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How '30 Rock' Found Its Tone When Liz Lemon Didn't Marry Her Cousin

30 Rock has presented Liz Lemon with a lot of love interests, from nearly-right Floyd (Jason Sudeikis) to not-at-all-right Steven Black (Wayne Brady). She's dated Drew (Jon Hamm), who wound up with hooks for hands, and Carol (Matt Damon), the highly emotional pilot. She's repeatedly escaped Dennis (Dean Winters), and she's now married to Criss (James Marsden), who's loving and adorable but once was, after all, beaten up by off-brand Muppets.

Liz is, you might say, snakebit when it comes to love, and if anything helped her eventually find a relationship that makes her happy (which her marriage apparently does), it was letting go of a lot of expectations that it would ever be otherwise. The show only ever really gave her a fantasy figure — a guy who was totally into her and not weird at all — once, in the first season.

The show's eleventh episode is called "The Head And The Hair," a reference to the two guys who work for MSNBC who Liz and Jenna keep seeing on the elevator. "The Head" is a nerd, but "The Hair" is Gray (Peter Hermann), a classically good-looking, tall, apparently totally normal guy who's transparently attracted to her, a good flirt, and totally behind her when she confronts a convenience-store clerk who won't take a $100 bill for a bottle of water. It's a callback, in a sense, to the pilot episode, in which Liz angrily gets revenge on a hot-dog cart line-jumper by buying all the hot dogs on the cart.

Gray eventually takes Liz out, and then he coaxes her into calling in sick to work to go to a movie with him — a decision even Jack slyly supports when he catches her in the act of pretending to throw up into the phone. That's how good this guy is: he's so cute your boss wants you to blow off your job and go out with him. Later, it turns out he lives in a gorgeous loft, and just as he and Liz are about to make out on the couch (with her sitting in his lap, which she claims isn't something she'd normally do at all), she spots a picture of her great-aunt Dolly and asks why he has it. No, he says, that's a picture of his grandmother's cousin, Dolly.

And there you have it — they are related (third cousins, he eventually decides), and though he thinks it would be okay if they were at least fifth cousins, she thinks it would be "unacceptable no matter what," and she's out the door. The ostensible point of the story is that as they part, he urges her to keep in mind that she's also "The Hair" — in other words, she's not the nerd on the elevator; she's the hot one. She's been thinking (and saying) all along that he's too hot, too perfect, too good to be interested in her, and he wants her to know she's wrong.

But what I really took away from this episode was this: Liz Lemon is a little bit hosed when it comes to love — at least this kind of love. I mean, this guy liked her, she liked him, they had similar work lives, he was funny, and this was the only really sexy relationship she's ever had on the show. And of course, they turned out to be cousins.

What mattered about this development was its emphatic declaration that this was not happening for her — a guy like this was simply not happening. It removed any idea that this was some sort of Sex And The City for funny ladies, where the idea was to date and date and date and then BOOM, there would be a magical romantic ending. It invalidated the idea that a show about a single woman had to be constructed around the notion that she would eventually meet a fantasy figure and that would be the show's ultimate triumph. That never happened, really. In fact, when she met Criss, he was just as odd and wobbly and flawed as a lot of the other guys she dated — but he's nice, and he didn't leave town, and he loves her, and she loves him, and they have fun together, and she feels good with him, and she feels ready, so they settled down and got married, and now they're adopting two kids.

Saying goodbye to The Hair was saying goodbye to the idea that 30 Rock, or even Liz's personal life as a story on 30 Rock, was about her quest for a fantasy ending — and to its credit, for all the famous guest stars who showed up to date her, it's never been about that. It felt like an emphatic statement: stop looking for her to wind up with somebody like this guy; she's great, she's talented and fun and cute and way too hard on herself, but it's not going to be a guy like The Hair. That's not her destiny. It's going to be a guy she couldn't and wouldn't have thought of.

That might sound inconsistent with the episode's out-loud message of affirmation that Liz was desirable and was "The Hair" all on her own, but it's not. She can be great and cute and absolutely, unquestionably destined to end up with somebody kind of strange, not only because we're all kind of strange, but also because it's not a show about waiting around for a fantasy to come to fruition. That doesn't take away from how satisfying these last episodes have been, or how satisfying Thursday's finale is likely to be — it's actually been great to see her wind up with a family that she very much wanted, even if it didn't happen exactly the way she dreamed of.

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Linda Holmes is a pop culture correspondent for NPR and the host of Pop Culture Happy Hour. She began her professional life as an attorney. In time, however, her affection for writing, popular culture, and the online universe eclipsed her legal ambitions. She shoved her law degree in the back of the closet, gave its living room space to DVD sets of The Wire, and never looked back.

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