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'30 Rock': Why does a hilarious show have to beg for viewers as though it had a case of... arrested development?

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UPDATED WITH RATINGS BELOW: “I want to welcome you to Season Four.” With that semi-greeting — Alec Baldwin’s Jack was referring to the restaurant to which he’d brought his most treasured employees, to sample a troubled-economy pleasure, the Cheesy-Blaster — 30 Rock took off last night with a breathlessly daffy edition.

It had all the elements you want in a Rock: Misperceived motives (Liz and Pete’s attempts to find a new cast member misconstrued as an office love affair by everyone including Pete’s all-too-understanding wife); Tracy Jordan doing something absurdist ridiculous (in this case, trying to get back in touch with his inner poor-man; this, from a man who has to ask his assistant-pals which elevator he’s not afraid of), and Jack inveighing against the policies of “Comrade Obama.” Jenna decided one way to attract viewers was to “go country” (Jack’s eyes lit up like firecrackers when she leapt out wiggling in a small outfit plus cowboy hat); Kenneth led a strike against the offensively large disparity between the pages’ paychecks and those of management. In short, classic 30 Rock, no?

You’d think winning a slew of Emmys and being extraordinarily funny would help Tina Fey and 30 Rock to achieve a certain measure of comfort — no lessening of ambition or funniness, but, you know, the confidence that the sitcom has become a Thursday-night fixture.

Yet Fey, who must be pretty exhausted just starring in and writing her show, dragged herself out onto the talk-show circuit at all hours of the day and night, doubtless under pressure from her own work ethic and from the network to drum up a bigger audience. She journeyed from The Today Show to The View (the gals wanted to know when she’s gonna impersonate Sarah Palin again — Tina’s mouth said, “If she runs for President” but her eyes said, “Oh, please, get a new subject, willya?”) to The Late Show with David Letterman, where she was hilarious on the subject of her recent Harper’s Bazaar cover-photo shoot.

Meanwhile, the media is circling her show in what may look like a shark but smells like a backlash:

A New York Times review of the season premiere contended that Fey is a lousy actress who hinders her own smart show.

Also on Thursday, a USA Today piece ventured that 30 Rock can’t take its place among the great sitcoms unless it gets bigger ratings.

To the first accusation, I say: Baloney. On two levels. First: excellent sitcom stars don’t have to be capable of vast range. To take just one example, Roseanne Barr was a pretty stiff performer during even the best years of Roseanne, and she still helmed a great show.

To the second, that persistent ratings question: My colleagues should be grateful that one of the very few things NBC has done right over the past few years in not jumping the gun as Fox did in prematurely cancelling Arrested Development.

I’m not saying Tina Fey and 30 Rock are poor, defenseless victims being bullied. Indeed, the extremely sparky season premiere came out swinging — at NBC, at dumb-sitcom cliches (“Is this really just our first week back?” Liz/Tina sighed), and at dumbness wherever it exists in pop  and political culture. But this notion that the show hasn’t quite fulfilled its glorious potential… that’s more ridiculous than anything Jenna or Tracy could dream up.

UPDATE: Variety reports that the season premiere declined from last year, 3.0 rating and 8 share in the 18-49 demo, down from 4.1/10 for last season’s premiere.

What gives, folks?

For more on 30 Rock:

The 10 Best Quotes From the Season Premiere

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