Earlier this month, a clip from the UK dating show Love Trap went viral. In its early seconds, the video appeared to be standard reality TV fare—set design in 2004 McMansion chic, muscular bachelor standing next to a sympathetic host, an array of young women before him. Soon, one of these ladies will be giving a rueful exit interview as she says goodbye to the plaster palace. But instead of being passed over for a rose, the eliminated contestant falls through a trap door that opens beneath her feet. Even the main singleton, a hardened alum of Netflix’s Too Hot to Handle, appeared stunned.
The scene felt like a scrapped cutaway from 30 Rock, which devoted some of its most memorable gags to fake TV series with titles like “MILF Island” and “America’s Kidz Got Singing.” But in the years during and immediately following its seven season run, which ended in 2013, it seemed like Tina Fey’s Liz Lemon would be its most culturally enduring creation, the perfect avatar of upper-middle class liberal angst. The spirit of Liz Lemon was alive in every advanced degree holder bemoaning the difficulty of “adulting,” in every gripe about dresses that lack pockets. But the messy, relatable, workaholic of yesteryear now is now a dated elder millennial, righteously defending their side part. Lemon’s style of adorably anxious Cathy energy is out, and instead, it’s the shameless, tone-deaf spirit of Jane Krakowski’s Jenna Maroney that feels ubiquitous—on the big screen, on CringeTok, and in pop culture at large.
While Liz was a mountain of generational tics, she usually remained 30 Rock’s realistic, grounded center. Jenna Maroney, her best friend and the star of TGS, the sketch comedy show-within-the-show that the two the women created, was the absolute opposite—delusional and flighty, an endless cavern of needy antics. Constantly competing for airtime and attention with her more-famous co-star, Tracy Jordan, she faked illnesses, staged opportunities to showcase her vocals, and threatened suicide at the thought of the show adding another blonde woman to its cast. She’s only able to find love when she meets a drag performer (Will Forte) who specializes in Jenna Maroney impersonation. When Liz calls her out for being jealous of babies for their soft skin, Jenna adds that she also envies “how much attention they get.” She knows no dignity—after gaining a few pounds during TGS’s off season, she happily leans into the cruelty she now faces by adopting “me want food” as her catchphrase.
Her precise flavor of batty spotlight-seeking is everywhere: When an actor released (and later seemingly deleted) a short film featuring himself impersonating a young Robin Williams on the day he learned of his friend John Belushi’s death, Jenna was there. When James Corden donned a Party City-worthy costume and thrust his hips in a Cinderella flashmob, Jenna was there. She was there when a stylist set Ben Platt’s curls on the set of Dear Evan Hanson, and when Demi Lovato feuded with a fro-yo shop. She was there throughout the entirety of Shawn Mendes’ and Camilla Cabello’s relationship, which always bore a resemblance to the 30 Rock episode in which Jenna staged a fake romance with James Franco to conceal the fact that the real love of his life was an anime body pillow. And she was there, of course when Gal Gadot enlisted her famous friends in an all-star quarantine sing-along. Krakowski even had her own Jenna moment early in the year, when she was rumored to have been in a relationship with Trump pal and My Pillow founder Mike Lindell. (Both denied ever dating each other.)
Part of Jenna’s newfound cultural dominance seems to be a side effect of the coronavirus pandemic, which sparked a backlash that was broadly acknowledged to have reshaped our relationship with celebrity culture. The crisis, begun in “we’re all in this together” bonhomie with the diagnosis of Tom Hanks, America’s Hollywood dad, quickly revealed itself to be particularly fatal to the poor and marginalized, particularly frustrating to working families, and largely inconvenient to the wealthy. Their pledges of support felt hollow as the audio during a Zoom benefit concert. The misguided “Imagine” cover became the poster project for the ways in which real-life famous people began to resemble what Jenna Maroney always was—grasping and inept, keen to insert themselves into every possible narrative without foreseeing the highly predictable fallout.
But the pandemic also revealed an endearingly weird side to some in the public eye, as celebrities like Leslie Jordan and January Jones hammed it up on social media. It all reminded me of the 30 Rock episode that finds Jenna deeply moved after receiving a hug from a gibbon. “He loves me,” she says, cradling the monkey and pledging to adopt it. “Someone loves me.” For a while during lockdown, we were the gibbons—the mute receptacles of actorly affection, basking in the online glow of genuinely charming and engaging performers. But for every Anthony Hopkins playing the piano for his cat, there seemed to be a Madonna, singing a fried-fish themed reimagining of Vogue into a hairbrush with forced jocularity. The pandemic laid bare the celebrity’s need for our attention, and need can be an unsightly thing to confront.
But the Jenna-fication of popular culture can’t be laid at the pandemic’s feet alone—after all, Cats, that high-effort misfire, came out in late 2019. Musicals require a higher level of buy-in than almost any other genre, and newly thrust upon general movie audiences, it’s inevitable that jokes will be made at the theater kids’ expense. Jenna, who carried a microphone in her purse in case opportunities for song might present themselves, never could resist a musical break, and among Cats, Dear Evan Hansen, and Cinderella, the movie musical revival has offered more than its share of cringe-y Maroney moments. Ben Platt’s portrayal of a high schooler in Evan Hansen, which found him slathered in make-up in a futile attempt to make him look less like the 28-year-old man he very much is, is Jenna all over. So is Diana the Musical, whose lyrics include, “Feel the groove, even royals need to move,” with its strong shades of Jackie Jormp-Jomp, Jenna’s unauthorized Janis Joplin biopic.
The most-mocked Hollywood moments of years past tended to be personal scenes of intimacy and crisis, many of which the public was never supposed to see. Sex tapes, shoplifting scandals, nervous breakdowns, and off-the-cuff fits of pique provided the fodder for the instances of second-hand embarrassment that littered early internet pop culture. But contemporary cringe is often carefully scripted and even lavishly funded. The incidents speak less to private, human moments made public, but to a more fundamental celebrity and aspiring-celebrity disconnect with the spirit of the age. In the bad old days, famous people were mocked for being too human, too vulnerable to stress, strain, mental illness, and private lapses in judgement. Now the most mocked cultural ephemera often underscore how unlike our world Hollywood is, evincing tone-deafness around class and culture, and often a simple inability to predict the tastes of the time.
It’s against this Jenna Maroney-filled cultural sphere that the wave of affection for 2000s celebrities like Britney Spears, Paris Hilton, and Lindsey Lohan is cresting. Part of this is nostalgia as repentance, via the re-litigation of the misdeeds of an earlier tabloid era. But I think part of it might be a genuine longing for those earlier years when, in some ways at least, they really were just like us.