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‘30 Rock’ Will Always Be NBC’s Ombudsman—or Court Jester

Tina Fey’s series was at its best when ragging on its own network. Now, with a Peacock-hawking reunion special, the show itself might become the butt of the joke.

NBC/Ringer illustration

If you splice together enough 30 Rock jokes about its perennially struggling parent network, NBC, you get a rough approximation of the current state of NBC and its peers. Next to night cheese or the EGOT, perhaps the show’s most oft-cited concept is the aim to “make it 1997 again through science or magic”—a programming strategy still unchanged from when Jack Donaghy first proposed it in 2011; MILF Island anticipates the lurid thrills of reality concepts like Love Island, which CBS tried to translate for American audiences last summer; and now, NBC has launched a streaming service called Peacock, a name preemptively dismissed by the otherwise credulous page Kenneth Parcell as “insane.” (Instead of “We Peacock Comedy,” Peacock’s actual slogan is the only slightly more coherent “Can’t Not Watch.”)

Tina Fey’s beloved sitcom—currently available to stream on Hulu, Amazon Prime, and now Peacock—arrived at a time when broadcast television had just entered its still-ongoing crisis. 2006, the year it debuted, was the last time a network drama (Fox’s 24) won the Emmy for Outstanding Drama Series. Faced with outlets like HBO starting to siphon off cultural relevance, not to mention viewers, NBC green-lit exactly the kind of smart, niche show its competitors were supposedly doing better. Ironically, the waning power of network TV is also what allowed 30 Rock to stay on the air for seven seasons despite less-than-stellar ratings.

Now, 30 Rock has returned, albeit temporarily, for another inflection point in TV’s ever-volatile history. The show first went off the air in January 2013, just weeks before House of Cards would turn Netflix into a programming powerhouse and signal the rise of streaming. With networks already flailing in the face of upstarts like AMC and Showtime, tech intruders like Netflix and Amazon only turned up the heat; even as the total number of shows on air skyrocketed throughout the 2010s, broadcast’s output stayed roughly the same. Unable to beat the rise of these new platforms, networks’ parent companies opted to (try to) join them. Hulu began as a joint venture between Disney, Fox, and NBCUniversal; now, Disney owns both Hulu and Disney+ alongside ABC. CBS has CBS All Access, a platform as unflashy yet dependable as its namesake. And now, NBCUniversal—which in 2011 became a subsidiary of Comcast, not to be confused with Kabletown—has Peacock.

To promote its latest entertainment product and work around the restrictions of the coronavirus pandemic, NBCU has decided to kill two birds with one absurdly meta stunt. In lieu of an upfront presentation laying out its fall premieres to advertisers—an event typically conducted in a cavernous New York auditorium—Peacock commissioned an hourlong scripted reunion special from Fey and costars Alec Baldwin, Tracy Morgan, Jane Krakowski, and Jack McBrayer. The special’s mere existence reads like a tacit admission that modern network antics—endless riffs on Dick Wolf’s Chicago franchise; The Voice three hours a week; Council of Dads, the male corollary to MILF Island—are now indistinguishable from 30 Rock’s parody of the same. Depending on how this piece of infotainment turns out, reality may now be better at writing 30 Rock jokes than 30 Rock itself.

30 Rock itself is hardly immune from criticism. Like many showrunners, Fey and executive producer Robert Carlock responded to recent protests against police brutality by requesting the removal of four episodes featuring blackface from 30 Rock’s streaming archive. Nor were these episodes isolated, either within 30 Rock or Fey’s oeuvre as a whole. Fey and Carlock’s follow-up, Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, stars Krakowski (a white actress) as a Native American protagonist and dedicated a widely criticized episode to online critics of a Black character dressing as a geisha. As sharp as 30 Rock could be on the subject of clueless white liberalism—how many times have you seen “Tracy it’s me, Harriet Tubman” used to dunk on a whitewashed reboot?—it often missed an obvious target even closer to home.

And yet 30 Rock’s own missteps never prevented it from taking aim at its employer’s. One of the show’s chief thrills was always its fox-in-the-henhouse quality, with NBC paying for and airing an insider’s dissection of its increasingly desperate bids for our attention. The theme song for a fake rejected pilot called Gals on the Town (“One of them has to be Asian / Can they be good at their jobs?”) was a clear dig at Sex and the City ripoffs like NBC’s own Lipstick Jungle. The broad, lazy humor of TGS jokes about fart machines or Amelia Earhart getting her period was drawn from the experience of a former head writer at SNL. Occasional oversight from the likes of Kabletown and the Sheinhardt Wig Company highlighted the absurdity of conglomerates treating entertainment like an appliance.

Over time, 30 Rock became something like NBC’s ombudsman, or maybe its court jester—a neutral third party given carte blanche to bring inside baseball into the outside world. It’s been sorely missed in the seven years it’s been off the air, as the sense we’re living inside an extended episode has creeped ever further outside midtown Manhattan. This year’s Macy’s fireworks display—presented by NBC!—featured “unannounced displays” around a city already shaken by illness and widespread demonstrations, recalling the time when Jack accidentally re-created 9/11 with colorful explosives. John Slattery’s congressional candidate Steven Austin anticipated other incoherent populists bankrolled by elite interests. And what else is Quibi if not a giant joke at the expense of executives who spend billions chasing an audience they don’t understand?

But with “sex idiot” Ryan Lochte, who rose to fame through NBC’s hallowed Olympics broadcast, now given a documentary on Peacock, 30 Rock’s original use as satire remains its most enduring. Other shows have since followed in Fey’s self-reflexive footsteps; Netflix’s Lady Dynamite and BoJack Horseman each featured subplots making light of their own benefactors. 30 Rock could be jarring in its specificity, even as the loopiness of its gags kept it from getting too far into the weeds. A deep dive into the Leno-vs.-Conan feud seems less indulgent when seasoned with punch lines about getting kidnapped by pirates.

Still, 30 Rock’s prescience may have as much to do with the obliviousness of its targets as the genius of its writers. If the desperate tone of efforts like Peacock was so easy to anticipate, it could’ve theoretically been easy to avoid. (Steve Buscemi’s private eye may not have been in the C-suite, but “How do you do, fellow kids?” might as well be its motto.) Now recruited into a sales strategy, 30 Rock verges on becoming an example of the very complex it once mocked. In one final, hilarious twist, most NBC affiliates are boycotting the reunion special because it’s an advertisement for their streaming competition. The joke’s on 30 Rock, but it’s still a good joke.