30 Rock

Thursdays at 9:30 p.m. on HBO. Seven episodes into the third season.

As much as I love Arrested Development, I understand why it never found much of an audience. With long, complicated story arcs and dark, pointed humor—not to mention nine principal characters and more than a dozen frequently recurring characters, many of whom aren’t, technically, all that likeable—the daring sitcom is difficult for casual, uninitiated viewers to “get” immediately. But why is 30 Rock heir to the critically-adored-but-low-rated comedy crown? Why aren’t enough people watching it?

30 Rock is so easy to enjoy. The “plots” are generally a bit beside the point (if you miss an episode, no harm done), the humor is less caustic and more zany, and the small ensemble features riotously funny Alec Baldwin embracing his reincarnation as a comedic character actor as well as the show’s creator, beloved comedy goddess Tina Fey. I know not everyone is as enamored with the neurotic, geeky brunette archetype as, say, Sean is (to my very good fortune—I love you, baby!), but even so, other than Sarah Palin enthusiasts, who doesn’t love Tina Fey?

When 30 Rock premiered in 2006, it was pitted in the media against Aaron Sorkin’s execrable, pompous drama Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip because, coincidentally, both 60 and 30 are set behind the scenes of a TV sketch comedy. For once, quality won out—Studio 60 was cancelled after one season, and 30 Rock lives on—but the comparison was always facile. The sketch comedy setting is rarely a factor on 30 Rock, which is essentially about the relationship between awkward, self-conscious Liz Lemon (Fey) and her blustery, self-assured boss, Jack Donaghy (Baldwin). The supporting players are funny, but the odd platonic chemistry between Liz and Jack gives the show its heart.

That said, it’s a sitcom, not a character drama, so the humor comprises the foundation, and 30 Rock is damn funny. Fey and company even have made me enjoy the Random Aside, a device I had long associated with the imbecilic Family Guy and thus held in great disdain. On that show (and others), the sheer weirdness of the left-field digression is the sole point, the only thing that makes it “funny.” (South Park memorably lampoons that Family Guy tendency by positing that the rival show constructs gags using “idea balls” indiscriminately chosen by a tank of manatees.)

30 Rock, however, actually goes so far as to make the Random Asides funny in themselves. In one terrific example, Tracy (Tracy Jordan), one of the flaky stars of Liz’s show, happens upon his gold record album. What’s it for? Why, for his novelty party song, “Werewolf Bar Mitzvah”—and then we see a brief clip from the video, a flagrant knockoff of “Thriller,” complete with Tracy in bad Halloween makeup and a red leather jacket. And then there are the gloriously ridiculous lyrics: “Werewolf Bar Mitzvah / Spooky, scary / Boys becoming men / Men becoming wolves!” Goofy, yes, but so funny (the clip still makes me giggle) and, not incidentally, perfectly in keeping with Tracy’s character: that is exactly the kind of crap he produces. It all goes by in less than ten seconds, and it has nothing to do with the rest of the episode, but it adds beautifully to the hilarity and to the feeling of anarchy that lurks around the show’s edges.

That anarchic flavor is rooted, I think, in the show’s cockeyed use of the office sitcom structure. You recognize some familiar scenarios, some familiar elements of the boss-employee relationship, but everything is a bit … off. In one episode this season, Liz, who hopes to adopt a child, receives a workplace visit from Bev, an adoption agency caseworker (guest star Megan Mullally). The whole Visit from a Disapproving Outsider scenario is classic, of course, and predictably, Bev’s visit goes very poorly, climaxing (we think) with her accidentally being hit over the head with a stray prop. But then Bev wakes up, disoriented and forgetful, and Liz realizes she has the opportunity to redo the visit! So that’s what they do, ramping up the rhythm to a manic level. Any feeble hold on workplace reality is lost, but the screwball energy is delightful.

As an actress, Fey doesn’t have the widest range, but she has great comic timing and a generous sense of ensemble, having assembled a remarkably strong cast, in which even the bit parts are played note-perfect. This season, the audience-grabbing gambit clearly has been the use of high-profile guest stars (Oprah Winfrey, Jennifer Aniston, Steve Martin)—a gimmick that can feel cheap and disruptive, but at least she uses them well, playing on their celebrity in interesting, creative ways: the role for Winfrey was particularly inspired.

Still, I’m happiest when the focus is on Liz and Jack. In my favorite episode so far this season, they attend Liz’s high school reunion, another familiar sitcom set-up but one that doesn’t play out as you expect. Liz’s former classmates remember her not as the victimized nerd of her own memories but as a sharp-tongued bully, and Jack, disillusioned with his stalled corporate career, reinvents himself as “Larry,” a true man-of-the-people who quickly becomes the life of the party. The episode brilliantly play on both of their insecurities before ending with a satisfying crash—brisk and quick-witted and fun and just a little bit mean (in a good way). Seriously, why don’t more people watch this show?