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.





12 Essential Performances from New Orleans' Piano "Professors"

New Orleans music is renowned for its piano players. Here's a dozen jams from great Crescent City keyboardists, past and present, and a little something extra.


Jess Williamson Reimagines the Occult As Source Power on 'Sorceress'

Folk singer-songwriter, Jess Williamson wants listeners to know magic is not found in tarot cards or mass-produced smudge sticks. Rather, transformative power is deeply personal, thereby locating Sorceress as an indelible conveyor of strength and wisdom.

By the Book

Flight and Return: Kendra Atleework's Memoir, 'Miracle Country'

Although inconsistent as a memoir, Miracle Country is a breathtaking environmental history. Atleework is a shrewd observer and her writing is a gratifying contribution to the desert-literature genre.


Mark Olson and Ingunn Ringvold Celebrate New Album With Performance Video (premiere)

Mark Olson (The Jayhawks) and Ingunn Ringvold share a 20-minute performance video that highlights their new album, Magdalen Accepts the Invitation. "This was an opportunity to perform the new songs and pretend in a way that we were still going on tour because we had been so looking forward to that."


David Grubbs and Taku Unami Collaborate on the Downright Riveting 'Comet Meta'

Comet Meta is a brilliant record full of compositions and moments worthy of their own accord, but what's really enticing is that it's not only by David Grubbs but of him. It's perhaps the most emotive, dream-like, and accomplished piece of Grubbsian experimental post-rock.


On Their 2003 Self-Titled Album, Buzzcocks Donned a Harder Sound and Wore it With Style and Taste

Buzzcocks, the band's fourth album since their return to touring in 1989, changed their sound but retained what made them great in the first place

Reading Pandemics

Chaucer's Plague Tales

In 18 months, the "Great Pestilence" of 1348-49 killed half of England's population, and by 1351 half the population of the world. Chaucer's plague tales reveal the conservative edges of an astonishingly innovative medieval poet.


Country's Jaime Wyatt Gets in Touch With Herself on 'Neon Cross'

Neon Cross is country artist Jaime Wyatt's way of getting in touch with all the emotions she's been going through. But more specifically, it's about accepting both the past and the present and moving on with pride.


Counterbalance 17: Public Enemy - 'It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back'

Hip-hop makes its debut on the Big List with Public Enemy’s meaty, beaty manifesto, and all the jealous punks can’t stop the dunk. Counterbalance’s Klinger and Mendelsohn give it a listen.


Sondre Lerche and the Art of Radical Sincerity

"It feels strange to say it", says Norwegian pop artist Sondre Lerche about his ninth studio album, "but this is the perfect time for Patience. I wanted this to be something meaningful in the middle of all that's going on."


How the Template for Modern Combat Journalism Developed

The superbly researched Journalism and the Russo-Japanese War tells readers how Japan pioneered modern techniques of propaganda and censorship in the Russo-Japanese War.


From Horrifying Comedy to Darkly Funny Horror: Bob Clark Films

What if I told you that the director of one of the most heartwarming and beloved Christmas movies of all time is the same director as probably the most terrifying and disturbing yuletide horror films of all time?

Collapse Expand Reviews

Collapse Expand Features
PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.