The symbolism of Jerry Seinfeld's appearance on "30 Rock's" season premiere isn't hard to grasp -- attempting to link the sophomore sitcom to NBC's comedic heyday, as opposed to its perceived status as the next "Arrested Development," a critical darling whose Emmy win won't keep the dogs at bay forever.

The symbolism of Jerry Seinfeld’s appearance on “30 Rock’s” season premiere isn’t hard to grasp – attempting to link the sophomore sitcom to NBC’s comedic heyday, as opposed to its perceived status as the next “Arrested Development,” a critical darling whose Emmy win won’t keep the dogs at bay forever. This week’s debut, however, neatly highlights this series’ strengths and weaknesses, elevated by moments of inspiration and Alec Baldwin’s brilliance and leavened by considerably-less-flattering silliness. Situated against formidable Thursday-night competition, fans should savor a piece of this “Rock” while they can.

As writer Liz Lemon (series creator Tina Fey) continues to grapple with her moribund romantic life, NBC honcho Jack Donaghy (Baldwin) is actually coming off a terrific summer, with replacements like “M.I.L.F. Island” having packed in viewers. The GE shill’s latest bright idea, however, is rather dicey from a legal standpoint – splicing footage of “Seinfeld” into existing NBC shows as part of a stunt he calls “Seinfeldvision.”

Meanwhile, sketch comedy star Jenna (Jane Krakowski) has packed on some pounds by sampling the props in a “Mystic Pizza” musical, and in an effort to control daft co-star Tracy (Tracy Morgan), fresh-faced page Kenneth (Jack McBrayer) is assigned to become his on-set handler, resulting in a peculiar kind of marriage.

Fey’s acting has improved markedly since the series began, and the program has proved more inventive than expected in balancing personal indignities with show-within-a-show backstage politics. The writers also clearly revel in biting the hands that feed them, such as when Seinfeld contemplates what shows he’d be willing to support, and responds, “I like `Lost.’ Is that you guys?”

Still, “Rock” simply isn’t the great show that NBC’s comedic standard-bearer “The Office” has become, only truly approaching greatness when Baldwin’s onscreen – the very model of a modern network weasel, deadpanning his way through a character that could easily be a complete cliche, yet one the actor manages to make endlessly amusing and occasionally even improbably endearing.

NBC is seemingly giving “30 Rock” every chance, sandwiching this vulnerable half-hour between “My Name is Earl” and “The Office,” which managed to carve out solid demos last week despite the killer competition. The next few weeks should tell the tale on whether that can raise the program a mere notch or two above last season’s mediocre ratings.

If not, with “Studio 60″ having gone belly up, then the verdict will be fairly conclusive – namely, satires based on “Saturday Night Live” really are not-ready-for-primetime players.

30 Rock

NBC, Thurs. Oct. 4, 8:30 p.m.

Production

Filmed in Long Island City, N.Y., by Broadway Video & Little Stranger in association with Universal Media Studios. Executive producers, Lorne Michaels, Tina Fey, JoAnn Alfano, Marci Klein, David Miner, Robert Carlock; co-executive producers, John Riggi, Jack Burditt; supervising producer, Ron Weiner; producers, Matt Hubbard, Don Scardino; director, Scardino; writer, Fey.

Crew

Camera, Vanja Cernjul; production designer, Keith Raywood; casting, Jennifer McNamara. RUNNING TIME: 30 MIN.

With

Liz Lemon - Tina Fey Jack Donaghy - Alec Baldwin Tracy Jordan - Tracy Morgan Jenna Maroney - Jane Krakowski Kenneth - Jack McBrayer Pete Hornberger - Scott Adsit Frank - Judah Friedlander Josh Girard - Lonny Ross Toofer - Keith Powell Cerie - Katrina Bowden
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