Back after consecutive Emmy wins, “30 Rock” remains similar to “Saturday Night Live” in one fundamental respect: Both are wildly uneven, relying on comedic highs manage to obscure the arid patches. “SNL” alumna and series creator Tina Fey could hardly be more in the public’s mind thanks to her portrayal of Sarah Palin, but whether that translates to tune-in for this ratings-challenged critical darling remains very much to be seen. The third-season premiere is OK, but it’s actually the second half-hour — guest starring Oprah Winfrey — that’s more likely to get people buzzing.
Fey and company made a crucial strategic shift during the first season, veering away from focusing on Tracy Morgan as the persnickety star of a fictional NBC sketch show and building the stories more around Alec Baldwin as amoral corporate exec Jack Donaghy. It was the difference between producing a stupid show and a smart one — except that Morgan and the other crazy actor character, Jenna (Jane Krakowski), are still there, thus creating the alternating tone.
Baldwin’s Jack, fortunately, is in fine fashion as he seeks to win his corner-office job back, having lost it to equally unscrupulous suit Devin Banks (guest Will Arnett), who Jack greets by tartly noting that a studio theme park fire “didn’t destroy any of the stuff that it was supposed to.” At the same time, sketch show head writer Liz (Fey) is seeking to win approval from a starched adoption evaluator (guest Megan Mullally), requiring some sleight of hand around the office to present Liz as a fit potential mom.
Things perk up considerably the following week when Liz encounters Oprah on an airplane, yielding several riotous exchanges — and allowing Winfrey to appear a good sport about her Pied Piper-like hold on her idolatrous audience. Yet that episode also finds the series plunging into politically incorrect inanity thanks to a dispute between Tracy and Jenna, whose scenes increasingly feel more like necessary evils than welcome “B” plots.
On the plus side, the program continues to deliver gags at a rapid-fire pace and lustily bites the hand that feeds it, tweaking NBC parent GE (which, under Banks, is willing to sell the “E”), the Olympics and bottom-line-obsessed corporate-speak with equal impunity.
NBC can certainly be second-guessed for keeping the show on the bench for so many weeks after its Emmy haul, but pre-election primetime airings of “SNL” might warm up its timeslot a bit — giving the series a chance to generate perhaps a minor ratings bounce from its guest-casting coups and Emmy accolades to Fey and Baldwin, whose scene-thievery sells even the most absurd situations.
Deserving as it is, though, “30 Rock” remains merely a good comedy whose shortcomings prevent it from joining the ranks of great ones.