Television

The Incredible Shrinking Liz Lemon: From Woman To Little Girl

Tina Fey as Liz Lemon on NBC's 30 Rock.

hide captionTina Fey as Liz Lemon on NBC's 30 Rock.

Ali Goldstein/NBC

The very first time we ever saw 30 Rock's Liz Lemon, she was standing in line at a hot dog cart when a man walked up, cut in line, and created chaos. Her response: She bought all the hot dogs on the cart and distributed them to the people who had waited in line — "the good people," she called them — before taking the leftovers to work with her. It was a ridiculous thing to do, but it was an example of her extreme efforts to create order from disorder. She just wanted everybody to behave so she could get a hot dog in peace.

In early days, that's what Liz was all about. Saddled with flaky friend Jenna Maroney, pompous new boss Jack Donaghy, and genuinely bizarre new star Tracy Jordan, she desperately tried to keep everything from spinning out of control while always being about a millimeter from the edge herself. The first season included episodes like "Jack-Tor" and "Jack The Writer," both of which found Jack imposing himself on the creative process and needing Liz to run interference. And in "Tracy Does Conan," she scrambled to save Tracy from making a fool out of himself.

Of course, as much as comedy often seems to run on exaggeration, it largely runs on balance, and Liz certainly took her share of ridicule — bad dates, panic over dying alone, and a terrible boyfriend who still sold pagers and refused to move out because he claimed "squatter's rights." One of the best moments of the first season came when Jack met that terrible boyfriend and then dryly held up all his fingers while pointing and mouthing, "Ten." Jack's advice at that time often came from being shocked at Liz's willingness to settle for less than she deserved. Why, he seemed to wonder, was she thinking so small?

Now, in the sixth season, everything is different.

A recent storyline featuring James Marsden as Criss, Liz's boyfriend who drove a hot-dog truck, was very reminiscent of Dennis the pager salesman. But this time, she didn't break up with him because Jack gave her the side-eye and forced her to come to terms with the fact that she didn't want him. She broke up with him because Jack appeared to her as an apparition — her spirit guide, basically — and mocked Criss, mostly for not having any money. So Liz desperately went to Jack's office and said, "Say you approve of Criss, Jack," despite the fact that Jack had never met him. "You are technically an adult; you can do whatever you want," Jack told her. But later, he handed Criss a card with a black dot on it to declare himself "officially disapproving," and Liz caved. And then Jack literally handed her a card with a gold star on it, just like you would do with a small child. Later, she weaseled her way back toward Criss in what she believed was secrecy (don't let dad find out!), but Jack saw, and he approached Criss to offer the card that meant "probation." Liz, of course, doesn't understand that as always, Jack is a step ahead of her.

Over the course of six seasons, Jack has been fully transformed into a condescending, all-knowing daddy, and Liz has been fully transformed into a needy little girl who is eternally terrified of displeasing him. She's always had a grudging respect for him, but now she simply reveres him and trusts his judgment more than hers. She was once frazzled but smart, harried but competent, capable of wrangling a bunch of crazy people and then slumping at the end of the day, exhausted but minimally victorious. Now, she's just dumb, incapable of making her own decisions, and her relationship with Jack is entirely out of balance.

It's a common problem in comedy series that relationships and characters gradually have their funniest qualities exaggerated to the point where, ironically, they're no longer funny. There was always a strong element of bizarro mentoring in Jack's relationship with Liz — a twisted version of Lou Grant and Mary Richards. It led to some of the show's strongest moments. But as they stand now, Liz is as clueless and lost as Tracy and Jenna, and her once-grounded friendship with Pete (Scott Adsit), who was her one nominally sane ally, is essentially gone.

This is, as a friend of mine recently noted, the opposite of what Parks And Recreation did with Leslie Knope. She's been fleshed out from a cartoonishly goofy boss to a warmly devoted — but still funny and skewed — public servant. Her relationship with Ron Swanson has become more equal, more respectful, with more give-and-take, and that's all made the show funnier and better.

There's always been such an absurdist tone to 30 Rock that it's been able to get away with a lot of ridiculous behavior and silly plotlines. But at its core, initially, was a likable, smart, profoundly flawed woman trying her hardest to navigate all manner of show-business nuttiness that surrounded her. Now, she just seems flattened and robbed of everything that made her relatable.

Since its return a few weeks ago, 30 Rock has been suffering from some very, very low ratings. Given the enormous talent that's involved, including the award-winning Tina Fey and Alec Baldwin, it may be time to think about when this show has run its course. Liz seems to be aging backwards into childhood, after all, and she doesn't have much further to go.

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