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Deadly serious comedy

30 Rock sinks under the weight of its own irony

NBC this fall has given us two TV shows about TV shows. First, the network launched Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip, a drama about a comedy show. Now, NBC has unleashed 30 Rock (Wednedays, 8 p.m. ET), a comedy about a comedy show.

30 Rock issues from the head of Tina Fey, formerly of Saturday Night Live. Fey writes and stars in the new show, where she plays Liz Lemon, the head writer for an SNL-like program called "The Girlie Show."

At the top, Jack Donaghy (Alec Baldwin) shows up, the new VP of Development for NBC-GE-Universal-Kmart. He's the corporate lout who's going to retool the show, but he's not a TV man. He's a marketing man whose triumph was the GE Trivection Oven. His job is to goose-up the program by hiring edgy black comedian Tracy Jordan (Tracy Morgan). The recipe for comedy is here, but the show is just not funny.

Fey doesn't seem comfortable with what some people in the entertainment industry call "acting." On SNL's "Weekend Update," Fey was all irony and smirks: She knew she was being funny, and it was funny that she knew it, like a high-school talent show where everybody is in on the joke. But 30 Rock happens in what looks like the real world. She can't be too ironic. Great comedies show us deadly serious characters who are desperate: Think Seinfeld. Fey doesn't seem to be too serious about anything, making her character not very believable.

The bright light of 30 Rock is Alec Baldwin, and he almost makes the show worth watching. Baldwin's Jack Donaghy is a fictionalized version of Baldwin, complete with that sotto voce growl and raised eyebrows that say, "I'm better than you at everything." Donaghy is as full himself as Baldwin seems to be in real life, and it's very, very funny.

His character is the only one who takes himself as seriously as a comic character should, which makes him the only one worth watching.