How Does “30 Rock” Depict the Struggle of Art Versus Commerce?


“The history of the movies as a business is inextricably linked with the history of the movies as a mass entertainment medium. To get the public to spend its money at the box office, the producer must give the public what it wants or make the public want what it gets. History indicates that the public has gotten some of both.” - Bruce F. Kawin and Gerald Mast, A Short History of the Movies

The conflict of art and commerce has been stressed as an epic theme throughout the history of film and television. Some artists have gained reputations for selling out and being overly commercial, as David Gordon Green did when he made the move from indies like George Washington (2000) to blockbusters like Pineapple Express (2008) or Bill Condon did when he took over the Twilight series after a career full of smart dramas like Gods and Monsters (1998). On the other end of the spectrum, the instincts of some filmmakers (like Terry Gilliam, Francis Ford Copolla, or Orson Wells) have been stifled by their inability to make movies without studio interference because of their steadfast devotion to art without considering the commercial side of film.

30 Rock (2006-2013) – a classic of modern television that was itself critically beloved but never a ratings hit – consistently brought this conflict to the fore, dramatizing the difficult dance of honoring one’s creativity and being successful.

Tracy Jordan (Tracy Morgan) and Jenna Maroney (Jane Krakowski), the star actor on a fictional show within the show, symbolize pure artistic instinct and wild, unbridled id. They both behave with total abandon and unabashedly follow their creative impulses, often to the commercial detriment of their TV show.

On the other end, Jack Donaghy (Alec Baldwin) symbolizes the business side of entertainment. He is practical and totally unconcerned with the quality of the show. While the imbalance of his priorities manifests itself in starkly different ways than it does with Tracy and Jenna, everything he does is equally skewed to the extreme. In his single-minded pursuit of profit, Jack consistently ignores talent and quality and gets excited about obviously poor ideas like a reality show called MILF Island, an all-Seinfeld channel (“Seinfeld Vision”) and an absurdly misguided attempt to cater porn to women (“Don Geiss, America and Porn”). Worse, he’s not just prioritizing the bottom line over talent - he is completely blind to it. In fact, his ability to discern talent is so off that he picks a street performer robot to be the show’s new cast member in “Audition Day.” Jack is artless but gets a place at the decision-making table because he possesses control over the money.

While Tracy, Jenna, and Jack seem to suggest that art and commerce are irreconcilable, the show features one character who epitomizes the synthesis of the two: Liz Lemmon (Tina Fey). The central conflict Liz faces in any given episode is balancing the opposing versions of insanity that populate her environment, from her actors who are so invested in their creative identities that they are unable to understand how they may financially hurt the show her to higher-ups who are so obsessed with budgets and broad appeal that they cut her off at the knees creatively. One of Liz’s recurring triumphs is that she consistently finds some sort of middle way and manages to get each week’s episode on air.

Throughout the course of the series, 30 Rock repeatedly positions Liz Lemon as the midpoint between total artistic freedom and crass commercialism. The fact that this conflict could generate seven seasons of plot lines points to the sticky persistence of the dilemma. While 30 Rock never supplies an answer for how an artist should navigate these competing demands, it manages to find humor, and maybe even nobility, in the struggle.