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Tina Fey Is in Empire-Building Mode

The ‘30 Rock’ star and creator is busy behind the camera — and making work that’s thorny and tack-sharp as ever

(Getty Images/Ringer illustration)
(Getty Images/Ringer illustration)

Before she was a beloved awards hostess, before she was an attempted movie star, before she wrote the memoir that launched a thousand copycat best sellers, Tina Fey was a television writer. When Fey joined Saturday Night Live in the 1997–98 season, it was in the writers’ room; two seasons later, she was promoted to head writer — and after that, she was promoted to on-air personality as Weekend Update coanchor.

Right now, Fey has the power and name recognition to star in another TV show — and she’s certainly considered bankable enough to star in multiple commercials — but her choices indicate that what she wants to do is work behind the camera. Nearly half a decade since 30 Rock ended, “Tina Fey television show” is no longer synonymous with her starring vehicle. It’s a template, one that has the potential to turn Fey into the network-sitcom version of a Shonda Rhimes or Dick Wolf. Twenty years after she started the job that put her on the track to superstardom, Tina Fey has returned to her natural habitat, which continues to be the ideal venue for her prickly, complicated, lacerating-yet-goofy brand of humor.

Fey’s latest venture is Great News, the Andrea Martin–led NBC workplace comedy executive produced by Fey and created by 30 Rock alum Tracey Wigfield that’s already been renewed for a second season despite less-than-blockbuster ratings. Great News marks an important juncture in Fey’s trajectory as a TV maker: It’s the first show she didn’t create that nonetheless bears her imprimatur and sensibility, honed with a set of frequent collaborators.

Of course, Fey’s still running her own show, too. This Friday marks the return of Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, the Netflix comedy she cocreated with creative partner Robert Carlock, whom she met at SNL. Season 3 is a turning point for the show, which counterintuitively mines the story of an imprisonment, sexual assault, and cult-indoctrination survivor for laughs. After the second season explored Kimmy’s psychic wounds with a strikingly dramatic plotline centered on therapy and sexual hang-ups, the show has sorted through the complications of its own premise enough to forge ahead as a wacky romp. In the six episodes provided in advance to critics, Kimmy feels more like a sustainable, network-style half-hour than ever. The show’s had its interlude with serialized, streaming-enabled darkness. Now it’s reverted to the mode its creator knows best.

A newly mature Kimmy, a brand-new sitcom just starting to hit its stride, and of course, all seven seasons of 30 Rock, which remain on Netflix: Together, they make up proof that Fey’s television aesthetic is consistent and specific. And considering them as a whole gives us a clearer picture of what, exactly, the Fey aesthetic is. It’s moody yet buoyant, curmudgeonly yet deeply felt — and it’s the foundation upon which her future efforts are all but sure to be built.

The neon hue of Kimmy Schmidt’s sweaters, the blink-and-you’ll-miss-them sight gags, the riff on a “breaking” jingle that opens Great News each week: Part of what makes a Tina Fey show comes down to look and feel. Fey’s repertory at this point is extensive, including writers like Jack Burditt (30 Rock, Great News) and actors like Jane Krakowski (30 Rock, Kimmy Schmidt). But besides Carlock, Fey’s most significant collaborator is Jeff Richmond, the composer who also happens to be her husband. Along with Giancarlo Vulcano, Richmond writes the music for Great News; he also executive produces both 30 Rock and Kimmy Schimdt. Richmond’s zippy, horns-and-woodwinds heavy orchestral work is an instant signifier that sets Fey’s work apart from other TV comedies. Kimmy Schmidt’s grandma puppet or 30 Rock’s blue dude make sense only in a reality defined by jaunty, up-and-offbeat aural cues.

But the style of Fey’s growing portfolio of shows is always in service to its charming, complicated substance. As the writer of an SNLesque sketch show, 30 Rock’s Liz Lemon was transparently based on the woman who played her. So obvious were the Lemon-Fey parallels that they formed the basis for 30 Rock’s most consistent mode of comedy: almost painfully meta riffs on television making and at post-peak NBC in particular. But even when they aren’t Fey stand-ins played by Fey herself, her heroine has a few traits. She’s a white woman in her 30s, she’s either professionally successful or possessed of a preternatural work ethic, and she has a mess of personal hang-ups that go deeper and stranger than simply failing to have it all, speaking to Fey’s own anxieties about how to exist in the modern world.

Liz Lemon wasn’t just unlucky in love, or as the increasingly unrealistic jokes at her expense would have us believe, ugly. She was actively uncomfortable with, and on some level terrified by, sex — a possibility that seemed, at the very least, underrepresented at a time when women are pressured to demonstrate their sexual agency by exercising it. Kimmy Schmidt then made that fear viscerally real; on more than one occasion, she beats a man on instinct for touching her, a violent reminder of what she’s been through to go with the adorable stuff like not knowing what a hashtag is. And Great News Katie Wendelson is an eternal child kept that way by an overbearing mother. She’s good at her job as a local news producer, but she’s incapable of being an adult in any other meaningful sense; she can’t hold down a relationship or even establish a career without her mom tagging along as an intern.

This is the darkness that undergirds both Fey’s pathos and some of her most vicious humor, which frequently comes from a place of angst about the social pressure to conform to a certain kind of femininity. Think of the iconic 30 Rock episode “TGS Hates Women,” about Liz’s frustrations with a baby-voiced, aggressively sexy comedienne, or a representative joke from Kimmy’s upcoming season: “If we don’t dress like this,” asks a teenager in a bandage dress and heels, “what are we saying — that we can’t?” And on Great News, there’s an anti-role model in the form of Nicole Richie’s proudly shallow coanchor, who jumps at the chance to wear see-through shorts on air. At least some of this particular take on womanhood is autobiographical; Fey has been open about losing her virginity, to Richmond, in her mid-20s and losing 30 pounds at 29 while on SNL with the understanding that it’s what she had to do to make it on air. (Imagine the bitterness, or at least acute awareness of double standards, that came with compulsory weight loss on the show that made Chris Farley famous.)

That empowerment-skeptical outlook is also decidedly unfashionable. Fey’s feminism is a solid 10 to 20 years out of date; it’s the feminism of Ariel Levy’s Female Chauvinist Pigs, now considered a time capsule of retrograde scolding or the anti-porn crusaders of the ’80s. This aspect of her persona reflects a comfort in staying out of sync — on this issue and others. Unlike her friend Amy Poehler, who founded the empowerment-centric group Smart Girls, Fey has zero interest in being a spokesperson or figurehead for a cause, though she’s frequently had the role assigned to her by outside observers. She’s speaking for herself, and has never pretended otherwise. Fey makes smart comedy about the contradictions of being a woman because she is a woman, which in turn gets interpreted as a statement on behalf of womankind because, even now, there are so few women with her kind of platform. “I don’t have the answer,” she bluntly told Terry Gross after mulling over whether female comedians should cater to the male gaze, or be criticized when they do. Nor does she plan to provide one.

Like many other comedians, Fey will strike back at critics by writing unflattering versions of them into her work: See the infamous “Kimmy Goes to a Play!” episode of Kimmy Schmidt, written by 30 Rock alum Sam Means, in which Kimmy’s roommate, Titus, attracts protesters crying cultural appropriation for performing as his Japanese alter ego, Murasaki. After they talk out their differences, one caller-outer disappears because she has no reason for existing apart from being offended. The moment makes it all too clear what Fey thinks of those who’ve objected to her racial jokes, of which there have been many. The episode was not well received, and yet Kimmy responded by dialing the social-justice parody up to 11 in its latest season, the predictable result of moving the action to campus. The series has similarly forged ahead with its most controversial plot line: Jacqueline’s Native American identity and its disparity with her adopted WASP demeanor. This season it’s the pretext of a zany-yet-sincere quest to get Washington Redskins owner Dan Snyder to change the name of the team. Backlash, it seems, only makes Fey and her team dig their heels in. A willingness to go against the grain runs in all directions, and to follow Fey’s work is to take the bad along with the good. The same part of her brain that writes questionable things about Beyoncé is the same part that gives rise to five of the most perfect and cheerfully nasty minutes of comedy this decade. Sometimes “counterintuitive” means ignoring common sense. Sometimes it does mean saying what nobody else would, or should.

Great News is the most tentative application of Fey’s model yet; just eight episodes in, it’s not yet clear whether it will rise to the creative level of 30 Rock or Kimmy, or even last longer than its two allotted seasons. In some ways it’s also the most important: It’s the first show she’s stewarded as a producer rather than authored as a writer or creator. (It ought to be noted that NBC appears to have passed on the pilot for The Sackett Sisters, another such project starring Casey Wilson and Busy Philipps.) So far, though, Great News is succeeding, and not just judging by its renewal. The early going of a sitcom is notoriously tough, balancing the pipe-laying of plot and character with the need to entertain, but Great News seems to have figured out its character beats early: nosy mom, hapless kid, vain boss(es), put-upon producer in a will-they-won’t-they with hapless kid. Like Kimmy, Great News has more heart than 30 Rock, which put off real emotion until Liz’s later-season adventures in matrimony and maternity. Yet the newest show still has edge and a familiar facility with cutaway gags and pointed Peacock references. For all our talk of auteur comedy, there’s only one person who’d turn a throwaway Days of Our Lives reference into an accurate, multipart parody.

Great News isn’t yet exceptional. But even if its destiny comes as a perfectly pleasant weeknight distraction, the show is still an all-important part of Fey’s brand. When it comes to building an empire, consistency and quantity matter more than uniform excellence. In her first three series, Fey’s mastered the first of those ingredients. All that’s left is to keep building.