Of this season’s three NBC Saturday Night Live rip-offs, Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip may have the classier ensemble and fancier verbiage courtesy of Aaron Sorkin, but at half the length and twice the amusement, 30 Rock has… Alec Baldwin. (The third rip-off is, of course, Saturday Night Live itself.) Baldwin’s bravura turn as Jack Donaghy, the ”East Coast vice president of television and microwave-oven programming” for NBC-GE-Universal-Kmart, reminds you that his numerous stints as an SNL host easily rival Steve Martin and Christopher Walken in go-for-broke self-parody. 30 Rock is ostensibly a showcase for creator (and former SNL head writer) Tina Fey as the head writer of the sketch series The Girlie Show. But it’s Baldwin who gets the biggest laughs by playing Fey’s new boss as only a smidge more impish than the ruthless corporate soul-crusher he was in the movie version of Glengarry Glen Ross.
Indeed, Baldwin’s sharklike momentum pulls you through a sitcom that otherwise makes little sense. Fey — whether as an SNL coanchor, as a wise teacher in her movie Mean Girls, or now as TV writer Liz Lemon — always positions herself as the smartest person in the room; she’d be insufferable were she not so funny and so willing to engage with vulgarity. (Fey once told the assiduously sincere magazine The Believer that her favorite word was cooter, and I almost felt the mag’s copy editors’ shuddering disapproval.) Thus it’s kind of amazing that the show has such a tin ear for prime-time programming: There’s no way a major network would air something called The Girlie Show, whose title alone would alienate advertisers’ dream audience of young males. (That a knowing joke about just this demographic drain was made in the pilot only underscores how absurd the premise of the show-within-a-show is.)
We’re supposed to identify with Fey’s Liz as a principled, postmod Mary Tyler Moore with spunk. But in this context, Baldwin’s Jack — ostensibly a bull in a china shop of clever comedy — is more shrewd. He makes exactly the right call in insisting that Fey hire a black comic actor who’ll instantly overshadow The Girlie Show‘s star, played by Jane Krakowski, who looks like she doesn’t know whether she’s supposed to be playing a lucky dumb blonde or a smart cookie feigning dumb blondiness. (This could have something to do with the fact that after 30 Rock‘s pilot was shot, Krakowski was hastily hired to replace Fey’s SNL pal Rachel Dratch in this role — and now Dratch has turned up briefly in the first two episodes playing different characters, a conceit that will, one presumes, continue. You see what I mean about only Baldwin making sense?)
At any rate, SNLer Tracy Morgan does a Martin Lawrence/Tracy Morgan parody: the out-of-control black man. Like Fey, he’d be insufferable were he not so funny, and so willing to make potentially racist setups occasionally pay off with lovable harmlessness. No one is ever going to confuse 30 Rock with great satire, but I hope Baldwin can find some way to bust out the hilarious Robert De Niro impersonation he unveiled on an Oct. 4 David Letterman appearance — I’m telling you, this Baldwin bro is on a roll.