Love Lessons From 30 Rock

Tina Fey is brilliant, successful, and gorgeous — so why is Liz Lemon a hopeless loser?

by Litsa Dremousis

Love Lessons From... is a Nerve column in which Litsa Dremousis examines the love-and-sex themes of buzzy pop culture.

Tina Fey's Emmy-winning 30 Rock returns for its sixth season tomorrow night, and I'm giddier than a kid hopped up on a wad of Hershey's kisses. It's my all-time favorite show and I think it deserves its accolades and fanatical admirers. But why must Fey's now-iconic TV writer, Liz Lemon, view herself as romantically hopeless? Could this be the season she finally understands her perceived social weaknesses are among her strengths? 

As viewers, it's impossible not to cheer Liz in her quest to find a partner.

After a scheduled delay (Fey's procreative gain was our temporary loss), Liz is back, along with her boss and best friend, NBC exec Jack Donaghy (Alec Baldwin, in case you live in a tree) and stars Tracy Jordan (Tracy Morgan, ibid) and Jenna Maroney (the preposterously talented Jane Krakowski). Since 30 Rock's 2006 debut, its storylines have been weird and unpredictable, but one constant has remained: Liz's desire to maintain her high-powered career and find a boyfriend who loves her skewed wit, passion for sandwiches, and sometimes time-crunched grooming (rubbing a vanilla candle under her arms after a long flight, fastening her frayed bra with tape and, in a truly ingenious move, substituting a Duane Reade plastic bag for underwear). And really, what woman of a certain stripe can't identify? (Much more so than Liz, I enjoy getting dressed up, but I've long wished it were socially acceptable to wear a burqa during deadline weeks.) 

Over the past five seasons, we've seen Liz couple and part with beeper salesman Dennis Duffy (Dean Winters), lawyer Floyd DeBarber a.k.a. "the Michael Clayton of Cleveland" (Jason Sudeikis), Dr. Drew Baird (Jon Hamm, who gets to utter one of the greatest breakup lines in television history: "What? You're too good for me now that I have pirate hook hands?") and Carol (whose last name turns out to be "Burnett"), the airline pilot who hates his passengers (played with gusto by Matt Damon). With the exception of Dennis — whom Liz tolerates because he makes chili and only wants sex on Saturdays — each of the relationships start with promise and the fizzy, hopeful question, "Could this be the one?" only to end in gloom.

As viewers, it's impossible not to cheer Liz in her quest to find a partner. Not so she'll fit into a societally mandated box, but because she's often the smartest person in the room, always the funniest and, perhaps most importantly, she's deeply loyal to her friends and staff, even if she occasionally — and hilariously — eviscerates them. Plus, let's face it, mannish shoes or not, she's damned attractive. 

In contrast to Liz's, Jack's love life flourishes like his inimitable coif. Alec Baldwin's still handsome, but Jack has a paunch, is twelve years older than Liz, is a total mama's boy, is divorced, and is even more absorbed by his career than Liz. While 30 Rock knowingly pokes fun at Liz's desire to "have it all", the fact remains that having it all has rarely been a problem for successful men, in life or in television. As Jack consistently demonstrates, ladies flock to him despite his flaws, while Liz finds herself playing singles dodgeball at the local Y. And the premise resonates because we know in real life, this is often the deal.

30 Rock has been openly feminist since its inception, so wouldn't it be thrilling for Liz to finally realize she has going for herself? That she's not still the gawky, frizzy-haired misfit we sometimes see in flashbacks? Of course, much of the show's humor lies in Liz's social mishaps. But if anyone could make Liz liking herself as much as we do funny, it's the peerlessly gifted Fey. Moreover, even some of 30 Rock's most loyal fans have complained that recent seasons have felt creatively stagnant. Genuine growth for Liz would shake up the routine and make whole new stories possible.

In NBC's sneak peek of the new season, we see James Mardsen will play Liz's new laid-back boyfriend, who tries to balance her workaholism. I don't care if he succeeds in fact — in fact, if there's a seventh season, he probably won't — but I'd like to see Liz happy in her personal life, too. Not because her overriding quest has been to find a boyfriend, but because it hasn't. And a woman who occasionally has to Scotch-tape her underthings deserves a relationship that doesn't unravel at the seams.

Litsa Dremousis' work appears in The Believer, Esquire, McSweeney's, MSN Music, The Onion's A.V. Club, Paste, the Seattle Weekly, on NPR, and in sundry other venues. She is completing her first novel. On Twitter: @LitsaDremousis. She archives her previously published work at http://theslipperyfish.blogspot.com/.

Commentarium (19 Comments)

Jan 11 12 - 11:15am
Jeremy

Liz Lemon gives hope to nerds around the world - I'd be way into her if she didn't look a little bit like my mom. But, to be fair, my mom's a fox. Awesome article!

Jan 11 12 - 11:58am
Julie

Let's not forget Wesley Snipes and his footcycle.

Jan 11 12 - 1:07pm
Litsa

You're right, Julie! I only left him out for space reasons and b/c Liz never fully dates him, but I'm glad you reminded us of how wonderful Michael Sheen was in that role.

Jan 11 12 - 12:21pm
gennarivieccio

Liz proved her independence when she didn't give in to the concept of "settling soul mates." I think that means, on some level, she knows how rad she is.

Jan 11 12 - 1:09pm
Litsa

I love that you care as much as I do. And while we both know Liz is fictional, I actually hope you're right.

Jan 11 12 - 1:57pm
Charlie

But this way Liz gets all the great lines: "If I had boobs like that, I'd go to church and thank God, too!"

Jan 11 12 - 4:50pm
Me

"I want to go to there." (Courtesy of Tina Fey's daughter.)

Jan 11 12 - 3:37pm
Ugh

Worst show on TV. Bring back Community.

Jan 11 12 - 11:04pm
karencronacher

I sincerely hope you are joking! Community is so awful.

Jan 12 12 - 5:33am
Dee

Ha ha! For you are both wrong and there shall be 30 Rock and Community for all!

Jan 11 12 - 3:54pm
MelancholyOwl

I'm definitely a Liz Lemon. I'm adorable and totally lovable, but I'm my own worst enemy and end up failing because of it.

Jan 14 12 - 12:24pm
lizalima

Liz Lemon would never say that. Turns out you're Jenna.

Jan 11 12 - 5:20pm
moops

Simple answer: Because the show is a comedy, and you get more comedic material out of failure than out of success.

Jan 11 12 - 8:38pm
hmmm...

That is true in comedic bits and clowning, but in overall arch of the story, comedies have been defined and re-defined as story that end happily, especially when it comes to love and sex. Comedy is always on the side of sex, because it represents the cycle/renewal of life; whereas, tragedies focus on death. Anyway, I think Liz needs to get some!

Jan 12 12 - 3:01am
Jennifer

Sure, but they don't reach the happy endings until the last five minutes. Liz is a "hopeless loser" because the show's premise requires her to be.

Jan 11 12 - 10:34pm
thinkywritey

"Not because her overriding quest has been to find a boyfriend, but because it hasn't." Indeed. One of my concerns about the show going on too long is that it'll go the way of soooo many inferior sitcoms before it and become a weekly cavalcade of Liz dating blunders. She's so much more than that.

Jan 12 12 - 12:22am
Caitlyn

Liz Lemon is flawed without being evil. She can be crude, zany, messy, unkempt, and lazy (when she isn't working), yet she is a lovable heroine. She represents a huge departure from the female characters we keep seeing again and again on television. But she is very conventionally physically attractive. I wonder whether it affects the self esteem of female viewers in an altogether positive way to see a woman like Tina Fey scrutinized for her "large" hips and represented as a huge junk food eater (she'd have to be blessed with a pretty rare metabolism). I'm a huge fan, it's just something I've considered. I'm sure Tina Fey can't help but be self-deprecating.

As a woman with many of Liz's "flaws" who resides in Quebec, I couldn't help but continuously rewind the scene in season 3 when a drunken Liz busts into the writer's room and exclaims: "hey nerds! Guess who has two thumbs, speaks limited french, and hasn't cried once today? This moi!"

Jan 12 12 - 1:14am
Litsa

Caitlyn, re your junk food/metabolism/female viewer self-esteem question, I've thought of it, too. Glad you raised it. We both seem to love the show wildly--you quote one of my favorite scenes, too--and I like that you brought up these issues here. Again, for space reasons, I couldn't fit it in, but it's wonderful that you did.

Jan 14 12 - 2:22am
lol

I dunno, take Fey's glasses and what do you have?
http://www.zazzle.com/its_like_tina_fey_without_her_glasses_tshirt-23550...