Tina Fey doesn’t care about your moral uplift
Overthinking It tackles the all-important question that consumes many of my politically astute friends who are also fans of “30 Rock”: where does the show’s politics lay? (They also recently had me on as a guest podcast panel member again, always fun.) On its surface, “30 Rock” seems liberal, but if you’re a fan who watches every episode, you start to get the creeping feeling that the show endorses reactionary politics. Mlawski marshals the evidence: Liz isn’t as liberal as she seems, Jack usually wins, the show did that unforgiveable and “South Park”-esque episode taking a shot at affirmative action. I’ve personally wrestled with this question repeatedly. Is the show trenchant liberal satire, or is it so puffed up with wealthy privilege that they’re starting to drift into apologies for weird conservative politics? But reading the Overthinking It piece, I realized that the answer is simple: Neither. The show isn’t liberal or conservative so much as it’s cynical.
Before I make the case as to why I believe this, let me explain why I think it’s easy to want to believe the show has a consistent political outlook. Mainly, it’s because it traffics in edgy political humor. Every episode pushes the political line on things like neoconservatism, red/blue culture wars, feminism, race issues, and even environmentalism. And sometimes it engages in overt satire. Because of this, I think our tendency as an audience is to want to see “30 Rock” promoting a coherent political ideology, a “moral” to the story, as it were. Indeed, that’s what Mlawski touches on in his post:
If Liz were the main character of almost any other program on the air, we’d expect her to be the stand-in for the show’s writers, used the same way Seth McFarlane uses Brian on Family Guy to espouse his (usually) liberal politics and the same way Trey Parker and Matt Stone use Stan and Kyle on South Park to espouse their (usually) libertarian politics. And we’d be forgiven for making such an assumption. After all, Liz Lemon is played by and clearly based on Tina Fey, the show’s creator and head writer.
It’s true that “Family Guy” and “South Park” are responsible for creating the assumption that there’s a moral to the story in our politically charged comedy. And fuck them for it, honestly. The worst parts of “South Park” are when the characters start channeling the writers spouting brainless libertarian pieties. That these guys have lowered the bar in what we expect from comedy isn’t Tina Fey’s fault. And I commend her for doing something more daring and interesting than simply building the show around a character who is rewarded for having the “correct” political worldview. The more I think about it, in fact, the more I think “30 Rock” works on a more interesting satirical level than comedy shows where being right means being rewarded, or where main characters act as a mouthpiece for political rants.
To really understand what’s going on with “30 Rock”, you have to accept two of the show’s most basic premises fully: 1) Liz is a fuck-up and 2) Jack is a master of a world created by people like him for people like him. These two facts are unrelated in a causal way, but they do go a long way to explaining the characters’ very believable friendship. More importantly, they explain why it’s both true that Jack is always right and in control, and yet the moral center of the show is still (mostly) liberal.
Let’s start with #1. Liz is undeniably a fuck-up in most ways, except that she has a very narrow talent for running a crappy variety comedy show. Over the course of the show, we’ve learned that Liz is lazy, a glutton, anti-social, a bully, insecure, prone to fantasies, and emotionally screwed up to the point where she can’t have normal relationships. These facts have caused some feminists to bunch up, but I’m pretty happy overall with it. If we don’t want women relegated to window dressing in comedy, they have to play deeply flawed characters, because comedy is built around laughing at deeply flawed people navigate the world, making light of our own flaws and making us feel superior. Liz is a lot like George on “Seinfeld” in that way. I’m ecstatic to see women occupying comic roles that were previously reserved for men. Amy Poehler is doing something similar on “Parks and Recreation”, and if you aren’t watching that show, shame on you. It’s the funniest thing on TV right now.
Because of this, it’s part of Liz’s brokenness that she can’t actually be the liberal she wants to be. That’s why she jokes that she’ll say she voted for Obama, but will vote for McCain. The show actually makes this pretty clear, especially in the episode where she calls in her innocent Arab neighbor as a terrorist when he was just auditioning for “The Amazing Race”. Or the episode where she gets a corporate job, and tells everyone to suck it. The whole point of Liz is that she’s a weak person who gives into her ugliest urges, and subsequently, when she buys into reactionary politics, it’s evidence that reactionaries are weak people who are motivated by selfishness and fear. And this is why Jack and she have their weird codependent relationship. Liz is skeptical of Jack’s conservative proclamations, but she buys into them in the end (as he knows she will), because she’s really an asshole.
But in the world of “30 Rock”, assholes win. We’re so used to thinking of someone “winning” in a show as vindication for their moral viewpoint, but isn’t that lowering expectations? TV, even light comedies, shouldn’t be about moral uplift like it’s some tract from a “Chicken Soup” book. On “30 Rock”, like in the real world, assholes win at the game they wrote so that they will win. And Jack is the king of that.
Jack is usually right, not because Jack is a good person, but because Jack is an amoral person living in a world that rewards that. We’re not supposed to take Jack’s ability to navigate the world as evidence of much more than the show’s cynical take on modern society. Occasionally, Jack pays for the way that his amorality blinds him to higher concerns than status and profit—for instance, his heart attack—but on the whole, Jack wins a game rigged so that Jacks of the world will win. That he’s adopted Liz to promote through this world feels like a moral gesture on his part, because the audience both likes Tina Fey and we fall into the trap of overly empathizing with characters because we grow familiar with them, but I’d argue that the big picture shows that Jack has zeroed in on Liz because he knows that, in her heart of hearts, she’s a fucked up person who will eat others alive if she needs to. In fact, the “MILF Island” episode addressed exactly this question.
The show has inexcusably tread into rationalizing right wing ideas, but when you think about it, only rarely. Marc expressed concerns about the episode where all the dudes on the show got angry at Liz for writing the “Dealbreakers” book, but when I watched it, my take was that the show was sending up both the dudes for having no sense of humor, and, more importantly, it was sending up “He’s Just Not That Into You”, i.e. a retrograde dating manual dressed up as feminist empowerment. Over and over again, we’re subject to the idea that just because Jack has a better of idea of what works doesn’t mean that Jack is a more moral person. The Little League episode that satirized the Iraq War, for instance, showed Jack (as the Republicans) winning the “surge”, but the implication was that he couldn’t do it without cheating. And that is the larger theme of the show—people who cheat do so because it works. Liberals are satirized not as wrong so much as ineffective, because they worry more about their appearance as righteous and with “winning” than with being effective. Life in unfair.
From that perspective, I’d say that the show is liberal in its morals, but it’s predominantly cynical, about the world and about human nature. The rapid fire jokes probably distract from this, and the fact that the characters have redeeming qualities (unlike on other cynical comedy shows like “Curb Your Enthusiasm” or “Always Sunny In Philadelphia”) can lull one into thinking that this is a show that has some moral uplift to it. But outside of the fact that the characters find comfort in friendship, I’d say on the whole, the show takes a very dark view of the world.