Tuesday, October 20, 2009

The Politics of 30 Rock

I remember a few years back that Bill O'Reilly did a piece on 30 Rock that was some what of a hit job, trashing the show's liberal politics and claiming that the critical attention the show garnered was only from like-minded liberals. Or something like that. The problem was, Bill O'Reilly clearly hadn't seen the show and I may be making this up, but I can almost remember him smugly asserting that he didn't need to see it. It'd be easy to dismiss 30 Rock as liberal propaganda, just as some dismissed the brilliant Arrested Development for it's subtle critiques of the Iraq war, but it's missing the point. It's easy to dismiss the Jon Stewarts and Bill Mahers of the world because their shows are about news and politics, but 30 Rock is a fictional, character driven drama. Good fiction is rarely first and foremost about politics and when it is, it has to be about ideas to succeed. In other words, there's a difference between a few throw away jokes about Republicans and a show designed to point out how Republicans are stupid.

But beyond the basics, I've found 30 Rock to be pretty darn fair, particularly considering it's writers and stars, notably Tina Fey and Alec Baldwin, are well known liberals. As I was saying above, it's obvious that their primary concern has been making a quality show, not pushing liberal propaganda. 30 Rock isn't always great on big D and big R Democrats and Republicans, but they know people and they're awesome when it comes to class issues. Baldwin's Jack Donaghy was designed as a stereotypical Republican executive, but over the course of the show's first three seasons, Baldwin has infused Donaghy with such humanity that the character has outgrown the caricature. It's a very unique situation in comedy, where characters tend to become caricatures over time rather than the other way around.

In making Donaghy a real character, Baldwin and the writers have had to make him relatable and that's taken the far too easy jokes- such as Republicans being racist- off of the table and instead we get throw away lines about the free market, big business, social class, and the value of hard work. I don't know what the exact intent of the writers is, but Baldwin is so good that he makes the audience believe in Jack Donaghy's earnestness.

Jack Donaghy's counterpart on the show is Tina Fey's Liz Lemon, a liberal in name only. In her politics, Lemon is a lighter version of Larry David on Curb Your Enthusiasm, the stereotypical guilty liberal who's politics are just as much about what she's supposed to believe as they are about what she actually believes. But unlike Donaghy, who's been shown to be reasonably consistent and honest in his beliefs, Liz Lemon is shown time and time again to be not as principled as she likes to think she is. There was the episode where Liz admitted that she'd probably vote for John McCain while telling her friends she voted for Barack Obama. Or the episode where Liz was ready to drop everything in order to "go corporate." Or the episode where Liz refused a flu shot as part of a principled stand against the companies policy of rationed flu shots for the most integral people, only to turn her back on those principles to save her own skin. Time and time again, Liz is shown to abandon liberal principles in favor of her own interests.

One of the major thematic elements of the show since it's inception has been Jack's John Galt-like role as mentor to Liz, where he's tried to help her unleash her inner Randian egoist. Superficially the characters of Jack and Liz are very different, but time and time again we see the ways in which they are similar and that is precisely what Jack tries to nurture. To go back to the class issue a moment, just look at Jack and Liz's treatment of Kenneth, the lowly page. Generally, both Jack and Liz treat Kenneth with respect, but when he stands in their way, neither are above cursing at him or referring to him as a hillbilly. But when Kenneth hosts his annual party, Jack is confident enough to tell Kenneth that the invitation was ridiculous, while Liz, fully in tune with her liberal guilt, reluctantly accepts the invitation. Jack is actively pushing Liz to be more like him- to be confident, to be a leader, and to accept her position in the hierarchy of GE and society at large.

And I can here the protests now, what about the Season 4 premier, where the pages went on strike and large executive bonuses in the face of recession were ridiculed? Once again, the brilliance of 30 Rock doesn't lie on the surface of the plots, but the intricacies of it's characters. As we're reminded at the end of the episode, the page strike was never really about money, but honesty. Kenneth, who already gets paid next to nothing, doesn't object to the lack of overtime pay, he objects to having to lie on his time card. And Jack's justification of his bonus is simple and he puts it bluntly: he deserves it. Kenneth puts one over on Jack and that's because Jack knows Kenneth is right about the honesty issue- it's never about the money and we don't see Jack giving in on anything to do with the money.

Does 30 Rock make fun of Republicans? Certainly. Season two ends with Jack out at GE and taking a job in the lame duck Bush Administration. Sure it's brutal in parts, but no one ever said comedy was nice. I found the jokes funny and as an exercise in political humor, it's the government that comes off looking incompetent. Perhaps the writers intended this to be seen as unique to the Bush administration, but that's in the eye of the beholder. So yes, there are plenty of jokes made at the expensive of Republicans, but on the deeper level of political ideology, 30 Rock isn't so clear cut. Is 30 Rock a leftist take on the big business of tv? Or is a Randian justification of television's elite and accomplished? Or is it both? Like any good show, what you take from 30 Rock depends on just where you're coming from.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hey, I know this is like five years later, but I was watching an episode of 30 Rock today, and it really stood out to me. I'm not a fan of Bill O'Reilly, so I wasn't even aware of his assertions. Anyways, that brought me to the internet to see if anyone else had noticed. Watch Season 2 Episode 12. It seems quite a bit like propaganda to me.

6:51 PM  

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