In the genus of things that improve with age—wine, women, leftover Indian takeout—TV shows are not usually included. This is because it is nigh impossible to balance the demands of continuous creativity with predictability. For a series to seem fresh, we can't guess what the jokes will be or which characters will kill each other. We need change, but not too much of it. In short, the show that viewers keep watching is the show that fulfills their emotional expectations, while the show they become bored with is too familiar. It's a very delicate distinction. "Lost" held our attention because it was always predictably unpredictable (the perfect balance). "Mad Men" works because some things end (Sterling Cooper, Don and Betty's marriage), while others remain constant (Don, Pete, and Roger's philandering). "The Office" no longer works because Jim still hates his work, Dwight is still creepy, Pam remains downtrodden, and the rest are stuck in their cubicles. Why did "Friends" work for so long? It didn't—you just liked watching it because you always dreamed of living in the big city with your hot college friends.
Now in its sixth season, "30 Rock" has seen better times. Earlier this month, the show posted the lowest ratings in series history, with numbers in the range of "Community," another NBC show, one that was unceremoniously halted last fall. Worse still, "30 Rock" has become so predictable that it is in "Friends" territory. Jack Donaghy (Alec Baldwin) has gotten married, but otherwise only the photos have changed in his corner office in the GE building. The team of comedy writers that hovers in the background is forever pathetic and juvenile. And Liz Lemon's (Tina Fey) quest for a man—once a reliable fount of humor—has turned sour. Her romantic adventures inevitably involve either doofuses with whom she has no future or gentle souls who are shuffled from the show due to a general lack of zaniness. Every time a new man comes along—be they played by Matt Damon, Jason Sudeikis, Jon Hamm—we know they don't have long to last.
This is all well and good until you realize that Liz Lemon, with her stress eating, awkwardness, and TV obsession, has barely changed in six seasons. Character development, people! In terms of stasis, we might as well be watching Ross Geller of "Friends." Unlike that vapid series, however, "30 Rock" retains some humor thanks to sheer cleverness. Most endearing is the recurring tactic of incorporating real-life events into the show's warped world. For instance, one of the show's stars, Tracy Morgan, said some things about gay people last summer that would have gotten him kicked out of any progressive New England liberal arts school like ours. In this case, the Twitternet castigated him for his violent imagery until Fey came to his defense, when she said that the remarks did not reflect the "Tracy Morgan I know, who is not a hateful man and is generally much too sleepy and self-centered to ever hurt another person." For most shows, that would be the end of the embarrassment.
Luckily, Tina Fey is the ballsiest female comic we have today. As the showrunner for "30 Rock," she chose to incorporate the scandal—albeit altered—into a plot line, where Tracy Morgan's character, Tracy Jordan, goes too off the cuff and she has to help him clean up the PR mess. Of course, the remarks are transformed from violent to ridiculous. "Being gay is stupid; if you want to see a penis, take off your pants," he says in one episode. "If I got turned into a gay, I'd sit around all day and look at my own junk." Thanks to Fey, "30 Rock" is also the ballsiest show on a major network today. It is at these times when the line between reality and fiction is blurred, and over-the-top humor comes home to roost, that the show is at its best.
So why be bearish about the future of "30 Rock" on the Peacock Network? Well, unlike "Friends" or "The Office," the show will never be one of NBC's standard bearers. It's simply too intellectual, too political, and sadly, not mainstream enough. Only "30 Rock" can jump the topical chasm of gay sex with Alec Baldwin to the trench war for slots at New York's elite private schools in the space of 10 seconds. New Yorkers might keep up, but the rest of us can't. And when the plotlines become too familiar, even New Yorkers give up en masse. You can't blame them for being easily distracted; they live in New York, after all.