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Tina Fey, '30 Rock' look to boost ratings

Chuck Barney
Contra Costa Times (MCT)

It's two days before Halloween, and I just had a scary thought: What if "30 Rock" is on its way to becoming "Will & Grace"?

The latter show, toward the end of its run, went into overload mode when it came to big-name cameos. Cher, Britney Spears, Kevin Bacon, Madonna, John Cleese, Janet Jackson ... It seemed like everybody who was anybody appeared on "Will & Grace." Many critics and fans cite this celebrity worship as a key factor in its demise.

It's not that cameos in general are such a bad thing, but when you start relying on them as much as "Will & Grace" did, they're often distracting, pointless and annoying.

That's why it has been rather unnerving to see all those NBC promotional spots for the new season of "30 Rock" that place heavy emphasis on a star-studded guest list that includes Oprah, Steve Martin, Jennifer Aniston and others. Here you have a show that has captured back-to-back Emmys for best comedy, features a breakout star in writer-actress and Sarah Palin look-alike Tina Fey and is blessed with a hilarious cast that includes multi-award-winner Alec Baldwin - and it's leaning on a crutch of guest celebs?

Of course, it's easy to see why "30 Rock" is adopting this strategy. Despite all the critical acclaim and shiny hardware the show has collected in its first two seasons, it has yet to build a sizable audience, averaging only 6 million viewers last season. Unless things improve in a hurry, "30 Rock" is in danger of taking the "Arrested Development" path to sitcom oblivion.

And so, it's bring on the big names in hopes of seizing more attention and pumping up the Nielsen numbers. Unfortunately, the move not only smacks of desperation, but it has the potential to throw the show off its game by undermining character and story while trying to service the big-name visitors.

Interestingly enough, the guest in Thursday night's Season 3 opener is Megan Mullally of the aforementioned "Will & Grace," and she's filling a role plenty of actresses could have played. Seems that Fey's character, frazzled sketch-comedy producer Liz Lemon, is eager to adopt a child. But first she has to pass muster with Mullally's taciturn agency counselor, who insists upon a visit to Liz's loony bin of a workplace. Naturally, much chaos ensues.

Written by Fey, the episode isn't "30 Rock" at its very best, but it does contain enough of the screwball pace, bizarre twists and sharp dialogue to atone for some of the clunky episodes that plagued "30 Rock" toward the end of last season. Another appearance by Will Arnett as Jack Donaghy's (Baldwin) demented rival certainly doesn't hurt, either.

Next week's episode with Oprah playing herself is better. The revered television goddess makes a rare scripted appearance as an airplane passenger who has the misfortune of sitting next to a fawning - and heavily medicated - Liz Lemon, who is eager to get Oprah's advice on a running dispute between her stars Tracy (Tracy Jordan) and Jenna (Jane Krakowski).

In this case, the guest appearance makes perfect sense. Oprah is deftly embedded into the story line, which offers a funny twist at the end. If "30 Rock" can handle its other guest stars in a similar manner, we may have no cause for alarm.

Of course, something magical has happened since "30 Rock" went and signed up all those celebs. Fey's hysterically dead-on spoofs of Palin for "Saturday Night Live" have generated big laughs and an avalanche of publicity. The exposure on "SNL," which has enjoyed some of its biggest ratings in years, and on the Internet as a viral-video sensation has brought more attention to Fey than ever before.

Will this fortunate piece of timing prove to be a game-changer for "30 Rock"? Will this show finally get the audience it deserves? That remains to be seen (and I wouldn't count on a substantial carryover), but if "30 Rock" does indeed finally gain some Nielsen traction, Fey will have Palin to thank.

Maybe she can have her drop by as a guest star.

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