For all the ways the brilliant 30 Rock rebels against old-school sitcom tropes, it’s still arguably a throwback to the family-set comedies of yore. Mom Liz (Tina Fey) is just barely holding it together, juggling the needs of out-of-touch dad Jack (Alec Baldwin), flighty daughter Jenna (Jane Krakowski), misbehaving son Tracy (Tracy Morgan) and kooky next-door neighbor Kenneth (Jack McBrayer)—plus all the pickles she’s constantly getting herself into. The first two episodes of this third season hew a little too closely to that model. Throw in big-name stunt casting, with Megan Mullally on the season premiere and Oprah Winfrey on the following week, and it starts to feel as if 30 Rock is succeeding in spite of its narrative decisions, not because of them.
The worst episode of 30 Rock is still better than the best episode of most any other show, and these episodes are far from bad. The season picks up with a deposed Jack trying to reclaim his throne from Devon (Will Arnett), and Liz trying to prove to an adoption-agency rep that she’d make a good mother. Neither subplot is hugely comical, but scenes of Liz and Jack scheming together prove Fey and Baldwin’s recent Emmys are well deserved. 30 Rock’s ability to play loopy without being cute—like Liz dressing up as Princess Leia to get out of jury duty—continues to be its strong suit, and while we like Fey’s Sarah Palin just fine, we’re relieved to see her back as Liz Lemon.