NBC’s acclaimed sitcom 30 Rock ends tonight. To recognize this, Chris Osterndorf has compiled one possible list of many of the top 10 episodes of the show. Additionally, here’s a refresher and a look back on some of the show’s shining moments.
Recently, I wrote a list of the best episodes of Gossip Girl for Heave to coincide with the end of the CW’s once-buzzworthy teen soap opera. Now, I turn my attentions to another New York-set show, albeit one with slightly more critical acclaim.
30 Rock is an interesting animal, especially compared to NBC’s other high-minded comedies. The frequently praised (if little-seen) sitcom never had the cuddly moments of The Office or the uber-fandom of Community. But Tina Fey’s madcap, self-referential series has always been excellent. There was a time when it was perhaps the most exciting comedy on television, and even if viewers didn’t agree, critics always did. It won the Emmy four years in a row, before being dethroned by the much more popular if not much less exciting (at least in my opinion) Modern Family.
Although the end of 30 Rock feels more like a footnote than an event, it still warrants taking a look at. It’s unquestionably one of the best television shows of the last decade, if not all time. Perhaps in syndication, 30 Rock can find new life among viewers who realize its brilliance, even if they realized it too late. But in the meantime, I hope you enjoy my list of the show’s ten best episodes, in preparation for tonight’s finale.
10. Season 1: “The Head and the Hair” – Liz Lemon suffers a lot of abuse throughout the course of 30 Rock. Tina Fey comes from a long line of comedians who’ve created characters based around themselves, and then done as much as they can to inflict pain on those characters. So you’d think an episode where Liz accidentally goes on a date with her cousin would be, well, pretty painful. But “The Head and the Hair” is actually the rare moment where Liz is told she’s better than she thinks she is, and damn it, she deserves it. And of course, this is also the episode where Kenneth Parcell espouses his love for television by claiming that it’s “the true American art form,” even more so than jazz or morbid obesity. True dat, Ken. True dat.
9. Season 4: “Lee Marvin vs. Derek Jeter” – More than anything else, 30 Rock is a show that’s comprised of moments. Sure, the story arcs were always great, but 30 Rock was at its best when it was hurling jokes at you a mile a minute, each one funnier than the last. This episode has both plot and humor firing on all cylinders, as Jack is forced to decide between two very different women. It’s a premise that’s been done many times before in sitcom land, but as 30 Rock did with everything, it made it all its own. And the jokes, oh, the jokes. For instance, this episode gave us the greatest cutaway gag of all time, in the form of fictional television show “Bitch Hunter,” starring Will Ferrell in an unforgettable cameo.
8. Season 1: “Tracy Does Conan” – Also known as the episode with the little blue man. Here, we find Tracy going bonkers as he prepares for a guest spot on Late Night With Conan O’Brien (playing himself), where he previously went on a stabbing rampage. Another beautiful detail: Liz and Conan used to date. Oh, and it’s the first appearance of Dr. Leo Spaceman, so, yeah.
7. Season 1: “Jack-Tor” – When 30 Rock first started, it was somewhat unclear whether Liz Lemon and Jack Donaghy’s relationship as frenemies would tip more toward the friendly or the enemy. But “Jack-Tor” finds Liz coaching Jack through an appearance on TGS, and forever solidifying their relationship as the former. Jack and Liz are one of television’s most interesting couples; although early episodes hinted at romantic tension (addressed adeptly in this season’s “Florida”), that dynamic soon gave way to their far more compelling plutonic relationship. There’s something to be said for a show that doesn’t have to pull the “will they, won’t they” or the “good guy vs. bad guy” cards to make its two leads compelling.
6. Season 6: “Leap Day” – 30 Rock basically reinvented leap day for this episode, and they did it flawlessly. Eastbound and Down’s Steve Little guests here as a billionaire who indecent proposals Liz, and Jim Carrey also appears as Leap Dave Williams in a fictional movie that could easily be a real Jim Carrey movie. Most importantly, Leap Day is a reminder that even in season six, when most people were saying that 30 Rock’s best days were behind it, they could still pull of a ridiculously funny episode.
5. Season 2: “MILF Island” – I’m very fond of 30 Rock’s first season, but the show really came into it’s own in season 2, as evidenced by the hilarious “MILF Island.” Jack tries to figure out who called him a “Class-A Moron” to the New York Post, while Survivor parody MILF Island plays in the background. It’s one of the best examples of 30 Rock pulling off the show-within-a-show conceit, and it’s the ultimate example of a bottle episode done right.
4. Season 4: “Anna Howard Shaw Day” – Yet another holiday episode done 30 Rock style. It became pretty clear early on in the show’s run that Liz Lemon wasn’t a character that needed a man to make herself complete. But that’s what made the revelation that she still wanted one to share her life in this anti-Valentine’s Day episode all the more poignant. And it has the best tag in 30 Rock history, with three of Liz’s ex-boyfriends (Jon Hamm, Jason Sudekis and Dean Winters) talking like Jamaicans while she’s drugged up after a root canal, before Fey breaks the third wall by looking at the camera and saying, “Happy Valentine’s Day, no one!,” gleefully acknowledging the show’s continued existence despite its lack of viewers.
3. Season 3: “Apollo, Apollo” – Although it doesn’t contain most of my personal favorite episodes, it’s hard to deny that season three of 30 Rock contains some of the most inspired television writing this side of ever. It’s not just that “Apollo, Apollo” contains Tracy’s fake moon-landing, another appearance by the always entertaining Dennis Duffy, a cameo by Adam West, Liz trying to kill Jenna or the first appearance of Kenneth’s puppet vision. It’s all of that combined, plus a rare glimpse into Jack Donaghy’s sensitive side. Probably the definitive Jack episode, “Apollo, Apollo” has Alec Baldwin’s corporate shark longing for the simple joys of childhood, and finding them in a commercial featuring Liz as a phone sex operator. It also coined the helpful if not disgusting term “lizzing,” a.k.a. laughing and whizzing.
2. Season 5: “Live Show” – One of the most impressive things about 30 Rock’s first live episode is that it doesn’t feel even remotely gimmicky. The other impressive part about it is, well, everything. It stays true to the nature of the show, working the concept of live television into the storyline while incorporating the whip-smart sketch style that made Tina Fey a household name at Saturday Night Live. The second time 30 Rock went live was just as impressive, but for sheer unhinged, unadulterated, event-level television, it’s impossible to beat this one.
1. Season 3: “Kidney Now!” – Before you get angry about how this is far from the best episode of 30 Rock, or about how I left your favorite off this list, let me say that this was a ridiculously tough decision. There were so many near-perfect episodes of this show that I simply didn’t include because they weren’t among my personal favorites, or because I honestly couldn’t decide whether they were better than the many other episodes I considered. Even as I was finishing this list, I was surprised just how many episodes I rearranged, cut out and reconsidered. There is a wealth of amazing material to choose from here, and if you haven’t explored this wonderful program yet, I promise you, even though the show is ending it’s not too late to start. (Thanks, Netflix!) Basically, even though I would like to, as the show frequently talks about, “have it all,” I simply can’t include every single episode that might be worthy in this small sampling.
That being said, “Kidney Now!” does kind of have it all. Jack bonds with his father. Liz branches out from TGS. Tracy gives a graduation speech where he continues to act like Tracy. It also provides social commentary in a way that only 30 Rock can do. When Jack’s newly found dad, a die-hard liberal named Milton Greene (Alan Alda) needs a kidney, Jack organizes a celebrity-filled event where the most ludicrous benefit single of all time is recorded. It points out the hypocrisy and showiness of such ego-stroking ventures, while at the same time enlisting every working pop star whose schedule was open.
“Kidney Now!” ends with one of my favorite exchanges between Liz and Jack in 30 Rock history. As they prepare for new adventures and changes in life, Liz turns to Jack and says, “We sure had quite a year,” to which Jack responds, “What are you talking about? It’s May.” It’s a moment that’s entirely self-referential, very snarky, and also just a little bit sweet. In short, it’s everything that made 30 Rock great.