Against Girlie-ness

The snide brilliance of Tina Fey on 30 Rock.

Tina Fey in 30 Rock

The NBC show within the NBC show 30 Rock (Thursdays at 9:30 p.m. ET) is titled The Girlie Show. Or it was, at least, until Jack Donaghy (Alec Baldwin), the fictional NBC’s newly appointed “Vice President of East Coast Television and Microwave Oven Programming,” got his meaty and manicured hands on it. He hired a volatile male movie star (Tracy Morgan) as its new centerpiece and rechristened it TGS With Tracy Jordan. Though the original name is lost, the question lingers: “Girlie”? Really? What was that about?

Yes, as Donaghy asserted in 30 Rock’s October pilot, the sketch show he is meddling with rates well with female viewers, and, yes, Jenna Maroney (Jane Krakowski), The Girlie Show’s old star, is a hair-flipping wonder. But the name is a bad fit, and also telling. The fragments of TGS sketches we’ve caught are completely in tune with the boyish brainwaves of The Harvard Lampoon: extravagant vomit jokes, bears brawling with killer robots. There is nothing to suggest that, as 30 Rock’s superlatively odd NBC page (Jack McBrayer), explains to a tour group, the sketch show is a “real fun ladies’ comedy show for ladies.” There are but two women in the writers’ room. One has yet to speak a line. The other is the head writer, Liz Lemon, played by Tina Fey. Before creating 30 Rock, Fey was, of course, the head writer on Saturday Night Live, which is where things get interesting. 30 Rock is not a sitcom á clef, but Fey and her character do share a quarrel with girlieness that’s bitter but fond—that’s fond of its bitterness, even—and much of 30 Rock’s hilarity springs from it.

Liz Lemon—appreciate how the surname sours the flirting loveliness of that double L, and note that Elizabeth Stamatina Fey has lent the chick her Christian name—is 35. She is “single and pretending to be happy about it, overscheduled, undersexed,” as Donaghy, addressing her, put it in one of his flourishes of savage perspicacity. “You buy any magazine that says ‘healthy body image’ on the cover, and every two years you take up knitting for a week.” She is haughty, vindictive, and reflexively snide. Her meager personal life used to involve a beeper salesman named Dennis, who lavished her with noogies (“Ow, that really hurts“) and who stayed in her good graces for a long while by knowing just when she needed Chinese takeout, say, or a meatball sub.

Indeed, Liz—not unlike Regina George, the queen bee in Fey’s Mean Girls—has a weird relationship with food. Sometimes, she tries to eat away the pain of her misery, a habit shared with Donaghy, who once smothered mom-related angst with an economy-sized tub of cheese puffs. Sometimes, she simply turns up with lettuce in her hair. Out on the town with Jenna after breaking up with Dennis, she told a guy off in a bravura show of social ineptitude, only to learn from her wingwoman that the dude really just wanted to buy her a drink. That news perked Liz up a bit: “I already have a drink. Do you think he would buy me mozzarella sticks?”

The character’s hair is generally mousy and flat, and the lettuce lends it no body. Her wardrobe is mannish, and she’s disdainful of the traditional female sexuality. You sense that Liz Lemon would push Sex and the City’s Carrie Bradshaw under a bus, claim she did it on principle, and cackle about it for ages. In this sense, Jenna—whose heart is in her cleavage, whose deepest conviction is that her sexuality is a weapon—is something of a foil. As is Liz’s assistant, Cerie, a clueless little nymph who cannot comprehend her boss’s suggestion that she not wear short shorts to the office. On the occasions that Liz dolls herself up, Fey lays the snark on thicker yet: In the third episode, “Blind Date,” she put on a cocktail dress, and her producer, admiring, said, “You look like a fancy prostitute.”  Liz made a flattered little bounce.

As the show extends its run, Liz would seem to be a tricky part—a condescending, steadily scornful, and boldly unpleasant sitcom protagonist. It works dramatically because Liz is matched in egomania and surpassed in wackiness by imperious Jack, loony Jenna, and deranged Tracy. And because Fey, with a sustained physicality heretofore unseen by a national audience, does these virtuosic solos of frustration and peevishness week after week—full-body sneers, steaming fits of huffiness, double takes that get at seven types of incredulity. This is a reasonable woman eager to be overwhelmed by the mean girl inside.