On Wednesday night, NBC presents a pair of new comedies that could not be more mismatched. The network surely is hoping that funny is funny, but the problem here is that only one of the two consistently brings laughs.
That would be "30 Rock," the second of NBC's TV shows about TV shows to hit the air this fall. Created by and starring former "Saturday Night Live" head writer/"Weekend Update" anchor Tina Fey, the show gets an enormous boost from a brilliant Alec Baldwin and has a number of other things to recommend it.
Its companion, "Twenty Good Years," also has star power in the form of John Lithgow ("3rd Rock from the Sun") and Jeffrey Tambor ("Arrested Development"). Unfortunately, though, their theatrical natures get the better of them, resulting in the scenery-chewingest sitcom to come along in years.
The two veteran actors play long-time friends and leading-edge baby boomers who realize their time on this Earth is starting to grow short. Thrice-divorced surgeon John (Lithgow) is headed into forced semi-retirement, and widower Jeffrey (Tambor), a judge, is being backed into a marriage he doesn't want by his girlfriend (guest star Judith Light).
So the two make a pact to stop being scared of life and live it to the fullest -- which, in the premiere, includes Lithgow in a Speedo. Everything is big, Big, BIG on this show, and it starts to wear on a viewer after a little while. You almost have to respect the way the two leads shamelessly play to the studio audience in nearly every scene, but a little of that goes a long, long way.
By contrast, the single-camera, no-laugh track "30 Rock" goes about its business with far more subtlety. It's the story of Liz Lemon (Fey), the creator of a sketch-comedy series called "The Girlie Show." She has a neurotic star (Jane Krakowski), a batch of unruly writers (Judah Friedlander and Keith Powell chief among them) and, to her chagrin, a new boss at NBC, Jack Donaghy (Baldwin).
Baldwin, a frequent "Saturday Night Live" host, plays Donaghy as a sort of marketing savant with, it would seem, limited personal skills. He's also fantastically weird and funny -- his delivery is just a touch off what you might expect, and it adds up to the best comedic performance of the new season.
Donaghy also convinces, or maybe manipulates, Liz into hiring wack-job movie star Tracy Jordan (Tracy Morgan, another "SNL" alumnus) to star in "The Girlie Show," a decision that freaks out her writing staff and especially her star. Krakowski does the insecure-actress thing quite well, but particularly in the second episode, Morgan's character dominates the action to the detriment of some of the others.
A better balance between the two men upheaving Liz's life would suit "30 Rock" well in the future. But I'll still take "30" over "Twenty" in a heartbeat.