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TELEVISION REVIEW

‘30 Rock’ hasn’t lost any of its edge

Jack McBrayer plays Kenneth the page on '30 Rock.' Jack McBrayer plays Kenneth the page on "30 Rock." (Ali Golstein/NBC)
By Matthew Gilbert
Globe Staff / October 15, 2009

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‘Hello, everyone, I’m so happy to see all of you and welcome you to Season Four,’’ Alec Baldwin’s Jack Donaghy says at the start of tonight’s “30 Rock.’’ And then the camera quickly pulls back to reveal Jack, Liz, Tracy, and Jenna about to eat a meal at an Asian fusion restaurant called . . . Season Four.

One of the small miracles about “30 Rock,’’ which returns at 9:30 on Channel 7, is that the writers can break out such meta-moments without popping the show’s fictional-story bubble. “30 Rock’’ is TV about TV, and yet it’s anything but directed at insiders only. The self-referential material, including a mention of “The Jay Leno Show’’ tonight, doesn’t spoil the fact that Tina Fey’s sitcom is also a by-the-book workplace ensemble comedy. Ultimately, it’s as cozy as “The Mary Tyler Moore Show’’ or “NewsRadio.’’

Likewise, the constant references to current events on “30 Rock’’ don’t compromise its power as a character-based comedy. The show has a touch of “The Daily Show’’ running through its veins, as it uses today’s politics to fuel many of its cynical jokes. (And yesterday’s politics, too: As he asks for spiritual guidance, we see Jack reach over a picture of Jesus for a photo of Richard Nixon.) What other sitcom could so easily slip in the phrase “Comrade Obama’’ as a punch line? And yet all the topical wit doesn’t reduce the ensemble to a collection of mouthpieces for the writers, always a danger.

Now the recipient of three best-comedy Emmys, “30 Rock’’ returns tonight with its best foot forward. Last season, Fey and the writers risked tumbling into a creative bottomless pit of stunt-casting, relying far too heavily on gimmicky guests such as Jennifer Aniston and Oprah Winfrey. They seemed to forget that “30 Rock’’ is sitting on one of TV’s best comedy casts, not just Baldwin and Fey but Tracy Morgan, Jane Krakowski, and semi-regular Will Arnett. But the season’s first two episodes nicely emphasize the regular cast as well as the show’s corporate-bureaucracy premise, which reaches from the CEO of General Electric to Kenneth the page (Jack McBrayer).

Indeed, the theme of tonight’s half-hour is the recession-era hypocrisy of big businesses like GE, which currently owns NBC. (As news of GE possibly selling its stake in NBC develops, “30 Rock’’ may need to make some adjustments to its management structure in the coming months.) Complaining about the network’s financial problems, Jack stops overtime pay for the pages and blames the dire situation on President Obama. But then Kenneth accidentally receives Jack’s bonus check and - shazam! - he’s outraged.

Meanwhile, Jack is making a big deal about reaching out to the “real America,’’ which means Jenna (Jane Krakowski) gets to put on a red-white-and-blue outfit and make a cheesy country-music single. Jack may want Liz Lemon and her colleagues to dumb down their product for the “real America,’’ but thankfully, “30 Rock’’ is still resisting that directive.

Matthew Gilbert can be reached at gilbert@globe.com. For more on TV, visit www.boston.com/ae/tv/blog.

30 ROCK Starring: Tina Fey, Alec Baldwin, Jane Krakowski, Jack McBrayer, Tracy Morgan

On: NBC, Channel 7

Time: Tonight, 9:30-10

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