Is anyone on TV bad at their jobs these days? Not if it’s a high-status gig. But feel free to be a bad waitress, or a crappy paper salesman or receptionist, or an ennui-ridden local-government intern, or, a lazy, crazy comic on a low-rated sketch-comedy show.
I assume the “lazy, crazy comic” Bolonik is referring to is 30 Rock‘s Tracy Jordan. And she’s right. Tracy is bad at his job. But what about Liz Lemon, she of the fairly “high-status gig” of network showrunner?
There has been a bunch of writing about Liz Lemon and feminism, some of which seems somewhat perplexed by Tina Fey’s positioning of Liz as both a “working woman” and “dysfunctional woman.” We see this divide in the show’s obvious — and increasingly tiresome, by the way — work vs. life theme: Liz is good at her job but bad at life.
Maybe, but maybe not. Perhaps the problem writers are having with Liz is precisely that: maybe Liz is bad at her job and at life. If we associate TV feminism with a desire women’s professional equality, positive representations show women who are able to function properly in the workplace. Those representations presumably provide examples for young women to aspire to.
What if 30 Rock is saying something different? As a sitcom, 30 Rock mines workplace dysfunction for laughs. We love watching the chaos. But the chaos probably reveals Liz’s ineptitude, since it’s her job to manage it.
First, let’s examine the evidence, far more seriously than anybody should. What aspects of her management suggest Liz is a feminist non-icon?
Personnel – Obviously Tracy and Jenna run the show — or, rather, constantly threaten the show’s continued survival. Before she can get them under control, they’ve typically cost numerous delays and additional labor. In other episodes, Liz has numerous run-ins with the show’s crew: forgetting their names, accidentally making advances on them, confusing them by race, and occasionally letting them supersede her authority.
Writing – For all intents and purposes, TGS is a horribly written show. Liz Lemon on Variety: “They called us a comedy show!” Fart jokes are a staple.
Budget – Liz hates making budget decisions, preferring to delay or defer to either her superiors (Jack) or employees (Pete, Jenna).
Safety – TGS is not a safe place to work. Props, people and equipment are constantly falling from the ceiling. In one episode Liz almost incinerates her cast and writers.
Creativity – TGS has succumbed — as have many network shows as ratings decline — to systematic and inelegant product placement and advertainment. It also frequently broadcasts meaningless and poorly marketed “specials,” often based on the whims of management (Jack’s Christmas special; Jenna’s fake memorial).
Work/life balance – Terrible, in almost every way imaginable.
All of this, of course, is what makes 30 Rock a fantastically funny show. If TGS was a well-oiled operation, and Liz great at managing it, there wouldn’t be much to watch, let alone laugh at. The horrible workplace also serves as a nice metanarrative about the decline of broadcast TV, the inherent flaws in the live sketch show (i.e. why SNL is often so bad), etc.
But is there a feminist message too? I’d argue 30 Rock has much less in common with sister programs Parks and Recreation and Up All Night (and even less with TV’s female-led procedurals) and more with Enlightened. Both shows dramatize how professional perfection is a meaningless goal, particularly for women, since office culture itself is so male-friendly: both sitcoms have assertive male bosses whose professional skill and fortitude is beyond the reach of the awkward, self-doubting protagonists. Both Fey and Dern ask us why we’re so invested in seeing women who get it right all the time, when so much of life and work is beyond any individual’s control. 30 Rock gives us enough fantasy (TGS‘s seeming inability to get canceled) and demonstrations of skill (the occasional episodes where Liz masterfully exerts her will) to keep viewers interested and provide glimpses of the wonderful representations we love to see. Most of the time, though, we see them fail, over and over. (I think also of The Comeback and AbFab).
Ultimately, as cartoony — Muppet-y, Cathy-y — as 30 Rock is, its most realistic storyline portrays how working women often have bad offices and can’t always change that. It isn’t the first show to say it, but it might be among the most inventive.