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TV Review: ’30 Rock’–NBC’s Resident ‘SNL’ Sitcom

Last month, NBC brought us its in-network dramatic satire of Saturday Night Live with Aaron Sorkin’s Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip. Now there’s 30 Rock, a sitcom version of SNL straight from the sketch-comedy show’s former writer, current executive producer and (arguably) most beloved host of the past several years.

30 Rock (the slang address of the actual NBC building) kicks off with Liz Lemon (Tina Fey) in a bind not unlike SNL’s current predicament: ratings issues. The sketch-comedy show for which she is the head writer, The Girlie Show, connects with women but not with men. Enter Jack Donaghy (Alec Baldwin), the new “network dude” hired to retool the show and make it more appealing. Donaghy has an oddball personality to go along with his equally oddball ideas, all of which are met with skepticism from Liz. His craziest idea: Bring on fallen-from-grace actor Tracy Jordan (Tracy Morgan; no, the name’s not just coincidental) to inject some life into the show–and some craziness. See, he has a tendency to sit atop Ted Danson’s roof for no apparent reason, but Donaghy thinks his spontaneity is right for the show. After reluctantly agreeing to meet with Jordan, Liz comes to see his genius–that is, after a cocktail of booze and boobs at the strip club and watching Jordan urinate on the street at his old house. She finally brings him back to the set and unleashes him for one skit. The audience goes wild, Liz smiles guiltily and Donaghy is thrilled. But the star of the show, Jenna DeCarlo (Jane Krakowski), isn’t exactly smitten with the idea.

It takes a little while to really get into 30 Rock–in fact, however long it takes for Baldwin to appear; after that, the show’s off and running. In the series premiere (Tues., 8 p.m. ET, NBC), Baldwin gives the show its identity even more so than its star, Fey. Baldwin’s film career has taken a turn for the less prominent (save for a great–although, again, less prominent–turn in The Departed), but if his downslide has culminated in this TV role, as is often the case, then all the better for both him and viewers. He truly is a gifted actor whose trademark vocal talents work well with dramatic scenes and, as 30 Rock shows, deadpan comedy. Morgan, oddly enough looking for steady work ever since leaving SNL, may have found his niche. 30 Rock allows him to infuse an otherwise normal sitcom character with his outlandish SNL persona, and the result is often funny, with the potential for a nice character arc. Fey, as an actress, has the look but not yet the ability, unless she really kicks it up a notch as the season progresses. She too often seems stuck in her head, which is perhaps too prolific for her own good as an actress.

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As a writer, on the other hand, Fey excels. Not only is she responsible for some of the funniest one-liners in recent memory–all of which, by the way, are delivered by Baldwin–but Fey’s sharp writing also elicits a very extended “Weekend Update,” which was usually the only reason to tune in to SNL during her tenure. It was a good thing, in fact, that she left SNL, because she has truly outgrown the sinking show. Speaking of which, SNL’s longtime exec-producer Lorne Michaels does the same for 30 Rock. Michaels always has done a great job of making sure nothing is off limits from being satirized, even his own show, but between the comedy of 30 and the overall entertainment of 60, there really might be no reason to watch SNL anymore!

Bottom Line: Tina Fey’s SNL experience officially beats out Aaron Sorkin’s TV experience when it comes to SNL send-ups. And even with a turbulent pilot, 30 Rock displays Office-like potential (for NBC-comparison sake).

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