“30 Rock”
Thursdays at 9:30 p.m.
NBC

Entering its third season, NBC’s “30 Rock” had the kind of buzz that most cult shows wish for, largely thanks to star Tina Fey (“Baby Mama”). Fey’s appearances as vice-presidential candidate Sarah Palin before this fall’s presidential election launched her into public ubiquity — her impression was one of those things that could bridge the humor gap between kids and parents and give them something to laugh at together.

NBC’s renewal of “30 Rock” for the 2009-2010 season already shows that Fey’s gambit paid off in the ratings. Thankfully, after a strike-abbreviated second season, the third season of “30 Rock” sets the bar especially high for today’s TV comedies.

For the unfamiliar, “30 Rock” revolves around Fey as Liz Lemon, the head writer at fictional sketch comedy show “TGS With Tracy Jordan.” Lemon has to deal with boss Jack Donaghy (Alec Baldwin, “Glen Glengary Ross”) and the rest of her zany staff while trying to maintain a personal life.

“30 Rock” anchors itself on a sensibility that’s “The Mary Tyler Moore Show” by way of “Arrested Development.” The ridiculous gags fly by at a breakneck pace — one episode has Baldwin butting heads against his Spanish soap opera doppelgänger — but they work especially well thanks to the show’s idiosyncratic yet well-crafted episodes. With their quirks and neuroses, Lemon and Donaghy are still characters viewers can positively relate to.

Even with these strong leads, the show’s reliance on unnecessary guest characters is a problem that has increased on “30 Rock” this season. It’s hard to fault NBC for wanting to promote “30 Rock,” but the season has suffered from guest star fatigue. In just the first half of the season, “30 Rock” had appearances from Steve Martin, Oprah, Jennifer Aniston, Larry King, Salma Hayek (“Frida”), Jon Hamm (“Mad Men”) and Megan Mullally (“Will & Grace”). While the show does its best to integrate them, seeing an ever-rotating carousel of guest stars has become distracting.

Baldwin and Fey are more than capable of anchoring the show, but their increased screen time and the frequent guest appearances push the more than capable supporting cast such as Scott Adsit (“Morel Orel”) and Judah Friedlander (“American Splendor”) into the margins.

Baldwin is a veritable comedic force of nature and a perfect foil to Fey’s neurotic Lemon, but the show is just as strong when it focuses on the staff at “TGS.” Some of the high points of the second season came when the show looked past Jack and Liz’s adversarial relationship — like when it spotlighted political consultant James Carville as an off-kilter version of himself who stole from vending machines and ended his sentences with the phrase cajun style.” “30 Rock” has mostly pushed the “workplace” part of the “workplace comedy” out the window this season, and that’s a bit of a disappointment.

Still, even an inconsistent “30 Rock” makes for a half hour of some of the best comedy on television right now. In an environment that’s less than encouraging for TV shows that aren’t immediate hits, it’s rare for a network to actively nurture a show. Given the talent “30 Rock” has in front of and behind the camera, here’s hoping NBC keeps it around for a while.

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