Liz Lemon, and her alter ego, Tina Fey, do not have spotless records, not even on the level of comedic genius. Later seasons of 30 Rock have dragged. The knowing cynicism of the show is starting to feel rote, and I have yet to meet anyone who finds her marriage to her weird boyfriend particularly plausible even within the show’s own absurdist tone. I have the feeling the ratings she sees tonight for her curtain call will be her highest in years—from a height of about 8 million viewers, only about 3 million now watch her show religiously. That’s still three times the ratings of certain cable shows, but low for a network series. 30 Rock has always been a different kind of hit.
The popular read on this is that 30 Rock helped women storm the barricades of pop culture. There’s a lot of chatter now about the proliferation of women on television, as well as the numbers that don’t really back that up. But it’s not just a matter of numbers. It’s a matter of talk, of recognition and of respect. In the era of Dan Quayle, that talk wasn’t always welcome, because it was endless idiotic appeals for women to be proper “role models” for the presumed automatons in their audiences. But mercifully, we seem to be getting away from that in favour of a new, more interesting cultural cycle, one which 30 Rock was the first to handle with aplomb.
The cycle has three distinct phases.
Phase One is the Embrace. Early on we began hearing that Liz, and Tina Fey by association, represented a model career woman. And yes, a subsection of the cubicle-dwelling women of America, raised on Sassy and weaned on Jezebel, couldn’t help but relate. Their work might have been less fulfilling than the running of a sketch comedy show in New York. But Liz’s affection for fake cheese snacks, dating losers and dressing indifferently were recognizable.
At that, she wasn’t revolutionary, not exactly. Liz owed a ton to Maude and Rhoda and Mary Tyler Moore, just for starters. But she opened up the possibilities for some of us. Not only were we now free to sacrifice a lot for our jobs, we were free to do so in comfortable footwear and air-dried hair. A thousand op-eds launched in approval.
Phase Two is the Backlash. Some noticed early on that Liz’s vision of liberation was narrowly tailored. Sady Doyle wrote a long and much circulated essay, which pointed out that Liz “doesn’t do posts about sex workers’ rights, but she does do complaining about ‘raunch culture’; she doesn’t do anti-racism, disability activism, or trans ally work to any huge extent, but she does do ‘body image’ (and oh, does she ever do body image, without taking much note of the fact that as a white, abled, cis person she conforms to the “beauty standard,” and benefits from conforming to it, in more ways than she will ever let on).”