TV Review: '30 Rock' Tweaks Expectations

One of the disadvantages of being the last TV show to debut on the fall schedule is that your show has already been discussed, dissected and, in some quarters, dismissed before it's hit the air. By now, you've probably heard about "30 Rock," the NBC sitcom created by "Saturday Night Live" alumnae (and "Mean Girls" writer) Tina Fey, and you probably think you know all about it—that it's an "SNL"-inspired comedy, not to be confused with Aaron Sorkin's "SNL"-inspired drama, also on NBC. It turns out that, in the proud tradition of DEWEY DEFEATS TRUMAN and MISSION ACCOMPLISHED, those early reports are dead wrong. "30 Rock" is greatly inspired by a TV show. But that show is "The Mary Tyler Moore Show."

Fey stars as Liz Lemon, the creator of a fictional series called "The Girlie Show," which only resembles "SNL" in that it is not funny. Lemon is, like Mary Richards before her, the level-headed woman who is surrounded by buffoons, head cases and wackos. Chief among those is Tracy Jordan (Tracy Morgan, another "SNL" alum), a foul-mouthed, booty-crazy former stand-up comic (think Martin Lawrence) who is hired to save "The Girlie Show" from a flava-less flameout. When Jordan tapes a network promo that goes "I'm proud as a peacock," you can guess which syllable gets the most emphasis. Hiring Jordan is the idea of Jack Donaghy (Alec Baldwin), a pompous network executive who tells one terrified underling to "relax your balls." Can't you just hear Ed Asner's Lou Grant, teleported to the year 2006, saying something like that?

So "30 Rock" isn't exactly original—did we mention Jenna Maroney (Jane Krakowski), the star of "The Girlie Show," who is so vain she makes Ted Baxter look modest? When a picture of her passed out at a party ends up in Page Six, she's positively thrilled, because it makes her look thin. That said, "30 Rock" is often charming. Morgan is not only hilarious as the show's star, he manages to convey the sweetness behind his outrageousness. There's actually a lovely scene in Wednesday's pilot where, after he and Lemon bond at a strip club, they stop at the apartment building where he was a foster child. Tracy then proceeds to pee on the side of the building, which is one way of hosing down the sentimentality. Fey has created broad characters with a heart, which is more than most sitcoms have to offer.

If there's a weak link it is, ironically, Fey—or at least her character. Liz is too flat and passive; she reacts to the crazies around her in ways that often bring out a smart aside but not much character or emotion beyond suppressed exasperation There's a bit of an "Odd Couple" vibe between her and Morgan that may evolve into something interesting, but right now, she's content to reel off one-liners before shifting the attention back to her larger-than-life costars. It's not a fatal flaw, but "30 Rock" will be a lot stronger when its star stands up to the rest of the cast.

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TV Review: '30 Rock' Tweaks Expectations | News