Supporting Actors Prop Up the Show In NBC's '30 Rock'

"Saturday Night Live" alum Tina Fey as more or less herself and Alec Baldwin as a corporate suit. (By Eric Liebowitz -- Nbc)

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By Tom Shales
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, October 11, 2006

Tina Fey is not Orson Welles -- something that must be obvious to everyone but Tina Fey.

Justifiably praised for her stellar tenure as head writer of NBC's "Saturday Night Live" and for co-anchoring the show's "Weekend Update" segment, Fey was rewarded with the chance to do a prime-time show of her own. So she stretched her imagination and came up with, essentially, this: a show about herself starring herself as herself.

Fey's sitcom -- named "30 Rock" after NBC's address in New York -- probably can lay claim to being the season's most talked-about new series, but not in an entirely good way. It arrives a-wobble with bad vibes. For all the alterations the original pilot has undergone on its way to tonight's premiere, though, there's still one gaping and highly visible flaw, and that's Fey's performance in the lead role.

She plays Liz Lemon, head writer of a sketch comedy series called "The Girlie Show." Fey was just fine reading into the camera on "Update," but called upon to act, she unfortunately tends to fade into the wallpaper. It's not good when the star of the show appears to be just hanging around. The star of "30 Rock" probably could and should be the star of "Girlie Show": Jane Krakowski as a daffy comic actress, nuts and neurotic in funny and forgivable ways.

Fey has additional strong support, most notably a hefty Alec Baldwin as a newly installed corporate executive whose responsibilities to "NBC GE Universal Kmart" include "The Girlie Show" and the new GE Trivection Oven. "You can cook a turkey in 22 minutes," he boasts, as if daring wags to refer to "30 Rock" as a 22-minute turkey, too.

It might last 22 minutes (without commercials), but the show's not a turkey -- at least not yet.

Another thing "30 Rock" is not is a self-important bore like "Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip," NBC's other "SNL"-inspired show ("30 Rock," executive-produced by Lorne Michaels, has a genuine "SNL" pedigree). Another factor in "30 Rock's" favor is another "SNL" alumnus in the cast: Tracy Morgan as Tracy Jordan, a high-living movie star brought in by management to beef up "Girlie Show." Morgan has the kind of fun in the role that is embedded in the video signal and unmistakable.

Tonight's plot consists mainly of producer Lemon trying to discourage Jordan from joining her show but getting trampled by his charisma, or something, and appearing to give in. Jordan seems patterned after Martin Lawrence, who irritated many in the cast and crew when he hosted "SNL" years ago (a clip from one of Jordan's films has him in drag as a funky granny, a la Lawrence in the "Big Momma's House" films).

Fey's devices for making her own character likable are klutzy. In the opening scene, Lemon, trying to buy a hot dog from a street vendor, protests the rudeness of a creepy businessman by shelling out $150 for all the hot dogs in the vendor's case. Arriving at the office, she nobly announces, "I hate it when people cheat or break rules."

Actually, as the creative force behind a supposedly irreverent comedy show, shouldn't she be something of a rule-breaker herself? Maybe the line is supposed to be ironic. Lemon lets herself be dragged away with Jordan instead of attending to her own series, even as the countdown to air begins. She's not assertive enough to be believable. The character's wimpiness might be linked to Fey's desire to be liked. Whatever the reason, it backfires.

Others involved in the show-within-the-show include Keith Powell as Twofer, whom a co-worker called the first African American nerd since Urkel; "SNL" veteran Rachel Dratch in a tiny cameo as a cat wrangler (and, next week, as a maid); and Jack McBrayer, endearing as an innocent NBC page who effuses, "I just love television so much."

In an early scene, the page is guiding a tour group through the studios when Liz crosses their path. She's embarrassed that he points her out to the crowd, and later, when he's chastised for having done it, he laments, "I thought they would find it interesting, but they really did not."


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