As someone who strives to balance his personal and professional obligations, N.C. Harrison finds himself identifying with the protagonists of 30 Rock and Law and Order: Special Victims Unit.
I’m going to admit this from the outset, here. I watch a ton of television. Like, for serious, guys. If you stacked the tapes and DVDs I have watched, from the inception of the medium to the cutting edge, on one of those big scales that your truck has to go over when you’re visiting the landfill you would probably, and this is just an estimate but I’m pretty sure, end up with a figure well over two thousand pounds. My late night schedule includes watching as much classic Doctor Who as I possibly can, and even with a more than fifty year history there just is not enough. My current academic work involves examining subversive family shows from the Sixties, like Bewitched, The Addams Family and The Munsters and comparing them to the repressive depictions of the 1950s and later, nihilistic models from the 1970s. Yeah, you can do a lot of odd stuff at the post-graduate level in theology; that’s why everyone knows that biblical scholars make if not the best conversationalists, at least some of the most confusing and annoying.
Something else TV related that has come to my recent attention, for various reasons, lies in shows that are much more recent. My sister, bless her odd little heart, adores every crime show imaginable. From the cheerful, harmless NCIS (I don’t know if this qualifies as a crime drama or cartoon, I really don’t) to the nightmare inducing world of Criminal Minds, where people are the fifth food group, she’ll watch anything as long as the heroes have badges, guns and relatively little regard for due process. Her latest binge is Law and Order: Special Victims Unit, an NBC show with the sort of police work which might easily be best represented by the ”Bad Cops” song from the classic Simpsons episode, “Homer’s Triple Bypass.” My own watching of late, at least of shows which have debuted since mankind was capable of lunar travel, has been 30 Rock. The conclusions I have drawn from these twin marathons (we really work the heck out of Netflix and Hulu at my house) sort of astounded me, at first, but then led to a beautiful realization.
Liz Lemon, 30 Rock’s harried showrunner on the perpetual verge of an emotional collapse (as played by the wonderful Tina Fey) is basically the same character as Olivia Benson, Special Victims Unit’s harried detective on the perpetual verge of emotional collapse, as played by the equally wonderful Mariska Hargitay. I was bewildered at first, and more than a little disbelieving, but I eventually came around to seeing that the comparisons between them create a beautiful synergy which explains why I like the kinds of characters that I do and why, in general, they may be the best, most interesting and most engaging kinds of characters. It is, I believe firmly, the simultaneous vulnerability and strength which these women display, in stressful positions which have most frequently been held by men for their histories, which allows me to so successful empathize with them and create the bond, between our world and the created ones, that develops the almost telepathic magic associated with art, of one kind or another.
I guess I noticed the similarities, at first, because both women dated characters played by Dean Winters, Dennis “the Beeper King” Duffy in the case of Liz Lemon and Brian “I Can’t Believe This Dork is on a Serious Police Drama” Cassidy for Olivia. Winters portrays, each time I see him, the same kind of goofy, hapless, generally harmless dirtbag that reminds us why settling is simultaneously such a bad idea and why it is so, so tempting. Liz comes right out and says it, admitting that she is in a relationship with Dennis not because she loves him and can’t live without him, but because it’s just so easy. They have a history, already, and she doesn’t have to make an effort to be charming or interesting; she can just be Liz and not worry about it. Liv, likewise, chooses Brian because he is handy (they work at the same place), they already know each other and they just sort of… fall in together. I really felt for both these characters, in that moment, because, hey, ladies and gentlemen, I think we’ve all been there at least a few times. In a flash of emotional insight I realized why the moment felt so right, and the déjà vu so powerful; I felt for them in exactly the same way.
Everything fell into place after that. Apart from some surface physical similarities (which also helps to explain my little crushes… I tend to have a thing for high stress women with big, soulful brown eyes), both characters wanted a baby and the normalcy that children and a family can bring to life, but neither was able to find that through particularly traditional means due to the hectic nature of their professional lives. As a young person who also strives to balance my personal and professional obligations (long nights translating out of Hebrew and sort of kind of pretending that I can do the same with Chaldean and Ugaritic are not conducive to having a social life), well, I felt for them in those moments, too… and when Liz got to get married and adopt two kids, and Liv at least got to be a foster mother, it kind of fired the little spark that said to me, “You can do this, maybe, too… if you’ll just finish that paper on YHWH’s relationship with Israel as being not too different in some ways than an Ike and Tina song.”
Which, I guess, is what makes the great characters what they are. We see them in their moments of frazzled stress and utter weakness, but are also privy to their triumphs in a way that allows us to slow down, in the sound and fury of our own lives, and realize that there is victory in the quiet moments when we say, “Yeah, I got this,” even if we really don’t and are just pretending and hoping that maybe, just maybe, that’ll make it so. So I have to say, ‘You go girl,’ to a pair of strong, smart TV women that are good role models for a young man… even if they don’t always look like they should be. Because their weaknesses are, paradoxically, their strengths—the ability to hold it together when everything is flying apart—and being able to transfer that from their world to ours would be the sweetest kind of magic.