30 rock addendum: series finale

30 rock

NPR Critic Linda Holmes has written two interesting pieces in the last few days. One, on Tuesday, addressed 30 Rock, as Holmes used a first-season episode to offer a heartfelt goodbye to a show she loves. The next day, she gave us “Coastal Snobbery, ‘The Masses,’ And Respecting The Lowest Common Denominator,” where she argues that when cultural critics speak of “the masses”, “the lowest common denominator”, or “Middle America”, they are trying to “separate the writer and her sensibility — which are presumed to be congruent with the reader and her sensibility — from invisible and undefined others, for whom bad cultural content is produced and by whom it is unquestioningly gobbled up.” Holmes describes the use of these terms as code: “For substantive comment on the quality or meaning of anything, all three substitute code — code for a pernicious, poisonous underlying assumption that popularity, non-U.S.-coastal geography, and easy translation from person to person are all good indicators that an opinion is not to be trusted or that an audience is unsophisticated.”

She notes that the so-called masses of Middle America are far too diverse to be gathered into the same pot. Holmes also attempts to save the “lowest common denominator” from its current derogatory meaning, stating:

We come together where there's enough commonality to let people talk to each other about the same thing. … The lowest common denominator on a huge scale, in fact, is probably something like The Avengers or the Oscars or the Super Bowl, none of which is embraced for its scandalous or scatological qualities, but all of which are popular simply because lots of people think it's fun to watch them. And as silly as those things are, their commonality is actually their most redeeming quality — that it's the lowest common denominator across surprisingly diverse populations is the best thing about the Super Bowl, not the worst. It's certainly the best thing about the Oscars.

30 Rock has never presented itself as a show for that hypothetical lowest common denominator, a fact which is reflected in its ratings, which have never set the world on fire. Some are now talking about 30 Rock as one of television’s all-time great comedies, but the difference between that show and other classics (I Love Lucy, The Simpsons, Seinfeld, The Cosby Show) is that those series were popular. Poke any 30 Rock fan, and they are quite capable of shouting out “by the hammer of Thor!” … poke any American, and they’ll know who Homer Simpson is.

I am not suggesting that only popular shows can be considered great. But the greatness of 30 Rock is not the same as the greatness of The Cosby Show. And I’m pretty sure that suits Tina Fey just fine. Her show is full of quick sound bites, obscure pop culture references, and plenty of meta-humor. The roots of 30 Rock lie, not in I Love Lucy, but in the early work of Zucker/Abrahams/Zucker (Police Squad, Airplane!, Top Secret, and Naked Gun). And like those movies, 30 Rock is loaded with quotable moments that are here-and-gone in mere seconds. 30 Rock dares you to keep up with its humor, as if being more obvious would make the show too popular with “the masses”.

I am not blameless here. I’m trying, as I often do, to understand why so many comedies leave me blank, while the occasional one breaks through. I’ve never seen Modern Family, or How I Met Your Mother, or 2 Broke Girls … I’m not even sure that last one is a sitcom. Yet I stuck with 30 Rock for seven seasons, and I doubt the only reason is that it’s a “better show”. It’s all about taste preferences.

I wrote yesterday about how modern film comedies can stick all of the good stuff into a three-minute trailer designed to get you into the theater to watch three minutes of good stuff and ninety minutes of filler. 30 Rock can play that game … read any episode review and note how quickly even the best critics’ work devolves into a list of great quotes. But it’s hard to make a three-minute excerpt, partly because some of the humor comes from setups that can be years in the making, and partly because it is rare for a funny moment in 30 Rock to last long enough for a three-minute clip. You’d have to string together fifteen short clips that won’t seem funny to anyone except those who are already in on the joke.

Ultimately, there is something self-satisfying in being a 30 Rock fan that might connect with Holmes’ ideas about snobbery. If that is true, it’s nothing to be proud of. But what am I to do? I’ve been laughing at 30 Rock for seven years.

It’s difficult to pick a clip … I mentioned one problem above, plus a lot of them are on Hulu, which forces advertising on the viewer before you can watch a short clip. But here’s one, perhaps my favorite scene in the entire run:



This might be a stretch, but the talk of masses/Middle America/lowest common denominator brought me back to the KISS portion of Steven Hyden's (excellent) Winner's History of Rock and Roll series on Grantland.

There's too much to quote, but the latter third is what came to mind when reading that. While he may be right that KISS became beloved by Middle America because they would tour there extensively (and not necessarily in the largest cities), even he seems to slip into the "using Middle America to mean everywhere but the coasts as one single place" trope.

Steven Rubio

Yeah, he seems to buy into the us vs. them mentality ... he just takes the side of Middle America over the coasts. I think there's some condescension in what he says, though ... it's as if Kiss is crap, but the people in Middle America are so starved for entertainment that they lack any aesthetic sense. Kiss doesn't have to be "good" to be successful, because Middle America doesn't understand "good" in the first place.


I think that's part of the theory in the KISS piece, but in the intro to the series, he talks about how the series isn't really about being "good" or not ... he dedicates an entire piece to Bon Jovi ... but really about the most popular/influential bands.


Also, the Super Bowl's commonality is certainly not any sort of redeeming quality. Rather, the opposite. But that's a whole different conversation.

Steven Rubio

Now I'm gonna have to read all the pieces :-). I noticed he was going to do Bon Jovi ... I suppose they are a fine example of my own snobbery, since I like them about as much as Triumph does. They are also an example of the perils of geographic stereotyping, since they're a "coast band" but are popular in "middle america". I've certainly had inner discussions about good/popular, especially when I was participating in that Facebook Fifty Fave Movies thing. One thing I'd have to think about more deeply is whether "popular/influential" belong together. My knee-jerk reaction is that popular artists are rarely also influential ... the famous, relevant (and, for all know, false) quote is the one about how only a handful of people ever bought Velvet Underground albums, but every one of them went out and started a band.

Also (you're responding too fast!), I agree with the writer that the Super Bowl's commonality is what gives it redeeming quality. The game barely matters to anyone but fans of the two teams, and is often a dud. American loves football, but my own uninformed opinion is that the prevalence of gambling on football is what makes it our #1 sport ... I know from my days as someone who bet on football that once you've put your money on the table, a match up between Portland State and Southern Utah is just as important as 49ers-Ravens in the Super Bowl. IOW, the sport is largely unimportant compared to the peripheral stakes involved in betting on games. So the value of the Super Bowl, our greatest annual sporting event, isn't really about the game on the field. Yet we have a tradition of Super Bowl Parties ... where people get together as a community (of family, of friends, or just as anonymous members of a crowd in a bar with a big screen). The worst Super Bowl game can be just as fondly remembered as a classic, because ultimately what people remember is the party they attended. You've got a game where families of dead players are suing the league because of problems with brain damage, you've got a game where the face of one team is a guy with a connection to a double homicide and a player on the other team makes anti-gay slurs just a few days before the game. Hard to find the redeeming quality there. But people getting together for a Super Bowl party where no one actually pays attention to the game (except, in this case, 49er and Ravens fans) but enjoys being together for a few hours ... that's the best thing about the Super Bowl, not the worst.

Speaking of which, am I going to see you this weekend? I still have your xmas present!


I want to go to there

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