We gave it an A
8:30-9 PM · NBC · Returns Oct. 4
No matter how hard it’s prodded — critical acclaim that translated into 10 Emmy nominations, headline-grabbing scandals involving costars Alec Baldwin and Tracy Morgan — 30 Rock refuses to budge from the bottom of the ratings charts. (No joke: 137th place.) Tina Fey is trying to keep the situation in perspective. ”We survived, and the fact that anyone saw it still seems miraculous,” she says. ”For me, it’s always like, Let’s see how long they’ll let us do these.”
Yes, the woman is desperate, and for good reason: Her years-in-the-making show, inspired by her own experiences as Saturday Night Live‘s first female head writer, should not, by many measures, have lasted beyond its first year; it ended the season with just 5.4 million viewers — in a valuable Thursday-night time slot no less — against competitors like Ugly Betty (11 million) and Survivor (15 million). Then, Morgan was arrested in November for drunk driving (he pleaded guilty and performed five days of community service); and Baldwin called his 11-year-old daughter a ”little pig” in a voice-mail that was leaked in April during an ongoing vicious custody battle. Baldwin declined to be interviewed for this story, but Morgan — as well as other cast members — felt that neither scandal affected the work, for one simple reason. ”I think it wasn’t too much of a distraction,” says Morgan, who plays volatile star Tracy Jordan, ”because it’s just such a funny show.”
Critics, as it turned out, agree. As the season wore on, they caught on that something truly special was happening — namely, a distinctive mix of sophisticated parody and utter lunacy, grounded by Fey’s levelheaded, modern-day Mary Tyler Moore. Magazines (including EW) put it on year-end best lists. Baldwin won Golden Globe and Screen Actors Guild awards. NBC, heady from the buzz, even granted an early pickup for the 2007?08 season. Then, over the summer, came the topper: Emmy noms all around, from theme music to lead actor and actress to Best Comedy. Though the self-effacing Fey refuses to be anything but cautiously optimistic: ”I have friends who worked at Arrested Development, and I know that [Emmy attention] doesn’t always help,” she sighs. ”I’ve also found a way to just translate that into even more pressure this year.”
Thankfully, this season promises to rival the last one in irreverence and randomness. Jerry Seinfeld arrives in the first episode (as himself) to settle a beef with Baldwin’s General Electric honcho Jack Donaghy, and several previous standout guests are already slated to return (Will Arnett as Jack’s closeted rival exec, Dean Winters as Liz’s beeper-salesman ex, and Chris Parnell as Dr. Spaceman — pronounced spuh-CHEH-men, naturally). Fey’s harried sketch-comedy producer Liz Lemon will struggle with being single again after her breakup with Floyd (Jason Sudeikis). Morgan’s Tracy will try to win back his wife (”in a Kobe Bryant kind of way,” Fey says) after he’s caught by paparazzi with a transsexual prostitute. Jenna (Jane Krakowski), the star of 30 Rock‘s fictional series, The Girlie Show, will battle weight issues (complete with fat suit for Krakowski) after spending her summer scarfing four slices a day on stage in Mystic Pizza: The Musical. And breakout Jack McBrayer’s deliriously naive Kenneth the Page may get a new love interest and appear in clothing other than his uniform. But more than anything, expect the scripts and the cast to go for broke. ”I feel like either we’ll become a real TV show this year,” Fey says, ”or we’ll ride off into the sunset.”
True enough: With creative momentum, Emmy attention, and the network’s enthusiastic support behind it, now is definitely make-or-break time for 30 Rock. ”People want everything instant, but not everything can be instant,” Morgan philosophizes. ”It takes nine months to make a baby.” Can’t argue with that logic. Luckily, though, McBrayer has a solution in mind that doesn’t involve impregnation: ”I’m totally prepared to have a public scandal to get the name 30 Rock out there again,” he says. ”We talked about it, and I’m up next. I’m thinking something with the public transit system.” And even if that doesn’t boost ratings, it sounds like an episode waiting to happen. —Jennifer Armstrong
This is an online-only excerpt from the EW Fall TV Preview issue.