A kinder, gentler, cruder 30 Rock.

What you're watching.
Oct. 30 2008 7:27 PM

The Return of 30 Rock

Tina Fey's sitcom becomes much more user-friendly.

Even the most ardent fans of 30 Rock (NBC, Thursdays at 9:30 p.m. ET) will concede that it doesn't look its sharpest as its third season opens. Only the most churlish will be much put out by this, though. A relatively flat episode of Tina Fey's backstage farce is still the fizziest thing in prime-time comedy, and some strategic broadening of the humor can only help widen the audience of the show that ended last season in, by at least one ratings measure, 113th place. Having demonstrated the integrity of its anarchic archness and dart-gun wit, 30 Rock earned the right to crass things up a bit.

Thus, the season premiere returns us to a land where the natives (a bit cuddlier than we'd remembered) clamber across a comic landscape rendered somewhat more crudely than before. Fey's Liz Lemon—the head writer on the show-within-the-show, two parts Mary Richards, one part Oscar Madison—enters the scene swinging her purse through the deco heaven of Rockefeller Plaza. Brightly pretty, in contrast to her prettily schlubby normal presentation, childless Liz is dolled up for a meeting with an official from an adoption agency. Megan Mullally, late of Will & Grace, plays the adoption screener with her usual big brassiness, a kind of Broadway glare that washes out the show's more finely shaded absurdity. The central theme of Mullally's story line is head trauma—not necessarily a leading indicator of refinement.

30 Rock. Click image to expand.
Tina Fey and Oprah Winfrey in 30 Rock 

Next week's plot contrives to introduce Liz to 30 Rock's fanciest guest star yet. Goofy on sleeping pills in her first-class plane seat, Liz drools, almost literally, over a seatmate named Oprah. Within the radius of Ms. Winfrey's aura, Liz blusters and babbles with the force of a 4-year-old swooning on Santa's lap. The show has its celebrity worship both ways, refreshing a joke about the talk show host's celestial glow even as it basks cozily in it.

All the while, Liz and her boss at NBC, Alec Baldwin's Jack Donaghy, continue their fine squabbling, with its hints of Tracy-Hepburn tension and father-daughter dueling. First, a recently humbled Jack must seize control of his old job (which may involve, in contravention of his moral code, submitting to the sexual advances of a sexless gray lump). Then he needs to quash a scandal (proceeding from the fictionalized network's having faked, for the sake of ratings, such Olympic events as synchronized running and octuples tennis). Jack's ethical misadventures reflect, maybe, writers'-room fretting about the compromises required to thrive in the business of show, and that's swell: The brief vision of an Olympic tetherbell bout is the kind of silliness that needs no defense. The user-friendly new 30 Rock, making a virtue of its anxieties, may well worry its way to success.

Troy Patterson is Slate's writer at large and writes the Gentleman Scholar column.