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

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."

That could almost be Fey talking about her sitcom at some point in the future.

For all the rewriting and reworking, the show needs a better premise and funnier dialogue and, most of all, a more commanding performer in the starring role.

'Twenty Good Years'

There certainly is no hint of innovation in "Twenty Good Years," the NBC sitcom (debuting tonight) that teams esteemed old pros John Lithgow and Jeffrey Tambor. But there is something brave about the show: It dares not to concern itself with the world of hip, young quipsters. Flying in the face TV's usual demographic obsessions, the two main characters are daringly older.

They are turning 60, that milestone that makes all previous milestones -- turning 30 or 40, for instance -- look like walks in the park. Turning 60 is more like a walk on a narrow ledge high, high up. As Lithgow, playing a zany surgeon, tells Tambor, playing a somewhat stuffy judge: "How many good years do you think we have left on this planet? Twenty at best."

The pilot sets up the premise: to make those 20 years wild and crazy, at least as wild and crazy as nature and their arteries will allow. Not coincidentally, perhaps, the pilot is directed by Terry Hughes, who guided "The Golden Girls" through so many hilarious romps. These are "The Golden Guys," two longtime pals who bicker and quibble and are, for all practical purposes, partners in a platonic marriage. Actually, the surgeon had three non-platonic marriages and all failed, so this is the most successful relationship of his life.

Naturally, Lithgow is over the top from the word "go," just as he was for the entire run of the broad farce "3rd Rock From the Sun." But "Twenty Good Years" has the chance to be more than farce if the writers would stop now and then to confront the terrifying truths in Lithgow's observation about life expectancy.

With Lithgow bouncing off the walls, floor and ceiling, Tambor gets to underplay, and he does it affectingly, bringing to life a character who is much different from the shameless goof he played on HBO's unforgettable "Larry Sanders Show" with Garry Shandling.

The laughs generated are not subtle, but at least they're there. And for all his sometimes embarrassing excess, Lithgow has moments that are elegant in their way -- elegantly insane, elegantly silly, elegantly indulgent.

Lithgow: "I used to play the saxophone."

Tambor: "You were terrible."

Lithgow (petulantly): "It's an unforgiving instrument."

Somehow, Lithgow's line reading makes such dialogue funnier than it ought to be. Tambor is no straight man to a comic genius, however, and makes a solid impression with far fewer decibels and much less mugging.

"Twenty Good Years" isn't likely to be included in a lecture series on "The Art of the Sitcom" (and there is one -- an art, I mean), but it delivers the goods, and in a rowdy, traditionalist way that has become shockingly scarce on the tube. So much so that people have had to go to TV Land in search of it.

Not anymore.

30 Rock (30 minutes) premieres at 8 tonight on Channel 4; Twenty Good Years (30 minutes) premieres at 8:30 tonight on Channel 4.

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