30 Rock's weird conservative streak.

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May 6 2009 1:13 PM

I Want To GOP to There

30 Rock's weird conservative streak.

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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.

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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.

Jonah Weiner is a contributing editor at Rolling Stone and a contributing writer at the New York Times Magazine.