30 Rock, Season 7, Episode 13: “Last Lunch”
Written by Tina Fey and Tracey Wigfield
Directed by Beth McCarthy-Miller
Aired January 31st, 2013 on NBC
In its prime, 30 Rock was the best sitcom on television. It was whip-smart, expertly paced, and packed with wall-to-wall jokes. It was a satire of show-business and politics, an absurdist workplace comedy, and the story of how one of the all-time great mentor-mentee relationships managed to better both people involved. The show managed to comment on its genre, on its medium, on politics, gender dynamics, and the nature of celebrity with a facile ease and a tongue planted firmly in its cheek. The show’s brilliant second season should be taught as an example of TV at the top of its game, but throughout its run, 30 Rock was dynamic, hilarious, and virtually unique in the landscape of television. In a lot of ways, it was a throwback to ’70s sitcoms (the one most-often cited is Mary Tyler Moore, but I see a lot of Taxi and even some of the blatantly sillier ’70s sitcoms in its DNA as well), but its sensibilities were distinctly modern and even boundary pushing. It was never a hit show, but it was always an interesting one, and even when it seemed the show had lost its way, I was always happy to have it on television, and to see the ways it broke and rebuilt the sitcom formula.
Though the show had its weaker years, it went out at the top of its game with a final season that will always be in the conversation about the best final seasons in sitcom history. It managed to make us care about characters who had largely been cartoons throughout the run of the show, giving Jenna, Tracy, and Kenneth real emotional arcs that came to satisfying conclusions (and giving Pete the only ending he could possibly have hoped for: a punchline). “Last Lunch” closed the door with one final episode of show-within-the-show TGS with Tracy Jordan and a lingering, celebratory look at the happy endings awaiting the characters we had come to love.
“Last Lunch” is structured as a call-back to many of the show’s greatest stock plots: Liz has to wrangle Tracy into producing one last episode to avoid a clause in his contract that would force NBC to make a major payout, while she is also feuding with Jack. While these conflicts play out in the foreground, a surprising amount of the episode is given over to one of 30 Rock’s great minor characters: Lutz. He has the privilege of choosing where the writers will eat their titular final meal, and he outwits their attempts to foil them at every turn. The Lutz storyline is just plain fun, and it provides a business-as-usual runner to some of the more nakedly emotional material the episode had to deal with. “Last Lunch” is very cognizant of how hard it is to say goodbye when it might really be for the last time, and it beautifully mixes giving us the emotional send-off we need while reminding us that these characters are still going to exist, quite probably in each other’s lives, and still going to be doing stupid, absurd things to each other, even if we won’t get to see them.
At every turn, “Last Lunch” figures out a way to give us the emotions we want fro ma series finale without undercutting its absurdly constructed characters to get there. Jenna shows emotion not because she actually feels it, but because her mirror has been removed from her dressing room, and after years spent gazing at herself in it, she actually feels a ping of nostalgia and opens up emotionally. Tracy gives the episode an opportunity to call back to the pilot, when Liz is forced to track him to a strip club to convince him to do the show. There is something immensely satisfying about creating a perfect circle in television writing, in referencing the beginning as the show finds its end, and Tracy’s conversation with Liz is sweet without feeling even slightly inauthentic.
Of course, it all comes down, at the end, to Jack and Liz. These two were always the heart of 30 Rock its most three-dimensional pairing and the emotional core on which all of the show’s inspired lunacy always hung. Resolving their feud and allowing both to declare their (entirely, perfectly platonic) love for each other was a smart move, but Jack’s monologue is one of the best pieces of writing on a show that was always incredibly well written.
Even if all the saccharine character work proved too much for viewers, its hard not to marvel at the way the show sets its emotional goodbyes to a hilarious song from the musical version of The Rural Juror (a great callback) so viewers are laughing at the absurdity of the moment while being swept away by the well-drawn character dynamics at play. “Last Lunch” walks the narrow tightrope that all finales face perfectly: it checks off all the boxes of things we want to see from a finale, but it manages to do so while staying impressively true to its completely ridiculous characters, and while continuing to make viewers laugh very, very hard.
30 Rock ended in its own way, after seven seasons of making TV like no one else was. It brought the jokes fast and hard, but it also showed genuine feelings for its characters, and perhaps more importantly, an intuitive understanding of how they would actually behave. This was a show that never needed you to care about its characters, but in its final season it revealed that it did want us to, and more that, over the years, the show managed to turn its cartoon characters into living, breathing people with predictable modes of behavior and realistic responses to the challenges that confronted them. That may be the greatest accomplishment of the show’s final season: it took the characters that populated one of TV’s greatest live-action cartoons, and brought them to life.
In doing so, it crafted a more fitting end than I could possibly have imagined, and a better one. This is the rare show that arguably improved itself in its final season, retroactively making much of what came before make sense in ways would have seemed impossible earlier in its run. 30 Rock was a stellar sitcom. It was brilliant, hilarious, insightful, and fun. It was a high watermark in the last decade of television comedy. Yet it was also a show that went out on top in an era where that is increasingly rare. I was sad to see it go, but I did not mourn the loss. 30 Rock ended because it had to end, because everything does eventually. But it died as it lived: as a great television show, a weird love letter to the medium, and a wacky workplace cartoon that hid a strong, vulnerable heart.
– Jordan Ferguson