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I moved to New York, in the way many of us did, because of television. Not just the lure of the Sex and the City lifestyle or the Seinfeld wit, but the basic "this is the center of the universe" promise, from years of watching the ball drop in Times Square or the daily gaggle waving at the Today show in Rockefeller Center. New York was where important things happened, and it seemed as improbable a place to actually live as the Brady house. When I moved here, first for a summer between junior and senior year of college and then for good a year later, I never stopped taking pleasure in turning on Today and seeing the same weather that was outside my window. When I worked at ABC as an intern, I spotted a pack of guys on the street outside my office who I'd seen half an hour earlier in the audience for Regis & Kelly. They were really there. I was really here.
My first year in Manhattan began in September of 2006, moving with my roommate-- a girl I knew from college-- into a two-bedroom apartment on West 107th Street with sickly yellow-painted walls and an alcove that was generously called a living room. Life there was obviously not up to TV fantasy standards-- I worked as an editorial assistant and babysitter, my roommate as a receptionist, and we endured endless blank evenings with nothing to do and no money to do it with. Life in New York was hard, and it was supposed to be. We sweated every swipe of the MetroCard, every drink paid for at a bar and not at home; half the time it was hard to find people to hang out with, because everyone had two or three jobs to make what little money they had.
TV, inevitably, filled the void. We didn't have cable, and were making do with an enormous black-box TV that my roommate had schlepped around since college, which took up half the wall space in our pathetically small living room. 2006 was the fall of Heroes and Chuck, of Lost's abysmal third season and the premiere of Friday Night Lights. It was also, famously, the battle between Aaron Sorkin's Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip and Tina Fey's 30 Rock, though no one really thought it was a battle at the time. My roommate and I, like everyone else, assumed Studio 60 was the only one worth watching, and then found ourselves lulled into apathy by the Gilbert & Sullivan tributes, by the monologues, by the endless promises that Sarah Paulson's character was a comedic genius even though she never proved it.
At some point, we finally turned our attention to 30 Rock. Between that and How I Met Your Mother, finally finding its stride in its second season, we each found the perfect, cracked reflection of our own stumbling New York lives. And being filmed on location in New York, 30 Rock was the one that carried that now-familiar thrill, the "it is really there… I am really here" association that meant, regardless of my under-employment or boredom, I had made it to this city somehow. And in a way that nothing had since Seinfeld-- which had ended when I was too young to appreciate it-- it depicted New York not as a place of fantasy or aspiration, but a smelly, frustrating and ridiculous town where people, weird ones, actually lived.
In the pilot Liz goes to meet Tracy at some anonymous fancy restaurant and eventually follows him to eat fried chicken and drink beer at the M&G Diner on 125th and Morningside, not far from the terrible apartment where I sweated through that summer as an ABC intern. In what might be the best episode ever, "Tracy Does Conan," Kenneth is sent to a Rite Drug on a very specific intersection, only to find 4 identical ones (clearly meant to be Duane Reade) on each corner. In the Valentine's Day episode "Up All Night," Jack gets questionable fried chicken from one of the midtown's ubiquitous 24-hour delis. In "Cleveland," Liz and her dreamy boyfriend Floyd (Jason Sudeikis) fantasize about leaving the city while walking past the construction at Houston and Broadway (somehow still hellish to this day).
30 Rock was one giant in-joke I was just barely in time to get. Liz Lemon is 15 years older than me, struggling with a work-life balance I couldn't comprehend at 22 and living at an address (160 Riverside Drive!) I still can't afford, but her life in New York, wild as it was, looked like mine. Sex and the City traveled to the city's best clubs and even did its walk-and-talks in nice neighborhoods made shinier by TV. 30 Rock threw parties at taxi dispatch centers in Queens, sent its characters to flourescent-lit delis, and used a section of Central Park near my apartment (The Pool!) to pretend to be rural Pennsylvania, where Jack and CeCe carried out their secret romance. They weren't fooling me. After all, I was a New Yorker.
Given the lightning pace of its jokes and its fondness for cultural references, every episode of 30 Rock is a kind of time capsule, from Grizz joyfully singing "I'm gonna get an iPhone! Everyone's gonna be jealous!" when Tracy strikes it rich in a 2007 episode to Jack's ill-fated stint in the Bush administration. For a New Yorker the references feel even more personal, and even more laden with nostalgia. In the second season, when Liz reports her innocent neighbor for being a terrorist, she's egged on by bus shelter posters that say "If you suspect anything, do everything"-- barely even a parody of the real posters all over the city. When Jack gets bedbugs in "Audition Day," he winds up singing on the subway with a very real group of doo-wop singers you can probably still see on the N train. The entire "Subway Hero" episode is based on the story of the real Subway Superman, right down to the cameo from Mayor Bloomberg.
In the first years of the show, when you still had to talk people into watching and NBC was constantly threatening to cancel it, the best and weirdest jokes felt like some secret message-- my roommate and I would look at something like "Werewolf Bar Mitzvah" and say "Wait, did we really just see that?" When I went as Werewolf Bar Mitzvah for Halloween a year later, I had to explain the joke to more than half the people who saw it. When Dennis announced his scheme to put a coffee machine in the basement of the K-Mart on 38th and 6th, I didn't just revel in my knowledge that there wasn't really a K-Mart there-- I reveled in feeling smart enough to watch this show that nobody else did. That's a familiar feeling for anyone who's ever loved a show that was on the brink, from Firefly to Community, but it was a new feeling for me, and a tangible kind of success at a time when I was paying a whole lot to live in a city that wasn't doing me many favors.
30 Rock never really rose from its low ratings that first season, but it began to loom larger in culture. Tina Fey became very famous, the show's one-liners ("I want to go to there") worked their way into Internet legend, and NBC began trumping the show-- the one constantly mocking it-- as their marquee star, probably because they didn't have many other options. And just as Liz Lemon moved on from her bad haircut and fighting with Jack, I grew up too, getting a job here at Cinema Blend, meeting my boyfriend, and moving out of that awful yellow-painted apartment. I eventually even got cable.
With Girls now on the air, there is a much more accurate representation on TV of being 22 and new to New York. But 30 Rock was what I had at the time, and 30 Rock was what taught me how to be a New Yorker, how to find some small scrap of community and commonality in a city that, in those first few years, was almost constantly overwhelming. Since graduating school I've always struggled to demarcate time, to know that one thing was over and another had begun. But the end of 30 Rock feels like a big line between past and present. When the show is gone, I'll have lost the frantic, knowing, inimitably funny voice that told me every week it was really here, that I am really here.