In this week’s TNL, it’s all about 30 Rock—specifically, the problem that arises from Tina Fey so closely identifying with her character, Liz Lemon. This week’s episode especially magnified the havoc this wreaks on her long-suffering fictional alter-ego, in both her personal and professional life.
Let’s talk about Liz Lemon’s professional life first. In this week’s episode, Fey satirized the scandal surrounding Tracy Morgan’s inflammatory, homophobic comments from a stand-up routine performed last year. 30 Rock has a history of being self-referential, especially when it comes to NBC’s woes—even at times breaking the fourth wall—so it’s not surprising that Fey would want to incorporate this real-life event in her show. Since this storyline is ongoing as part of a two-part episode, I’m going to wait until it has concluded before fully weighing in. (I should note that so far of what I’ve seen of it has been clumsy, misguided, and even a little offensive.) But there’s one aspect I want to address: Liz’s dressing down of Tracy Jordan, which is similar to what Fey did in the wake of her real-life co-star’s controversy.
When Liz learns what Tracy Jordan said (“If you want to see a penis, take off your pants. If I got turned into a gay, I’d sit around all day and look at my own junk” ), she lambastes him, reminding him that many people he works with on TGS are gay, and that he needs to apologize because, “The dumb things you say may influence or hurt people.” While true, this felt forced, as if 30 Rock inserted a quick “The More You Know” PSA amid the one-liners and hijinks. Liz is forced to be Fey’s mouthpiece, apologizing for Tracy Morgan’s behavior in a similar fashion to the statement she issued during the height of the scandal. Of course as viewers we understand that Liz Lemon has a lot in common with her creator, but the line here has become so blurred that we’re basically watching Tina Fey waggle her finger at Tracy Morgan for the benefit of saving face and justifying his continued employment. I’d have thought that if Tracy Jordan said the same horrific things as his real-life counterpart, Liz Lemon would march up to Jack Donaghy’s office and ask for there to be a serious reprimand and consequences for his behavior. Instead, Tracy Jordan says something stupid but not nearly as malicious, and Liz Lemon gets exasperated and lectures him for a few minutes before she’s greeted by another comic crisis. As long as she remains a fictional version of Fey, Liz Lemon has no agency, and this greatly limits her character.
I want to add that I am a fan of Tina Fey, and I don’t think it’s a bad thing that she created Liz Lemon in her image. But it really becomes problematic when Liz never gets to deviate from that reflection at all. Just as Liz echoed Fey in how she dealt with the Tracy situation, so it goes for Liz’s personal life. Fey has said in interviews that Liz is “based on a version of myself from before.” Since Fey has been so open about how she grew up, we know that means a quasi-virginal, nerdy outsider with a quick wit and a passion for comedy. And that’s fine as a baseline for the character, but this many seasons into the series, it’s time to allow Liz to mature and find a healthy relationship, just as Fey herself has blossomed and come into her own. Because this song-and-dance where she meets a guy with movie-star good looks, only to be disappointed and heartbroken while Jack gleefully says “I told you so”? That has gotten beyond old.
And it has become especially glaring now that 30 Rock and Parks and Recreation air back-to-back. While Liz Lemon is hiding her new boyfriend from her closest friend because she’s afraid he’ll point out his flaws, Leslie Knope is getting rock-steady support from her significant other in achieving her lifelong ambition. Even if 30 Rock often functions as a live-action cartoon (Exhibit A: every Kenneth-driven storyline), Liz and Jack are richly drawn characters and their relationship is central to the show’s success. Yet while Jack has been allowed to have a series of relationships with interesting and successful women, eventually marrying and having a child with one of them, Liz has floundered. Almost all of her love interests have been incredibly attractive, but inevitably reveal themselves to either be incompetent or immature. As viewers, we knows these boyfriends have limited shelf-lives because they are either a) played by A-list stars who are only contracted for a certain number of episodes (Jon Hamm, Matt Damon, James Marsden, Michael Sheen), or b) have such jokey names we know we shouldn’t take them seriously (Wesley Snipes, Carol Burnett, and now Criss with no “h” and two “esses”).
While Fey has become accomplished and content in all facets of her life, why does she let poor Liz languish in loserdom? If Fey let go of the idea that Liz has to be a reflection of her younger self, I believe we’d get more satisfying storytelling. The season premiere was promising in that it showed Liz finding a work/life balance, not letting Tracy’s shenanigans upset her, and upending Jack’s smug assumptions of how predictable she can be. This episode we see Liz revert to form, embarrassed of her new boyfriend (who is sweet and goofy and needs to not use the Sunglasses Hut credit card to pay for a date) and letting Jack and Tracy get to her. For the sake of the show, Liz Lemon needs to find someone worthy of her. And to do so, she needs to exorcise the Tina Fey who can’t, or won’t, let go of the past.