Return of the 'Rock'

Staff Writer
Columbus Alive

Tina Fey has been getting more attention than ever for her dead-on impression of Sarah Palin on Saturday Night Live. As good as Fey's take on the Republican vice presidential candidate is, her greatest role remains 30 Rock's Liz Lemon, the beleaguered head writer of a TV sketch-comedy show.

As Lemon, Fey is the anti-Mary Tyler Moore, an everywoman with myriad insecurities, an unabashed love for Oprah Winfrey and a tendency to eat her feelings. Despite her geeky quirks, she's the anchor of normalcy amidst an array of widely drawn weirdos.

As 30 Rock's head writer and producer, Fey uses each character to wring laughs from both ends of the ordinary-to-outrageous spectrum. It works brilliantly, even if far too few people seem to appreciate just how funny this show is.

In a rare show of sensibility from the Academy of Television Arts and Sciences, the zany but relatable 30 Rock has won the Emmy for Best Comedy series two years running, and both Fey and the remarkable Alec Baldwin won Emmys for their acting this year.

But besides adoring critics (guilty as charged), nobody seems to like 30 Rock as much as the Emmy voters do; it ranked 94th in ratings among primetime shows last season, and NBC chose not to premiere season three until late October, failing to fully capitalize on Fey's star turn as Palin.

At long last, 30 Rock returns tonight, as does its seemingly endless stream of marquee guest stars: Oprah, Jennifer Aniston and Steve Martin will appear later this fall. These visitors have always been a publicity ploy for a great show with struggling ratings, but Fey is learning to work the A-listers into the show to better effect.

The season premiere finds Liz looking to pass muster for an adoption agency official played by Will & Grace's Megan Mullally, and Jack (Baldwin) aiming to reclaim his job atop G.E. by working his way from the ground up all over again.

Meanwhile, Tracy (Tracy Morgan) and Jenna (Jane Krakowski) are feuding over profits from Tracy's successful porn video game. It's a riot, as is next week's Oprah episode.

As usual, the first two shows of the new season are full of non-sequiturs and outsized character moments from Tracy, Jenna and Kenneth (Jack McBrayer).

But 30 Rock's not-so-secret weapon is the camaraderie between frazzled Liz and alpha-male Jack. The one-time adversaries have become the sort of friends who can support each other's attempts at semi-virtue by assuring each other that they're neither the best nor the worst people in the world. After all, as they conclude in unison, "Graduate students are the worst."

Let's hope Fey keeps her promise and the two characters never end up an item. What they've got going is too good to ruin with romance, even if most of America's TV watchers don't seem to know or care.

Grade: A-

"30 Rock"

9:30 p.m. Thursdays, NBC