Shut it Down: The End of 30 Rock

February 25, 2013
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After seven seasons and 14 Emmys, 30 Rock ended on January 31, 2013. However, 30 Rock was sold into syndication to both WGN and Comedy Central in 2009, it is available for streaming on Netflix, and can be torrented or bought on iTunes. Thus, it will live on across your digital media devices long after its sets have been destroyed. This post reflects on two aspects of 30 Rock‘s television legacy, its engagement with feminist discourse and its self-reflexive format. First, let me just shut down any notions that 30 Rock is a feminist television show.

30 Rock and Feminism

Sure, 30 Rock has feminist implications, especially for the essentialist who looks at Tina Fey’s role as creator, writer, producer and star, as progress for (white/straight) women in the male-dominated field of comedy TV. However, I think we must probe deeper to consider how 30 Rock represented gender and race, and moreover, how it participated in the legacy of TV shows centered on strong female characters. Furthermore, 30 Rock is NOT a depiction of today’s modern women. Liz Lemon’s life is hardly typical of the female experience, as she is very white, very hetero, middle class, and works in an industry known for being a boys club: television sketch comedy. Yet, 30 Rock certainly engages with feminist discourse. Fey’s position as a feminist is also pretty well known, and the show plays with this, from the moment Baldwin’s character Jack Donaghy meets Fey’s character Liz Lemon in the pilot, and calls her a third-wave feminist. My own feminist reading of 30 Rock is one of my primary sources of pleasure in the show, however, if we allow for polysemy, this reading is not guaranteed. Indeed, it may not even be the dominant one. I was visiting family members once, observed their love of Jack Donaghy’s character, and realized how comforting and familiar the extremity of Donaghy’s hegemonic yet also ironic sexism, racism, and classism might be for viewers to embrace. I am, thus, critical of 30 Rock‘s feminist implications, and argue that 30 Rock‘s legacy has been to discipline the female-centered work place comedy in two ways. First, by downplaying the fact that it is a female-centered program, and also by consistently disciplining feminist characters in the show.

30 Rock obscures the prominence of its female-lead by the very choice of its title, 30 Rock, which is of course shorthand for NBC’s home in New York City. In the past, TV shows built around a single, independent working woman highlighted the female character in the title: The Mary Tyler Moore Show, Murphy Brown, Ally McBeal.  It also downplays its position as a female-centered workplace comedy by not really being a female-centered show. 30 Rock is often discussed as Tina Fey’s TV show, or characterized through descriptions of Liz Lemon as its lead character. Do not be deceived. In many ways, this is really Alec Baldwin’s TV show.

Sure, Mary Richards centrality was perhaps tempered by her close relationship with Lou Grant, but that does not compare to the way Baldwin consistently steals the show, both discursively with critics and literally in the narrative arcs of most episodes. Baldwin’s character most often works to disciplines feminist characters, as we consistently see him mock Lemon, and others, for their character’s feminist inclinations. The show also mocks Lemon and feminism most overtly in its use of the postfeminist consequence trope, where we see Liz Lemon constructed throughout the series as unhappy and unfulfilled, while her drive to succeed has delimited her ability to be satisfied in personal relationships or have children.

Perhaps this is why Tina Fey’s celebrity text can function as cultural shorthand for unhappy singletons, as we see in this video. The fact that Lemon is married with two kids by the end of the series also shifts the work-centered premise of the show in many ways, and points perhaps to the ultimate disciplining of the single, independent woman. 30 Rock is satire, and her marriage/children are nontraditional in many ways (Princess Leia wedding dress!), yet I think this part of 30 Rock‘s conclusion works, overall, to reinforce hegemonic hetero gender roles.

This is not to say that 30 Rock does not also engage with feminist topics in other ways. For instance, a recent episode had a scene at a Lifetime Women’s Award Show where an all-female setting opened up a discussion on whether (straight) women should define themselves through their relationships with men. However, given 30 Rock‘s position, as a satire that is so playful, this scene is opened to ridicule by the tenor of 30 Rock‘s style. This scene at a (fake) Lifetime Award show also points to how 30 Rock‘s show-within-a-show format encourages a great deal of self reflexivity and satire of the television industry.

30 Rock and self-reflexivity

One of the rare TGS skits we get to see, bears attacking a robot!

TV comedy can be a difficult thing to make sense of, because satire is open to interpretation beyond producerly intent. One of 30 Rock‘s contributions to TV is its modification of the show-within-a-show format that we have seen before in The Jack Benny Show, The Dick Van Dyke Show, and Seinfeld, among others. In 30 Rock, as in other shows, the show-within-a-show format encourages parody of the entertainment industry, whilst being complicit in the entertainment industry it satirizes, which we see in 30 Rock’s self-effacing portrayal of  its successive parent companies. The self-reflexivity in 30 Rock specifically reflects on sketch comedy programs.  It features a quick-editing, over-the-top acting, absurd plotlines, frequent flashbacks, and narrative tangents that seemingly mimic the truncated structure and hyperbolic style of sketch-comedy shows.  Yet, 30 Rock’s sketch comedy show is merely the MacGuffin that drives the program’s plot.  We rarely see TGS sketch comedy skits, and when they appear we usually see only parts of the sketches, often in the background of other scenes. It is irrelevant whether we actually see the skits, though, as they are never funny.  The vapid and superficial humor on TGS represents popular criticisms of television: its stupidity, mindlessness, and narcissism. Here, 30 Rock positions itself next to TGS as an example of bad television to assert 30 Rock’s quality as good television. 30 Rock’s show-within-a-show format also allows a level of identity performativity, which at times plays with racial, gender, class and other representations. Thus, we can see, at least partially, how 30 Rock‘s legacy to comedy television is also a reconfiguration of the show-within-a-show model.

Certainly, there is more to 30 Rock, more that it contributes to feminist discourse, satire TV, experimental TV (remember its two live shows?) and beyond. This post could be part of a series on the cultural legacy of 30 Rock, which may satisfy those 30 Rock fans still craving more Liz Lemon. In lieu of such a column, we can but wait for a 30 Rock reunion show.


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