30 Rock: Thanks, Liz Lemon

Tonight, one of television’s most remarkable female characters is signing off for good. The beautiful, trailblazing star of TGS who looks better at 56 than most of us looked at 21, will leave behind her a legacy so great that all other actresses should immediately retire from show business because they have no hope of ever reaching that golden bar she set sky high. That actress is the one and only…Jenna Maroney.

Okay, that should satisfy Jenna. Now let’s get serious, nerds. After seven seasons of sandwich-eating, catchphrase-coining and pure comedic brilliance, Liz Lemon is going to that never-ending after-after-after party where all the best characters of television’s past go to hang out and exchange notes after their shows go dark (if I’m giving you flashbacks to your parents telling you that your dog went to live on a “farm,” I sincerely apologize). By this time tomorrow, Liz will be telling Jerry Seinfeld to suck it because “I want to go to there” is a way more useful phrase than “Yada, Yada, Yada.” But where does that leave us faithful Lemon-junkies who are facing a future without Liz to guide us and/or make us feel like marrying James Marsden is a viable life option even though we enjoy eating night cheese and making obscure Lost references?

Sad, you say? Well, yes. Sad is definitely an emotion we will all be experiencing when Liz exits the TGS studio for the last time, but we should also be thankful and proud and maybe even the teensiest bit relieved that she’s leaving us now, while she’s still every bit the lady hero (and hero hero) that she was when the series began.

It’s easy to forget now that funny ladies like Mindy Kaling, Lena Dunham and Zooey Deschanel are unapologetically marching to beats of their own unique, non-traditional drums on our television screens every week, but there was a dark time pre-30 Rock when it wasn’t cool for TV ladies to admit that they were nerdy, selfish, or even just super into pajamas. Liz Lemon made the television landscape safe for the likes of Hannah Horvath to wander around her apartment half-naked, musing about her desire to be the voice of a generation. It’s not just the creative landscape that Liz Lemon changed; she pushed smart, nerd girl culture into the mainstream in a way that even our patron saint Lisa Simpson has never quite achieved.

30 Rock, with its insider-industry jokes and penchant for weirdness, was never a ratings wunderkind, but the series has seeped into our collective culture all the same. Outside of popularizing the terrific expression of disdain that is “blerg” and giving Alec Baldwin something spectacular to do for the past seven years, 30 Rock‘s most important contribution to television is re-writing the female sitcom character rulebook. Liz Lemon was a new kind of modern gal: a jaded, often exhausted take on Mary Richards, if Mary Richards had favored sensible shoes and self-consciously deconstructing her very existence.

There has been debate over the years about whether or not Tina Fey was believable as the messy, geeky, unlucky-in-love Liz, simply because while Liz was trying to figure out if she could “have it all,” Fey was busy doing it. I’ve always found the debate silly. Fey is a brilliant writer and uber-competent life-liver, but that never made her less believable as the flawed and funny Liz. What made Liz so watchable was the ways in which she externalized all of the wacky internal feelings and insecurities that the majority of us feel compelled to keep inside. I like to believe that deep down even the most outwardly confident of people can relate to Liz on some level (unless they’re completely lacking in self-awareness ala Jenna).

She dispelled the myth of perfection, making it okay to just be whatever you were. At least that’s what she did for me when I was a young, awkward fangirl just beginning to embrace the fact that I was completely and utterly in love with television. Whether she was being silly (dressing as Princess Leia to try to get out of jury duty) or profound (taking on her co-workers for calling her the “c” word, tackling the nonsensical “can women be funny?” debate), Liz was always true to herself, and after seven seasons, Liz, like Fey, has attained the fabled “all”– more or less.

Whatever end lies in store for Liz tonight, her legacy has already been set. Because of her, the airwaves are more open to female characters who challenge the accepted norm, and the pop culture landscape is a brighter, smarter place for having had her in it. For those reasons and so many more, thanks Liz Lemon (and even more importantly, Tina Fey). You’ll never know just how nice it has been having you around.

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