30 Rock ends tonight, after seven seasons on NBC, with little of the fanfare that surrounds a grand television event. Instead, it feels as if the show has already slid into the semi-obscurity of syndication. The critics would rather talk about Parks and Recreation and Girls; the Internet hive mind is swarming over Community and Louie; the awards shows have switched their allegiance to Modern Family. And the American viewing public? Well, it never liked 30 Rock all that much in the first place. At its peak, in its third season, it was the 69th most popular prime-time series in the country.
But the polite, somewhat bored appreciation is much less than the show deserves. 30 Rock has been a brave and meaningful series, with a moral force behind its joke-a-minute slapstick pacing. It's maybe the last show on television to believe that jokes can do something more than cheer you up.
The central concern of 30 Rock is this: People don't understand each other. That's the basic structure of jokes—person one says something, and person two hears something different—but it's also a philosophical problem. Two people, both speaking English, supplemented by body language, converse, yet their actual meanings remain inaccessible to one another. Over the course of the show, Liz Lemon gradually realizes that almost no one around her comprehends her. There is an irreducible distance between her and everyone else. (Writers may sense this problem more acutely than other people do.)
In a sixth-season episode, she gets in a fight with Jenna, her truest friend for more than a decade. Liz chooses a new best friend—one she found in the Barnes and Noble bathroom—only to find they make each other terrified and unhappy after 15 minutes together. Jenna fares no better. So the original friends reunite: "I need someone who has so little going on in her life, she lets me get all the attention," Jenna says. "And I need someone in my life who doesn't listen to a word I say," Liz says. "Thank you. I just got it cut," Jenna replies. This is nearly identical to a conversation from the first season:
Liz: You're not even listening, are you? Poop. Monkey butt.
Jenna: No, you're a good friend, and thank you.
The friendship hasn't grown in five years, because there's nothing much there. That's one of Liz's less disappointing relationships. She and Wesley, her charming British "future husband," fell in love while they were under anesthesia—only to despise each other within days after they came to, unable to regain the closeness of their gas-addled communication.
It was even worse with Drew, the boyfriend played by Jon Hamm. The dumb, gorgeous Drew lives in "a bubble," where everyone's too wowed by his looks to tell him that he can't play tennis or make a salmon bourguignon with Gatorade. Liz tries to force him out. He leaves for a while, but he can't bear it. "I didn't like it outside the bubble. It was very ironic," he tells her. "No, it wasn't—that's not how you use that word," Liz replies. Drew: "Stop it. I want to use 'ironic' however I want. I want to stay in the bubble." It's a clever, pitch-perfect little exchange, but it's also a horribly depressing one: He doesn't care what words should mean to other people.
By the seventh season, Lemon finds herself happily married to James Marsden's Criss Chros only because he puts himself second. His life revolves around knowing and understanding her and making her happy. Does she understand him? Probably not. What's his inner life like? The show doesn't say.
The people who work around Liz—the coworkers who would compose a surrogate family on a less sophisticated show—don't understand her at all. The lazy, unserious writers just mock her. Pete has proudly quit on life. Cerie frequently misunderstands Liz. (One misunderstanding gave us one of the series's best exchanges: "You told me to be more proactive." "No, I told you to buy more Proactiv," Lemon says, pointing at her face.)
But no one at TGS really stands a chance of understanding anyone else. In "Apollo, Apollo," the camera briefly shows us visions of the world through the eyes of Kenneth, Jack, and Tracy. The naive goober Kenneth sees everyone as Muppets. Jack sees everyone and everything with price tags floating above them, like the prize rooms they used to have on Wheel of Fortune. And Tracy, simply enough, sees all his coworkers with his head atop their bodies. They all live with it.
Jack and Liz do understand each other. Sort of. When he tells her of an impending hiatus in "Plan B," she doesn't get that that means cancellation. "I thought we understood each other!" Jack says. Liz replies, "And I thought you understood that you are never to think I understand anything!" But Jack also has the power of understanding the mute Kathy Geiss, who communicates like a lizard. His curse is that he can't carry this ability outside the workplace. He didn't recognize how his mother felt about him until after she died.
Even with Avery Jessup, in his most successful relationship, words fail him. The relationship plods on past the proper endpoint, because each is too afraid to reveal their desire to be apart. When they finally do split—at a vows-renewal ceremony, where no one in the audience bites on "Speak now, or forever hold your peace"—they're outraged that no one else understood them enough to demand their split earlier.
Each of 30 Rock's moments of misunderstanding, taken in isolation, upsets the viewer. It's sad that this friendship can't grow, or that this romance won't work, or that this page is rotting at his core. But the show tempers that disappointment. As of last week, each character had earned a major triumph—Liz and Jenna find happy domestic lives, and Jack and Kenneth find powerful positions at Kabletown. And, more importantly, 30 Rock's viewer never needs to take any of these moments in isolation. The next joke will happily move you along.
Like few other shows, 30 Rock has refused to turn to melodrama. Growth, change, and disappointment aren't signaled by a shift in tone. They arrive on the same terms as everything else, along with the gags. It doesn't ask you to consider it profound or meaningful. It's as deep as the viewer is willing to make it.