If you’ve seen the first few episodes of this season’s “Saturday Night Live,” you might have noticed that they – um – suck. NBC’s late-night sketch show has been only average for some time now, but the drop-off this year has been drastic. The reason, largely, is Tina Fey, the show’s former head writer who departed this season to write and star in her own comedy, “30 Rock.” As “SNL” bombs while the new head writers find their groove, Fey’s dexterity is at its best in “30 Rock,” a deftly crafted endeavor that’s easily the funniest show to premiere this season.

Morgan Morel
“Which one of us is more worried about becoming washed up?” (Courtesy of NBC)

A large part of the show’s genius lies in its premise: the behind-the-scenes antics and outbursts of an “SNL”-esque sketch show. There’s so much character and circumstance to explore in such a setting that it’s hard to believe no one has done so before this year. Certainly NBC premiered another fantastic show that does just that earlier this year (Aaron Sorkin’s “Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip”), but “30 Rock” works on a different wavelength and can more than hold its own.

“Studio 60” is introspective, more than a little pompous in its exploration of the thought that goes into comedy. It wants you to know that there’s humanity in comedy, and Sorkin exerts himself to his grandiloquent limit to beat that into the audience. “30 Rock” is introspective, too, but in a less preachy way. It seeks to prove essentially the same thing as “Studio 60” but does so by appealing to the exact opposite sensibilities in the audience (a parallel not unlike the one Woody Allen recently created with “Match Point” and “Scoop,” a drama and a comedy that explore the same themes). Which method delivers the message more clearly is a question we can look forward to exploring for the next few seasons.

Even if it loses in a match of philosophical or rhetorical wit (and who could beat a writer like Sorkin at that?), “30 Rock” is juiced with something that is rare in comedies these days: true humor. She’s written her own jaded third-generation feminist with a sly, engaging irony, not to mention a cluelessly absurd network exec for Alec Baldwin. His affinity for interfering, inappropriate advances – and microwave ovens – allude to the aloof, out-of-touch network exec stereotype but do it discreetly, with plenty of socially awkward glances to go around.

But so far that’s only two kinds of heat. As Baldwin says, for a show to succeed it needs three kinds of heat, and the third is provided here by another “SNL” alum, Tracy Morgan. Morgan plays a movie star in the extreme Martin Lawrence mold, but his satirical presence makes no pretense of civility. His character is a blatant archetype, but the show uses it as a launching point for an astute analysis of that stereotype instead of simply exploiting it. Fortunately, laughs go along with the analysis (“Us Weekly wrote a story saying I’m on crack. That’s racist! I’m not on crack. I’m straight up mentally ill!“).

In a time when female comedians (and indeed, female newscasters, columnists et al.) can’t overcome social inducements that make them female first and everything else second – leaving a tired, watered-down muddle of would-be group pride – Fey is a rare commodity. She chooses to perfect her comedy and let everything else fall where it will. She’s one of the most adroit masters of her art. Certainly no comedienne should stifle her gender identity, but by subtly asserting its mettle rather than furiously hawking defiance, Fey creates a character with meaning, one that’s quiet yet says so much. It’s about time she had a stage all her own, and if the pilot is any indication, she will leave her mark.

Star Rating: 3 1/2 out of 5 stars

30 Rock
Wednesdays at 8 p.m.

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