There are five words that can torpedo any decent conversation about the zeal, brilliance, and quotability of “30 Rock”: “I'm such a Liz Lemon.”
Is that so? You're a slightly under-appreciated professional who messes up from time to time. I'll be, you relate to the relatable character. That's like congratulating yourself for finding a telemarketer charming.
Tina Fey is one of those celebrities like Tim Gunn or Kelly Clarkson who is deemed approachable because she projects a conversational, unpretentious image. Of course Tim Gunn is a Yale-educated sculptor and professor, Kelly Clarkson is a world-class vocalist, and Tina Fey is an intellectual and damning comic writer who sometimes uses her monumental talent to play harried commoners. We should probably value her deadpan joke-telling primarily because it is insightful and hilarious, not because she sometimes acts uncool in a way that's relatable and flattering to us. Unlike the droves of Twitter users whose life work is gaining followers and retweets through endless assertions of “awkwardness” and “nerdiness” (read: unthreatening, risk-free, narcissistic pandering), Tina Fey would rather be funny than cool. And that's why her character on “Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt,” the Netflix series she produced with “30 Rock” collaborator Robert Carlock about a woman who must adapt to the real world after emerging from an apocalyptic cult, is so refreshing.
Fey appears in the last three episodes of the series' first season as Marcia, one half of Kimmy's (Ellie Kemper) incompetent lawyer team. When you check out Marcia's tight curls and cobalt blue businesswear, it's clear — though it still had to be pointed out to me! — she's parodying Marcia Clark, the attorney who helped bungle the OJ Simpson case with Christopher Darden. Fey's character is incessantly inept, responding to the defendant's (Jon Hamm) sarcastic “Lock me up and throw away the key!” quip with the rejoinder, “Objection! There are no keys at the jail anymore! It's a card with a chip in it, like at a Hampton Inn.” In “30 Rock” terms, Fey is giving us a prosecutorial version of Dr. Spaceman, Chris Parnell's nonchalantly ludicrous doctor. (Best Spaceman quote: “You seem nervous. I could give you something for that, but you know what? I'm not supposed to have sex with my patients.”)
I always admire the wit of Tina Fey, but there's something about her steadfast commitment to idiocy here that escalates my love to obsession. Even when Fey played Sarah Palin on “Saturday Night Live” during her infamous Katie Couric interview, part of the joke was watching Palin realize she's in over her head. There was self-awareness beneath the bangs and helicopter-aided wolf homicides. As Marcia, Fey is just a dummy with a woozy glance and jerry-built confidence. She is not relatable, and that's a relief. I'd almost rather go clubbing with Marcia than Liz Lemon because her no-nonsense nonsense would lead to more trouble than Liz's meek requests for mozzarella sticks.
Fey's role on “Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt” reminds of something Janeane Garofalo said in “Live from New York,” the indispensable oral history of “Saturday Night Live,” about Molly Shannon: “I think Molly came in and her attitude was right on the money. And it was, 'I'll kill you with kindness.' But she's fucking very tough. She is writing and writing and writing and she will not take no for an answer. And she would also not get involved with the bullshit… She was there to work.”
Fey's interest in putting the joke first, whether that means she plays a buffoon or an exasperated NBC employee, is further proof — not that we needed it — she is here to work. Not to allure with coquettish foul-ups. Not to patronize. Not to placate. As Marcia, she stridently upends the expectation of gentle Mary Tyler Moore-type frustrations with a (frighteningly) self-possessed weirdo streak. As joke-free awkwardness continues to be the opiate of the Tweeple, I'm thrilled to don a commanding vermilion blazer, yell “Objection!” at no one in particular, and call Marcia a crushworthy savior.