Over the course of her 40-year career, Carrie Fisher did a lot of everything: She acted, she wrote, she imbibed, she quipped, she lived. Her credits include screenwriting and script-doctoring, memoirs and novels, starring roles and guest spots. Fisher did a lot of TV, everything from Sex and the City to Dr. Katz and her charming recent turn in Catastrophe, but her most memorable appearance was the fantastic 2007 episode of 30 Rock “Rosemary’s Baby.”
In it, Fisher plays Rosemary Howard, Liz Lemon’s (Tiny Fey) heroine, one of the first female TV comedy writers. Liz invites Rosemary to be a guest writer on Liz’s show, TGS. Rosemary joins up and immediately starts causing trouble, pushing Liz—who has recently accepted a “followship award”—to push the boundaries, to stand up to the man, to take on race by having one of the white actors do blackface: Hey, they would have done it back in Rosemary’s day! Rosemary wheedles her way into Jack Donaghy’s (Alec Baldwin) office, where she tells the head of NBC her ambitions. Jack tells Liz to fire her. Liz threatens to quit instead. Jack fires them both. Liz goes home with Rosemary, riled up and aflame with rebellion, and is rapidly disillusioned. Rosemary is a broke alcoholic living in a rodent-infested apartment in Little Chechnya, stuck in the past, barely surviving on her principles. (Fisher handles all these character swerves with casual aplomb: She’s wonderfully laid back at the beginning, convincingly hepped up and spazzy by the end.) Liz sees in Rosemary an alternate future and runs from it as fast as she can, right back to Jack Donaghy, forsaking destitution and righteousness to embrace endless artistic compromises that people will get to see and that will keep Liz safely ensconced on the Upper West Side.
“Rosemary’s Baby” is a near-perfect episode of 30 Rock and not just for Fisher’s storyline: This is the episode that includes a B storyline with Alec Baldwin’s bravura monologue as Tracy Jordan’s entire family and the sage, oddly applicable piece of advice to “never go with a hippie to a second location.” But it’s Rosemary’s storyline that gets right to the heart of 30 Rock, its unsentimental flaying of the ridiculous, uproarious compromises required of thinking working women.
Without Fisher, Rosemary Howe is a loopy cautionary tale, a heroine who turns out to be batty and pathetic, slugging a thermos of wine, trying to inoculate another generation with ideals that will bring them down to the streets of Little Chechnya. When Liz flees, you might feel bad for Rosemary. But simply by being played by Carrie Fisher, the most acerbic, world-wise, seen-it-all veteran on the block, Rosemary Howard gets layers. She’s more than just shorthand for a washed-up, idealistic feminist; she’s a palimpsest for another kind of harder-edged, cynical, step-by-tiny-step one. Carrie Fisher, of all people, is in on the joke of what Hollywood demands of women. Whatever you do, you don’t opt out on behalf of the man. You put on the gold bikini, and you strangle him into giving you an action figure if you have to. Maybe after Liz Lemon runs from her apartment, Rosemary Howard puts her feet up and cackles: She just taught a woman how important it is to get and stay paid. Though that’s not Rosemary Howard I’m imagining. It’s just Carrie Fisher.