At this year's Emmys, Tina Fey went out of her way to thank not only "30 Rock" executive producer Lorne Michaels but also NBC for keeping her show on the air even though "we are so much more expensive than a talk show." In case you missed it, that was a dig at the network's decision to forgo scripted drama and comedy in its 10 p.m. slot and run "The Jay Leno Show" five nights a week.
Both the gratitude and the Leno-baiting continues as "30 Rock" begins its fourth season. When a show has swept the Emmys two years in a row as "30 Rock" has, there is the danger that the people involved will start to think they can somehow do something more, which so often winds up being less.
Yet even after two solid years of trooping up to receive various statuettes and having her face plastered on the cover of every magazine save Sports Illustrated, Fey has remained remarkably level-headed. (OK, so last season she wrote in a romance between her character Liz Lemon and one played by Jon Hamm, but what's the point of ruling the universe if you can't have a little fun once in a while?)
In this season's first two episodes, the cast and crew prove that when you've got a good thing going, your best bet is to not mess with it. The wicked trick of "30 Rock" is its ability to satirize not only television culture, but also its place within it. So as the season opens, Jack (Alec Baldwin) chastises the cast of "TGS With Tracy Jordan" for becoming too enamored of success, for relying on the praise of the urban elite and losing touch with "real America." Which is something that, with a few minor alterations, could be said of "30 Rock" -- for all its Emmy gold, it remains more a critics' pet than a ratings winner.
But at its best, the show tempers its inside jokes with wide-net humor. So Jack Donaghy becomes the symbol of cost-cutting hypocrisy. (Does anyone do hypocrisy better than Baldwin?) When he gets a huge bonus while the pages lose their overtime, Kenneth (Jack McBrayer) stages one of the more hilarious strikes in history ("What do we want?" "To get your sandwiches!" "When do we want it?" "Whenever would be convenient for you!"), which may or may not be a gentle parody of the 2008 writers strike.
Tracy (Tracy Morgan) attempts to reacquaint himself with "real America" ("You want to hold hands with a black millionaire?") and Jenna (Jane Krakowski) goes country. Oh, and Liz has to find another cast member, which leads to the rumor that she's sleeping with Pete (Scott Adsit).
So when Jack says, "Step into the light, Lemon. There's nothing wrong with being fun and popular and just giving people what they want. Ladies and gentlemen, Jay Leno," it's hard to see it so much as a dig as a comradely wink.
Like Liz Lemon, who can't seem to accept that she is no longer the homely misfit of her youth, "30 Rock" can no longer claim underdog status. With all those Emmys, viewers expect a lot, and two episodes in, "30 Rock" is prepared to deliver, serving up the self-conscious, fast-moving, quick-witted comedy it has all but trademarked. (You can't help but wish that every American industry had a similar flagship.)
Providing the irresistible drumbeat through it all is the relationship between Jack and Liz. Lucy and Ricky meet Oscar and Felix. Jack and Liz are, in their own warped way, TV's hottest couple, by turns ruthless and tender, the bickering parents of the over-diagnosed post-modern family.
Because like every classic of the genre, "30 Rock" is not something you watch, it's a place you visit. Where everybody knows your name. And your withholding status. And your medical history. Where there's nothing wrong with being fun and popular and giving people what they want. Ladies and gentlemen, "30 Rock."
When: 9:30 tonight
Rating: TV-14-D (may be unsuitable for children under the age of 14 with an advisory for suggestive dialogue)