When Tina Fey's bright, bouncy, irreverent showbiz send-up aired its last episode Thursday night, a light (Kenneth's toothy grin?) went out in broadcast television.
"30 Rock" was not perfect: It sometimes spun its wheels and its writing was often too showy. But "30 Rock" was the clear sitcom heir to "Seinfeld," pushing comedy forward by fusing the relationship set-up of "The Mary Tyler Moore Show" with the flashback jump-cutting of the single-camera "Arrested Development." Its snappy, joke-packed universe was both tightly controlled and capable of going anywhere — a fiction funhouse version of Fey's "Weekend Update" social satire. Oh, and it had Alec Baldwin.
With "30 Rock" leaving the air, the sitcom again finds itself at a crossroads. Though acclaimed and award-winning, "30 Rock" was never highly rated. Sitcom fans and creators alike can reasonably wonder that if such a show as "30 Rock" had trouble finding viewers, what chance do other quality sitcoms have?
At least since the resolutely cynical "Seinfeld" and the absurdist (and underrated) "NewsRadio," the sitcom has been self-reflexive, a parody of itself. Laugh tracks and simple sets before studio audiences gave way to wider-ranging single-camera freedom. But aside from "30 Rock" and "Arrested Development," this has led to little more than better decorated interiors.
Many would say ABC's "Modern Family" is the strongest current sitcom, but, like many comedies today, it's better at being charming and heartwarming than funny in a fresh way. The same issue has crept into NBC's "Parks and Recreation," the likable small-town government sitcom from Fey's cohort Amy Poehler. Sliding into a rut has never been a problem for another NBC comedy, "Community." It has madcap inventiveness going for it, but not much else.
The end of "30 Rock" heralds a sitcom shift, particularly in NBC's long-running Thursday night block — a tradition since "Seinfeld." Both "Park and Recreation" and "Community" have cloudy futures, and the long-running "The Office" will finally end soon. Elsewhere, CBS's "How I Met Your Mother," a studio audience vestige, is preparing its final season.
But there are actually quite a lot of broadcast sitcoms running now, including "The Big Bang Theory," ''Whitney," ''Happy Endings," ''2 Broke Girls," ''The Mindy Project" and the recently premiered and somewhat promising White House farce "1600 Penn."
Two Fox shows in their second seasons appear to have hit their stride: the animated "Bob's Burgers" and Zooey Deschanel's "New Girl." ''Bob's Burgers," created by many of those involved with the improvised 1990s Comedy Central series "Dr. Katz, Professional Therapist," has coalesced into the funniest family portrait on TV. H. Jon Benjamin voices a fry cook, and comedians Kristen Schaal and Eugene Mirman, as two of his adolescent kids, steal the show.
"New Girl," easily dismissed at first as cloying hipsterism, has also found a balance, thanks partly to the excellent Jake Johnson, whose chemistry with Deschanel is, for better or worse, TV's new Ross-Rachel.
Whatever the value of the shows, it's a great time for individual comedic performances: Rainn Wilson on "The Office"; Julia-Louis Dreyfus on "Veep"; Chris Pratt on "Parks"; Neil Patrick Harris on "How I Met Your Mother"; Julie Bowen on "Modern Family."
The flight to cable hasn't been as pronounced in sitcoms as it has been in hour-long dramas, but the trend is going that way. On cable, niche sitcoms like "It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia," ''The League" and "Archer" have pushed the boundaries of taste, reveling in their freedom.
But there are only two must-watch comedies on TV now that "30 Rock" is over. Both are on cable and both draw more from independent film than from sitcom history: Louis C.K.'s "Louie" (currently on hiatus for FX) and Lena Dunham's "Girls" on HBO (maybe you've heard a thing or two about it).
A comedian interested in a TV series now is less likely to strive for the large broadcast audience of "30 Rock" than follow in the personal storytelling of Dunham and C.K. (C.K., after all, already tried updating the sitcom with "Lucky Louie," which kept the traditional multi-camera, studio audience formula but built episodes around real adult problems and mature jokes. It lasted one season on HBO.)
The most anticipated upcoming sitcom premiere isn't on broadcast or even cable. Netflix will debut a new season of "Arrested Development" in May, years after it was canceled on Fox. Sitcom nostalgia may already be in full swing.
"30 Rock" always skewered its own small stature at NBC and it went out that way, too. In the finale, Fey's Liz Lemon pitches the newly minted NBC president Kenneth Parcell (Jack McBrayer) a show exactly like "30 Rock." He has no interest, though, in a show about "an angry New York crankypants."
Lemon replies: "I'll go to cable where you can swear and really take time to let moments land," at which point the scene abruptly shifts.
But the joke is a loving one. Lemon, like Fey, doesn't really want a cult comedy on cable. The episode ends with a vision of a future with flying cars where a network executive (an age-defying Kenneth) happily bankrolls a show like "30 Rock" from Lemon's great-granddaughter.
If that's what it will take for a successor to "30 Rock," we better start making cars fly.