Thursday Night 'Lights: Liz Lemon Needs a Divorce From Tina Fey

In this week's TNL, it's all about  30 Rock—specifically, the problem that arises from Tina Fey so closely identifying with her character, Liz Lemon. This week's episode especially magnified the havoc this wreaks on her long-suffering fictional alter-ego, in both her personal and professional life.

Let's talk about Liz Lemon's professional life first. In this week's episode, Fey satirized the scandal surrounding Tracy Morgan's inflammatory, homophobic comments from a stand-up routine performed last year. 30 Rock has a history of being self-referential, especially when it comes to NBC's woes—even at times breaking the fourth wall—so it's not surprising that Fey would want to incorporate this real-life event in her show. Since this storyline is ongoing as part of a two-part episode, I'm going to wait until it has concluded before fully weighing in. (I should note that so far of what I've seen of it has been clumsy, misguided, and even a little offensive.) But there's one aspect I want to address: Liz's dressing down of Tracy Jordan, which is similar to what Fey did in the wake of her real-life co-star's controversy.

When Liz learns what Tracy Jordan said ("If you want to see a penis, take off your pants. If I got turned into a gay, I'd sit around all day and look at my own junk" ), she lambastes him, reminding him that many people he works with on TGS are gay, and that he needs to apologize because, "The dumb things you say may influence or hurt people." While true, this felt forced, as if 30 Rock inserted a quick "The More You Know" PSA amid the one-liners and hijinks. Liz is forced to be Fey's mouthpiece, apologizing for Tracy Morgan's behavior in a similar fashion to the statement she issued during the height of the scandal. Of course as viewers we understand that Liz Lemon has a lot in common with her creator, but the line here has become so blurred that we're basically watching Tina Fey waggle her finger at Tracy Morgan for the benefit of saving face and justifying his continued employment. I'd have thought that if Tracy Jordan said the same horrific things as his real-life counterpart, Liz Lemon would march up to Jack Donaghy's office and ask for there to be a serious reprimand and consequences for his behavior. Instead, Tracy Jordan says something stupid but not nearly as malicious, and Liz Lemon gets exasperated and lectures him for a few minutes before she's greeted by another comic crisis. As long as she remains a fictional version of Fey, Liz Lemon has no agency, and this greatly limits her character.

I want to add that I am a fan of Tina Fey, and I don't think it's a bad thing that she created Liz Lemon in her image. But it really becomes problematic when Liz never gets to deviate from that reflection at all. Just as Liz echoed Fey in how she dealt with the Tracy situation, so it goes for Liz's personal life. Fey has said in interviews that Liz is "based on a version of myself from before." Since Fey has been so open about how she grew up, we know that means a quasi-virginal, nerdy outsider with a quick wit and a passion for comedy. And that's fine as a baseline for the character, but this many seasons into the series, it's time to allow Liz to mature and find a healthy relationship, just as Fey herself has blossomed and come into her own. Because this song-and-dance where she meets a guy with movie-star good looks, only to be disappointed and heartbroken while Jack gleefully says "I told you so"? That has gotten beyond old.

And it has become especially glaring now that 30 Rock and Parks and Recreation air back-to-back. While Liz Lemon is hiding her new boyfriend from her closest friend because she's afraid he'll point out his flaws, Leslie Knope is getting rock-steady support from her significant other in achieving her lifelong ambition. Even if 30 Rock often functions as a live-action cartoon (Exhibit A: every Kenneth-driven storyline), Liz and Jack are richly drawn characters and their relationship is central to the show's success. Yet while Jack has been allowed to have a series of relationships with interesting and successful women, eventually marrying and having a child with one of them, Liz has floundered. Almost all of her love interests have been incredibly attractive, but inevitably reveal themselves to either be incompetent or immature. As viewers, we knows these boyfriends have limited shelf-lives because they are either a) played by A-list stars who are only contracted for a certain number of episodes (Jon Hamm, Matt Damon, James Marsden, Michael Sheen), or b) have such jokey names we know we shouldn't take them seriously (Wesley Snipes, Carol Burnett, and now Criss with no "h" and two "esses").

While Fey has become accomplished and content in all facets of her life, why does she let poor Liz languish in loserdom? If Fey let go of the idea that Liz has to be a reflection of her younger self, I believe we'd get more satisfying storytelling. The season premiere was promising in that it showed Liz finding a work/life balance, not letting Tracy's shenanigans upset her, and upending Jack's smug assumptions of how predictable she can be. This episode we see Liz revert to form, embarrassed of her new boyfriend (who is sweet and goofy and needs to not use the Sunglasses Hut credit card to pay for a date) and letting Jack and Tracy get to her. For the sake of the show, Liz Lemon needs to find someone worthy of her. And to do so, she needs to exorcise the Tina Fey who can't, or won't, let go of the past.

Previously: Thursday Night 'Lights: New Year, New Lineup; Thursday Night 'Lights: Christmas Time Is Here

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Comments

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Somthing's off

I agree with everything in this article; Tina Fey has to let Liz Lemon grow up, whether that means getting married or staying (contentedly) single, but she's dated enough losers, it's getting stale.
Has anyone else notice something 'off' this season? I don't find it as funny, and I also think there's less background music. The show feels, for lack of a better word, blank.
That being said, I will stick with 30 Rock, because it is still funnier than most sitcoms; and I've been watching Tina since she's been on Weekend Update, she's representing us bespectacled brunettes.

I just watched the episode,

I just watched the episode, and I thought the way 30 Rock presented people who were upset by Tracy Morgan's real-life rant (including the remarks that Morgan would kill his son were he to be an effeminate gay man) was incredibly dismissive and offensive. 30 Rock showed a bunch of queeny, bitchy gay men protesting outside as the representation of the people who were enraged by Morgan's comments. I'm speaking for myself and other radical, queer, feminist people I know when I say that it wasn't just limp-wristed gay guys who thought this was unacceptable.

30 Rock should be ashamed of portraying the queer community in such a stereotyped and altogether patronizing way.

I haven't seen the episode

I haven't seen the episode and don't plan on doing so, but it sounds to me as though the fact that Morgan's comments needed to be so severely toned down for the story to be palatable and "funny" should have been an indication that it would have been better not to make the episode in the first place.

It seems like a pretty clear and disrespectful attempt to salvage Morgan's (and the show's) reputation by trying to make everyone forget about what he actually said.

It is not fair to blame Tina Fey entirely for this

"30 Rock" is a program on a conglomerate network behemoth known as NBC/Universal/Comcast. Perhaps the writers and producers wanted to portray more "realistic" characters as protesters, but the network honchos that oversee these productions prior to airtime balked at the idea and made them "tone them down" to look more like these stereotypes that were portrayed??

You all are making it sound like Tina Fey is to blame for this indeed dreadful episode. Clearly unfair when the real root of the problem is the corporate behemoth executives that seem to be secretly counting the days until this show ends so they can replace it with more dreck like Whitney and Chelsea Handler's AWFUL new show. It is also horrible enough that the humiliating "Fear Factor" is back, and the equally humiliating "Celebrity Apprentice's" debut is just a mere few weeks away ...

As a 99-percenter who was very much against the NBC/Comcast merger, I most prefer focusing on challenging these network honchos that must not get away with what they are trying to do, replace "quality" with sensational, misogynist "quantity" because they want more pieces of CBS's audiences. That is NOT how I want for my TV viewing to beccome. NBC was fine before the merger. It was not broke. Why fix what was not broke?

wait, what?

"it's time to allow Liz to mature and find a healthy relationship"

No offense, but why? 30 Rock is more a comedy of errors than anything else. It wouldn't feel natural for a character whose life is generally chaotic to suddenly becoming the opposite of what she is? And who says that she needs to find a "healthy relationship," or that by comparison (not that there should be any comparison) Jack has ever been in one? If his relationship with Avery was so healthy, he would probably miss her now that she's a hostage in a foreign country.

I enjoyed the rest of this post, but that part just didn't make sense to me.