Matt Connolly on 30 Rock (episode: “Hogcock!/Last Lunch”) and Mean Girls
Amongst the proclamations contained within the omnipresent argument that TV is now better than film, there is perhaps none more consistent than the idea that the acclaimed television series at the heart of the medium’s post-Sopranos revolution have gained their cultural prestige by adopting a “cinematic” quality. Shows as varied Mad Men, Arrested Development, Breaking Bad, Girls, and The Wire not only offer the pleasures that episodic television has always provided—the long-range development of plotlines and themes; the experience of watching beloved characters change or not change over time—but also augments these intrinsic elements with a richness and aesthetic sophistication that owes much to cinema while also besting the vast majority of contemporary movies week-in and week-out. Why slog through the dregs of popcorn-flick mediocrity or labor to seek out small-scale movies, the argument goes, when one can savor sumptuous production values and increasingly big-name stars from the comfort of your own laptop?
Setting aside its knee-jerk denial of film’s medium-specific properties (i.e. there’s more to the term “cinematic” than Gordon Willis–style lighting and the occasional slow track), this argument evinces a curious disengagement with the notion that movies and TV often bring out different strengths and weaknesses within the individuals making them. The territorial nature of the debate assumes that the contemporary visual artist will flock from that twentieth-century dinosaur known as film to television due to the latter’s increasing “freedom” for artists to tell wide-ranging, complex narratives on their own terms (provided they have the economic and cultural clout to land a deal with HBO, Showtime, AMC, FX, or the handful of basic and premium channels where such terms are most frequently offered). As a frequent consumer of the series that have blossomed from such an industrial environment, I have nothing but gratitude for these developments. But does it then follow that creative success in long-form episodic television implies a mastery of all forms of visual storytelling? The conversation would seem to imply that the economic and cultural successes of cinematically inspired quality television series have afforded their creators the artistic capital that once went to, say, New Hollywood auteurs. In reality, the demands of creating a multi-season TV show and a single feature-length film overlap yet remain mostly distinct. That many of the decade’s acclaimed show-runners have themselves dabbled or started in cinema as either a writer-director (David Chase, Lena Dunham, Joss Whedon, J.J. Abrams) or solely as a screenwriter (Vince Gilligan, David Benioff) with decidedly mixed results seems to only bolster the prestige of television. The implication is clear: cable TV accommodates and nurtures idiosyncratic visions in a way that the contemporary film industry cannot.
Rather than pit the two media against one another in some cultural-relevancy cage match, then, it feels more productive and revealing to look at an individual who has achieved success in both realms. No other person exemplifies such a triumph more than Tina Fey. Though her years as a writer for Saturday Night Live would imply that her heart belongs to the small screen, Fey’s resume includes not only the much-praised NBC sitcom 30 Rock (2006-2013), but the screenplay for the well-received (and, in certain circles, dearly beloved) teen comedy Mean Girls (2004). 30 Rock’s longevity, critical plaudits, and place within the entertainment ecosystem—most notably, for the career-resuscitating turns by Alec Baldwin and Tracy Morgan—inevitably means that it will shine a little brighter in the pop-culture firmament than Mean Girls, but that’s no reason to downplay Fey’s foray into big-screen comedy as a diverting detour on the road to television greatness. Comparing both works side by side—and, in 30 Rock’s case, focusing on the show’s super-sized series finale, “Hogcock!/Last Lunch”—one discovers both the consistency of Fey’s comedic trademarks and the subtle ways in which the medium-specificity and collaborative nature of both projects helped to shape—and, in both cases, enhance—distinct aspects of her persona as a writer, actress, and creative mastermind.
Mean Girls and 30 Rock clearly spring from the same comic worldview: a stylized yet curiously relatable carnival of spring-loaded insults, curveball cultural references, and moments of genuine empathetic connection self-consciously undercut by absurdism. Her world is unapologetically female-centered and concerned deeply with how modern-day women—be they just past puberty or pushing forty—navigate the choppy waters of friendship, the puzzles of romance, and the contradictions of both contemporary feminism and popular culture’s construction of the idealized woman. Fey does not romanticize any of these issues. Female friendship becomes as much a landmine-laden exercise in self-preservation as it is a source of comfort, with insecurities and interpersonal tensions worked out through petty displays of power and poisonous barbs which are all the more hilarious (and painful) for the tossed-off casualness by which they’re delivered. This extends to wider notions of feminism, as the issues of “having it all”—be it the work/life balance perennially sought after by 30 Rock’s Liz Lemon (Fey) or the quest for a solidified sense of social identity that Cady Heron (Lindsay Lohan) flails towards throughout Mean Girls—become refracted through Fey’s simultaneous sympathy for her heroine’s quests and her knowing exploration of said pursuit’s foibles and comic paradoxes. She wears her female-empowerment politics on her lapel and her heart on her sleeve—even as she keeps a water-squirting flower right next to the NOW button on that lapel and a joker tucked in that sleeve, ready to be released should the moment become too sentimental.
Adapted from Rosalind Wiseman’s parenting guide Queen Bees and Wannabees: Helping Your Daughter Survive Cliques, Gossip, Boyfriends, and Other Realities of Adolescence (2002), Mean Girls provides Fey with a single milieu to investigate—a task she accomplishes with a winking anthropological eye for the nuances of speech patterns, relational dynamics, and fluctuations in social status. In a self-conscious nod to her own position as observer, she situates heroine Cady as the ultimate outsider. Home-schooled in Africa by her zoologist parents (underplayed to perfection by Ana Gasteyer and Neil Flynn) until age 16, Cady arrives at North Shore High School a wide-eyed neophyte whose thoughts on the baffling mores of middle-class teenagers we receive via voiceover. She is befriended by “art freaks” Janis (Lizzy Caplan) and Damian (Daniel Franzese), who goad her into hanging out with the school’s clique of popular girls after they take an interest in the attractive, socially semi-clueless Cady.
Initially, Fey goes to lengths to sketch the social ecology of the high school, with Janis’s map of the school cafeteria offering a breakdown of the school’s cliques that mobilizes racial, ethnic, and gender stereotypes with a canny blend of the silly and the self-aware. (Groups include “Asian nerds” and ‘hot Asians,” “unfriendly black hotties,” and girls who both “eat their feelings” and “don’t eat anything.”) Mostly, though, Mean Girls zeroes in on the popular girls themselves, known as the Plastics (“cold, hard, [and] shiny,” as Janis describes them at one point). More than most other high school films, Mean Girls captures the fiendish internal logic by which teenage girls terrorize one another: the arbitrary yet ironclad rules regarding wardrobe choices and hairstyles; the whiplash-inducing swerves between affection and disdain; the heart-to-hearts that quickly provide fodder for the gossip mill; the endlessly creative combinations of such time-tested insults as “slut,” “bitch,” and “whore.” In Fey’s hands, even little moments like the initial conversation between Cady and queen-bee Regina (Rachel McAdams) become master classes in toothy-grinned mind games. Regina compliments Cady (“You’re, like, really pretty!”) then swerves into testing-the-water passive aggression (“So, you agree? You think you’re really pretty?”) before whipsawing into another compliment whose sincerity proves impossible to read (“Oh my God, I love your bracelet! Where did you get it?”). There’s something almost exhilarating about witnessing these encounters unfold, a sort of breathless appreciation of Regina’s capriciousness and command of her specific social vocabulary.
Fey drills down into the ways in which young women gain and maintain power within both the ever-shifting sands of high school popularity and the relentlessly image-obsessed culture fed to them by mass media. Mean Girls allows itself a bit of speechifying about the self-destructive impulses behind the girls’ endless name-calling and back-biting, but the most satisfying moments come when Fey allows us to see the subtle cracks in each character’s fastidiously maintained façade. Gretchen Wieners (Lacey Chabert), Regina’s anxious second-fiddle, primps for the big school dance in the mirror, before removing a heretofore-unseen retainer and placing it in a plastic case on her makeup table. Regina gets called out for breaking the Plastics’ “no jeans or track pants except on Fridays” rule, and defensively admits that all of her other pants no longer fit due to weight gain. (Not to foster too much sympathy, Regina flippantly adds, “Whatever. Those rules aren’t real.”) And when Regina eventually becomes unseated by Cady as the center of the group, her palpable desperation proves affecting precisely because we recognize how precarious her perch atop the social heap was to begin with. Such touches allow Fey to arrive at her most trenchant and cheeky insight: namely, that the mean girls’ efforts to scrub away their rough edges to become objects of peer worship paradoxically reveal how inescapably idiosyncratic and fallible they really are.
The switch back from film to television meant many developments for Fey, but perhaps none more drastic than her ability to use TV’s long-range format to craft a world in which her laser-sharp focus on a specific social milieu gives way to a nuttily intricate universe of overlapping personalities and comic targets. If Mean Girls highlights the messy individuality beneath the homogenizing rhythms of teen-girl culture, 30 Rock quickly revealed itself to be concerned primarily with how defiantly singular individuals from radically divergent backgrounds learn to coexist and even thrive in a world in which none of them truly fit. That world, of course, is 30 Rockefeller Plaza, the home of both TGS with Tracy Jordan—the SNL-esque sketch-show within a show run by Liz Lemon and starring Tracy Jordan (Tracy Morgan) and Jenna Maroney (the divine Jane Krakowski)—and NBC, run by corporate shark Jack Donaghy (Alec Baldwin). As befits a show that wears its New York City setting as a badge of honor, all of these characters are transplants with distinctive regional identities: Liz hailing from suburban Philadelphia; Jack from working-class Boston; Tracy from the poverty-stricken Bronx; Jenna from backwater Florida; and perennially sunny page Kenneth Parcell (Jack McBrayer) from rural Georgia. A melting pot of cosmopolitan harmony it is not: 30 Rock returns obsessively its characters’ divisions in upbringing, class, race, gender, and political affiliation as sources of interpersonal discord and freewheeling farce. Fey sends these differences into the air like bouncy balls, charting their frenetic overlaps and frequent collisions with a satirist’s eye for buffoonery and hypocrisy across the ideological spectrum. It’s a vision at once ruthless and democratic, with every character subject to the same comic scrutiny. As a result, they occupy a radically leveled playing field. Fey is one of the only people for whom the hackneyed phrase “equal-opportunity offender” could actually apply.
This gives the show’s endless throwaway references to celebrity culture both their slicing wit and screwball specificity as when a distraught Jack recalls the depths of his holiday-season despair: “I spent Christmas alone in the Hamptons,” he confesses between sobs, “drinking scotch and throwing firecrackers at Billy Joel’s dog!” Or take the throwaway moment when Tracy—a tantrum-prone, diva-esque man-child with whom Liz has battled since episode one—tries to forestall the taping of TGS’s final show by convincing Al Roker to “predict” that a massive snow storm will specifically hit 30 Rockefeller Plaza, prompting the show’s crew to leave early. As Liz watches the forecast unfold on a television monitor, Roker insists that, “According to the National Weather Service you should, and I quote: ‘Leave work; get in your purple Bentley; and be home with your sharks before the Tri-state area gets slammed by what is being called: Snowicane, White Lady Name, Like Dorva…or something!” The interlaced strands of humor are almost too tightly enmeshed to disentangle here, from the riffing on Roker’s jovial persona to the satire of weather-prediction-as-infotainment to the way in which the tossed-off racial coding of the faux storm becomes refracted through Tracy’s over-the-top yet still half-assed scheming. Mostly, it reflects how Fey and her writing team find perennially fresh ways to link the cock-eyed pop culture carnival in which the characters exist with the specifics of their complicated working relationships with one another. The televised format allows this double-move of up-to-the-minute satire and sustained character arcs in a way that the more temporally circumscribed schedule of film production cannot.
In many ways, 30 Rock tweaks televisual conventions far more than Mean Girls does those of the cinema. Some of the series’ richest jokes have come at the expense of NBC’s real-life ratings nosedive throughout the 2000s, the perennial mediocrity of TGS itself, and the evermore craven world of television programming. (Promoted to head of NBC near the end of the series, Kenneth reveals his list of “TV No-No Words” when developing new shows, which includes such descriptors as “quality,” “politics,” and “woman.”) This extends to the show’s liberal use of fourth-wall-breaking sight gags and overt winks to its status as a television series, as when “Hogcock!/Last Lunch” finds Liz bemoaning network television’s inability to let a moment play out, only to cut away the millisecond after she finishes her complaint. One can find the roots of such self-aware riffing in Mean Girls, most notably in the jaunty montages where various students offer direct-to-camera testimonials to Regina and Cady’s popularity. Fey vastly extends these within 30 Rock, suggesting an affinity for—and self-conscious deconstruction of—the narrative and visual clichés of the TV format.
And yet,one never gets the sense that Fey is out to single-handedly demolish the forms in which she works. She retains guarded faith in the potential for mainstream narrative formulas to tell smart, emotionally cogent stories—provided that they are sufficiently rattled by her particular brand of sharp, occasionally scalding humor. On paper, Mean Girls is a standard-issue teenager comedy, complete with pretty-boy crushes, kooky best friends, clueless teachers, and a climatic school dance. Fey’s trick lies in how she loosens up these time-honored clichés, undercutting their more unseemly assumptions (particularly regarding women) and spiking their schmaltziness with a healthy dose of skepticism. Thus, scenes that revolve primarily around the pleasures of the young women’s verbal jousting can preserve their spiky wit while doubling as character development; and Cady can still get the guy while insisting (believably) that her ultimate lessons revolved around the importance of emotional maturity and female solidarity. 30 Rock’s series finale works in a similar manner, with Liz finally getting what she wants (a very modern family of a stay-at-home husband and adopted six-year-old twins) while still leaving room to emotionally wrap up the series’ most important duo: the friendship between Liz and Jack, a platonic roller-coaster of mentorship, political sparring, drunken philosophizing, wardrobe-related insults, and a deep, genuine affection. Their would-be farewell knowingly flirts with sentimentality, but Fey gently pulls it back from the precipice, settling upon a half-explicit acknowledgement of their love for one another before ending with a joke. (Taking off on a year-long seafaring journey of self-exploration, Jack turns around within ten seconds after hitting upon his next great business idea: see-through washing machines.) The series finale of a television show is traditionally the time for tear-streaked displays of emotion. Fey provides them liberally, honoring the relationships the show has invested in but doing so on her own half-earnest, half-winking terms.
This quality of Fey’s work always keeps me coming back: her ability to understand and appreciate the strengths of her given medium while also jerry-rigging its conventions to fit her own tastes, predilections, and worldview. It’s a highly personal vision, but also a generous one, dependent as much upon her partnerships with actors, directors, and other writers as on her own idiosyncratic creative process. The collaborative nature of a television series naturally foregrounds the contributions of others to the success of 30 Rock: writers like Jack Burditt, Robert Carlock, and Tracey Wigfield and directors like Beth McCarthy Miller (all of whom worked on “Hogcock!/Last Lunch”), not to mention the work of Baldwin, Morgan, Krakowski, and others. But Mean Girls, too, showcases this aspect of Fey’s work, seen in its spirited ensemble work and direction by Mark Waters (whose dissolves and overhead tracks give the film a witty, light-on-its-feet quality that syncs with and bolsters Fey’s writing). Indeed, both Mean Girls and 30 Rock speak to Fey’s unique capacity to lift—and be lifted by—a range of film and television talents without losing her unique voice.
We’re fortunate enough to be living in a moment when someone like Fey can leapfrog between media, her successes pointing not to an elevation of television as “the new film,” but to a cross-pollination that enriches and pushes both media forward. When both sides of her career are so distinct, then why construct arbitrary hierarchies whereby success in one medium intrinsically outweighs another? As a wise woman once said (and another wrote): “Whatever. Those rules aren’t real.”