By now, even your 85-year-old grandma is familiar with the unfortunate term, “stay woke.” It’s a vague phrase intended to encompass everything from not gender stereotyping to embracing the signing of consent forms before agreeing to fuck at a party. And although Tina Fey was once all about creating the very mid-00s humor that led us to our hyper sense of awareness (read: fear of offending) and political correctness on 30 Rock, she’s now able to poke fun at one of the very monsters she helped spawn: vanilla soft serve living in the hope that being quiet and subdued won’t cause any malfeasance.
And, speaking of 30 Rock, Fey and co-creator Robert Carlock offer up plenty of the former cast members throughout season three to intensify the already caricatured portrait of campiness that the show provides. Like Pete Hornberger (Scott Adsit) in episode seven, “Kimmy Learns About the Weather!”. Playing the unwittingly villainous role of the man who has taken Titus’ (Tituss Burgess, another 30 Rock alum) voice, catchphrases and mannerisms for a bladder control pill commercial (“It’s time to go, girl!”), Adsit brings the same cowardly, surrendering persona to this role as he did to that of Hornberger. In episode five, “Kimmy Steps on a Crack!”, the beautiful Netflix synergy of two series crossing worlds occurs when Gretchen (Lauren Adams)–off the heels of failing at running a cult because she’s a woman–ends up going to prison and encountering Orange is the New Black‘s black Cindy (Cindy Hayes).
In episode 4, “Kimmy Goes to College!”, the effect Fey has on repackaging her 30 Rock characters for similar roles reaches a pinnacle, with Judah Friedlander (of Frank in the custom trucker hat fame) playing, once again, a grotesque creep named Gordy who asks Titus to record some of his extreme right wing lyrics. Among the pile, however, is some lighter fare that Titus is offended by most of all, a west coast-centric ditty called “Boobs in California.” Here, Fey’s brand shines through at its best, with the sad reality being that a song as vapid as this actually could become a hit. But before Titus agrees to record this (he needs the money to impress his now ex-boyfriend, Mikey [Mike Carlsen]), he says something that sounds rather like music to one’s ears in the year 2017, when all anyone wants to talk about (mainly in their Facebook feed) is the antics of a certain orange man. But Titus shrugs, “I just do not care about politics, Gordy. I’m a honey badger from way back. The world can fight its wars, do its hashtag protests and I will still be a tired gay black man living in a sideways tugboat.” The essence of this declaration speaks to something that no one in the U.S. wants to admit right now: orange man or not, it’s all shit, and we should still live our lives.
Jacqueline (Jane Krakowski, in her more elevated version of Jenna Maroney), meanwhile continues to work toward getting her unattractive but rich boyfriend, Russ (David Cross), to aid her in convincing his family to change the name of the Redskins. After all, she’s Native American (“it’s a Heather Locklear thing, look it up”), and wants to defend her heritage. This is just one of the many ways Jacqueline has shown a smidgen of character development over the seasons, a far cry from the woman who sent in an audition tape for The Real Housewives of New York. And yet, even this is a subtle dig at the reasons people–especially New York denizens–choose to “stay woke.” For Jacqueline, the motives for wanting to alter the football team’s moniker stem from a more self-driven concern with personal image. As Xan (Dylan Gelula), Jacqueline’s former stepdaughter, accurately complains, “Being rich isn’t cool anymore.” And yes, the masses do tend to adhere to a misery loves company philosophy when it comes to assessing where others around them stand financially these days.
Elsewhere, Fey also makes a comment on the way the feminism of now has been repurposed to be brandished as a sort of arbitrary excuse for dressing in scant clothing. Xan assures, “Seventh wave feminism is all about owning your sexuality. If we don’t dress like this, what are we saying?” Kimmy, still suffering from annoying main character syndrome, goes along with it in her continued naïveté, ignoring the pain of her feet in heels because it’s supposed to make her ass look good “for herself.” But really, if it’s for anyone, it’s for her current love interest of the season, Perry (Daveed Diggs of Hamilton, a joke about which Lillian makes, saying it’s what black people stole from white people). The commentary on appearance gets more intense as the season comes to a close, with Mimi Kanasis’ (Amy Sedaris) Brazilian butt implants not quite “taking” and David Cross’ Russ getting replaced with one played by Billy Magnussen post-smoosh operation (Russ is slowly run over with an electric car and needs surgery to recover). In his new incarnation, Russ becomes a literally different person, but not just physically. As he opens up to the way the world treats him now, he suddenly doesn’t care about the things he used to–the good causes, as it were. It’s a lot like a version of the 30 Rock episode, “The Bubble,” in which Liz’s then boyfriend, Drew (Jon Hamm), is too good looking to endure any of the common plights of the everyman.
Lillian Kaushtupper (Carol Kane) remains her stubbornly stagnant self, even after winning Kimmy’s vote (the only one that’s viable in the county) for councilwoman of East Dogmouth. A bad breakup with Bobby Durst (Fred Armisen) that causes him to, in a brief moment of cohesion, tell her she’s too trapped in the past, ultimately leads her to a relationship with Big Naturals owner Artie Goodman (Peter Riegert). Lillian, in fact, remains arguably the most entertaining part of the series, even in comparison to the competition she has with Titus’ comedic timing–particularly when he Lemonades in episode two. In between it all, Fey still finds time to make her New York-specific plot points resonate (like when Titus copies a bathroom key for a bodega run by strict bathroom monitor Paulie [Ray Liotta] so he’ll always have a place to go in public). And then there’s Maya Rudolph’s recurring role as Dionne Warwick to infuse the show with one of the non-political aspects of its hilarity.
Of course, all of this doesn’t mean there aren’t still plenty of white man jokes in spades. Tina Fey hasn’t totally forgotten who the oppressor remains. But now she’s willing to admit that those railing against him can be just as ridiculous at times.