It kills me to say this, but last season, I started to lose faith in Liz Lemon, hailed for several years as the patronus of women across the world (I mean, night cheese! Come on!). She had started to seem a little stale, her jokes falling just a little flat, and with the focus pulling to Jack’s family drama, even I was ready to start yelling, “Jump back up your mother, Liddy!” Let’s face it. Season Five was not the Year of Liz Lemon. If I had to pick a weakest season, that was probably it. But that’s not what we’re here to talk about. I want to talk about the Lemon Revival (I’m coining that phrase right now for future use) that has taken place over the first few episodes of season six.
When the show started, we loved Liz for her imperfections and assumed that she would grow out of them, as all characters with bad habits tend to do. But Liz will be Liz, and as we’ve learned, she isn’t going to change for us. At least, not in the way we have come to expect from characters. Liz has grown and she has changed quite a bit since the show began, but only so far as it allows her to continue liking what she likes. The things that we found hilariously quirky about Liz in early seasons have now apparently become frustrating because we still recognize them as subpar for a leading lady on television, all of whom are supposed to be smart, beautiful, and on top of all of their games one hundred percent of the time. And Liz is on top of about half of her games, and she’s fine with it.
Liz has always skated the line between hilarious and desperate, and last season was cutting it a little close. Much of Liz’s shtick has been about keeping her circus running smoothly, both personally and professionally, and when you wander from that, the comedy doesn’t quite stick to the wall. Liz is supposed to be a lemon, and not only that, she’s literally a Lemon with a capital L. Liz is the After of what happens when you move to New York to make it big – you wind up in the middle, making it by not letting the city get you down and remembering what makes you happy. That’s something that I think 30 Rock has never directly addressed with Liz: living in New York when you’re not a millionaire is hard. You give in to your immaturities and to the things that make you happy because if you don’t, you’ll go mad. If you’re Jack Donaghy, you’ll be fine, because you don’t have to worry about money. But if you’re Liz, like most of us are, you have to get by how and where you can. And, you know, I suspect that this isn’t just New York living or it wouldn’t hit so close to home for many viewers – it’s a less-than-glamorous look at adult life. No one knows what they’re doing one hundred percent of the time, and if those parts of your life were put on air instead of the best moments of your day, I suspect we wouldn’t fall too far from the Lemon Tree.
The MentaLiz is the Everywoman, whether by choice or by default. She isn’t the best at anything that is “important” by society’s standards, but she knows what she likes and what makes her happy, and she’s sticking to it. Liz is endearingly average, in a way that pokes at the back of your mind as you recognize that, like Liz, we don’t always grow out of our habits, not if they aren’t harming anyone else. She unabashedly likes things that we’re routinely told that it’s uncool or immature to like as adults, but at the same time, we know they’re popular for a reason. She does things without thinking, says things without running them through a filter first, and while that’s frequently frustrating, sometimes you find yourself agreeing with her (even if it’s only for a split second). We all straddle the line between loving and hating Liz Lemon, just as, when you get down to it, we straddle the line between loving and hating ourselves. Liz is just more up front about it.
The most important part of 30 Rock is that you never feel sorry for Liz in a serious way. Where most shows try to make their characters seem realistic, 30 Rock takes realistic people and puts them on the edge of implausibility. This is a show that takes an argument over Liz’s struggle to still be happy in NYC and turns it into a fully fledged Batman parody in a matter of seconds. You can feel bad for Liz because she has to put up with her awful ex Dennis and his reappearances (everyone has a Dennis Duffy, right? Just me?), and because her employees never do what she says, but the moment you are reminded to think about her life in a realistic context, the show has gone wrong. Rather than pretending to be a sitcom that is meant to depict normal living in a NYC setting, 30 Rock plays to the “truth is stranger than fiction” part of living in New York. (Did you think people don’t really act like that on the subway? Think again.)
While no one should be denying that Tina Fey is really pretty, I think 30 Rock has worked pretty hard to make that not the focus of Liz’s character. Yes, there are shots at her looks all the time, but I think of it through the lens of her flashbacks to high school – Liz thinks everyone is telling her she’s ugly, when really, everyone pretty much likes her. She’s smart, capable, and has a firm grasp on who she is, even if she isn’t always proud of it. She’s informed, but not above using that information to manipulate others. Liz cares about her looks, but she isn’t made up by a stylist every day and that’s made clear – another thing that sets her apart from other NYC-based characters. Her job isn’t to wear couture every day – her job is to herd cats and then make them be funny, and being fashionable just doesn’t always top the priority list.
Also, much of the grumbling I hear about Liz is that she isn’t the beacon of feminism that we once thought she might become (that honor, I believe, goes to Leslie Knope on Parks and Rec). Liz isn’t anti-feminist, but she isn’t exactly a martyr for the cause, either. This is crucial, too, because around-the-clock feminism is hard, and that’s a banner Liz wears well. She tries, but sometimes she fails or is tired or it doesn’t work out the way she wanted. That’s life, and Liz isn’t pretending. I’m not saying this is necessarily what I would have chosen for her, but, you know, it is kind of admirable that we can have a woman on television who isn’t like anyone else. Liz Lemon is wholly herself, and no one is going to force her to change unless she wants to.
The world wants to see Liz turn into a fully-rounded, glamorous, having-it-all woman – because that’s what happens to women on television (which isn’t necessarily bad, in theory) – but Liz doesn’t want to have it all. She wants to have what appeals to her, because, quite frankly, having it all sounds like a lot of work, and then when would Liz have time to ponder the Housewives? I believe in Liz and her choices, and I’d be sad if Liz started becoming a different person because suddenly she isn’t good enough anymore. Tell me, people – why do you want Liz to change? Who do you want her to become? Does a Liz by any other cheese taste so sweet? If a Liz falls on the subway and no one pays attention, did it still count? I don’t even know what I’m talking about anymore.
I guess the real question is – is Liz squeezing out the last drops of her lemon? Not by half, if my opinion has anything to do with it.