Crazy Liz Lemon vs. Semi-Sane Liz Lemon

Carrying this over from a not-online discussion I was having: Liz Lemon on 30 Rock is a character whose level of sanity varies from episode to episode. In some episodes, she’s a more or less normal, if neurotic person who is fairly reasonable, gets other characters out of trouble, and rolls her eyes at their stupidity. The Jennifer Aniston/Night Court episode has Liz as the normal one, at least by comparison. And then in other episodes, we see that her apparent normalcy just hides the fact that she is the craziest one of all: willing to fire a woman so she, Liz, can steal the woman’s boyfriend. And then some episodes sort of have her halfway between sane and insane, like last night, where she sort of becomes an arsonist, but not really.

30 Rock has a lot in common with another low-rated critical favourite, Arrested Development, and one of those things is the way the main character is portrayed: sometimes Michael Bluth was the straight man of the group, but sometimes he was the most insane, obsessive and unreasonable of the bunch. In Michael’s case, the insane/unreasonable side took over until he was one of the least likable characters on the show. (I always figured that Michael Cera’s role was expanded in the second season when the writers realized that George Michael was more likable than his dad.) 30 Rock hasn’t gone that far with Liz, which is one of the reasons why it’s lasted longer than Arrested Development. Also, when Liz is going crazy, Jack is usually able to show his sane side and play straight man to her, and vice versa; there’s usually someone available to take the straight-man role, just not always the same person.

But I have to admit that Liz’s insanity, as with Michael Bluth’s, is not one of my favourite things on the show. I don’t mind when she shows that she’s eccentric or clueless or pathetically needy (“Did you see our shout-out in Variety? They called us ‘a comedy show!'”). Those are just character quirks. But a lot of the time, we’re given to believe that she’s driven crazy by how much her life sucks. That’s just annoying. She’s a character with a good job, good looks, wacky adventures and semi-frequent dates. When a show expects us to believe that a character’s life is worse than it actually is, I personally find I sympathize less with the character. Seinfeld was smart enough never to pretend that Jerry’s life was anything but basically good, even though his life was a lot less good than the real-life Jerry at the time.

Update: I see that Alan Sepinwall already had some thoughts on how crazy Liz should or shouldn’t be, and connects it to a previously-discussed problem — where the heck is Pete?

The problem is that when Liz goes crazy, there’s nobody sane for her to push against. Pete could be that person, but Scott Adsit’s either doing a movie or has angered the writers or something, because he’s rarely around, and those long absences make it hard to then have him play an important role when he turns up again. So they either have to give us more Pete, or else Liz has to be normal for a long stretch before we get her next breakdown.

Looking for more?

Get the best of Maclean's sent straight to your inbox. Sign up for news, commentary and analysis.