'30 Rock' Returns With Its Own Warm-Up Act
Thursday, October 30, 2008; Page C01
Although both overpraised and overhyped as its third season begins tonight, "30 Rock," NBC's ensemble sitcom about an ensemble satire show, proves that it no longer needs the word "struggling" in descriptions of its status. It still isn't quite the hugely confident, competent hit one longs for -- especially considering that "Saturday Night Live" creator Lorne Michaels is an executive producer -- but it's high in quality, as well as in spirit.
Actually, next week's second episode -- guest-starring a tremendously poised Oprah Winfrey -- is funnier and scores more satirical points of its own than tonight's opener. The season debut has a certain amount of prosaic housecleaning to do -- such as undoing a foolish plot development from last season that has Jack Donaghy (Alec Baldwin) losing his position as a high-ranking GE executive and joining the ever-increasing army of the white-collar unemployed.
Show creator Tina Fey -- who of course stars as Liz Lemon, the producer who's a female version of Michaels ("30 Rock" might be the most reality-blurring sitcom ever) -- wrote tonight's episode but not next week's. Does that suggest she's perhaps overextended these days, what with her hilarious, bull's-eye impression of Sarah Palin on the real "SNL" having caused a justifiable sensation -- plus all those magazine covers to pose for, and ads for coldblooded credit-card companies to film?
The show's genre and its setting naturally invite comparisons between Fey and Mary Tyler Moore. While Moore never wrote for her self-titled show, she was an almost incomparably superior comic actress; thus, hailing Fey as a Moore for the new century would be foolhardy, as well as pointless. Although Moore's Mary Richards character was basically the bland center of a colorful universe on her show, Liz Lemon might actually be duller than bland -- a Mary Tyler Bore whom Fey plays with likability but no great distinction.
Comparing her Palin with her Lemon, one can easily see that Fey is a great caricaturist, if no great actress. Audiences look forward to her hilarious appearances as Palin as they probably do not look forward to seeing her as the vaguely defined Lemon. Implicitly acknowledging that problem, "30 Rock" will depend heavily this season not only on Baldwin and the rest of the ensemble but also on a series of guest stars. The first is Megan Mullally tonight, the most auspicious is Winfrey next week; others in future episodes will include Steve Martin, Jennifer Aniston and Salma Hayek.
The ensemble remains splendid in the aggregate and in certain stellar standouts. Besides Baldwin, those include the madly ingratiating Jack McBrayer as the ingenuous Kenneth, an NBC page who eagerly accepts every corporate myth that flies through the air; Jane Krakowski as Jenna, the endearingly simple-minded actress; and Tracy Morgan as Tracy Jordan, a vainglorious yet innocent and raving egomaniac. The other characters are eminently expendable, including high-octane comic actor Will Arnett, who is hobbled with the nearly unplayable character of Devin Banks, a scheming company politico who presumably was brought in to help make Baldwin's Donaghy more appealing.
In the season premiere (which was available in advance on the NBC Web site), Donaghy vows to get back his old job by rejoining the company and working his way up from the mailroom -- shades of "How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying" -- then unseating Banks, who had unseated him. By a series of contrivances, Donaghy rises quickly. Meanwhile, in the "B" story (or maybe it's the "A" story -- hard to tell), Fey's Lemon tries to convince Mullally, who plays an adoption evaluator, that Lemon would be a fit (single) mother for an adopted child (shades of the Fey film "Baby Mama," perhaps). One ploy: changing the show's greenroom into a nursery.
Next week's episode is much brighter, funnier and, thanks to Oprah's appearance, more of an event. The plot has Lemon flying to Chicago for jury duty (which she escapes in an inventively funny way) and discovering that Winfrey her majestic self occupies a seat on the return flight. Winfrey does a wonderful self-spoof, coming off as good sport of the week.
Morgan gets a chance to be a bit more outrageous than usual when his Tracy Jordan proceeds to answer Jenna's rhetorical challenge: "You should try being a white woman sometime." That's right -- he does try, with amusing ineptitude.
Additional comic points are scored via the notion that NBC, in its natural state of relentless greed, invented a few fake sports for last summer's Olympics just so it would have more ad time to sell -- the artificial competitions including the Olympic tetherball championship. A disgruntled loser (aren't they all?) threatens to blow the ruse.
The episode has a genial festivity about it that tonight's season premiere mostly lacks. But tonight's is still a half-hour of well-above-average network television, put together by people with impeccable comedic DNA -- people who are naturally, and at times brilliantly, funny.
Sometimes "30 Rock" seems so knowing that it could be a parody of a sitcom rather than the real thing, and maybe it works better at that level, but the point is, it does work, and with stylish intelligence besides. Maybe it won one too many Emmys this year -- so what? Better one too many than one too few, especially with so many undeserving winners carting home statuettes by the bushel.
The third season of 30 Rock (30 minutes) debuts tonight at 9:30 on Channel 4.