About a month ago, I was in the midst of writing my last article on the politics of Battlestar Galactica when I stumbled on this site. What had happened was that I had Googled something like, “Battlestar Galactica liberal TV shows,” so I could see whether or not the masses thought the Cylons were supposed to be commies or terrorists or neocons or what. Anyway, I read the article and perused the TV-show political spectrum graph, which looks like this:
And I said, “30 Rock is the most liberal show on TV? What the what?” Bear in mind that, at this time in my life, I wasn’t a huge fan of 30 Rock. It was one of those shows that I watched when I had nothing better to do, not appointment television, in other words. Up to this point, I had probably seen around twenty episodes of the show. So I said to myself (in the accent of 30 Rock’s Kenneth Parcell), “Wait a goshdarn minute there, Ms. Mlawski! Just because your first inclination was to disagree with this nice blogger’s TV-politics spectrum, maybe you should withhold judgment until you’ve actually watched all of 30 Rock.”
And so I did. Over the last month, I have watched all of the remaining episodes of that lovely little sitcom and have come to the following conclusion:
“30 Rock is the most liberal show on TV? What the what?!”
From far away, if you squint, 30 Rock does look like a very liberal show. The premise of the show is this: The harried, liberal head writer of a live sketch comedy show constantly butts heads with her wacky cast and conservative, corporate boss:
Looks like a liberal satire, doesn’t it? The main character is the put-upon, progressive voice of reason in a crazy world ruled by an evil libertarian boss who cares about nothing but profits.
Except that’s clearly not what 30 Rock is in practice. First, let’s look at the main characters, Liz Lemon and Jack Donaghy.
At first glance, Liz Lemon seems like 30 Rock’s “only sane woman,” the one voice of reason amid a cacophony of insane voices. She’s the Kermit the Frog, the Michael Bluth, the Leela, the Better Off Ted. 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.
At first glance, then, it appears that Fey will use Liz Lemon to champion her own liberal politics. For instance, in the season 1 episode, Hard Ball, Liz says, “I love America. Just because I think gay dudes should be allowed to adopt kids and we should all have hybrid cars doesn’t mean I don’t love America.” Then, in true meta 30 Rock-style, Liz winks at the camera, telling us this isn’t what Liz Lemon believes, necessarily, but what Tina Fey believes. Here, Fey isn’t only using Liz Lemon as a mouthpiece; she’s making us aware that she’s aware that she’s using Liz as one.
But if you watch the entire show, you’ll soon see that Liz only APPEARS to be 30 Rock’s sane, liberal author avatar. First of all, Liz is clearly only sane in comparison to people like this:
While Liz may have started out as the one reasonable, pitiable person in a sea of sociopathic nutcases, over the last three seasons, she’s shown that she is the owner of her very own brand of crazy. She’s roofied Don Draper, called in a potential Amazing Race contestant to Homeland Security as a terrorist, sexed up a business consultant so she wouldn’t have to lose her precious snack table, sexually harassed the leader of her sexual harassment course so she’d get time off from work, fired an accountant just because she happened to be dating the guy Liz had a crush on, and made poor Kenneth the Page take the fall for something she should have gotten fired for. Liz Lemon didn’t come here to make friends. She came here to be number one! Liz Lemon is the Generalissimo. She is the decider. Lemon out.
Let’s face it, Liz Lemon ain’t the likable, reasonable straight man, and she ain’t all that liberal, either. Although she often claims solidarity with the workers, she rarely stays on their side. She went to get a flu shot even when she said she would not do so until her crew got them, too. The minute she got promoted, she screamed, “Suck it, monkeys! I’m going corporate!” to her underlings. She even admitted she would probably vote for John McCain but tell her friends she voted for Obama.
Even when Liz is talking about liberal politics, the show goes out of its way to mock her for doing so. Consider this classic scene:
LIZ: “Look at the educational system in this country. We spend all this money in Iraq but meanwhile our inner city graduation rates are lower than they are in the Sudan.”
PETE: “That doesn’t sound right.”
LIZ: “Maybe it was Sweden. Maybe it was teen pregnancy. I’ve gotta read more.”
If 30 Rock were more like, say, South Park, Liz Lemon’s character would be like Stan: the voice of reason who acts as the writers’ mouthpiece for a particular worldview. Although it seems at first like Liz is filling this role, she’s really just a figure of mockery, just like all of the other characters.
Liz Lemon appears to be the liberal voice of reason but is neither liberal nor reasonable; likewise, Jack Donaghy appears to be her evil conservative foil but is not. Admittedly, in the first half of the first season, Jack Donaghy did play the role of the amoral, conservative corporate head that Liz needed to defeat in office combat. The show, however, dropped that type of satire very early on. While 30 Rock’s writers do make fun of Jack for his monomaniacal obsession with profits and prestige (as well as his unhealthy love of Ronald Reagan), I would argue that Jack, not Liz, has quickly become the show’s voice of reason and emotional center. In fact, if we look at 30 Rock as a whole, the main storyline has been one about Liz Lemon becoming more like Jack Donaghy than the other way around.
Let’s talk about Jack’s politics first. Unlike Liz Lemon, whose progressive credentials don’t hold up to close scrutiny, Jack is clearly a (somewhat exaggerated) neocon, through and through. He believes in profit and the market above all, hates taxes, does not appreciate unions, and believes in forcing his own beliefs on others, often by use of force. He goes to the New York stock exchange when he’s horny. When he screws up, he pretends it never happened and gives himself a huge bonus. He believes that people from the American South are undiscriminating but morally superior to “the north’s elitist, east coast, alternative, intellectual, left wing” Jews.
The only thing that makes Jack different from the stereotypical American Republican is his lack of religion. His bitter atheism, in fact, causes him to have a falling out with his Puerto Rican girlfriend, Elisa (Salma Hayek). Luckily, they are brought back together by the power of capitalism when they reignite their relationship over a shared love for McDonald’s McFlurries.
Although the writers mean us to chuckle knowingly at Jack’s over-the-top conservatism, they usually do not mock Jack as viciously as they do Tracy, Jenna, or even Liz Lemon. It is Jack, not Liz, who is presented as the most grounded, reasonable character in the show. And in most episodes, Jack gets the last word.
Take the pilot episode, for instance. Jack, head of microwave programming, comes in to ruin Liz Lemon’s TV show by applying his evil corporatist ideas to the creative process. Liz draws the line when Jack makes her hire Tracy Jordan, the crazy but extremely marketable movie star. We are meant to laugh at this, well, laughable decision, but it is hard to argue that this wasn’t the right call. While Tracy certainly makes Liz’s life more difficult, he made the show better and, yes, more profitable than before. And when Tracy quits TGS in a third season episode, everyone, including Liz, can’t wait to have him back. Jack 1, Liz 0.
Later in season one, Jack and Liz butt heads over his decision to add product placement to The Girly Show. Although we, the audience, laugh at Jack’s awkward attempts to further monetize what was supposed to be a creative, satirical TV show, 30 Rock’s writers cannot go too far in their satire. Since that episode, 30 Rock, the show about the show, has shilled for Snapple, Verizon, Cisco, SoyJoy, and, of course, GE. In fact, 30 Rock’s second season contains more than 140 instances of product integration. 30 Rock’s “satire” of Jack’s product placement shenanigans illustrate how the show’s writers constantly try to mock their cake and eat it, too. We laugh at Jack, but he has the last word both in the show-within-the-show (TGS) and the show (30 Rock) itself. Jack 2, Liz 0.
These are just two examples of how 30 Rock’s writers like to poke mild fun at Jack’s politics but have him and his politics “win” most episodes. Here are some of the more obvious examples:
-Episode 2.1, Seinfeld-vision: To increase profits, Jack uses Jerry Seinfeld’s likeness in all of NBC’s TV shows. This is clearly both unfair and laughable (who would want to see Seinfeld in Heroes?), yet Jack wins the episode. Seinfeld does allow Jack to use his likeness in one show.
-Episode 2.4, Rosemary’s Baby: Jack fires classic comedy writer Rosemary Howard for her politics, a move that is first presented as drastic and unfair. Later in the episode, we learn that Rosemary is a crazy hippie and that Jack was, of course, right to fire her. (This also convinces Liz that she needs to be more capitalist—“I have to do that thing that rich people do where they turn money into more money. Can you teach me how to do that?”—making this episode a double win for Jack.)
-Episode 2.7, Cougars: Jack takes over an inner-city baseball team in an obvious parody of the Iraq War. (“Fun Accomplished!”) At first, Jack is shown as an incompetent stand-in for President Bush. When he decides to “stay the course,” the “natives” (i.e. the inner-city kids) rebel and destroy the new equipment Jack bought for them. However, even though the first 90% of the episode mocks Jack and his neoconservative politics, he STILL wins the episode with a “surge”—he gets Grizz and Dot-Com to pretend to be children so they can win the baseball game. Again, we are meant to laugh at Jack’s ill-conceived plans, yet his plans succeed in the end. The episode seems to be saying, “Look how silly Republican policies are… yet only silly Republican policies can win the day!”
-Episode 4.1, Episode 401: Jack takes a huge bonus even though employee salaries are being cut, and then he gets aggressive when Kenneth organizes a strike. This conflict ends in a near-draw: Kenneth gets Jack to admit he’s a liar, but Jack also gets to keep cutting salaries and keep his exorbitant bonus. The moral of the story seems to be, “Union busters are evil, self-interested, and laughable, but union leaders are just the same!” Doesn’t sound all that liberal to me.
Certainly, Jack’s conservative worldview doesn’t always win the day in 30 Rock: Jack and Liz both get their comeuppance for their classism by getting the flu in the “Flu Shot” episode; Dick Cheney, Jack, and some other members of the Bush administration accidentally “gay bomb” themselves in the second season finale. But Jack and his conservative worldview win out often enough (especially over Liz Lemon’s supposedly liberal worldview) that we cannot rightly say that 30 Rock is some kind of trenchant progressive satire.
Not only do conservative strategies often win in 30 Rock; liberal policies often lose. Take the second season episode, “Greenzo,” which guest-stars David Schwimmer as an environmental spokes-mascot for NBC. We quickly learn that Greenzo is certifiable and violent, which makes the environmentalism he preaches seem, by proxy, stupid and extreme. The episode tries to juxtapose Greenzo with a real environmentalist in the form of Al Gore, but Al Gore is presented as only slightly less silly. “Quiet!” he says, holding up a hand in front of Liz Lemon. “A whale is in trouble! I have to go.”
Or consider the late third season episode, “The Natural Order,” which seems to maintain that gender equality means that men should be allowed to fart in women’s faces all the time, especially in the workplace, and that short, upper-body deficient women should never be allowed to ask taller, stronger men for help replacing the water in a water-cooler. Clearly someone on 30 Rock’s writing staff has a problem with feminism.
This all goes to show that 30 Rock is not some biting liberal satire of conservative policies and ideals. It is a funny sitcom that sometimes makes light political jokes but whose own politics are somewhat inconsistent. Mlawski out.
[Note #1: Long after I wrote this post, I ended up stumbling upon this gem from Slate, which basically makes the same points as this article in half the words. So, uh, hooray for Slate. …Bastards.]
[Note #2: The political spectrum used in the OTI main page carousel comes from here. It’s pretty cool.]