Parting With a TV Show Is Such Sweet Sorrow
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The writers chose the understated route and for the most part it worked. Most of the goodbyes are subtle affairs, and though a bit forced, the emotionality feels more than earned. When Dwight realizes Michael’s respect for him, I cried, but no moment felt as poignant as the final encounter between Pam and Michael: She misses her boss’s goodbye because she goes to a movie thinking he will leave the next day. Michael makes it through security at the airport, makes a self-referential remark about the absurdity of an eight-year documentary, and then walks away in what looks like an iconic ending shot. Pam, shoes in hand, runs Michael down. She reaches up on her tippy toes, in a scene reminiscent of the bittersweet ending to “Lost in Translation,” hugs Michael and watches him walk away. This calm and silent scene provided a pitch-perfect send-off to the loud, over-the-top, bumbling Michael while encapsulating the awkward, loving relationship that emerged between the two. This is where “The Office” should have ended. If it had, it would not have broken any conventions or set new standards; it would have ended the show within the conventional framework, but in its own nuanced way.
This season, the writers try to get us to care about Jim potentially leaving for Philadelphia, but at this point it seems too much to ask of us. Ironically, though, given that “The Office” already cleared away all of its important emotional payoff, it retains the luxury of creating a much more playful and possibly absurd finale, one in line with its ingenuity, which challenges our expectations for easy closure. But I imagine a more saccharine one that perhaps lets us see Michael returning, or married, or Holly with child.
“30 Rock” faces a different challenge. Unlike “Seinfeld,” it partakes both of stories that intend to move along in life, and also the “Seinfeld”-esque timeless absurd humor. Characters develop, Liz Lemon loves herself more and more, Jack Donaghy softens as a father, Tracy tries to embrace stability, while the rest of the cast play up their zaniness. Most important, the heart of the show beats on, growing stronger each season: Jack and Liz develop that odd intimacy of unlikely close friends delivering numerous moments that elicit tears and strong emotions while exploring the nature of masculinity and femininity in the contemporary era. Yet, despite or on top of these more characteristic elements of a plot-driven comedy, “30 Rock” watches like a pure sitcom. So much depends on our love of these crazy people, on situational humor, slapstick and independent “SNL”-style gags, on meta self-reference, on persistent political, racial and cultural satire, and whole episodes feel so cartoonish as to veer into the wonderfully absurd. That the show succeeds despite all of its disparate parts signifies perhaps the most genius aspect of the show. Week in and out this show balances many clashing components to create the consistently smartest show on TV without falling into the traps of sarcasm and cynicism.
Not only must “30 Rock” end its series, tie up loose ends, provide comfort and a sense of closure for viewers, but ultimately the ending will force the question it’s never wanted to answer: sitcom or plot-driven comedy, cartoonish or realistic, satire or serious. Already distinguishing itself from “Seinfeld,” “30 Rock” consciously treats its last season as a last season. (The first episode was titled “The Beginning of the End.”)
All season long, “30 Rock ,” in almost a swinging-for-the-fences mode, has taken all of its numerous components and ratcheted them up to extreme. The political satire is less subtle, but more scathing, the meta-commentary on TV and the show itself more insistent, and the characters engage in more introspection each episode than in any of the past seasons. The show chooses to go out on its own terms because of its ambitiousness. It inevitably misfires here and there, but this season has been hilarious and poignant. However, recent episodes appear to concede to the need for closure, albeit, like “The Office ,” on its own terms.