Depression, too.”)
But as Ortved points out, with time, the show stopped being subversive or even challenging—not merely because it’s nearly impossible to keep writing cutting-edge comedy past a few seasons, but because the culture itself had embraced the show’s rhetoric. “Do the Bartman” was a radio sensation, and the series became a patriotic favorite and, finally, the tired flagship brand of the network it once mocked.
For all of the technological changes afoot in television, no one’s got a time machine. Monty Python launched when TV was so disposable the BBC nearly threw out the show’s reels. To discuss the skits, you had to act them out—you never knew if you’d see them again. In contrast, 30 Rock’s audience will recap, rewind, analyze it into atoms. TV is something we archive, believing it will last. But even this cycle may be temporary: Who knows what shape TV will take as it moves online? Even if 30 Rock isn’t funny for the ages, it might be something just as interesting: a time capsule of the crisis that turned TV into something new.