I Want To GOP to There
30 Rock's weird conservative streak.
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.
Jonah Weiner is Slate's pop critic.
Still from 30 Rock © NBC Universal Inc. All rights reserved.