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30 Rock

This inside-TV comedy might very well be the "Murphy Brown" of its day.

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

Three Emmy wins later, “30 Rock” returns for its fourth season as the most gold-plated not-exactly-a-hit currently on television. At this point, the show is among the least of NBC’s problems, which should put the threat of imminent death behind it. Yet despite all the awards glory, this inside-TV comedy might very well be the “Murphy Brown” of its day — a program that deftly played to its times but which was so specific to that moment as to lack much of a shelf-life.

The premiere (appropriately titled “Season Four”) and a second episode showcase much of what’s fine and what’s not-so-great about this much-ballyhooed sitcom, which probably peaked last season, buoyed by creator-star Tina Fey’s pitch-perfect Sarah Palin impersonation on “Saturday Night Live.”

“Rock’s” foundation — Fey as Liz Lemon, the creator of sketch comedy series “TGS,” and Alec Baldwin as her ruthless corporate boss, Jack Donaghy — remains solid, and solidly amusing. When the conservative Jack toasts his producer and stars by saying of the great unwashed U.S. public, “We’ll trick those race-card-loving wide loads into watching your lefty, homoerotic propaganda yet,” the series exhibits some of the sharpest writing on TV.

It’s the other showbiz caricatures where “30 Rock” has always felt uneven, from Tracy Morgan’s scene-chewing antics as a crazed star to Jane Krakowski’s cliched turn as a wildly insecure actress. Nor does the show benefit from a season debut that — while yielding some very funny bits — leans too heavily upon chipper Kenneth the page (Jack McBrayer), who organizes a strike among his peers after Donaghy hurts his feelings.

The second episode is stronger, thanks to guest Will Arnett’s return as Jack’s former corporate nemesis, while the “B” plot involves Tracy squatting in Liz’s apartment.

Baldwin is such a consistent hoot as Donaghy — and the well-tuned ear for corporate-speak and synergies is so accurate — that “30 Rock” remains an easy half-hour to watch. Still, the accolades have probably come more freely than they would have, frankly, had the sitcom not sunk to such dire lows at the moment the program made its debut — especially given that “The Office” continues to represent the creative highlight of NBC’s sitcom block.

The good news in general is seeing comedy exhibit signs of a comeback; the bad news for “30 Rock” might be that like “Murphy Brown” in the 1990s — which soared to its highest heights, come to think of it, thanks to a dispute with a Republican vice president — the show’s most golden moments might actually be behind it.

Popular on Variety

30 Rock

NBC, Thurs. Oct. 15, 9:30 p.m.

Production: Filmed in New York by Broadway Video and Little Stranger in association with Universal Media Studios. Executive producers, Tina Fey, Robert Carlock, Marci Klein, David Miner; co-executive producers, John Riggi, Ron Weiner, Matt Hubbard, Jeff Richmond; producers, Alec Baldwin, Paula Pell, Don Scardino, Jerry Kupfer; director, Scardino; writer, Fey.

Crew: Camera, Matthew Clark; production designers, Teresa Mastropierro, Keith Ian Raywood; editor, Ken Eluto; music, Richmond; casting, Jennifer McNamara Shroff. RUNNING TIME: 30 MIN.

Cast: Liz Lemon - Tina Fey Jack Donaghy - Alec Baldwin Tracy Jordan - Tracy Morgan Jenna Maroney - Jane Krakowski Kenneth Parnell - Jack McBrayer Pete Hornberger - Scott Adsit Frank Rossitano - Judah Friedlander Cerie - Katrina Bowden Toofer - Keith Powell

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