30 Rock will have its Season 3 finale next week, and, barring an unforeseen plummet in viewership, the curtains will close on some good news. The first and second seasons averaged 5.8 million and 6.4 million viewers a show, while the typical Season 3 episode has brought in more than 7 million. That’s a small but happy triumph for a series that’s flirted with oblivion since its start—even if it’s a triumph many onlookers saw coming. This season premiered just a month after Tina Fey crafted her devastatingly ditzy Sarah Palin impression on SNL and became, for a spell, the fourth-most-famous woman in American politics. It was all but guaranteed that Fey’s newfound celebrity would give her baby a boost.
It’s surprising, though, what a small role party politics has played on 30 Rock this season. There were no Palin riffs. Despite Bobby Jindal’s widely mocked resemblance to Kenneth the page, there was no send-up of the Louisiana governor. Even nods to Barack Obama’s win have been scarce: a glancing reference to Michelle Obama’s “smug smile” here (courtesy of the show’s resident Republican, Alec Baldwin’s Jack Donaghy), a short, strange “Flavor Obama” bit there. This is surprising not just because of Fey’s election-season success but because politics figured so heavily in the show’s first two seasons. Jack dated Condoleezza Rice and went to work for George Bush; scripts were regularly packed with enough Dennis Kucinich, Mitt Romney, and universal health care punch lines to rival a Colbert Report monologue. But politics is still very much part of 30 Rock’s DNA. The show’s central tension remains the tug of war between Fey’s Liz Lemon and Jack Donaghy. Their head butting doubles as an argument about the viability of liberal ideals and the allure of a pragmatic, colder-eyed conservatism—and it’s remarkable how often the show sides with the latter.
The terms of the debate are established in the pilot. Whereas Jack is a wealthy dater of models with an arsenal of problem-management skills honed over decades of corporate retreats, Liz has only a checking account to her name and clings to a fantasy of presexual, junk-food-munching adolescence. Jack adores the political right for its merciless expedience—he fires Liz’s longtime producer, Pete, without a blink—while Liz’s liberalism is presented as another symptom of her prolonged adolescence. “Lemon,” a stupefied Jack asks later in the season, “what happened in your childhood to make you think that people are good?”
Beyond the comedic possibilities of such an odd couple, what’s the show getting at here? In one light, Liz’s self-infantilizing might reflect an urge toward equality: The man-child is a venerable comic tradition, from The Jerk to Billy Madison to everything Will Ferrell does, and 30 Rock proves that an eternal 13-year-old tomboy—scared of sex, obsessed with Star Wars and meatball subs—can be just as funny as her male counterpart. It might reflect an ethos of resistance, too: Liz, fearing that she’s a brunette caught in a blonde’s game, incapable of (and feeling icky about) using her sexuality to get ahead the way her friend Jenna Maroney does, tries to drop out of the race altogether, to barricade herself in a world where wheels of cheese, not sex, wealth, and power, are the brass rings.
But Liz’s would-be adolescent paradise—and, with it, her liberal-feminist instincts—is ultimately cast as a neurosis she needs to escape, lest she die alone and unloved in her apartment, choking on a sandwich. This message is nowhere more striking than in the episode in which Liz hires an idol of her youth, the ‘70s comedy writer Rosemary Howard (Carrie Fisher). Rosemary hails from the heyday of feminist television comedy, and she encourages Liz to “push the envelope” in her own writing, to antagonize the powers that be the same way Rosemary once antagonized H.R. Haldeman. An irritated Jack axes them both, at which point Liz discovers that Rosemary chugs wine from a Thermos and lives in a sketchy outer-borough neighborhood (“Little Chechnya,” ingeniously). The denouement is brutal. Rosemary has been driven mad, poor, barren, and obsolete by her lifelong commitment to radical ideals, and a horrified Liz flees to Jack’s office, begs for her job back, and asks him to help her “do that thing that rich people do, make money into more money.”
This structure appears often on 30 Rock: Liz starts from a progressive perspective before coming around to Jack’s way of seeing things. In Season 2, Liz becomes suspicious that her new neighbor, Raheem Haddad, is a terrorist. As she walks around the Upper West Side, she passes a series of posters—”If you see something, say something,” “if you suspect anything, do everything.” Whipped into a paranoid frenzy (“Be an American; call it in,” Jack tells her), Liz reports Raheem, a USA-loving innocent who is brutally interrogated and turns against America in the process. Here, we’re meant to shake our heads and chuckle—the show, ever slippery, is poking simultaneous fun at the flimsiness of Liz’s liberal values, at Jack’s callous hawkishness, and at the way both perspectives collude to make the world a worse place.
More often, though, as in the Rosemary episode, we seem meant to accept Liz’s Jack-ward drift, if not cheer it on outright, as part of her maturation. Jack is a target of the show’s ridicule, but even as his worldview is satirized, it’s often presented as inevitable. Yes, he’s an unfeeling, creatively inept conservative, but he’s also peerless when it comes to real-world maneuvering. When Liz gets in over her head at work, in life, and in love, Jack is both her foil and her life coach, on hand to swoop in and save the day. This can take on an aspect that borders, strangely, on the anti-feminist. Toward the end of Season 1, Liz’s hormones get the best of her and she goes on a crazy-eyed, jealousy-driven firing spree. It’s up to Jack to coolly intervene, transferring her romantic rival to another city. When the smoke clears, he asks Liz, “You still think our next president should be a woman?” It’s a funny, complicated jab. With it, Fey and her team acknowledge the conservative plotline they’ve written about a woman whose emotions prevent her from doing her job well—but they don’t disavow it.
In fact, this narrative is a recurring motif. We see it in the episode in which Liz tries, disastrously, to assert her authority after a staffer calls her a cunt—exhausted and embarrassed by the effort, she’s finally carried from the writer’s room like a baby. We see it in the episode in which Jack dates a Democratic congresswoman who’s been helping her constituents sue GE—she likes him so much, she compromises her convictions, and persuades her litigants to settle out of court. And we see a version of it whenever Jenna—the show’s one unapologetically careerist female—is on screen, making a fool of herself in the name of ambition.
How do these story lines fit into a show masterminded by a successful, self-described feminist like Fey? Flawed people are funny, sure, but why does Liz Lemon have the traditionally gendered flaws she does? Elaine Benes and Murphy Brown, for example, were strong, feminist-friendly characters and funny, to boot. On Seinfeld, Elaine was a frumpy-sexy career woman who slept around without censure, inspired suitors to get vasectomies, and made the birth control “sponge” famous. Murphy Brown is a funhouse-mirror image of Liz. She works in TV, wants to be a single mother, rolls her eyes at the cleavage-flashing coquetry of her bimbo co-worker, Corky, and embarks on a love-hate relationship with a right-winger, Jerry Gold. But she’s also confident, ambitious, and doesn’t run to her boss for guidance so much as bully him constantly.
Of course, 30 Rock was conceived during the reign of George W. Bush, which might help explain its ideological complexity. The show has been consistently critical of Bush, but perhaps 30 Rock began as a way to explore—and mine for gallows humor—the crisis of identity many liberals began to feel in his second term, when the Karl Rove playbook had seemingly replaced the laws of physics, when the “reality-based community” (including Liz Lemon’s Upper West Side) felt like an island populated by the marginal, flip-flopping, arugula-munching few.
In the current season, the political climate has changed, and so has Jack and Liz’s relationship. In the face of romance, issues with his mother, and even corporate challenges, Jack’s steely facade has buckled, and he’s needed Liz’s help more frequently—he no longer appears as an inevitable force, always one step ahead. This—together with the drop-off in overt gags about Beltway politics—might be 30 Rock’s way of absorbing Washington’s left-blowing winds. But it doesn’t mean that the show’s lowercase-C conservatism has disappeared. If anything, it reveals how deeply it’s rooted. Liz’s extreme infantilization persists, from her blue Slanket to her new catchphrase, “I want to go to there” (inspired, appropriately, by Fey’s own 3-year-old daughter). And last week’s episode, the most explicitly political of the season, argues for the untenability of the post-racial, post-gender, Obama-era society: Tracy pledges to memorize lines, show up to work on time, and generally escape the black stereotypes he inhabits so anarchically, while Liz agrees to be treated no differently than a man, an initiative she kicks off by refilling a water cooler without help, spilling three-quarters of the jug on herself along the way. The experiment chafes, and before long Liz and Tracy beg each other for permission to return to the way they were—the episode is titled “The Natural Order.” Even without a chilly bon mot from Jack to cap off the episode, he’s there, smirking, in spirit.