Tuned In

Batting .500

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NBC Photo: Virginia Sherwood

TV criticism is half review, half prediction. On the one hand you’re assessing whether the episode(s) of a new series that you’ve seen are any good; on the other, you’re gauging whether the premise, characters, writing and voice can hold up in the long run. It’s a little like reviewing a wine by picking a grape and eating it.

You will be shocked, by which I mean “not surprised at all,” to learn I sometimes get it wrong. Take Drive, which I reviewed last week. I thought the first two episodes had a lot of promise; after the third, I’m wondering if any of the characters besides Nathan Fillion’s will turn into people. I’m keeping Drive on Tivo Season Pass for now, but to any of you who watched it on my recommendation and resent it, I apologize. I have spoken to God, and three hours will be credited to the end of your life as compensation.

Of course, I’m vain enough that I wouldn’t confess that unless I had a boast to follow it up with. And having watched last night’s 30 Rock, I’m glad to say that last fall, when most critics were praising Studio 60 as the superior behind-the-scenes-sketch-comedy series, I put my money on Tina Fey.

Again, the episode connected on every storyline, even the wacky C plot about Tracy Jordan and the Black Crusaders, the Bill Cosby-fronted organization seeking to punish him for embarrassing black people. (Through Tracy, Tina Fey has made better points about stereotypes and intraracial controversies than certain newsmagazine cover stories.) 30 Rock may cross-promote NBC shamelessly, but it’s worth it to see Lester Holt[!] warn Tracy that the Crusaders are coming for him.

30 Rock has the DNA of a lot of great comedies (the “rat race” throwaway scene was pure Simpsons), but what makes the show is Tina Fey’s distinctive point of view. Most sitcom writers would have immediately turned the Liz-Jack dynamic into a will-they-won’t-they romance, an easy device that Fey alluded to when she had Jack suspect that Liz was jealous of his fiance. Even if the show ever goes that route, she’s made their relationship about much more; Liz isn’t mortified to find that she’s attracted to this conservative heel (I hate you! I love you!)–she’s mortified to find that she respects him. And she’s made Liz a feminist but not a paragon: she genuinely believes she shouldn’t want a rock after dating a guy for a month, and she’s genuinely psyched that, in Cleveland, she’s considered a model.

Oh, yeah, and Alec Baldwin is still great, but I sort of don’t want to say it; the point has been made so often, as if to say that he redeemed a mediocre show through the sheer strength of performance, and that Fey was fortunate enough to cast the part right. Not so. I may have lucked out that 30 Rock was as good as I guessed it could be, but Tina Fey is more than just lucky.