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'30 Rock' Character Study: Why Tina Fey and Alec Baldwin's Friendship-With-Benefits Worked

Liz Lemon Jack Donaghy 30 Rock - H 2013
NBC

The improbable bond between Fey's most popular characters infused the tart cult comedy with heart and soul; Lemon fans approved, despite Donaghy's jerky put-downs.

After seven years, a bounty of Emmys and countless rapid-fire, absurdist zingers launched from the brains of Tina Fey and her misfit-toy writing staff, 30 Rock takes its final bow on Thursday. And it’s with a heavy heart that fans say goodbye: when a great TV show ends, the loss can sting even amid the recognition that it’s time to let go (even Fey can run out of storylines, it seems).

For a certain brand of female geek professional, Liz Lemon – Fey’s alter ego and most important character-creation outside of her Sarah Palin spoof – was a revelation. As the type-A creator of a fictional NBC sketch comedy show, Liz threw herself into her work while managing extreme diva personalities like Tracy Jordan (Tracy Morgan) and Jenna Maroney (Jane Krakowski) with finesse and compassion; meanwhile, her personal life (mostly non-existent) involved navigating dead-end relationships with a Johnny Drama-esque loser (Dean Winters), a handsome dimbulb (Jon Hamm) and a hapless pilot named Carol Burnett (Matt Damon). But Liz’s self-effacing worldview endeared her to legions of women and girls who identified with her Beta-nerd quirks and social pratfalls, i.e. dressing like Princess Leia to avoid jury duty or unwittingly flirting with a vagrant on the subway.

While this “Liz Lemon” sensibility (currently co-opted by Zooey Deschanel on New Girl) might otherwise be bait for a Seth Cohen type, her closest male confidante became none other than Alec Baldwin's Jack Donaghy: her boss, polar opposite and spiritual soulmate.

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He's also the same guy who lobbed cutting insults Liz's direction, frequently picking apart her appearance and other perceived flaws. He once described her as a "New York third-wave feminist, college-educationed, single-and-pretending-to-be-happy-about-it, over-scheduled, undersexed, you buy any magazine that says 'healthy body image' on the cover and every two years you take up knitting for ... a week."

(That joke? Mean. But also funny. Liz fans, gluttons for self-deprecation, thought so too.)

There was no good reason why liberal-minded Liz, whose bullshit detector is forever on high alert, should deign to associate with someone like Jack, a cutthroat corporate blowhard and apparent misogynist with deep-seeded mommy issues.  But deep down, Jack and Liz were more alike than they seemed: the two shared a strong sense of purpose; Alpha-level ambition; dark humor; an anxiety propelled by fear of failure and loss of control. Despite their differences, Liz and Jack were intellectual equals even as he treated her like a lesser peon.

While Liz was an open book, Jack hid behind a front, layer-by-layer revealing his true self through various fits and freakouts as an insecure, emotionally vulnerable man-boy – much like Baldwin.

Her openness and innate goodness no doubt rubbed off on Jack, and his actions spoke louder than words:  When Liz married the sweet, supportive Criss Cross (James Marsden), Jack rushed to City Hall to bear witness to their wedding; when she needed someone to pick her up from oral surgery, he stopped what he was doing to take her home; while watching an embarrassing phone-sex commercial from Liz’s past where she’s shown suggestively eating a pizza, Jack dissolves into a fit of giggles; what other overlord-CEOs would break character to goof off in the TGS writers’ room?

“He is like a unicorn in the real corporate world,” says a Liz-esque veteran of the publishing industry, “because even though Jack makes fun of Liz and TGS, Liz knows he's ALWAYS got her back. And I think that's what makes us creative trying-to-make-it types love Jack (and also love Alec): They do have this true belief and commitment. He's an idealist, deep down, and he's got this childish enthusiasm for tuxedos and cash and the perks that come with power and it's that sense of whimsy and a reminder that money is fun that is refreshing.”

Jennifer Armstrong, author of the upcoming book Mary and Lou and Rhoda and Ted, a history of The Mary Tyler Moore Show, agrees that Jack’s alluring power and baller-bravado is part of his charm as well as his unspoken Liz-love.

“His soft spot for Liz telegraphs that he's a softie underneath. We identify with her, and figure he'd like us just the same; he really does treat her as his equal, even while he's pretending otherwise,” she observes, noting the similar dynamic between the glamorous Mary Richards and her gruff colleague Lou Reed (Ed Asner) in the groundbreaking '70s sitcom. (Its penultimate episode featured the two on a date, and laughing as they tried to kiss; in a slightly tweaked vein, when Jack and Liz shared a bed on a trip to Florida this season, they openly discussed their oddly co-dependent, non-sexual relationship with the former explaining that nothing ever happened because they're more interesting as friends and mentor-mentee).

Liz heavily leaned on Jack for advice on matters of business and bad boyfriends; at the same time, she encouraged Jack to repair his torrid relationships with the various women in his life including his domineering mother Colleen (Elaine Stritch), whose recent death prompted Jack to deliver the world’s greatest eulogy (featuring Kermit!). Sitting among the pews: Liz, his “weird buddy” who helps keep him on the rails.

“When I was growing up, I thought people who wanted to be happy were weak: hippies, Italians, kindergarten teachers,” he intoned this season, to which Liz advised him to cut the “Black Irish” nonsense and admit he’s got it pretty good.

Jack’s colleagues rarely told him “no,” so when Liz called him out on his Alec Baldwin-style theatrics over the course of the series, he eventually started to listen; a real friendship and respect developed.

Jack is the Lou to Liz's Mary; the Siskel to her Ebert; he is her tuning fork; he is Fey’s second-greatest fictional creation.

Twitter: @ErinLCarlson

Email: erin.carlson@thr.com