Ever since 30 Rock returned in January, there has been backlash from critics — most of it directed squarely at Liz Lemon. In a piece called “The Incredible Shrinking Liz Lemon: From Woman to Little Girl,” over on NPR, Linda Holmes writes, “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.” As she sees it, the relationship with Jack is out of balance, and a character who 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” is now, in Holmes’ opinion at least, “dumb.”
Meanwhile over at Slate, Sam Adams claims that the problem isn’t just with Liz — it’s “the simultaneous disintegration of everyone and everything around her.” But in an argument that juxtaposes the decline of 30 Rock with that of The Simpsons, he too ultimately points the finger at the show’s protagonist, comparing her “stupidity” with that of Homer Simpson. “Liz Lemon hasn’t quite descended to Homerian depths, but she’s getting awfully close,” writes Adams. “Like Homer, Liz is often funniest when she’s at her most frazzled; last season, she copped to wearing a Duane Reade bag as underwear. But as diminishing returns set in, the bar keeps moving lower, and the hole keeps getting deeper.”
Which brings us to last night’s 30 Rock. While we don’t necessarily agree with the sentiments expressed above, we have been disappointed with the sixth season to date. For us, “The Tuxedo Begins” was a welcome return to form, a reminder of what makes 30 Rock one of the best comedies on TV, and Liz Lemon one of our most beloved protagonists. There were loads of laugh-out-loud funny lines (“5th Avenue was closed. They’re having a joint pain walk-a-thon. It’s only four blocks, but they are so slow.” – Jack; “It’s like Jay-Z says: Concrete bung hole where dreams are made up. There’s nothing you can do.” – Liz; “I am sick. Sick like a fox. I’m going to clear out the whole theater and watch a sneak peek of the Hunger Games by myself! It will be my greatest triumph.” – Liz). There was a main storyline — Liz is irritated by New Yorkers who can’t follow social rules/Jack gets mugged by a middle-aged white dude in Dockers — and secondary plot — Jenna and Paul create a new sexual fetish called “normalling” that involves shopping at Bed & Bath and Beyond and falling asleep before sex — that were both satisfying. There was a fantastic meta moment when Jack decided that he should run for mayor. And then there was that whole delightfully absurd homage to Batman happening throughout the whole episode, which ends with Jack (Batman) hurling Liz (The Joker) into a pile of trash. Did we mention she was dressed up like a crazy old lady at the time?
Is it unfair that viewers and critics alike pin so much of their feelings about 30 Rock directly on Liz? Absolutely. But the fact is that she has transcended from a sitcom protagonist into a pop culture icon (thanks in large part, to Tina Fey’s own meteoric rise), and many people have extremely inflated expectations for her character because of that. Like Holmes, for example. She writes, while Liz “initially, was a likable, smart, profoundly flawed woman trying her hardest to navigate all manner of show-business nuttiness that surrounded her,” she now “seems flattened and robbed of everything that made her relatable.” We’d like to suggest that the truth is a lot less dramatic and exciting than a Liz lobotomy.
30 Rock was off the air a bit longer than it usually is, so when it finally came back, we were expecting to be really wowed. There have been a handful of not-super-memorable episodes so far, with some not-super-memorable Liz storylines (most of them, it should be noted, revolving around her relationship with Criss). But as of last night, that all changed — at least for us. Maybe they just needed a bit of time to rediscover their groove. Maybe James Marsden (who was notably absent from the episode) isn’t working for us the way that Matt Damon or Michael Sheen or John Hamm or Jason Sudeikis or Dean Winters did. Maybe we enjoy Liz Lemon the most when she’s wearing silly costumes, talking to herself to seem crazy, and making us laugh — because, that really is the entire point of a sitcom, right? We’re not entirely sure why we thought last night’s episode was so much better than the rest of the season, but we welcome your suggestions in the comments.