By Alyssa Rosenberg
I’ve been struggling for a long time to crystalize my growing frustrations with 30 Rock, a show that had a nigh-perfect second season and has never consistently achieved the same comedic heights again. Is it the breakdown of the show that brought all the characters together? Jack Donaghy’s parade of no-act honeys (Elizabeth Banks exempted, of course)? The fact that Liz Lemon gets written like she’s ugly, or spectacularly awkward, or dumb? But over this weekend, when Elizabeth Gilbert announced that she wouldn’t be speaking publicly about her insanely successful memoir, Eat, Pray, Love, anymore, another explanation occurred to me. For a brief, refreshing moment, Liz Lemon was the anti-Liz Gilbert, and 30 Rock was a rebuke to an ethic of self-care and excessive self-regard, preaching a fairly effective gospel of salvation through work instead. Watching the show abandon that argument to become the endless ugly-duckling half of a makeover movie has been exhausting and depressing.
When 30 Rock started, Liz Lemon was a mess, but an interesting one. She’d clawed her way up the comedy ladder and created the show she’d always dreamed of. When Jack Donaghy comes crashing through her dead boss’s door and into Liz’s life, she’s annoyed because he insists on fixing something that she thinks isn’t broken. But even as Jack upset Liz’s show in the name of boosting the already-okay ratings, he offered her something kind of radical: a sense of how to fix her life by embracing her job, rather than through a radical physical or spiritual renovation.
In “Rosemary’s Baby,” the show leavens the hilarious awfulness of Carrie Fisher as crazed embodiment of Liz’s future with a moment of genuine closeness between Liz and Jack, who promises to help her figure out her finances. When Jack plans to promote Liz in “Succession,” the episode makes clear that the metrics for corporate success are absurd—not the idea that Liz could meet them. Jack is the person who forces Liz to stand up for herself at work and at home, with Tracy and with Dennis, even if it’s with only mixed success. His insistence that Liz can learn and earn the things at work that she needs to build a happier, more complete life for herself has always showed a respect for Liz’s workaholism that I appreciate.
And Liz actually meet a lot of terrific guys through her job, men who are attracted to her in an environment where she’s competent and in control. No matter how those relationships ended, the guys she hooks up with through office connections—funny accountant Floyd, coffee cutie Jamie, actor Danny—generally stack up better than the guys she meets outside the office—Beeper King Dennis, insurance agent Wesley, dim diva Drew, and though this may be a controversial opinion, weirdly neurotic pilot Carol.* Her experience, and Jack’s connection between Liz’s personal and professional behavior, are a rebuke to a million working-girl-needs-to-make-time-for-love romcoms.
Lots of women have found the Gilbertian fantasy of flight and spiritual renewal inspiring, enough to turn her once-unusual journey into an industry. The appeal of a clean start is understandable, but 30 Rock‘s early insistence that Liz can become complete within the contours of her life is more affirming than the idea that the best way to find happiness is to flee the country and your old self. Unfortunately, the show’s essentially abandoned that early optimism, its counternarrative about how women can find happiness. While she started out as a competent if unbalanced figure, the 30 Rock now treats Liz as if she’s so ridiculous that deciding to mentor her is the decision that’s derailed Jack’s, life:
And it’s not just that 30 Rock has backed off from the idea that Liz is a talented person who could rebuild her life through her work. The show’s backed off from the idea that Liz can transform her own life through her job and has gotten more aggressive about mocking Liz for being bad at self-improvement outside of it. When Liz tries to quit eating junk food, she ends up with video of herself sleep-eating. She’s never even gotten around to reading her copy of The Secret. She can’t vacation in the Hamptons, fulfilling her dreams of hanging out with Ina Garten and learning Spanish (though to be fair, Liz’s failed vacation is mostly the fault of Tracy-as-deus-ex-machina). This season, the show even shouted out the movie adaptation of Eat Pray Love by suggesting that Liz’s perfect man would make fun of it—but said perfect man is actually an escort hired to help Liz believe in love again by sweeping her off her feet Liz-Gilbert-in-Bali style. It’s even more depressing to watch her decide to cling to that flimsy fantasy than it is to see her outline her plans for spinsterhood, to watch Liz Lemon surrender to being a shadow of Liz Gilbert.
*There are exceptions, of course: Liz meets the World’s Dullest Man, Steven Black, at a TGS after-party, and ends up dating Stuart, played by Peter Dinklage, after running into him on the street. But on the whole, the point holds, I think.