30 Rock comes to an end this season, and its star/creator, Tina Fey, seemed primed to shoot off into the galaxy of the movies. But word came down today that Fey has signed a four-year deal with Universal Television, and will keep developing shows for NBC. This is very good news, because television needs her even more than the movies do.
Fey isn’t exactly Shonda Rhimes, the phenomenally-successful creator of the medical drama Grey’s Anatomy, its spinoff Private Practice, and political fixer drama Scandal. 30 Rock’s stayed alive on critical acclaim and awards more than on the ratings from its small but dedicated fanbase. Unlike Rhimes, Fey probably won’t be able to make just any show she wants—NBC is trying to climb out of a ratings cellar with decidedly dumber fare than that which Fey’s turned out for the last six seasons. But unlike Rhimes, whose shows have been, in many respects, conventional procedural soap opera (which is part of what makes them so successful), Fey may be able to reset the bar, again.
When 30 Rock began, Fey’s Liz Lemon was an anomaly—a woman who, in the words of her boss Jack Donaghy, was “New York third-wave feminist, college-educated, single-and-pretending-to-be-happy-about-it, overscheduled, undersexed, you buy any magazine that says ‘healthy body image’ on the cover and every two years you take up knitting for … a week.” Liz could be racist, as when she assumed her new actor Tracy Jordan couldn’t read; self-interested to the point of faking alcoholism to court a new guy; and painfully awkward. And she exploded the pop culture conceit that it’s easy for women to have it all, or to make the changes that are necessary to have it all when they have fully-formed personalities and established lives. Every weird, not-easy-to-like, fascinating woman to arrive on television since, from Hannah Horvath on Girls to Mindy Lahiri on The Mindy Project, owes a debt to Liz Lemon.
Not only am I excited to see the women Fey might create next, but I’m also interested to watch who she mentors and where they go. From Community star Donald Glover, who recently sold an autobiographical show to NBC, to Kay Cannon, who just sold a sitcom about a woman working on an NFL Sunday show to Fox, 30 Rock writers have gone on to do fascinating things. Fey and NBC may have never been able to turn 30 Rock into a massive ratings success, but she’s helped train the next generation of writers who may be able to sell her brand of smart comedy to a wider audience.
Of course, I’d love to see Fey on the big screen, particularly in romantic comedies. Given the tendency for female characters to be younger and speak less than their male counterparts, Fey as a mouthy broad and a suitable romantic interest would be a welcome addition to the market. Still, she can do more to make pop culture smarter and weirder behind the scenes than she can looking gorgeous in front of it.