Like most people with a Netflix account, I eagerly binged every glorious episode of Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt when it premiered in March. After I finished, I immediately rewatched that whole first season so that I could catch all of the visual jokes and callbacks that have become the hallmark of a Tina Fey sitcom. While I thoroughly enjoyed the eternally optimistic Kimmy and her unbreakable spirit, the show sent me into another binge of Fey's first sitcom, the much more jaded and cynical 30 Rock. When it comes to complicated — and I say that with love, respect, and in the most positive sense of the word, the one meaning intricate and complex — female television characters, Liz Lemon will always be a lightning rod and a cultural touchstone. Liz was always a study in comparisons: appearance versus reality, inner life versus outer, one's natural state (which was, in her opinion, eating night cheese and transitioning pajamas into daywear) versus the expectations and aspirations society imposes on us, triumph versus insult, ego versus id, and selfishness versus...well, 30 Rock was always an argument that man's innate selfishness will win above everything in the end. If we all could just combine our base, selfish urges, the world will still become the better place promised in Louis Armstrong songs. Yes, that aforementioned cynicism is showing. Liz Lemon's two main television predecessors were Mary Tyler Moore, who was gonna make it after all, and Murphy Brown. Whereas Mary and Murphy represented a new wave of single women striving to break the glass ceiling and achieve both personal and professional success, Liz exists in a generation that considers itself ready to be up in arms about inequality, but the daily struggle manifests itself in the form of, say, someone trying to cut the line at a hot dog stand. That's where we first meet Liz Lemon, the head writer of an NBC sketch show with middling ratings and a heck of a lot of jokes about a fart doctor, in the 30 Rock pilot: spending $150 on hot dogs to make a point about waiting in line, all while a That Girl-esque theme plays in the background. Later on in the episode, Jack Donaghy, the new Vice President of East Coast Television and Microwave Oven Programming for General Electric, offers a quick character breakdown of Liz within minutes of meeting her. "A New York third-wave feminist, college-educated, single-and-pretending-to-be-happy-about-it, over-scheduled, undersexed, you buy any magazine that says 'healthy body image' on the cover and every two years you take up knitting for a week," Jack prescribes.
How did he know all of this ? "Market research." Tina Fey, who created 30 Rock, wrote the pilot, and starred as Liz Lemon, chose that exchange very carefully. She's telling the audience that she knows exactly who everyone thinks they're watching, from the casual TV viewer to the critic eagerly waiting to place this new character in the grand pantheon of Television and What It Means — and, thereby, female characters and what they mean. She developed the show within the confines of network TV, where focus groups and market research can yield stifling, cut-and-dry truths about what they will and won't tolerate from characters. Fey — and, by proxy, Liz — laid it all out there in the pilot in a way that made her extremely vulnerable, because, as you'll find when you set out to parse through your feelings about a defining TV character, a lot of people have a LOT of feelings about Liz Lemon. So many 30 Rock viewers wanted her to serve as the 21st century representative of a high-powered yet relatable woman achieving the much-lauded (yet most likely apocryphal) Having It All.
"I have learned that every woman is responsible for being a feminist example. At. Every. Moment," Fey joked with TV Guide when the series finale aired in January 2013. "Or not. [Laughs] I don't know. I still don't know, but I have had the pleasure of meeting a lot of women who identified with Liz, and that's been great." On the most basic level, Liz was always fighting for compromise and clarity in a disorganized, unfair world. She was doing it through the lens of her experience and worldview, however, which is why at times it felt like a selfish, privileged battle. She had to have flaws, because comedy stems from conflict, which comes from one person's desires butting up against another's. That was Liz's (and Fey's) personal journey, though. Liz Lemon was just one person trying to survive in a cutthroat industry and city. She allowed her white guilt and racism to show so those episodes could become an uncomfortable lesson in tolerance and understanding the lives of others. When Liz went to her high school reunion, she was met with the uncomfortable truth that she had been the bully, not the one being bullied (as she recalled it). Her need to be the smartest person in the room, which manifested itself quite literally in the TGS writers' room, was stymied time and time again so Frank, Lutz, and the other dummies (as she was so quick to call them) could demonstrate the problem with categorizing and organizing people exactly how you want to see them. Liz was also perennially unlucky in love until she met Criss (James Marsden), but she refused to settle along the way. She was extremely candid when it came to her hang-ups about sex. Many viewers have trouble understanding the romantic part of Liz's life, but this again is a reminder that we're dealing with a fictional construct and unique individual here. Everyone is different, Fey tried to tell us time and time again. Someone might seem relatable and understandable one day, and completely inscrutable the next. Human beings are complicated. Blerg.
I didn't always agree with her choices or actions, but I always felt sympatico with Liz. I realize in retrospect that her appeal places me in the same market research buckets Jack mentions in the pilot, and that this is a very small segment of the population at large. Still, I get her. Growing up, I too was given the message to focus on education and find a career that was stimulating and engaging. Love and relationships would hopefully also pop up along the way, but like Liz Lemon, my life story would never be a romance first and foremost. You didn't see characters like that as frequently in the TV landscape before Liz came along, especially not female ones. It's reflected today in shows like Broad City. Seeing a woman placing her own personal and professional happiness (or a quest in search thereof) ahead of a marriage plotline was just what I needed to see at the time in my life when I was graduating from college and about to do the same. It was even more satisfying to watch Liz admit in the finale that she'd always known what she wanted out of life. She'd just been too afraid to admit it and go after it, which would leave her vulnerable and open to ridicule, one of her biggest fears. "You're the one who told me to want more," Liz says to Jack in the series' final episode. But no, she always wanted more. In a twist on the Wizard of Oz moral that happiness is right in your own backyard, Liz's route to personal satisfaction had been inside her all along. It's cheesy and cliché, but for many of us, it's a truth that's hard to swallow. So, go ahead and transition those pajamas into daywear if that's your truth. Sit on a couch in a Slanket and work on your night cheese. You do you, just like Liz Lemon always did her.