For all its praise and Emmys, even the biggest fan of NBC's sitcom "30 Rock" will tell you that it's wildly uneven. Yes, the show can be gut-bustingly hilarious (Bijou, anyone?) but it can also be painfully strained and manic.
As long as the funny moments outweigh the flat ones, I'm OK with this, but it can be touch and go at times.
The fourth season of the series premieres tonight at 9:30 and it's a pretty mixed bag as TGS ("30 Rock's" show within a show) starts its own fourth season.
Jack Donaghy (Alec Baldwin, as oily and awesome as ever) wants TGS creator Liz Lemon ("30 Rock" creator Tina Fey) to make her show more mainstream and accessible to the American public. Or, as Jack puts it, "We'll trick those race-car-loving wide-loads into watching your lefty homoerotic propaganda hour yet!"
That line is funny. So is the attempt by TGS star Tracy (Tracy Morgan) to reconnect with the common man, and Jenna's (Jane Krakowski) attempt to be more accessible by "going country" (there's a Hank Williams Jr.-inspired video involving off-season tennis that's alone worth the price of admission).
And the whole episode is capped off by a deliciously snarky bite-the-hand-that-feeds-you dig at a certain late night host whose show follows "30 Rock."
But, surrounding those few minutes of funny, there's a quite a bit of blah. The episode squanders Jack in a plot involving a strike by NBC page Kenneth (Jack McBrayer). The story is amusing, but it provides few real belly laughs, despite Steve Buscemi's return as Jack's investigator. There's also a subplot involving Liz's search for a new TGS cast member, which I laughed at exactly once.
"30 Rock" episodes always tend to fire off jokes rapidly, in all directions. And while this method does result in a lot of hits, there are almost as many misfires. I would really like to see the show tighten its scope a bit, and be more consistent.
There are hints of that in this season's second episode, which made me laugh a lot -- most likely due to the return of Will Arnett as Jack's nemesis Devin Banks, and to a pretty strong main plot involving Liz and Tracy.
When it works, "30 Rock" is one of the best shows on TV. It works more often than it doesn't work, but if it upped its average just a little bit, it would be close to perfect.