Table of Contents
The Blackwell Philosophy and Pop Culture Series
Title Page
Copyright Page
Kenneth’s Moral Universe
Tested Virtue
Olympic Tetherball: A Final Lesson on Moral Frailty
Blerg! Nerds! And Other Liz Lemon—Droppings
Sources of the Sour Self
Work, Love, and Marxism
When Life Gives You Liz’s Lemons, Can You Make Lemonade?
Aristotle to the Rescue
The Virtuous Path
“The Semi-Virtuous Path”
“But What Can You Do When They Tell You Not To?” or, The Many Ways to Act Unjustly
Jack of Trade?
What Would Oprah Do?
“Well, It Got Big Laughs”
Meet Mr. Black
The Accidental Racist
Tracy Jordan Is Not Black: Racism and Racialism
Jenna Is Black
Tracy Plays the Race Card
Can Devon Banks and Liz Lemon Choose Their Sexual Orientation?
What We Can Learn from Devon
Homophobia, Anyone?
Being Gay for Jamie (or, How to Rethink Sexuality)
Third-Wave Feminists Inveigled: “You Can Really Have It All.”
Unbalancing Career and Family
Liz in Search of True Love: Being Defined Outside of Work
Tick-Tock and Liz’s Big Ben-Sized Biological Clock
Liz Meets the Elephant in the Room
Free Diploma Day at the Ho Chi Minh City School of Medicine
“How Important Is Tooth Retention to You?”
“My Techniques Guarantee Male Orgasm”
“Medicine’s Not a Science!”
Does Jack Know Jack about Comedy?
Who Gets Credit?: The Trivection Oven and Greenzo
GE Has Been Brought to Life . . . and It’s Not a Good Thing
Is It All Just a Part of “the Game”?
The Corporate Mentality and TGS
Too Big to Function?
GE: Man, Machine, or Martian?
Jack and GE Sitting in a Tree, K-I-S-S-I-N-G!
It’s Alive . . . Kill It!
Where’s Kenneth? We Need to Blame Someone!
“I Wolfed My Teamster Sub for You!”—Liz
“I Have Faith . . . in Things I Can See and Buy and Deregulate. Capitalism Is ...
“Are These People Your Family? Why Are They All Smiling? Who’s Being Ostracized?”—Jack
“I Truly Don’t Like You as a Person. Can’t One Human Being Not Like Another ...
Illusion and Reality
“I Want to Use ‘ Ironic’ However I Want”
“That’s Not the Way I Remember It”
“For Men It’s Called a ‘ Hardy Boy’”
“I Can’t Handle the Truth!”
“No; You Look Younger. . . . You Look Like a Fetus.”
“Just Be Yourself and I Guarantee You, Every Single Person in This Room Will ...
The Danger of Thinking “Science Is Whatever We Want It to Be”; or, the ...
Theory of Self: Who Are We?
Apollo, Apollo: Jack Donaghy and Our Encounter with the Past
Liz Lemon and High School: The More Things Change, the More They Don’t
It Takes Two to Go Back to the 1980s: A Brief Introduction to Social Constructivism
“How Sex and the City Are We Right Now? I’ m Samantha, You’ re Charlotte, and ...
Should We Not All Be Able to Agree That Gold Boots Are Ugly?
You Can Take the Man out of Cleveland . . .
“Cuz I Don’t Believe in One-Way Streets”
“Cuz I Want to Drop Truth Bombs!”
“I Know Where That Building Is, I Get My Jamaican Meat Pies There”
“You Don’t Realize How Beautiful a Sunset Is Until It’s the Last One You’ll ...
“I Could Talk about How the Moon Is a Spy Satellite Put There by Oprah”
“Nothing Unusual. Russian Mobs, Invisible Motorcycles, Sex Pooping.”
Playing at 30 Rock
Playing Around
Performing to Death
Brass Balls: Performing Gender
Final Act

The Blackwell Philosophy and Pop Culture Series
Series Editor: William Irwin
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To pages everywhere . . .

Thanks for Helping Us Go to There
Television saves lives. It jumps into the lake to rescue small children, it lands aircraft in danger of crashing, it prevents natural disasters.
Okay, I’m exaggerating. But I want to thank television nonetheless. While it hasn’t ended war or famine, it has provided a constant source of entertainment, and a constant occasion to bring philosophy to bear on everyday life. And for that, I can’t help but be grateful.
I’m also grateful to all those folks who helped make this book possible. I’ve been fortunate enough to work with contributors who didn’t require all of the coddling that the cast of TGS with Tracy Jordan needs. Thanks for getting us there, everybody! I’m also grateful to Connie Santisteban and Bill Irwin—editors who make working on topics in philosophy and pop culture as fun as it should be. Justine Gray, Nicolas Michaud, and Jackie Seamon also deserve thanks for offering feedback on the manuscript, helping open Frank’s Hat Store (see Appendix 1), and collecting the wisdom of Kenneth Ellen Parcell (see Appendix 2).
Finally, I’d like to thank my wife, Dorothy Wisnewski, for the support that makes it possible for me to do everything I do. I’d also like to thank my children, Audrey and Lucian, for being as wonderful as they are.

Platonic Fantasies and Tina Fey-losophy
I enjoy fantasies. Not the kind you see in movies, or read about in books—the kind in my head. Since 30 Rock debuted, I’ve found myself fantasizing about who the writers on the show might be. Would Plato fit in among the crowd, or Aristotle? Would Tina Fey hold her own, third-wave feminist style, against Socrates?
Aside from the small matter of being 2,400 years in the past, I can easily imagine Plato at the writers’ table, lizzing away with Tina Fey as they talk through the latest script. Plato was a notorious jokester. His dialogues include jokes about self-importance (Tracy and Jenna, anyone?), jokes about incompetence (Tracy and Jenna again? Devon Banks? Kathy Geiss?), and jokes about sex (have you seen the show!?).1 I think he’d fit right in, at least once he learned English. I can even picture his hat: Socrates Rules.
Does it seem like a bit much? Is it surprising that television can be a source for philosophical reflection? Can “real” philosophy be done in conjunction with something popular, like 30 Rock? In asking these questions, we’d do well to remember that Plato said truth could not be written, and that he himself had never written down his own philosophical teachings.2 (I’m pretty sure Tina Fey said the same thing in some interview somewhere.) In this respect, all of Plato’s dialogues can be regarded as popular writings encouraging people to come to Plato’s Academy and to engage in living philosophical dialogue. The written dialogues are meant to begin the philosophical journey, not to end it. They are meant to inspire philosophical dialogue, not to replace it. This is exactly how I think of 30 Rock, and exactly what brings me back week after week.
When I think of philosophy and 30 Rock, I like to imagine Plato as a television writer. Plato used a popular medium of his time, the dialogue, to get people to philosophize. And I bet he would have opted for television if he lived in this century. Yes, Plato criticized imitation. Television is of course imitation—and 30 Rock especially so—it’s a show that imitates a show. Of course, Plato’s criticism of imitation occurs in a speech given by Socrates. The speech recounts a fictional dialogue.3 Plato was certainly aware that a speech about a dialogue was only an imitation of a dialogue, much as Tina Fey is aware that TGS isn’t a real show. One can’t help but imagine Plato smiling about what he’d done. If he were a television writer, we’d expect no less: he would surely criticize the crap that’s on television in whatever show he was writing.
And yes, I like to think of Tina Fey and the writers of 30 Rock as a collective modern-day Plato (I said I enjoyed fantasy!). They put in just enough shenanigans (to use a little Irish slang) to keep viewers entranced. What does it mean to be black or white? What does it mean to live the good life? Should moral rules always be followed? Can Frank really be gay for just one guy? What is the nature of friendship? How can we know anything at all about the world? These questions arise on the set of TGS—and they persist.
Kenneth says he loves two things: everybody and television. While I can’t honestly say I love everyone, I concur wholeheartedly with Kenneth on television. It is a glorious invention, and a remarkable source of wonder. Where else can we view worlds that do not exist, full of quirky characters, doing endlessly amusing things? Where else can we find Tracy Jordon calling Colorado a “white myth,” Jack Donaghy admitting that he has a cookie jar collection, and Liz Lemon flashing a breast? And when we get to a television show about a television show, well, that’s nearly too good to be true.
Aristotle claimed that philosophy begins in wonder, so it’s no surprise that philosophy can arise from watching television—especially when the show is about television, and full of some of the silliest stuff imaginable. Wonder is one of the benefits of watching 30 Rock, and philosophy can’t help but be there too, bubbling up and spilling over everything.
1 Many of Plato’s early dialogues poke fun at both incompetence and self-importance. “Euthyphro,” for example, is about a fellow who thinks he knows what morality is, and even claims to be able to see the future. Of course, the future he sees involves Socrates being acquitted at his trial—which obviously is not what happens (Socrates is sentenced to death). The name “Euthyphro” itself can be roughly translated as “straight-thinker”—an obvious snicker at this arrogant SOB. In The Republic, as elsewhere, Plato makes his fair share of sex jokes—not the least of which is about women training in the nude, riding “studs” just like men (and yes, all the sexual connotations are there in the Greek, too).
2 See “Phaedrus” and Plato’s Seventh Letter. For a wonderful defense of this view of Plato’s writings, see James Arieti’s Interpreting Plato: The Dialogues as Drama (Savage, MD: Rowman and Littlefield Publishers, 1991).
3 The text is The Republic. It begins with Socrates recalling a conversation. We have no idea who he’s talking to—he just jumps right in. This makes the book already an imitation of dialogue, since Socrates (Plato’s mouthpiece) is the only speaker in the whole of The Republic (when he reports what others say, after all, it’s still him doing the talking). A second layer of imitation is present in the very fact that the reported dialogue is written , rather than spoken. In this sense, The Republic is twice removed from actual dialogue: it is a written, and hence doesn’t have the give-and-take of dialogue, and it’s presented in a speech by Socrates (so there’s only one person talking). Plato knew what he was doing—namely, messing with his readers!


P. Sue Dohnimm1
Kenneth makes my heart skip. It isn’t his dashing good looks or his wonderful sense of style. It isn’t just the endearing fact that his middle name is Ellen. Honestly, it’s the simplicity of his moral vision. He just sees the world in a way that I can’t even imagine. It’s an enchanted world, where right and wrong are as plain as the pee and laughter combination we call lizzing. I have the same question Jack Donaghy has.
Jack: Kenneth, I wonder what it’s like seeing the world through your eyes?
Kenneth: I don’t know, Mr. Donaghy. Well, I think I see the world pretty much the same as everyone else.
Jack: Really? [music starts, Jack continues, singing] ’Cause I think you’re very special, Kenneth [ Jack is now seen through Kenneth’s eyes, as a puppet.], to be able to get so much joy from simple things, simple things. . . .
Jack [talking again, and human]: But most of us grow up and lose our sense of wonder. [“Apollo, Apollo”]
Kenneth sees things uniquely. He is literal-minded. When Jack says, “Now look at me,” after talking about some of the things he went through as a child, Kenneth simply says, “I already did” (“Apollo, Apollo”). Kenneth is thrilled with a key-chain he got on his last birthday, joyous because “every time you move his head, his head moves! Look!”
The disenchanted world is complicated. The decisions we have to make can make us unsure of ourselves. We face challenges of all kinds. We’re befuddled by moral dilemmas in which we have to make difficult choices. Do we let Jenna fall as she plays Peter Pan in order to get back at her for sleeping with Dennis? Do we let Frank go to law school given his family history? Do we call the ambulance right away when we hit Mom with the car? Kenneth doesn’t seem to be bothered by such dilemmas. He sees the world with absolute clarity. There’s only right and wrong.

Kenneth’s Moral Universe

Jack sees the world in terms of dollar signs. Tracy sees the world egocentrically—everyone is just another Tracy Jordan, having no interests other than Tracy’s.
Kenneth lives in a different world. His moral universe involves following a moral code no matter how difficult it is. It’s a world where lying is wrong, where one must never steal, and where doing good for others is paramount. Kenneth’s good deeds are all over 30 Rock. Whether he’s accompanying Liz Lemon to recover her phone from an unscrupulous cabby, or swearing his undying love for television, Kenneth seems to emit moral virtue like it’s going out of style (and maybe it is). When Tracy disappears to save himself from the wrath of the Black Crusaders, Kenneth knows his whereabouts, but refuses to break his vow to Tracy (“Hiatus”). Liz and Jack yell at him, threaten him, call him a “mouth-breathing Appalachian,” but it’s to no avail. His promise stands strong. When Tracy is running late to TGS, Kenneth sacrifices his body to get Tracy there on time. Kenneth voluntarily falls down some concrete stairs so that Tracy can use the ambulance to get him to the show on time (ambulances are only for real emergencies, after all) (“Hiatus”). When Kenneth wins Pete’s wedding ring in a game of poker, he simply gives it back. He can’t see his way clear to keeping it (“Blind Date”).
These acts of kindness and principle seem to make Kenneth what we might call a “rule absolutist.” For the rule absolutist, the moral law dictates what’s appropriate, and it’s appropriate everywhere and always. There are no exceptions to moral rules. Period. Immanuel Kant (1724-1804) is the philosopher usually associated with this view, though perhaps a little unfairly. For Kant, morality demands absolute consistency in action. It involves never making an exception of oneself, and always holding oneself to the highest moral standard. The rule is everything for the rule absolutist.
By contrast, one might think of moral rules as useful guidelines for navigating the difficult waters of everyday life. These rules, however, need to occasionally be set aside when the circumstances demand it. Of course, it’s easy to be wrong about what the circumstances demand, so one shouldn’t set aside rules lightly. All the same, there will be some cases where a rule like “never lie” will lead us astray. (When the Nazis ask if we ’re hiding any Jews, saying “Yes, they ’re upstairs” would arguably not be an example of moral action! And the same goes for telling the Black Crusaders where Tracy is.) With this view, morality is a context-specific affair. We can call this contextual absolutism. The most famous advocate of this kind of view is Aristotle (384-322 BCE).
As the name indicates, this conception of morality doesn’t equate to any kind of moral antirealism—the view that there are no moral truths. The idea, rather, is that there is always a right thing to do, it’s just that rules can’t tell us in advance what that thing will be. We have to pay special attention to the circumstances of our action, and act accordingly. The moral sage is the person who always sees all of the relevant features of a given situation, and responds to them appropriately. In this respect, the moral sage has no need for rules. Rules might help us to reach a stage where we act morally most of the time, but they’re only a ladder that we must climb up. Once we’ve attained moral wisdom, the ladder itself can be discarded.2
Kenneth certainly believes that there’s a singular right thing to do. But is he a rule absolutist? Does he take his moral rules so seriously that he simply can’t set them aside? In a surprising number of cases, Kenneth does set specific rules aside—and he sometimes does so for all the wrong reasons. But in a complicated world like New York City, what’s the son of a pig farmer from Stone Mountain to do?

Tested Virtue

Kenneth doesn’t seem to fetishize rules. He doesn’t seem to hold to them in all circumstances no matter what, valuing them in themselves. For example, when Tracy and his wife, Angie, are on the verge of breaking up for good, Kenneth sets aside his aversion to deception. He tries to intervene. By pretending to be interested in Angie as a sexual partner in an attempt to make Tracy jealous, Kenneth Ellen Parcell claims he’s real good at the sexy stuff, and that he’d like to visit Angie “at night.” We know he doesn’t mean it, and we know why he’s doing it. He wants to trick Tracy, to deceive him.
Kenneth attempts the same kind of deception when Tracy doesn’t take his risk of diabetes seriously. He constructs an elaborate ruse involving a story he first heard from his Mee-Maw: the Hill Witch torments those who don’t eat their vegetables! In an effort to get Tracy to eat right, Kenneth pretends to be the Hill Witch, trying to scare Tracy into a healthy lifestyle (ultimately, it’s Jenna who manages to successfully impersonate the Hill Witch).
So maybe Kenneth isn’t a rule absolutist: he’s willing to engage in deception for a greater good. But the strategy can backfire. Consider, for instance, when Tracy tells Kenneth to “pleasure” his wife as a way of making up for Tracy’s (pretend) infidelities. When Tracy rushes to stop the consummation, he finds Kenneth looking pale, eating a sandwich, sitting next to Grizz.
Tracy [running into his house]: I’m going to kill you, Kenneth the Page!
Kenneth: I’m sorry, Mr. Jordan. I just couldn’t do it.
Angie: This boy comes to the door, tries to kiss me, then he throws up, and starts crying.
Kenneth: My body wouldn’t let me violate the sacred bonds of marriage, sir.
Kenneth’s ability to bend the moral rules has its limits. While Kenneth might be able to be set aside some moral rules briefly (like not deceiving others), he can’t set them aside easily—and certainly not for long. When Kenneth tries to get Tracy to believe he’s hitting on Angie, for example, he stutters through his pickup lines, using every cliché he can think of. When the ruse is complete, he has trouble taking a drink from his bottled water, shaken by his venture into rule-breaking.
Kenneth’s willingness to set aside a moral rule may well indicate that he’s a contextual absolutist—that is, he may think that morality sometimes requires setting aside our usual roles. But there’s some evidence to the contrary here as well. While Liz is right to call Kenneth a “sweet kid,” he doesn’t always seem so sweet—particularly when he’s doing something for someone else (like Jack).
Jack: The only reason I sent you to Banks was to get information. Why were you telling him anything?
Kenneth: I’m sorry, sir. I had to keep talking just to stop him from putting his fingers in my mouth.
Jack: Kenneth, you are the worst gay bait ever.
Kenneth [upset]: You used me?
Jack: For television. Kenneth, I humiliated you for television.
Kenneth [excited]: Like on What’s Happening?, when that man used Re-run to bootleg that Doobie Brothers concert!
Jack: Exactly. And I need to humiliate you again. I’ve got a very important meeting coming up and Banks cannot be there.
Kenneth: And you want me to kill him . . .
Jack: No. I want you to distract him. You’ve got to make sure he doesn’t leave that hotel room tomorrow morning.
Kenneth: I’ll do it. Just like Sydney Bristow on Alias, I’ll use my sexuality as a weapon. To the wig shop! [runs away, smiling]. [“Fireworks”]
And this is certainly not the only time Kenneth is asked to use his sexual energy as a trap for Devon Banks. It’s also not the only time he decides to actively deceive others. Television is hardly the greater good, even though Kenneth most certainly thinks it is. Do these examples show that Kenneth isn’t the moral beacon we thought he was? Perhaps. Or perhaps not.
There’s another way of understanding Kenneth’s moral lapses—and one that fits perfectly with Kenneth’s personality. Kenneth’s immoral actions all stem from the same unholy trinity: gullibility, trust, and unflappable loyalty. He sets aside rules for the greater good, but he also sets aside rules when he thinks he’s serving a higher cause (like television, or his friendship with Liz). He’s no moral sage, to be sure. He lacks the wisdom for that. As Frank puts it in describing why Kenneth’s so good at poker, “He’s awesome. You can’t read his thoughts because he doesn’t have any” (“Blind Date”).
The simplicity of Kenneth’s moral vision is thus also Kenneth’s downfall. He’s too easily duped into giving up parts of his moral vision by his trust in and loyalty to others. This is a central danger of seeing the world through Kenneth’s eyes: it is a beautiful world full of happiness and song, but also a world where we can be led to act against our own principles.

Olympic Tetherball: A Final Lesson on Moral Frailty

After learning that many of his most beloved Olympic events were faked to improve ratings, Kenneth has a sit-down with Jack.
Kenneth: “Believe in the stars”. . . it’s like that doesn’t even mean anything anymore.
Jack: Kenneth, I’m sure I can trust your discretion about what happened in my office today. What you overheard was some rather grown-up talk.
Kenneth: Was any of it real, Mr. Donaghy? Beer pong? Jazzercise? Women’s soccer?
Jack: You ’re not in Stone Mountain anymore, Kenneth. This is the real world, and not everything is in black and white.
Kenneth: There’s always a right thing to do, Mr. Donaghy. Just sometimes, it’s not the easy thing to do. [gets up] Tyler Brody was not the only hero I lost today. [Kenneth begins to walk away, but stops and turns back.] The other hero was you, in case that—
Jack [interrupts]: I got it, Kenneth. [“Believe in the Stars”]
Kenneth’s reaction to Jack promotes a pang of conscience in Jack. For all of Kenneth’s hillbilly moral sentiment—for all that he fails to see in the world—his vision of the good acts as a reminder of how the world could be. Jack later worries that somebody “would have to be a complete monster to lose his respect.” This leads him to try to convince Kenneth that a person can be good even when that person chooses to violate some moral rules without appealing to any greater good.
Jack: Kenneth, I’m a good person.
Kenneth: If you say so, sir.
Jack: But sometimes life is complicated. There isn’t always a right answer. Say you’re on a lifeboat.
Kenneth: You’re on a lifeboat.
Jack: The boat holds eight people, but you have nine on board. Either you will capsize, and everyone will drown, or one person can be sacrificed to save the others. Now, how do you decide who should die?
Kenneth: Oh, I don’t believe in hypothetical situations, Mr. Donaghy. That’s like lying to your brain.
Jack: Kenneth, you’ve lived a sheltered life. Virtue never tested is no virtue at all.
Kenneth: Oh, I have been tested, sir. There are only two things I love in this world: everybody, and television. But up in my neighborhood we can’t even afford cable. So my neighbor the Colonel and I just watch whatever the old rabbit-ears will pick up. A lot of folks have chosen to go ahead and steal cable from the poor, defenseless cable company. But not me. As bad as I want all of those channels, I don’t do it because stealing is wrong!
Jack: Kenneth, I’ m familiar with the Ten Commandments.
Kenneth: Ten?
When Jack tries to test Kenneth’s virtue in an elevator (telling him they’re stuck there, and that someone must die), Kenneth opts to make himself the victim. Not to be outstripped, Jack tries to test Kenneth’s moral mettle in another way. He sets up illegal cable in Kenneth’s apartment, along with a new flat-screen TV. Kenneth is visibly ashamed the next day, having watched the stolen delight that is cable television.
Jack: Did you have a good night, Kenneth?
Kenneth: Oh yes, sir. Hardly any screaming from the Colonel. Actually I was thinking . . . we all try to be perfect, but the world may be, well . . . uh, what I’m trying to say is that . . . there’s a whole channel on the cable that just tells you what’s on the other channels . . .
Jack: I know, Kenneth, it’s okay.
We all make mistakes sometimes. Morality is harder than many of us think. When we err, we should face our failure with resolve, not with shame. And this might be the central lesson that we can learn from Kenneth Ellen Parcell.
Besides, as Kenneth reminds us, “Everybody knows that the only thing we should be ashamed of is our bodies” (“Succession”).
1 The “P” is still silent.
2 This metaphor is most famously used by Ludwig Wittgenstein (1989-1951), though he was by no means the first. The same metaphor can be found in ancient China as well, in Chuang-Tzu (fourth century BCE), for example.

Jeffrey A. Hinzmann
As her name suggests, Liz Lemon is a somewhat unhappy, bitter person. Though Liz has her good qualities—her sense of humor, uniqueness, and moments of self-deluded optimism—she is also irritable, moody, and always overworked. Being overworked, incidentally, is a key factor in her constellation of otherwise unrelated complaints. Liz can never seem to exercise, eat right, look right, write right, find Mr. Right, or even have more than a moment to herself; and work seems to be the underlying factor. Indeed, Liz complains constantly about work, both the amount of it she does and about the craziness of her coworkers. It’s hard to even imagine her dropping the subject.
Add to this her boss Jack Donaghy, who tries to take her under his wing and make her both a professional and a personal success. Jack thinks that Liz can be both (presumably because he sees himself as both), but perhaps the facts about Liz will tell us more. Specifically, I think that a look at how work rules Liz’s life can best be explained by the ideas of Karl Marx (1818-1883) and his successors. Marx is one of the great original theorists of work, and one of the first to show us how it can shape much of our destinies. Before reporting me to the updated House Un-American Activities Committee, though, let me make my case: starting, appropriately enough, with a look at Liz’s life itself.

Blerg! Nerds! And Other Liz Lemon—Droppings

What is Liz Lemon’s life like exactly? She’s the head writer for The Girlie Show (TGS), a live variety and sketch show strangely similar to Saturday Night Live. (In case it’s hard to connect the dots, try to remember that actress Tina Fey originally attained her fame from her time on SNL. So TGS is probably supposed to be a thinly disguised stand-in for it). While TGS is a madcap show where the audience expects the unexpected, it seems that this is less the product of artifice than the simple continuation of how things go behind the scenes. In other words, TGS is a crazy show, starring some crazy people—Jenna Maroney and Tracy Jordan chief among them—and keeping it all together really taxes Liz’s energy. But this is not all. The writers and other staff members are just crazy enough to give Jenna and Tracy a run for their money, meaning Liz has little help in keeping TGS under control.
Considering what’s normal for her workplace, Liz is something of an oddity; she eschews style for substance, and recklessness for responsibility. Her determination to rein in all this craziness keeps TGS running as well as it does—which is not especially well. Add to this the constant stream of equally strange schemes and instructions from Jack Donaghy’s office on high, and the tragicomedic barrenness of Liz’s personal life, and we begin to see that Liz Lemon is a human fault line, pressured on all sides and ready to snap at any moment.
In truth, Liz snaps constantly. Her minor but nonetheless significant breakdowns are often central themes of whole episodes. These minor breakdowns, however, are of a piece with the madcap atmosphere that almost passes for normalcy at 30 Rockefeller Plaza. Thus, Liz is not especially noticeable as a stressed-out person. She is, however, much more committed to her job than most of her coworkers are. Tracy and Jenna are particularly indifferent to TGS as an institution, absorbed as they are in their own personal realities. As long as they can be famous, they don’t seem to care where they work. The writers, similarly, prefer writing in general to writing for TGS in particular—Frank being the notable exception. Jack Donaghy is in charge of TGS, but he’s also in charge of many other business ventures as an executive of the mongrel corporation NBC-Universal-Shinehardt Wig Company: he too isn’t very invested in the continued existence of TGS. Only Liz, and to a lesser extent the hyper-loyal simpleton Kenneth the Page are really concerned to keep TGS running. What’s less clear, however, is exactly what drives Liz to be so invested in running TGS, and why she sacrifices so much for it.
What has she sacrificed? For starters, we can look to all the patronizing advice Liz constantly receives from her so-called friends, mainly Jenna and Jack. Both are constantly trying to tell her how to improve her life, particularly in regard to dating and preserving what’s left of her femininity. Liz isn’t unattractive, but she clearly suffers from low self-esteem due, in part, to her inability to spend much time exercising or beautifying herself. She’s worn down by the constant suggestions that she isn’t feminine enough, isn’t pretty enough, and isn’t motivated enough to find a decent man. Liz, for example, is accused of being a lesbian because of her taste in shoes, which she rather obviously wears for comfort due to her constant exhaustion. Not surprisingly, Liz sees her search for a man as a desperate and doomed struggle in which she would be lucky to meet anyone up to her standards. More often than not, Liz is seen as interested in men who are out of her league.
The episode “The Ones,” for example, opens in a jewelry store where Liz is helping Jack pick out an engagement ring for his girlfriend Elisa (played by Selma Hayek). When the jewelry store salesman hears Jack ask to buy a ring, he first takes a quick look at Liz and asks Jack, “Are you sure?” He then tries to humor what he believes to be Jack’s poor taste in brides with the patronizing quip, “She’s very spirited, like a show horse. You’re a lucky man.” Jack catches on to the salesman’s misunderstanding and explains that he is not engaged to Liz. He then produces a picture of Elisa, and receives an expression of congratulations that is both sincere (since Elisa is assumed to be a much better catch than Liz) and relieved (because the salesman no longer has to puzzle over why a man as apparently successful and important as Jack would possibly be with Liz, not to mention that he no longer has to humor Jack). Jack is then shown the “real” rings, instead of the phony ones shown to losers (or the men buying rings for them). Though the scene is extremely brief (barely more than a minute), it encapsulates how Liz is perceived and treated by friends and strangers alike.
As if this didn’t paint a bleak enough picture of Liz’s life, we can see more clearly how dire her dating situation is by noting that her most serious relationship thus far (that we know of) has been to Dennis Duffy, an unquestioned loser. Dennis is the self-proclaimed “beeper king” of New York City (with the understanding that beepers are an obsolete, if not antiquated, technology), a world-class mooch (he lived off Liz’s income for much of their relationship), and a sex addict who slept with Jenna opportunistically. As if these weren’t serious enough indictments of Dennis, he was also caught on Dateline NBC’s segment “To Catch a Predator” attempting to have sex with an underage girl he “was sure was twenty-two” even though she said she was sixteen. As of this writing, Dennis was last seen trying to rebuild himself by investing in a basement vending machine, oblivious to how little income it’s likely to bring him. For all of this, however, Liz has spent seasons of the show struggling to not just settle for Dennis. The main things Dennis had to offer Liz were acceptance of her quirks and his understanding of her love of food. Even Jenna and Jack think she can do better—some small encouragement for Liz at least.
Sadly, Liz is unable to maintain a promising relationship with Floyd because of his transfer to Cleveland. At a key juncture in their relationship, Liz contemplates moving to Cleveland with Floyd, and travels there with him to see what she would think of the move. The visit shows her a glimpse of a personal heaven. Liz is stopped on the street and asked if she’s a model and then implored to eat because she’s “so skinny.” She’s greeted by police officers who ask her to pet their horse (rather than aggressively search her as in New York). She has a blast at the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, she could live like a queen if she stayed with Floyd (who can afford a swanky house in Cleveland), and last but certainly not least, she is spontaneously offered a job as the hostess of a cooking show simply on the basis of her attractiveness and TV experience. In other words, Liz would be treated with dramatically more respect, she would be seen as feminine and beautiful, and she wouldn’t be nearly as stressed-out as in New York. In spite of all these potential benefits of changing location (not to mention being able to stay with Floyd), she passes it all up because she can’t leave TGS and New York. While it’s not clear why Liz is so attached to her job at this point, we get a pretty good clue from the episode “Jackie Jormp-Jomp.”

Sources of the Sour Self

“Jackie Jormp-Jomp” opens with Liz on involuntary leave, the target of a sexual harassment complaint for her attempted quid pro quo of sexual favors for her employees’ jobs. She sneaks back to work briefly (in violation of her probation) and when caught, gets sympathy from Jack, who says, “People like us, we need the stress, we’re only happy when we’re overcoming obstacles.” In the meantime, she fills the time by chatting up the doormen at her building, completely oblivious to how sick they are of her (she insists, at her self-deluded best, that “I brighten their day”). Following one of these “conversations,” she has a chance meeting with Emily, a woman in her building. Emily quickly guesses Liz’s situation, and before long, explains Liz’s relationship to work with remarkable succinctness. She tells Liz, “You get addicted to the stress, think it gives your life purpose.” Let’s see if she’s right.