Last week, the television show 30 Rock aired its series finale, and under the surface the episode was a surprisingly philosophical treatment of the question, “How can I find fulfillment in life?”
When the show began seven years ago, I—like most white, well-educated, professional women in their twenties—loved Tina Fey’s character, Liz Lemon. She was like us. Her boss Jack Donaghy neatly identified her in the very first episode: “a New York third-wave feminist, college-educated, single-and-pretending-to-be-happy-about-it, over-scheduled, undersexed, you buy any magazine that says ‘healthy body image’ on the cover and every two years you take up knitting for … a week.” Her flaws and foibles were not the superficial quirks most rom-com heroines are given; despite Jack’s neat summation, Liz was a real character rather than just a character type, and we appreciated that. The show’s frenetic pace, absurd situations, and self-aware jokes displayed Tina Fey’s signature style and blazed a trail for other female writers and producers to follow.
The show, unfortunately, got worse instead of better. To be honest, I haven’t kept up with the most recent seasons. Nonetheless, out of nostalgia and an enduring affection for Tina Fey, last night I curled up with a bowl of very hot shrimp curry and my laptop to watch the final episode of 30 Rock.
There were a couple of plot lines to catch up on—I discovered that Liz Lemon is now married, with two adopted children, and that the TV show she produced, TGS, is ending. Lemon is grappling with the life of a stay at home mom and clearly misses her job. When she drops by the office to check on her boss, she finds out that she must produce one final episode of TGS, and she goes back to work.
The 30 Rock finale—amazingly enough—morphed from there into a somewhat overt exploration of the meaning of life. Facing the end of an era, the characters ask, “What did it all mean? How will I be happy now?”
This plays out differently for each of the main characters, but the quest for fulfillment can be seen most clearly in the relationship between Jack and Liz (which was arguably the best part of the show in any episode). Jack has reached the pinnacle of his career, achieving everything he’d hoped.
“Take a look at my new view,” he tells Liz in his office. “A city built on the religion of capitalism, and I am its high priest… Even those who hate me…Even they must acknowledge me as a God…”
“And this makes you happy?” she says, skeptical.
Then Lemon quotes Yoda: “Dark times are these.”
Recognizing his discontentment, Jack sets out to make himself happy, creating a “Six Sigma Wheel of Happiness Domination” and seeking to fulfill himself through faith, work, arts and leisure, sex and relationships, family, philanthropy, hobbies, and hair.
Despite his success in every slice of the pie chart, Jack remains unfulfilled, and tells Liz,
“Work is never going to make you happy, Lemon, and anyone who tells you differently is a fool.”
“Are you kidding me? What have we been talking about for the last seven years?”
“I don’t know anymore. For the first time in my life, I don’t know what I need. Maybe I’ll buy a boat.”
“Oh my God. This whole time you’ve been telling me how to run my life, you didn’t know what you were talking about. You’re just an alcoholic with a great voice.”
“Careful, Lemon, you’re playing with fire.”
“You made me buy into this whole life. When I met you I was perfectly happy with what I had—eating night cheese and transitioning my pajamas into daywear—you’re the one who told me to want more. And now, when I need you most, you’re bailing on me?”
This was easily my favorite scene of the finale, because it spoke plainly to the much-debated dilemma of the modern woman: Can we have it all? And won’t success at work and at home bring us the happiness men have always had?
This scene reminded me of another TV boss and protege: Don Draper and Peggy Olson of Mad Men. Like Liz, Peggy has pursued success under the tutelage of an older male boss; like Jack, Don is mostly an alcoholic with a great voice. If only Liz could go back in time and explain this bit to Peggy: that having it all, that getting what the men get, is no guarantee of happiness.
But then, that truth was there all along. If Peggy had been looking for it, she could have seen it in Don Draper’s life, or in the words of Ecclesiastes:
All things are wearisome,
more than one can say.
The eye never has enough of seeing,
nor the ear its fill of hearing.
What has been will be again,
what has been done will be done again;
there is nothing new under the sun. (1:8-9)
In the 30 Rock finale, Jack and other characters discover that their attempts to find fulfillment fall flat—even success is meaningless. Of course, sitcoms don’t usually end on a nihilistic note, and 30 Rock is no exception.
In the final scenes, Liz rushes to stop Jack from jumping off a bridge, yelling, “There’s so much to live for! Don’t you want to see how Mad Men ends?” (Funnily enough, 30 Rock might be the best answer to the question of how Mad Men ends.) Rather than committing suicide, though, Jack is simply jumping onto a yacht, planning a soul-searching trip around the world. Being on the boat, he says, gives him new insight almost immediately—for example, he realizes that he (non-romantically) loves Lemon. Their relationship is restored. As he floats off, he comes up with a new business plan—“Clear dishwashers!”—and immediately his joie de vivre is back.
It’s not exactly the conclusion that the writer of Ecclesiastes comes to—“Fear God, and keep his commandments” (12:13)—but it’s not too far off from some of his (or her) earlier conclusions: that “there is nothing better for a person than to enjoy their work” (3:22), or that “two are better than one” (4:9), or that “when God gives someone wealth and possessions, and the ability to enjoy them, to accept their lot and be happy in their toil—this is a gift of God” (5:19).
The answers that Liz and Jack find are incomplete, but that doesn’t mean that 30 Rock doesn’t shine a light on the very truth of the human condition: that there is nothing new under the sun, and that our attempts to attain happiness are often meaningless, a chasing after the wind.
As Christians, sometimes we skip that part. We gloss over the difficult truths about our world, skipping merrily past the existential angst, the broken realities of a sin-marred creation, and going straight to the happy shiny Jesus truth.
But what I loved about 30 Rock, when it was at its best, was how it told the truth about the way that success and popularity and work and relationships and money and pleasure and food (with Lemon, always the food) don’t fix us. They’re just band-aids, and what we need is open heart surgery.
Just as we loved Tina Fey for her realistic flaws, we loved 30 Rock for pointing out some of the absurdities and angst in what it means to be human. Maybe the Church should be willing to pause there, with Tina Fey and the author of Ecclesiastes, for a little while longer too.