Last week Tina Fey wrote in the New Yorker, “the definition of ‘crazy’ in show business is a woman who keeps talking after no one wants to fuck her anymore” and on 30 Rock sang in her best Joni Mitchell “the standards man does not like jokes about tampons…and I’m not going to stop doing jokes about tampons” in the background of the Canal Yards Project scene. This week Fey’s angst manifested itself into the hilarious and cutting “TGS Hates Women”. 30 Rock has always examined the concepts of being a successful female professional and women’s place in show business yet never was it done so pointedly as last night’s episode.
With a bevy of period jokes, multiple Eleanor Roosevelt allusions, and cracks at the hard-to-please Aquafem company, the episode had a clear focus. The plot follows Liz’s decision, in reaction to a JoanofSnark piece, to hire a new female writer who happens to have, as Jack so eloquently put it, “a hot mouth.” Liz takes it onto herself to show Abby Grossman (naturally, we air towards bagely) that she doesn’t have to rely on her looks to make it in the industry. What 30 Rock did so smartly to twist this well-worn point, was have Abby, with uncle-approved pig-tails, take the stance that her using her sexuality is no different then any façade people put on to succeed. It all explodes in the end with out taking a definitive position. Instead, this episode acts as a meditation on the current state of feminism in Hollywood.
It all worked because 30 Rock, at its best, is a show that doesn’t take itself seriously while its characters do. The episode did not feel preachy or weighty because of how far the show was willing to push the farce and make fun of itself. This is at the root of what makes Liz Limon such a strong female character. At the same time, Liz can portray an honest version of the professional vs. personal life conflict while also being able to play the fool and the butt of jokes. This is a trait that helped make her such a special character that resonates so strongly with fans of the show. Unlike much of the history of sitcom TV, this quality represents an agency that is not necessarily tied to another (mostly male) protagonist. It is this attribute that separates many of the night’s best shows and best female characters apart.
The most obvious of which is the powerhouse that is Leslie Knope. Leslie Knope is as clear a protagonist as there is in the line-up, especially with Steve Carell’s departure, and even though she is portrayed very positively, they do not pull any punches when it comes to her imperfections. Take the scene where she explains all the horrendous ways guys have broken up with her – shot with the patented Parks & Recreation series of jump-cuts – the joke is at her expense but good heartened, in-line with the character, and completely self-inflicted. The writers care about the character enough to make fun of her.
Similarly, on the previously male dominated Office, Pam has gone from solely Michael’s secretary and Jim’s object of affection to a character with stories completely onto herself. If anything, Jim’s development has completely halted – mostly being relegated to C storylines with his “best-friend” Dwight – as the audience learns more about the incredibly sneaky Pam. Last night’s episode ended beautifully with a standoff between this season’s Co-MVPs, Pam and Darryl. Concluding, with a beaming Pam proclaiming that she is now “full-on corrupt.” Pam is finally in a position of power in the office/on The Office and with great power comes the great responsibility of being made mocked.
Still, Community’s Britta might be the best example of a strong female character in the post-Fey sitcom universe. Early on, Britta seemed like a sourer version of the manic pixie dream girl archetype, created to loosen up the protagonist, Jeff Winger. Overtime, with the turning upside down of the will-they-won’t-they trope and the more that is revealed about her, it is apparent she is not some plot prop. She takes herself incredibly seriously in a way that, since it is a sitcom, can be played for laugh; when last night Britta tried to explain the perils of Democracy, Jeff quickly made the point that “everyone wants you to shut up.” This is why one the shows most consistent laughs comes from Britta completely failing; from being unable to make use of “the heat” in an attempt to condemn all government like last night or her pronunciation of “bag-el” (despite living in New York for a brief spell). A lot of credit has to be given to the writing staff that created a character that can be completely laughed at and yet is so fully realized that she is respected.
It is here where a contrast can be made with the four universally lauded shows on the line-up and the two also-rans. On both Outsourced and Perfect Couples even the funny female characters, like Madhuri and Amy, are still defined by a relationship to a male lead. Like on Perfect Couples last night, both the A and B stories focused on what the husbands were doing and the wives were forced to react. Compare that to Friends, the show NBC really was hoping it would be, where an equal amount, if not more, stories surrounded the women. Even worse, Outsourced seems to have no idea what to do with the female leads if they are not dating Todd; as seen by Asha’s almost complete disappearance from the show after the romantic arc with Todd fizzled out. Add that to the fact that female with the most screen time, Tonya, exist seemingly only to confirm the protagonist’s sexuality. Both cases highlight the lack of ambition these two shows have when stacked up against their line-upmates.
Vision is not what necessarily defines a good sitcom but it is essential to a great one. Undoubtedly, NBC’s Thursday Night Line-Up features four of the greats and no small part of it that is due to their desire to create dynamic and individual characters. The females are no exception and are treated with such equality that it feels peculiar singling them out. All four had tremendous episodes (Outsourced was pretty good and PC was fine enough) but for paving the way, 30 Rock was the winner last night.
So as the night’s winner, here is a clip from last night’s 30 Rock