30 Rock’ continues its reign of glory in its fourth season

“30 Rock” might just be the funniest show on TV. When the NBC comedy premiered three years ago, it was up against some stiff competition. The very same season it debuted, NBC was premiering Aaron Sorkin’s “Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip,” another program about the behind-the-scenes action of a “Saturday Night Live”-type show, but with a higher pedigree and bigger-name stars.

Months before the fall season started, fans and critics buzzed about which show would survive. Though the two shows had similar plots and similar names, there was a clear victor by mid season. Now, four seasons later, few remember “Studio 60,” while “30 Rock” has three Emmy Awards under its belt -—and for good reason.

At this point TV viewers can be split into two camps: those who swear by “30 Rock,” and those who have never seen an episode. “30 Rock,” which airs at 9:30 p.m. is one of the anchors of NBC’s Thursday night lineup.

The season’s opener doesn’t quite have a clearly defined A-plot and B-plot, as is the case with most great “30 Rock” episodes. Rather, it has a handful of plots, all of which are knee-slappers. In one, Liz Lemon (Tina Fey) and Pete Hornberger (Scott Adsit) are charged with finding new talent for their show, “TGS,” by boss Jack Donaghy (Alec Baldwin). As they search for ways to make more money, Jack looks for a way to save money by cutting the pages’ overtime, only to incur the adorable wrath of Kenneth Ellen Parcell (Jack McBrayer), who starts a strike. While everyone else struggles with the deficit, Tracy Jordan (Tracy Morgan) tries to reconnect with ordinary people — “his people” — from whom he’s become alienated because of his extreme wealth.

In the second episode, comedic situations play out successfully as usual. One highlight to look out for is the reappearance of Devon Banks (Will Arnett), constant nemesis to Jack Donaghy, now working as a government man handing out bailouts.

But the story isn’t the central draw of “30 Rock.” Instead, it gathers steam from its various absurdities and throw-away situations. A reference to Michael Jackson’s “Thriller” video elicits a “Too soon!” from Tracy Jordan. A research and development team out to reinvent the microwave for Donaghy accidentally invents the Pontiac Aztec.

 For most people, a sitcom is a sitcom is a sitcom. And while all are, theoretically, created equal, some are more equal than others — and “30 Rock” is most equal of all.

At this point, viewers aren’t going to watch “30 Rock” to see how Jack Donaghy deals with the economic downfall in relation to his beloved corporation, NBC Universal owner General Electric (a part of the show that is always threatening to break the fourth wall and occasionally comes dangerously close to being too metatextual for its own good). Now they tune in simply because Jack Donaghy makes funny faces and says ridiculous things. Four seasons in, each “30 Rock” episode is still a shining altar to Alec Baldwin who, while not a commonly recognized comedic actor before his turn as Donaghy, is utterly hilarious.   
That’s how “30 Rock” works, after all. It’s a conventional sitcom that excels at the sitcom game by taking the conventional sitcom devices and turning them on their heads.       
    Along with Baldwin, everyone who appears on “30 Rock” — with the exception of Jane Krakowski as Jenna Maroney, who’s either terrible or amazing — is at the top of their game. There’s an old saying that claims life’s only two constants are death and taxes, but at this point it wouldn’t be an overstatement (well, not a huge overstatement) to add “any given episode of ‘30 Rock’ being laugh-out-loud funny” to that list.   

It’s good that more network television shows aren’t performing at the level that “30 Rock” is, or people would have much less time to actually get things done. If every primetime show was this good, everyone would lose a good three hours of productivity a night. America — nay, the world — simply could not have that.        God saves TV audiences by allowing only one “30 Rock,” and NBC blesses audiences, each and every Thursday, with another episode.