The TV Watch: Tina Fey Signs Off ‘30 Rock,’ Broken Barriers Behind Her

January 31st, 2013

Tina Fey leaves prime time television pretty much the way she entered it seven years ago, as a sly observer who bites the network that feeds her so much material.

Ending its run on Thursday night, “30 Rock,” the show Ms. Fey created, helped write and starred in, was a witty sendup of network television that cut uncannily close to the bone. It seemed at times almost like a transcript of production meetings at the NBC headquarters, at 30 Rockefeller Center. Ms. Fey made use and fun of everything that NBC holds sacred, including product placement, corporate synergy and some of its most venerable stars.

In a recent episode Ms. Fey’s character, Liz Lemon, is thrilled to be included in a celebration of “80 under 80.” Liz explains that the event honors “women in entertainment who aren’t Betty White.”

It’s funny, but the remark is also Ms. Fey’s way of deflecting attention from her own stature. For a new generation of female writer-performers who now have their own sitcoms, at least partly thanks to her, Ms. Fey is the new Betty White, a figure so accomplished, beloved and irreproachable that it’s almost impossible not to joke about her.

On “The Mindy Project,” on Fox, the doctor played by Mindy Kaling (like Ms. Fey, Ms. Kaling is the creator as well as the star of her show) riffles through an asthmatic male co-worker’s shoulder bag for an inhaler. She finds among other things a copy of Ms. Fey’s best-selling book, “Bossypants,” and demands to know why he is reading it.

Gasping, he replies, “I wanted to see how Tina Fey could juggle it all.”

The final episode of “30 Rock” is a one-hour special that sort of ties up loose ends but mostly gives its creator one last chance to don a disguise that was delightful and also the weakest part of the show.

Ms. Fey cast herself as a slovenly, aimless nerd who is a pushover at work and, for much of the series, single and hapless at home, the kind of person who was happy “eating night cheese and transitioning pajamas into day wear,” as Liz Lemon says of herself. Ms. Fey is better at writing — and impersonating Sarah Palin — than she is at acting. She was never fully convincing in the role of a loser.

“30 Rock” was modeled on “The Mary Tyler Moore Show” in many important ways, except for its heroine. Liz was not a goody-goody perfectionist like Mary Richards, or, by her own admission, Ms. Fey herself. Disciplined, ambitious type-A’s can be comical, as Ms. Moore, and later Candice Bergen, the star of “Murphy Brown,” proved. But Ms. Fey, who was the first female head writer of “Saturday Night Live,” chose as her alter ego a dumpy sad sack who just happened to be the head writer of a late-night sketch comedy show.

She created deliciously absurd characters like the silkily self-possessed network executive Jack Donaghy, played brilliantly by Alec Baldwin, and the insane comedian Tracy Jordan, played by Tracy Morgan, by grafting familiar show-business phenotypes onto those actors’ inner nuttiness. Ms. Fey borrows shamelessly from real life, except when it comes to her own success. It may be that she plays against type because she is uncomfortable with the deadly earnest role of trailblazer. But she is one.

There have been plenty of female comedy writers before she came along — Diane English (“Murphy Brown”) and Linda Bloodworth-Thomason (“Designing Women”), to name but two, as well as notable performers who created their own characters and carried their own comedy shows like Lucille Ball, Carol Burnett, Tracey Ullman and Roseanne Barr. But before Ms. Fey there were almost no women on network television who created and wrote their own shows and starred in them. One of the more notable exceptions dates to the days of black-and-white: Gertrude Berg created, wrote and starred in a hit radio comedy about a Jewish matriarch in the Bronx that was turned into a CBS sitcom, “The Goldbergs,” in 1949.

When “30 Rock” had its premiere in 2006 Ms. Fey was that rare thing, a female writer starring in her own prime-time network show. She has moved on to movies, starring with Paul Rudd in a new comedy, “Admission,” to be released in the spring.

She doesn’t leave television in a vacuum. Now of course Ms. Kaling has her Fox show; Lena Dunham has “Girls” on HBO; and Whitney Cummings, who created and stars in “Whitney” on NBC, also is a co-creator of the CBS comedy “2 Broke Girls.” Amy Poehler, who like Ms. Fey is a “Saturday Night Live” alumna, is one of the writers as well as the lead of “Parks and Recreation” on NBC.

Ratings were never the real measure of the reach of “30 Rock.” Those only peaked in 2008, immediately after Ms. Fey’s dead-ringer impersonation of Ms. Palin on “Saturday Night Live” stoked audience interest. Critical praise and a deluge of Emmy Awards, so many that Ms. Fey has joked about it, are a better gauge of the show’s influence. So are the celebrity cameos.

It doesn’t take much to coax politicians and television anchors to make comic cameos anymore — Brian Williams is practically a regular on “30 Rock,” and Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. let Ms. Poehler swoon over him on a recent episode of “Parks and Recreation.” But “30 Rock” had an even greater appeal, drawing famous people who are not particularly known for self-mockery, including Condoleezza Rice (in her cameo the former secretary of state is furious that her ex-boyfriend Jack broke up with her by text), Oprah Winfrey and the House Democratic leader, Nancy Pelosi. In the final episode Ms. Pelosi gives a mock-television interview denouncing Jack Donaghy as an “economic war criminal.”

Ms. Fey is a pioneer who resists being taken too seriously. She prefers to be revered for her irreverence. But one sign of her influence is her ability to persuade powerful, sensible women to go on “30 Rock” and make fools of themselves.

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