For many fans and critics who were underwhelmed by season six of NBC's intrepid meta-sitcom, the seventh and final season began on Oct. 4 with an air of "all right, let's just get this over with."
Cries of shark-jumpery from this past spring still echoed through TiVo caches. Late-add characters like freaky network page Hazel (Kristen Schaal) and Liz's love interest Criss (James Marsden) never quite fully transcended their "awkward interloper" status. Even the bedrock of banter between fraught comedy writer Liz Lemon (Tina Fey) and corporate kingpin Jack Donaghy (Alec Baldwin) had begun to shown signs of post-Emmy fatigue.
But it's a mistake to view the show's last season without remembering its larger impact. Six years since its debut, it's easy to forget how inventive 30 Rock was when it launched and how many chances it took compared to the King of Queens-es and Two and a Half Mens of the world.
Onlookers who've drawn comparisons to The Muppet Show are right on, as both series excel in a studied-yet-experimental blend of strained workplace dynamics and totally absurd digressions ("Werewolf Bar Mitzvah" anyone?). Especially in network prime time, this kind of loose-knit, economical, willfully scattershot comedy wasn't always so easy to find.
And if the initial episodes of season seven are any indication, there's still some worthy ground to cover and some peacocks to be slain. From Liz's begrudging effort as Jenna's maid of honor to Hazel and Kenneth's painfully ambiguous relationship, the show's writers are still hedging viewers' bets—in a good way— by raining down punch lines and priceless non sequiturs at a dizzying pace.
Particularly inspired: last night's counter-programming against the vice presidential debate chatter with an episode that had Jack Skyping with Mitt Romney's horse and Paul Ryan being replaced by a pants-dropping Tracy Jordan lookalike. (And Bryan Cranston killed it, too, right?)
If a money line falls flat, you needn't wait more than five seconds for the next one.
And with Jack moving on from estranged wife Avery, we now get to relish his fount of purposely awful pilot ideas (a game show called Homonym, the crime-busting buddy series God Cop). What better way for a classic TV show to lampoon its way out to pasture than by building a story arc around loads of crappy imaginary ones?
In fact, taking things in a more meta direction is the most promising sign of all that Fey and friends' swan song will end on a high note. Looking all the way back to the first season, some of 30 Rock's funniest moments have been those built around the clash between Liz's self-righteous lamentations about mainstream media and Jack's pitch-perfect corporate dogma. The more writers like Jack Burditt and Robert Carlock can counterbalance the show's relationship stuff with satirical swipes at the business of TV itself, the more likely we'll be to remember 30 Rock as the refreshingly dauntless sitcom that made us "want to go to there" in the first place.
(NBC and E! are both part of the NBCUniversal family.)