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Pilot Inspektor: NBC's "30 Rock"

This year's crop of comedy pilots definitely leaves a lot to be desired. There's not an Office or Earl or Arrested Development among the bunch. Poring over the pilots that have come into the Televisionary offices thus far, my hands were sweaty with anticipation when I finally received my copy of NBC's newest comedy offering, 30 Rock. I've been writing about Tina Fey's pilot (back when it was untitled even) for quite a while now and I wanted to see if the show lived up to the hype that I assigned it.

I can report that it honestly does.

I've watched the pilot for 30 Rock twice now and each time I've been sucked in by the absurdist humor and witty writing of this hilarious, single-camera ensemble piece. For those of you not up to speed, 30 Rock is one of two new NBC shows centering around the backstage shenanigans at an SNL-style sketch show (the other is Aaron Sorkin's recently relocated Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip). Oh and that rather odd title? It refers to the location of where the fictional show-within-a-show, The Girly Show, is filmed; NBC's New York City headquarters are based at 30 Rockefeller Center.

Tina Fey, who executive produces and wrote the script for 30 Rock's pilot, stars as Liz Lemon, the fictional Girly Show's much-put upon head writer (a role Fey should be familiar with from SNL). The Girly Show has only been on the air a few weeks before a new network exec, Jack Donaghy (Alec Baldwin, here channeling his inner snake to perfection) decides that he needs to make his mark on the show and wants to retool it. Liz and her co-exec producer Pete (Scott Adsit) are called up into the NBC executive offices to discover that their old exec has died and been replaced immediately with Donaghy, brought in from parent company GE's microwave oven division. He tells Liz and Pete that he's looking to find "the third heat" which will take the Girly Show to the next level. Donaghy believes that this x-factor is tarnished actor Tracy Jordan, the star of such cinematic gems as Honky Grandma Be Trippin'. Liz agrees to meet with Jordan, as long as The Girly Show's star Jenna (Rachel Dratch), Liz's best friend, is kept totally in the dark.

Liz takes her lunch meeting with Tracy Jordan (Tracy Morgan), a feature film actor who appears to be a cross between Dave Chappelle, Martin Lawrence, and Snoop Dogg. (One of my favorite moments: Jordan orders an apple juice and, when told that the restaurant doesn't have any, changes his drink order to a vodka tonic before forcing his entire posse out of the restaurant altogether when the waiter suggests he try the pumpkin ravioli.) Jordan has recently emerged from a scandal (he was caught running down the 405 freeway in tighty-whiteys screaming that he was a Jedi) and if he decides to join the cast of the Girly Show, he wants to make it a raw, HBO-style comedy, a move that Liz is not too keen on. Liz ends up stuck with Jordan as he takes her on a tour of his favorite strip clubs and to his childhood home (he pees on the fence as Liz waits, patiently).

Unbeknownst to Liz, Donaghy has been making changes at the Girly Show, firing Pete, encouraging the cast to make really bad dialogue choices and engage in racial stereotypes. As Liz arrives back at the show with Jordan in tow, she sees a really bad Mrs. Katz, Cat Lady sketch fall flat before her eyes. Without worrying about the consequences, she sends Jordan out on stage to just do his thing and spread his "fame juice" all over the scene. And, guess what? The audience goes crazy for him. Liz agrees to Jordan joining the cast, but she has some demands of her own: she wants Pete to get his job back, Jenna's job to be safe, and she wants a cappuccino machine for the writers' room. Donaghy agrees to her demands but you could cut the tension between them with a knife.

As the series' lead Liz Lemon, Fey is absolutely fabulous; her warmth, humor, and savage spark shine through. She's equally proficient in her role as the show's writer. Not since Mean Girls, has Fey had an opportunity to glow on screen as she does here. The pilot's opening scene, in which Liz purchases the entire contents of a Manhattan hot dog cart, just to spite a man trying to cut the line, perfectly sums up her character. The rest of the cast is equally top-notch. Baldwin is the perfect foil for Fey and his oiliness and smarm seem to come a little too naturally to him (kidding!), but here he is the epitome of self-absorbed network executive interference.

I can't remember the last time I saw Tracy Morgan in such a strong, dynamic performance as he delivers here as the Girly Show's third heat, Tracy Jordan; he's a joy to watch. Dratch is likeable and funny, delivering a rather offbeat performance as the show's eating-disorder prone actress who immediately falls for Donaghy's charms. And what would a production be without a clueless P.A.? Here that role is filled to perfection by Jack McBrayer.

Ultimately, 30 Rock is a zany, likeable comedy with a wit and charm all its own. And while it might not be the next Arrested Development, I can honestly say that the series has already become appointment television for me.

What's On Tonight

8 pm: NCIS (CBS); Last Comic Standing (NBC; 8-10 pm); Gilmore Girls (WB); According to Jim/Rodney (ABC); Shanghai Knights (FOX; 8-10 pm); America's Next Top Model (UPN)

9 pm: The Unit (CBS); Pepper Dennis (WB); According to Jim/Less Than Perfect (ABC); Veronica Mars (UPN)

What I'll Be Watching

8 pm: The Thick of It on BBC America (11 pm EST).

If you missed the third episode of this scathingly funny British political satire, here's your chance tonight to catch up before a new episode airs on Friday.

10 pm: Secret Smile on BBC America (9 pm EST).

Part Two of this British mini-series thriller airs tonight. If you missed Part One, you're sort of out of luck, but if you did manage to catch it, then there's more David Tennant (a.k.a. the current Doctor Who in the UK) behaving badly to look forward to tonight.


Anonymous said…
Out of the handful of comedy pilots I've seen so far, "30 Rock" definitely takes the cake. Its witty and absurd humor drew me in immediately. And even though the pilot dragged a little in the second half, the stellar cast and top notch writing will have me tuning in next season.
Anonymous said…
I thought it was kind of a strange pilot. Spent too much time outside the studio. But, I love Tina Fey and the great Alec B, so I will give it another watch.
Todd said…
I read an early draft of the script, and thought it needed some work. It sounds like they made some smart changes, so I'm looking forward to it even more now.
ticknart said…
There's no way I'll get to learn anything about this show until it airs next fall. It'll be a hard wait after reading this review.

I just hope that it'll find an audience quick enough that it won't be critically acclaimed but not watched by enough people. I don't need another Arrested Development rollercoaster ride.
Anonymous said…
I just watched the pilot episode online and was disappointed. Having been a big fan of SNL from the get-go and watched it stagnate and loose its stellar creative edge over the last several years; Aside from Will Ferrell, there's been a serious void of successful alumuni--The current crop to launch 30 Rock didn't create anything even modestly amusing. Sure, some folks will enjoy it--but I doubt it will finish the first season.
Anonymous said…
'30 Rock' is my favourite new show this season. My only criticism is that its only a half hour long. =(

Sure I could write about how much I love tracy or liz lemon, or how great the guy with the NINJA EXPERT hats is, but everyone loves them as much as I do and it would just be redundant. :D

Nowadays primetime is dominated by the hour-long shows. CSI for example, owns the whole hour. VERY RARELY will people stop watching something halfway through and start watching the :30 timeslot.

Make it available via NBC streaming TV on the net and its viewership will go uP uP UP.

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