To borrow the parlance of Hip Hop, actor/writer/Sarah Palin impersonator Tina Fey blew the fuck up over the Summer, making an assured transition from bespectacled favorite of the smart set and everyone's geek crush to towering comic supernova. Not since Chevy Chase bumbled his way into America's hearts as a pratfall-happy Gerald Ford has a politician done so much for a sketch performer. On the way to work today I read a New Yorker cartoon where a Manhattanite tells a friend, "I'm voting Republican just so Tina Fey will keep impersonating Sarah Palin."
Incidentally, my father, a lifelong Democrat, once confessed that he voted for Bob Dole solely because he liked old people jokes–especially Robert Smigel's impersonation of the Republican Presidential candidate/revolutionary war hero on Late Night With Conan O'Brien–so much. Though I was foolish enough to throw my vote away on Ralph Nader–boy, that sure showed the Republicrats–I could empathize. After all, Bill Clinton is such a spotless, universally revered exemplar of dignity and self-restraint that jokes can't possibly be made at his expense.
Fey is having the best year ever. She's done commercials with Martin Scorsese, signed a six million dollar book deal, starred in a pretty good, commercially successful movie (Baby Mama), snagged Oprah as a 30 Rock guest and won three Emmys for Best Comedy, Outstanding Lead Actress and Outstanding Writing in a Comedy Series. Fey has become so successful and popular that we're all legally obligated to start disliking her, or at least consider her criminally overrated. After all, anything popular can't be that good, can it?
Yes, Fey is enjoying overnight success a mere sixteen years in the making. But the questions remains: will 30 Rock piggyback Fey's sudden ubiquity to big ratings? Will Fey's newfound prominence alter the delicate alchemy that makes 30 Rock such a consistent delight? Will success spoil Tina Fey?
Judging by the premiere episode of 30 Rock's third season, we have nothing to worry about. Premieres tend to be 30 Rock's Achilles Heel. But the show comes roaring out of the gate with "Do-Over", a show that definitively breaks the premiere jinx. When we last caught up with the gang, Jack Donaghy had left GE to work for the Bush Administration, only to flee in horror. Donaghy's arch-nemesis Devon sinisterly assumed control of NBC by seducing Don Geiss' simpleton daughter Kathy, Tracy Jordan was perfecting a pornographic video game and a baby-fever-crazed Liz was looking to adopt.
Tonight's 30 Rock fan fiction) but underneath all the teasing and jibes there's an awful lot of respect and admiration. It's reciprocated, and Donaghy and Lemon's mentor-protégé relationship is the show's emotional core.
But enough sappiness. A comeback-hungry Jack gets a job at the mailroom with plans to rise to the top within nine years. Tracy, meanwhile, basks in the commercial success of his video game and Liz tries to convince an evaluator for an adoption agency (Will &Grace; cut up Megan Mullally, who I suspect is actually a dude in drag) of her merits as a potential mother. This proves even more difficult once Mullally asks to see Liz's work environment and all hell breaks loose.
"Do Over" milks huge laughs out of Donaghy's attempt to take a shortcut back to the upper echelons of NBC by seducing Kathy Geiss, a sturdy lass with a linebacker physique and the intellect and undergarments of an awkward kindergartener. The most excruciatingly hilarious moment in the show came when a door swung open to reveal Donaghy and Kathy daughter slow-dancing, Junior High style, to Marky Mark and The Funky Bunch's "Good Vibrations". Oh, how the mighty have fallen.
Yet because 30 Rock is populated by great actors as well as funny motherfuckers there was considerable pathos in tonight's episode as well. When Donaghy bemoans all he had to do to get to the top–like paying his way through Princeton by "working the daytime shift at that graveyard and that graveyard shift at the Day's Inn."–only to arbitrarily lose his precious, precious power it's funny but also wistful and bittersweet.
As a recent New Yorker profile indelibly documented, Baldwin is essentially a sad, frustrated man and that sense of melancholy bleeds over into his portrayal of Donaghy, a man who's never really happy no matter how successful he becomes.
30 Rock guest stars invariably kill. Though I'm no fan of Mullally, the creepy dominatrix vibe she brought to her role was extraordinarily funny, especially when she coldly inquired, "How often do you entertain gentleman sex guests?" The frenetic farcial plotting of Mullally's character enduring a disastrous trip to 30 Rock, then bumping her head and losing her memory so Lemon and the gang could start over from scratch, the "do over" of the title, felt a little sitcommy but the laughs kept coming and the show had an overarching sweetness that set it apart, especially in the way Lemon looks proudly and lovingly at Donaghy in his desk of supreme power at the end of the episode, happy to have her friend, boss and mentor back where he belongs.
By the end of "Do-Over", Liz Lemon was alone again, naturally, Donaghy was back in power and 30 Rock was officially back on the air and primed to reach a bigger audience than ever before. All is right with the world.
Grade: A- Stray Observations– –"That man is mostly metal" –"I got rid of all my Colin Firth movies on the chance they consider them erotica." –"The only 'assistance' we need is deciding which John Mayer song to do it to" –"Keep your friends close and your enemies so close that you're almost kissing" –"I still don't know how it promotes Tokyo University" –Ah, 30 Rock–restoring the dignity of the 3 second cutaway –"That's not slang. He has a speech impediment. –"How often do you entertain gentleman sex guests?" –"Ever run a webcam ring out of here, Liz?" –"A lion eats a sad clown." –"I told you not to write back to your stalker." –"I don't do anything for Yolanda and she sends me those headless dolls." –"Don't worry. He's just leasing it." –"Tomorrow I'll show up for work dressed as a Mexican wrestler." –"It's just G now. I sold the E." –"3 of my nine siblings are adopted. And someday I'm going to find them." –"Those were some child actors who had lied about being able to breakdance." –"let's chit-chat. What's that? Man trouble? Boot cut jeans? Bye!" –"That's the lip gloss she put on me so I could be her fancy boy." –"Dora the Explorer panties that were clearly made for an obese child." –"She's wondering where my strawberry mouth is." –"You're going to sue me? Who do you think you are? The San Diego Zoo?" –"We may not be the best people but we're not the worst. Graduate students are the worse." –Welcome back, 30 Rock. You have been missed.