Cover Story

Polished 'Rock' Rolls On

By Marc D. Allan
Special to The Washington Post
Sunday, August 26, 2007

"30 Rock," Tina Fey's sitcom about life backstage at a "Saturday Night Live"-like show, will return for a second season Oct. 4. Meanwhile, Aaron Sorkin's glowingly reviewed "Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip," the 2006 drama with a similar premise, is history.

Surprised? Fey isn't. She told TV critics at a news conference this summer that she had been "100 percent" sure that if only one of the two shows succeeded, it would be hers.

In an interview about an hour later, Fey confided that what she should have said was "100 percent -- and there's a 50 percent chance I could have been wrong."

But Fey said she was genuinely confident in "30 Rock," which she created and stars in, thanks to her nine years at "Saturday Night Live" as Weekend Update anchor and head writer. There, if two writers had the same idea for a sketch, they presented their scripts -- and the better work won.

"I love that competition," she said. "It's such a fair proving ground."

But "30 Rock" didn't have to outclass "Studio 60" as much as it had to deal with serious problems on-screen and off. Though the pilot received generally positive reviews, viewers who tuned in for the first month or more saw shows that weren't consistently funny.

It wasn't until the writers discovered the core of the series -- the push-pull between Fey's character, Liz Lemon, the harried head writer of "The Girlie Show," and Alec Baldwin's domineering network executive, Jack Donaghy -- that "30 Rock" found its rhythm.

"I think we knew that they would be the central characters," Fey said. "It remains an ensemble show because we do three, sometimes four stories within an episode, and I do still feel like the rest of that bench is strong and valuable. But somewhere around the fifth or sixth episode, we started to realize that [the Liz-Jack] dynamic was really working for us."

Executive producer Lorne Michaels agreed. "I think you start off putting everything you want to put in," he said. "Then you start to see what's working and you start to simplify and make it a little less dense."

Initially, the writers packed the show with jokes, characters and even visual gags (a person wearing a Snapple bottle walked by just as two characters mocked product placement), and audiences tuned out.

The show struggled to stay alive on television's most competitive night and finished the season ranked 102 out of 142 prime-time network shows -- 41 places below "Studio 60."

NBC stuck with "30 Rock," though, as part of its strategy to rebuild Thursdays as the night for comedy, and the network's patience was rewarded when the series received 10 Emmy nominations.

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