Brilliant “30 Rock” highlights NBC’s Thursday nights

Sean Collins-Smith

Staff Writer

Amidst the awful, reality-riddled programming plaguing NBC is a wonderful Thursday night comedy lineup: “Community,” (8 p.m.), “Parks and Recreation,” (8:30) “The Office” (9:00) and “30 Rock” (9:30). Each has quietly amassed relatively small but dedicated fan-bases, profitable DVD sales and some of the most talented writers/actors in television.

“30 Rock” is the middle-aged show of the group; “The Office” (with head writer and actor Steve Carrell) has been around for six seasons, while “Community” and “Parks” are only on their first and second seasons, respectively. “30 Rock” is in its fourth, and it has settled in nicely with a gleefully sardonic attitude toward NBC and corporate parent GE, as well as targeting topics as varied as feminism, Republicans, and product placement.

In short, they go after everyone.

It works wonderfully, as every episode possesses the manic randomness that made “Seinfeld” such an accessible comedy. Unlike most network productions, “30 Rock” is helmed by a female creator, Tina Fey – who might well be the most imaginative person in television. Fey has the experience necessary to satirize the behind-the-scenes TV landscape – she was the head writer on “Saturday Night Live” for almost eight years –  and her self-deprecating nature, both on and off the show, is as winning as it is addictive. No wonder the critics love the show: its 22 Emmy nominations in 2009 were the most for a comedy show in a single year.

On top of the sharp writing is an array of hilarious cast members. Alec Baldwin, as VP of East Coast Programming Jack Donaghy, and Tracy Morgan, as the similarly named Tracy Jordan, get the majority of the publicity. While any other show would lean on the previous recognition Baldwin brings and the loud, obnoxious nature of Jordan, “30 Rock” takes it further. Baldwin’s scenes are often brief but brilliant, as Fey writes a mixture of political banter and emotional issues for him to grapple with. And Jordan’s erratic humor is frequently trumped by his surprising bursts of intelligence. In a recent episode in Boston, he pesters an actor portraying John Hancock by yelling, “For a dude that has the most hilarious last name I ever heard, you blow,” but then later quips, “Boston was just the match that lit the powder keg, like the tragic events at Lexington and Concord!”

It is the topsy-turvy comedic timing of “30 Rock” that makes it one of the best shows on any network, not just NBC. The viewer sees a joke on the horizon, and right before it’s delivered, the punch-line pulls a 180 and goes in a direction completely unexpected. Case in point: Dr. Leo Spaceman, the show’s resident physician, stands in front of a set of x-rays, smoking a cigarette. He blows smoke in frustration. Common dramatic scene, no? Then comes the great line: “Damn. Where are my car keys?” Or when he advises Jack Donaghy before coming back for a procedure the next morning: “Now this is surgery, so don’t eat anything before you come in.” Pause. “Because I’ll have a big breakfast waiting for you.” These moments let the viewer have faith in comedy again, as Fey and her crack team of writers and actors demonstrate that entertaining programs don’t have to use gratuitous language, ethnic slurs, annoying laugh tracks, or TV clichés to make you laugh.

They just need good old-fashioned creativity.

Grade: A+

“30 Rock” airs 9:30pm every Thursday on NBC.

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