'30 Rock' Helped 'To Bury' NBC's Thursday Franchise

As 30 Rock airs its series finale Thursday night, critics are praising creator and star Tina Fey for her groundbreaking work. It's one of the best-regarded shows many TV fans have never watched. TV critic Eric Deggans has more on high-quality, low-viewer comedies.

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STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

And now let's talk about some people who do their jobs not in private, but very much in public. NBC's critically acclaimed sitcom "30 Rock" ends tonight. In its seven seasons, it has consistently dominated industry award shows like the Emmys. And TV critic Eric Deggans says it has also pioneered a new kind of program: the high-quality, low-viewer comedy.

ERIC DEGGANS, BYLINE: Once upon a time in network television land, there were two TV shows starting on the same network, with the same idea: Explore the hijinks behind making a live television comedy show. One of them had an Oscar-winning creator and a former "Friend" in the cast. But Aaron Sorkin and Matthew Perry's "Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip" died a messy, public death.

(SOUNDBITE OF "30 ROCK" THEME MUSIC)

DEGGANS: The other one was a new creation from former "Saturday Night Live" head writer Tina Fey, called "30 Rock," and TV history was made.

(SOUNDBITE OF "30 ROCK" THEME MUSIC)

DEGGANS: "30 Rock" is a smart, pop culture-savvy comedy about hapless TV producer Liz Lemon and the gaggle of oddballs who create her show, "TGS with Tracy Jordan." But the secret weapon was movie star Alec Baldwin as the hilariously self-centered corporate executive who serves as Lemon's reluctant mentor, Jack Donaghy.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "30 ROCK")

ALEC BALDWIN: (as Jack Donaghy) Lemon, what tragedy happened in your life that you insist upon punishing yourself with all this mediocrity?

TINA FEY: (as Liz Lemon) What, because I'm eating a turkey sub?

BALDWIN: Your turkey sub, your clothes, the fact that a woman of your resources and position lives like some boxcar hobo. Or maybe it's the fact that while I'm saying all this, you have a piece of lettuce stuck in your hair.

DEGGANS: The Liz and Jack relationship stands at the heart of the show's jittery, one-hour finale. "TGS" is canceled; Lemon is struggling as a stay-at-home mom; and Donaghy seemingly has the job of his dreams as the CEO of a Comcast-like company called Kabletown.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "30 ROCK")

BALDWIN: (as Jack Donaghy) From up here, I can see the whole island, a city built on the religion of capitalism. And I am its high priest, looking down on the swinish multitude. And even those who hate me must acknowledge me as a god.

FEY: (as Liz Lemon) And this makes you happy?

BALDWIN: It should.

DEGGANS: But "30 Rock" has another, less-impressive distinction: It helped bury NBC's once-powerful Thursday TV franchise. Back in the day, some of TV's smartest comedies were also its most successful. And many of them - from "Seinfeld" to "Friends" and "Frazier" - aired on NBC's Thursday nights, nicknamed Must-See TV.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "SEINFELD")

JASON ALEXANDER: (as George Costanza) You don't think she'd yadda-yadda sex?

JULIA LOUIS-DREYFUS: (as Elaine Benes) I've yadda-yadda-ed sex.

DEGGANS: But "30 Rock," along with "The Office," filled out a Thursday night of smart comedy drawing fewer eyeballs. Last season, "30 Rock's" finale drew less than 3 million people. In its heyday, the show's audience was nearly three times larger. Like fellow NBC comedies "Community," "Parks and Recreation" and "Up All Night," "30 Rock" offered a whip-smart, occasionally absurd style of comedy that challenged audiences. But those kinds of shows rarely draw big crowds. Instead, broader comedies - that's a nice, TV critic word for less-smart - tend to win the night. Think crude sex jokes on "Two and a Half Men," or the nerd humor of "Big Bang Theory." In fact, when Fey win a Screen Actors Guild award on Sunday, she used the acceptance speech to plead for viewers.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THE SCREEN ACTORS GUILD AWARDS")

FEY: Our finale is on this Thursday at 8, up against the "Big Bang Theory."

(AUDIENCE APPLAUSE, LAUGHTER)

FEY: So just tape the "Big Bang Theory" for once, for crying out loud.

(AUDIENCE LAUGHTER)

DEGGANS: Thanks for all the great comedy, Tina. It's not your fault that in the end, "30 Rock" may just have become a little too smart for the room.

(SOUNDBITE OF "30 ROCK" THEME MUSIC)

INSKEEP: Eric Deggans, TV and media critic for the Tampa Bay Times. And you can also hear him right here, on MORNING EDITION from NPR News.

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