Thursday, May 3, 2012

The Politics of 30 Rock

Maybe it's my brain (according to all the recent science, everything political can be explained by brains: MRIs expose how amygdala activity determines if you're a Republican, skin conductivity proves you're an Independent), maybe I'm just "hard-wired" this way, but I actually think 30 Rock is a pretty liberal show.
 A recent article in salon mentioned in passing that 30 Rock "seems more liberal than it is." Nay, I know not seems. The salon author links to a post from 2009 on a site called Overthinking It ("About Overthinking It: Overthinking It subjects the popular culture to a level of scrutiny it probably doesn't deserve" . . . if that isn't a prissily ironic, self-glorifyingly self-deprecating, faux defensive faux humility which would blossom into a pink burp of delight if it knew Joss Whedon smiled slightly when he read it, I don't know what is.)

 I'm not going to dwell on the analysis, because 1) the post is from 2009, it'd be a bit like nitpicking an obscure 1933 review of a reissue of The Sound and The Fury; and 2) The author of the piece admits at the start that this analysis is not coming from an expert in 30 Rock, and goes so far as to link to another site (here, if you must) which erroneously, wildly, but with three stars for effort, tries to argue that 30 Rock is a modern rip-off of the Muppet Show. Analyses of politics and comedy tend to make a common mistake: presuming that every laugh is equal. If a show invites you to laugh at a conservative figure and a liberal figure - at Jack Donaghy's neoconservative asides, his mastubatory contempt for liberals and anything liberals could conceivably stand for, his hypermasculinity, which launches so far into masculinity that it manages to transcend homosexuality into a type of Republican eroticized-male-love without an iota of queerness; at Liz Lemon's shallow, compromised liberalism, her prurient modern moralizing - then it must be somewhere in the middle of the political spectrum. If a show then has the conservative figure turning out to be correct much of the time, then it must be siding with that character, and belong further on the right. And if it targets certain presumably precious liberal topics, then all the more evidence it isn't as darlingly liberal as presumed - see, for example: David Schwimmer's brilliant cameo as Greenzo; or consider how 30 Rock will be banned from the retinal implants our descendants will use for entertainment because Tracy Jordan is the personification of every single racist stereotype from the nineteenth century to the twenty first; and yes, Hazel Wassername's virulent lesbianity and Jenna Maroney's narcissistic desires are mocked.

 The problem with these calculations is that comedy is not so virtuous or so superficial. It won't support simplistic political assessments. We do not simply laugh at or laugh with; we do both at the same times, in unequal measure, a mishmash of sympathy and derision that obviates subsequent political algebras. What compels us to laugh is a much denser appreciation of the context: that a foaming and prickly liberal, Alec Baldwin, plays the neocon Jack Donaghy, and he does so sensitively and lovingly; that David Schwimmer plays Greenzo, who is a "non-judgemental, business-friendly environmental advocate"; that Jenna Maroney's sexual cavalcade is grotesque and needy but also blossoming and brave, a mixture of desperation and optimism, of fierce engagement with life and denial; that Tracy Jordan, Grizz, and Dot Com are constantly facing race as something that invariably defines them, forcing them always to play a role, which Tracy, more than anybody, is trying to escape (Tracy is often standing in front of the poster for his film, Black Cop/White Cop, in which he plays both roles, the latter in whiteface, which should hint at some of the layers of impersonation taking place).

Comedy, in its rich, contradictory ambiguity, is a retribution against purity. Extracted, distilled, it ceases to exist; it only lives in murky, bitter liquors. The problem is not with 30 Rock or its audience, which apparently fails to realise that the show isn't as liberal as it seems. The problem here is the charade of political nomenclature that pretends to know what it is talking about, the purity hardwired into most pop discourses about 'liberal' and 'conservative'. Of course these categories exist; but lazily applying them to a comedy, based on assumptions that in comedy one can find a general clarity in the distinction between laughing at and laughing with, a clarity in characterisation, and a lack of irony, impersonation, and confusion, is doomed, just doomed. For a wonderfully confused piece of writing - sometimes quickly backpedalling, sometimes almost drunkenly confident - about television and politics, see gawker's piece here.

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