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TELEVISION REVIEW

'30 Rock' takes lighter look at 'SNL'-like show

Market research probably didn't inspire NBC to program two new series about the evils of market research and the strains at ``Saturday Night Live." Then again, NBC's market-research department must know that any attention is good attention, unless you're Mel Gibson or Mark Foley. Sometimes, public self-flagellation pays.

One of NBC's TV-on-TV shows, ``Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip," is a head-butt at network efforts to build monster hits through the science of numbers. The other, Tina Fey's ``30 Rock," is an affectionate ribbing of those same Doctors Frankenstein, who'd kill for a few young male viewers. Together, the two series represent a jab at corporate ownership, which is represented in ``30 Rock" by Alec Baldwin's delightfully reptilian and soulless General Electric executive, Jack Donaghy. ``30 Rock" premieres tonight at 8 on Channel 7.

But they tease because they love. As critical as ``Studio 60" and ``30 Rock" can be of the bosses who watch focus groups in one-way mirrors, they nonetheless promote the vaunted legend of the late-night sketch show. Our noble writer-heroes may face corporate obstacles, but there's still great value in what they do. As if the world continues to wait for ``Saturday Night Live" to be the cultural watershed it was, oh, decades ago.

Essentially, ``30 Rock" is a very likable workplace sitcom, with Fey as the Mary Richards figure, Liz Lemon, who is the head writer of ``The Girlie Show." One day she shows up at her office (at 30 Rockefeller Plaza, thus the title), where she is informed that Baldwin's Jack is her new boss. He doesn't tell her she has spunk, as Lou Grant did; ``I like you," he says instead. ``You have the boldness of a much younger woman."

Jack informs Liz she has to hire a star named Tracy Jordan (Tracy Morgan) since he has an understanding of young male viewers after making movies such as ``Who Dat Ninja?" and ``Black Cop, White Cop." Liz is appalled, and her ``Girlie Show" star and best friend, Jenna (Jane Krakowski), is threatened. But then maybe the presence of a black comic famous for his public outbursts will rescue ``The Girlie Show" from forgettable skits such as ``Pam, the Overly Confident Morbidly Obese Woman." (``Studio 60" called its version of mediocrity ``Peripheral Vision Man.")

There's a lot to enjoy about ``30 Rock." The three leads -- Baldwin, Fey, and Morgan -- have the potential for a piquant chemistry, particularly Fey and Baldwin, whose scenes together are airtight. When he reduces her to a demographic, calling her ``a third-wave feminist . . . single and pretending to be happy about it, overscheduled, undersexed," you can see Fey realize that this foe isn't as dumb as she'd hoped. Baldwin is the revelation on the show, as he channels his gruff, egotistic energy into a passive - aggressive character who doesn't miss a trick. He's not as exceptional as Jeremy Piven on ``Entourage," but he's similarly adept at creating a Hollywood money person who's not too easy to dismiss.

Fey and Morgan also click, as she goes with him to a strip club to talk him out of joining her cast. She hates the idea of him, and yet she's drawn to him, as he rages about being accused of being a crack addict by the press. (Echoes of Martin Lawrence here.) ``I'm not on crack," he yells proudly, ``I'm straight-up mentally ill."

Between Fey, Morgan, and Baldwin, too, there's plenty of opportunity for racial and gender friction. Fey, who was head writer at ``SNL" until this season, will surely take advantage of that potential. But ``30 Rock" is more sitcommy than most of the single-camera sitcoms on the air now, and it has none of the sharp bite of ``The Larry Sanders Show." It's forgiving in tone -- which, unfortunately, can lead to a few gratuitously lewd jokes -- and it's probably not going to get too provocative on the issues. You have to approach the show as light fare. Unlike ``Studio 60" creator Aaron Sorkin, Fey doesn't appear to see the flaws in network management as endangering the civilized world.

Rachel Dratch, Fey's ``SNL" colleague, also shows up tonight, as the cat wrangler supplying cats for a ``Girlie Show" sketch. Initially, Dratch was meant to be one of the ``30 Rock" leads, and it seemed like -- irony alert -- market research had led to her demotion. But I'm thinking her new assignment -- as different eccentrics throughout the season -- was ultimately a creative decision that will play to her strengths. She's one more face on ``30 Rock" we can look forward to seeing as the season develops.

Matthew Gilbert can be reached at gilbert@globe.com.

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