Like the Ghost of Sitcom Success Past, Jerry Seinfeld appears in this week's season premiere of "30 Rock," agitated and incredulous. "What is wrong with you people?" he shouts at network programming head Jack Donaghy (Alec Baldwin) after learning about a plan to profit from his image without his consent. "What has happened to this network?"
Indeed, what of NBC, once the home to the Hannibal's army of televised comedy -- "Friends," "The Cosby Show," "Frasier" and, of course, "Seinfeld." For years, its Thursday night schedules were impenetrable. Now, it houses the New Idiosyncrasy: "The Office," "My Name Is Earl" and "30 Rock."
And the latter displays a lot of self-awareness for a sitcom that just won the Emmy for outstanding comedy series, rightly beating "Entourage," "Two and a Half Men" and "Ugly Betty." ("The Office"? Not so much.)
It's a tentative beginning to the show's second season and a step back from the galloping stride it hit midway last season after an opening run of uncertain episodes. But even though "30 Rock" featured some of the best comedic performances on television in the last year, it never attracted much in the way of viewer interest. And perhaps that's why this second-season premiere never moves beyond a wink, as if it's unsure if it's allowed to go all the way.
Instead, it toes the line between paranoia and parody. To boost ratings and sell premium ad time, Donaghy inserts digitized footage of Seinfeld into the entire NBC lineup for a month. (Not as bad an idea as it sounds, nor as preposterous.) A commentary on NBC's woes, to be sure, but certainly also an excuse to plaster Seinfeld across the screen at every opportunity. Approximately 20 million more people a week watched "Seinfeld" at its peak than watched "30 Rock" on average last season -- converting even a few of them would go a long way.
And so "30 Rock" -- with its roots in "SNL" simulacra, already a testament to the power of institutional memory -- has become the manifestation of a network jousting with its past.
Donaghy's plan is to digitally insert footage of Seinfeld into a month's worth of programming --"SeinfeldVision," the programming block is to be called -- prompting the comedian to storm the office.
"What NBC shows do you want to be digitally inserted into?" Donaghy asks, trying to compromise.
"I like 'Lost,' " Seinfeld replies. "Is that you guys?"
Tweaking convention, and itself, is one of the many things "30 Rock" has done so well. There are the in-joke winks about product placement (though a mention of the Nintendo Wii in this week's premiere raises the eyebrow). And even Seinfeld gets goosed this week, in a scene where Liz's (Tina Fey) histrionics blatantly ape the comedian's signature vocal tics.
But elsewhere, not all is well. Tracy Morgan and Jane Krakowski are marginalized in this episode. Baldwin looks a bit more haggard and ruddy, and Fey continues to distressingly limn the edge of tragedy as she confronts her new single life after her relationship with Floyd (Jason Sudeikis) comes to an end. "I'm gonna get the wedding dress," she shouts at a sales clerk, "and then I'm gonna have a baby, and then I'm gonna die, and then I'm gonna meet a super-cute guy in heaven." What, her worry?
For good measure, there's a tossed-off joke about YouTube phenomenon Tay Zonday. But this stunt episode is evidence only of a creative team in a holding pattern while attempting to ease a network's desperation.
And the big dogs will bite back. In the episode, Seinfeld is trapped in the elevator with Kenneth (Jack McBrayer), the page, who's grinning madly and incapable of words. Once Kenneth starts humming the "Seinfeld" theme, Jerry's had enough. Eyebrow arched, he asks the question undoubtedly folks inside NBC are asking too: "Really?"