Television

How Girls5Eva Is Making Up for 30 Rock’s Past

The Tina Fey-verse has finally outgrown Liz Lemon.

Side by side stills of Tina Fey as Liz Lemon in 30 Rock and Sara Bareilles as Dawn in Girls5eva.
Fey-mous 5eva. Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by NBC and Peacock.

Fifteen years after 30 Rock’s premiere, the legacy of its main character can be summed up by one quote from the show itself: “Liz Lemon is a Judas to all womankind.” Over the course of the series’s seven-season run, Tina Fey’s iconic character goes from a nerdy girlboss who’s simply trying to have it all (while also making time for her night cheese) to a cynical bad feminist who’s often the villain of her own show. But the culture has shifted since 30 Rock’s debut, and a female Judas no longer cuts it as a series focal point. Today, there’s a new main character at the center of the Fey comedic universe: Girls5eva’s Dawn, who’s emblematic of a new era of female characters in TV comedy.

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Fey didn’t create Girls5eva; that credit goes to Meredith Scardino, a Colbert Report veteran who also wrote on Fey’s Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt. But Fey did produce Girls5eva, and her stamp is all over it. Where 30 Rock offers a behind-the-scenes look at the making of a network variety show, Girls5eva tells the behind-the-scenes story of a ’90s girl group reuniting in middle age. Both shows are built around sharp pop culture commentary, jokes delivered at breakneck speed, and a bedraggled normcore protagonist who’s doing her best against truly absurd odds. But where Liz is fundamentally out for herself, Dawn is do-or-die for the group, whose theme song pledges girl-power solidarity “5eva” because “4eva’s too short.”

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Played by the singer-songwriter Sara Bareilles, Dawn has personality quirks that could easily be leftover Liz Lemon bits—she washes her one bra every other week, she thinks she’s laying multiple eggs when she ovulates, and boy does she love audiobooks—and, like Liz, Dawn is the grounded character trying to keep the train moving while her creative partners get sidetracked by their insecurity and narcissism. The connection between them is even underscored by Girls5eva when Dawn hits a songwriting slump and is inspired by a hallucination of Dolly Parton, played by none other than Tina Fey. There’s a sort of meta reading here, with Fey stepping in to pass the torch from Liz to Dawn. But even with these overt connections, Dawn is more evolved than Liz. Unlike Liz, Dawn is actually learning and trying to embody feminist values, and the show seems to want viewers to root for her to do so. There’s an optimism inherent in Dawn’s journey to reclaim her girl group and rebuild their reputation from their problematic past, which is a far cry from the underlying cynicism of 30 Rock.

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On 30 Rock, Liz thinks of herself as a feminist, and yet right at the start of the series, she sucks it up and gives into her corporate overlords rather than quitting when her girl-power comedy show is rebranded to star Tracy Jordan. Later, when her childhood feminist icon (Carrie Fisher, in an Emmy-nominated performance) pitches ideas Liz deems too edgy, she recoils in fear and horror. And perhaps most notably, Liz basically spits in the face of the third-wave feminist edict to respect a woman’s right to live her life how she chooses. Throughout the series, she disparages her supposed best friend Jenna’s life choices, and her insistence on changing Cristin Milioti’s character’s “dumb blond” persona in the Season 5 episode “TGS Hates Women” leads to the infamous “Liz Lemon is a Judas” quote. On 30 Rock, if any woman doesn’t live by Liz’s standards, she’s the recipient of one of Liz’s signature judgment-filled eye-rolls. And while Liz isn’t exactly presented as a role model, the show ultimately embraced her ignorance as part of her character and part of the series’s humor.

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Dawn, on the other hand, is just at the beginning of a journey of empowerment, and thus there’s much more grace and empathy surrounding her character. After she reunites with the surviving members of her ’90s girl group (Renée Elise Goldsberry, Busy Philipps, and Paula Pell), they revisit their old songs and start to recognize just how misogynistic and messed up they were, with lyrics like “We’re dream girlfriends, ’cause our dads are dead/ So you never have to meet them, and gеt asked why you left school.”* At first, they turn to a legendary Swedish producer (Stephen Colbert) for new material, but not much has changed in 20 years. “Side pieces for life,” goes the song he offers them, “Don’t tell your wife.” Dawn, who’s married with a young son, turns down the surefire hit, but makes clear that her dislike for the song is “no judgment to side pieces, if that’s a piece’s choice.” She sounds like she’s still getting a handle on the rhetoric, but compared with Liz Lemon’s reflexive snark, her refusal to sit in judgment on other women seems truly enlightened.

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The world is a different place in 2021 than it was when 30 Rock premiered. There’s an expectation that people will be more thoughtful and careful with their treatment of identity than they were 15 years ago, and we want our TV protagonists to embody that care as well. That doesn’t mean these characters need to be perfect. In fact, on 30 Rock, it’s arguably Liz’s striving to live the perfect life, to “have it all,” that makes it impossible for her to appreciate the one she has. 30 Rock coincided with the peak years of prestige TV’s Difficult Man, the time when Don Draper and Walter White reigned supreme, and among a landscape of male antiheroes, Liz Lemon was like a bumbling little sister who could be just as reprehensible as cable’s worst druglords.

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Today, the lineup of popular characters looks different than it did during 30 Rock’s heyday. For one thing, it’s a whole lot broader. The rise of streaming services and the push for a more diverse TV industry have opened the doors for complicated women like Phoebe Waller-Bridge’s Fleabag and Michaela Coel’s Arabella, whose shows (Fleabag and I May Destroy You) further complicate matters by straddling the boundary between comedy and drama.* But even on network comedies, characters like Kristen Bell’s Eleanor on The Good Place are imbued with more nuance and depth. She may be a self-proclaimed “trashbag” who has been condemned to eternal torment, but she’s sincerely trying to be a better person, and that’s what counts.

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Rather than stepping on others trying to achieve a perfect life, Dawn realizes she’d rather celebrate her own imperfections. The first season of Girls5eva culminates with the group singing Dawn’s original composition “4 Stars,” a poignant tribute to not quite getting it right. 30 Rock would never allow Liz a moment of such earnest vulnerability, but on Girls5eva, Dawn’s open positivity is welcome and celebrated. While 30 Rock begins with Liz trading feminist principles for career stability, Dawn and her fellow Girls5eva reject efforts to split them apart, even as they’re told that the prospects for a pop group composed of four middle-aged women are dim. They know that they still have a lot of growing to do, but they’d rather go on that journey together.

Correction, May 18, 2021: This piece originally misidentified I May Destroy You as I Will Destroy You.

Correction, May 17, 2021: This piece originally misspelled Busy Philipps’ last name.

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