’30 Rock’ returns

Jeremy Lim

In TV land, critical plaudits and Emmy awards have never guaranteed a large viewership.

But the acclaimed “30 Rock” starts its third season with something more bankable: a bona fide star with water-cooler relevance. Tina Fey’s previous claim to fame was being an SNL writer and Jimmy Fallon’s cohort on “Weekend Update.”

But Fey etched a permanent place in the pop culture canon with her dead-on portrayal of vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin, from the folksy mannerisms on down.

With the election season coming to a close, it remains to be seen if Fey’s star turn will retain enough cultural cache to carry “30 Rock” to big ratings.

Probably not. Liz Lemon (Fey) is nowhere near as famous as Palin. And the show will probably never appeal to a wide audience. It’s an examination of the backstage life of a sketch comedy TV show (like “SNL”), and it’s hard to sympathize with showbiz people who make probably make boatloads more cash than you do.

It’s also a bit more silly and detached than more realistic comedies.

Unlike its Thursday night counterpart “The Office,” which finds comedy in the mundane trivialities of everyday life, “30 Rock” accentuates the ridiculousness and pomposity of those who dare to work in TV.

When star Jenna (Jane Krakowski) pouts about not getting residual checks from a porn-based videogame she did voice work for, she says (without a hint of irony), that “I never do anything for my stalker, and she keeps sending me those headless dolls.”

The season premiere deals with the hanging threads of the truncated second season.

Liz is looking to adopt a baby, and former NBC President Jack Donaghy (Alec Baldwin) is looking to regain his top spot after being ousted by rival Devon Banks (Will Arnett of “Arrested Development” fame).

While never one for maudlin sentiment, Fey allows the audience to feel sympathy for the two principal characters.

Liz feels the need to care for another human being outside of her hectic, time-consuming job.

Donaghy is so driven to regain his top spot that he’s willing to seduce the dimwitted daughter of the corporation’s president.

Baldwin is so good in his role that he gives what could have been a one-note character an astonishing amount of pathos.

When he says that he paid his way through Princeton by “working the day shift at that graveyard and the graveyard shift at that Day’s Inn … and now [the job] hinges on how far I’m willing to go with a woman wearing Dora the Explorer panties that were clearly made for an obese child,” he’s not just funny – he’s downright stirring.

“30 Rock” is driven by love of the ridiculous, whether in the characters’ dialogue or their mannerisms.

But the show also has its subtle touches. In one sequence, Liz tells one of her writers to take off a trucker hat with the word “horny” inscribed on it.

Later, he’s still wearing a hat with “horny” on it – only it is now a bowler hat.

In another sequence, Liz tells the writing staff to put away any pornographic items in their offices, lest her adoption evaluator notice.

As Liz continues to talk, the viewer can see straight man Pete (Scott Adsit) quietly taking a blowup doll down from his office window in the background.

It’s this superb mix of outright zaniness and quiet side jokes that make this reigning Emmy winner the best comedy on TV.

“30 Rock” airs on Thursdays at 9:30 p.m. on NBC.