Even as the NBC comedy 30 Rock moves toward the ultimate victory lap in TV — a much-heralded, hourlong series finale Thursday, just after creator Tina Fey won yet another honor at the Screen Actors Guild awards Sunday — you might remember one thing.
This wasn't supposed to happen.
Seven seasons ago, when Fey jumped off the Saturday Night Live freight train to build a cheeky sitcom on the backstage workings of a skit comedy show, she wasn't expected to finish a season.
Critics like me put our money on a rival program launching on the same network with bigger stars and bigger reputations: Aaron Sorkin and Matthew Perry's Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip, a drama about the making of a late-night skit comedy show.
It had an Oscar winning writer/creator and a guy from that little-known TV comedy Friends. And it died quicker than the Buccaneers' hopes for a winning season.
Fey, as it turns out, had a relentless drive to be funny and fresh, hidden by her unassuming manner and self-deprecating humor, playing put-upon executive producer Liz Lemon. We underestimated a comedy legend who had already revolutionized SNL, and she let us; probably because a sneak attack is always more effective.
These days, 30 Rock's legacy is awesome, first proving without a doubt just how funny Alec Baldwin can be as hilariously self-possessed corporate executive Jack Donaghy. It also handed an amazingly unbridled comedic voice to SNL alum Tracy Morgan, while showing off the unexpected comedic chops of hunks like Matt Damon and Jon Hamm.
30 Rock also has a less impressive legacy: Helping spark the critically acclaimed, low-viewer style of smart TV comedy that has nearly erased the impact of NBC's Must-See TV franchise on Thursdays.
Critics like me love the show's lightning-fast pace, whip-smart pop culture references and unexpected cameos (who else could welcome a list of guest stars unlikely as Elaine Stritch, Jon Bon Jovi, Condoleezza Rice and Sorkin himself?). And the industry loves them too, handing the show a raft of Emmys, Golden Globes, SAG awards, and a Peabody award.
Ratings haven't followed. Last year's season finale drew 2.8 million people, and the show was ranked 130th out of 195 network TV shows in the 2011-12 TV season, according to TVbytheNumbers.com.
There's a line of similarly low-rated, critically-beloved NBC shows right behind them: Community, Up All Night and the showcase for Fey's former SNL partner-in-crime Amy Poehler, Parks and Recreation.
The sex jokes on Two and a Half Men and nerd humor of The Big Bang Theory are what draw eyeballs to sitcoms now. The competition is killing 30 Rock and Fey, who used her acceptance speech at the SAG awards to essentially beg Big Bang fans to tape that show and watch 30 Rock's finale live Thursday.
It doesn't help that 30 Rock always has walked a fine line between clever and stupid. These days, too many of the show's recent storylines have fallen in the latter camp.
In Thursday's finale, Lemon's show is canceled, but the staff has to gather for one final episode, and everyone is losing it in different ways. Baldwin's Donaghy is particularly troubled, unfulfilled as an all-powerful CEO, despite dreaming of the job for years.
The good news is there's a host of amazing cameos from Salma Hayek, Julianne Moore, Savannah Guthrie, Al Roker, Ice-T, Richard Belzer and Nancy Pelosi. But they're sometimes not very funny, and the whole thing has the feel of a rushed comedy riff whipped off over too many cups of coffee.
Still, this critic hopes Thursday comedy fans take a break from their Big Bang fix to catch up with Liz and the gang one last time, if only as a memorial to the time when network TV comedies could be challenging, smart and popular all at once.