The joy with which Tina Fey's Liz Lemon greets her old boss Jack (Alec Baldwin) in Rockefeller Center during the opening seconds of 30 Rock's season premiere parallels our love for the Emmy-winning comedy. We, too, share Liz's enthusiastic affection for the devilishly devious but marshmallow-hearted Jack, and the crackling energy of New York City behind them magically carries over into the show's office scenes.
The third-season opener has two big tasks to accomplish: restoring Jack to his top-dog position after losing it last season to an oil slick (Will Arnett), and setting up Liz's quest to adopt a child (Will & Grace's Megan Mullally guest-stars as a wacky adoption-agency official). And while this half hour has its moments of intense humor, and even emotion (the near kiss by Liz and Jack is essential fan viewing), the episode feels rather crowded and rushed.
By the second episode (airing Nov. 6), however, 30 Rock is back in full smooth, confident stride. You'd kill me if I told you how the show works Oprah Winfrey in as a prominent guest star, so I'll just register my admiration for her pro comic double takes. (Hey, Oprah: less motivational inspiration, more wacky comedy!) And it's a measure of how tightly constructed 30 Rock is that the Oprah scenes aren't mere cute cameos. They're actually the glue cohering a wildly imaginative edition that includes Jane Krakowski's Jenna in blackface (she resembles a Thriller-era Michael Jackson), jabs at the network's Knight Rider and Deal or No Deal, Fey in full Princess Leia garb, and Tracy Morgan's immortal line ''I watched Boston Legal nine times before I realized it wasn't a new Star Trek.'' And somehow, Rock also manages to layer in quieter scenes between Baldwin and Jack McBrayer's Kenneth the Page that remind you of an iron law of feather-light farce: No matter how crazy the characters seem to us, they have to relate to each other as though they're making perfect sense.
With its dense thick slabs of topical references and absurdist non sequiturs, 30 Rock sometimes seems like a late-night Adult Swim cartoon show come to life on prime-time network TV. Which is one way of saying that it's amazing the show hasn't been canceled. I'd guess that achievement is due to Rock's slew of awards and A-list guest stars (Jennifer Aniston, Salma Hayek, and Steve Martin will all appear soon), plus one of two notions: NBC Entertainment co-chairman Ben Silverman is either a much bigger fan of the show than he is of ratings, or he's just not paying attention. In either case, the result is joy in the fantasyland 30 Rock makes of network TV. A–