At first, I felt like a gullible customer in a used car dealership when it came to NBC's buzzed-about comedy 30 Rock.
Just when I'd rave to friends or readers about a blindingly funny episode or guest star, along would come a stretch of less inspired work to make me wonder how I fell for this Hollywood bait and switch.
No more. Fresh off a round of mind-boggling triumphs (Emmy award wins for best comedy actor, actress and series, along with record attention for creator/star Tina Fey's Sarah Palin impersonation), 30 Rock returns to new episodes Thursday with some of its funniest shows ever.
The marquee episode doesn't come until Nov. 6, when queen of all media Oprah Winfrey guests as herself, sharing a flight to New York with Fey's comedy show producer Liz Lemon. It's a testament to 30 Rock's current consistency that Miss O's appearance isn't even the most notable element of an episode centered on a fight over who has it worse, white women or black men (wonder what current event inspired that story line?).
As Thursday's show opens, Alec Baldwin's ruthless GE exec Jack Donaghy is fighting to get his job back after an ill-advised detour to work in Washington. Fey's Lemon, who once saw Donaghy as the embodiment of corporate evil, is actually rooting for him to return, while bamboozling an evaluator from an adoption agency played with uncharacteristic reserve by Will & Grace alum Megan Mullally.
Of course, the heart of 30 Rock's appeal isn't the absurd story lines; it's Fey's skill in building a side-splitting family of dysfunctional characters within a pointed show-business satire that plays like a workplace comedy.
"George Bush's approval ratings went high as 15 points after the Olympics," barks Donaghy, after revealing NBC made up Olympic sports such as "synchronized running" and "octuples tennis" to boost America's medal count. The scariest moment here: The joke doesn't sound all that far-fetched.
Powered by super-sharp gag lines, effortless performances and big-name guest stars (besides Winfrey, fans this year will see Jennifer Aniston, Salma Hayek and Steve Martin), 30 Rock seems poised for even more success on a night when NBC could use some ratings juice.
Looks like Fey's charmed showbiz life is set to continue a while. See it for yourself at 9:30 p.m. Thursday on WFLA-Ch. 8.
"Three of my nine siblings were adopted. And, someday, I'm going to find them!"
Jack McBrayer as NBC page Kenneth Parcell, NBC's 30 Rock
Inside New Orleans High, 10 tonight, National Geographic Channel: Even before Hurricane Katrina's floods tore the city to shreds, New Orleans' public school system was known as one of America's most dysfunctional institutions. Here, documentary cameras peek inside the city's Walter L. Cohen High School - considered one of the most dangerous schools in the United States. The film follows three students and a new teacher through six months, which will include four other students getting shot, as they all struggle to survive at a school where more money is spent on security than books.
Coolio's Rules, 10 p.m. Tuesday, Oxygen: Leave aside the question of how a rapper with hits like Mama I'm in Love with a Gangsta landed on the women-centered network Oxygen. How did one of rap's most unlikely early hitmen wind up in a "reality" show pushing his online cooking business and playing dad to four nearly grown kids? Worst of all, every moment feels supremely scripted, from dumping food in the kids' beds when they fail to clean his kitchen to starting a catering business after making an off-the-cuff remark about it during a radio appearance.
What a difference a mistake can make: Thanks to TBS's power outage during the first 20 minutes of the Oct. 18 Tampa Bay Rays playoff game, substitute program The Steve Harvey Show emerged as the area's eighth most-watched show that week, drawing 341,000 viewers, according to Nielsen Media Research.
Factoring out the sports, including all the Rays playoff games and football matches on both CBS and NBC, here are Tampa Bay area viewers' most-watched shows during the week of Oct. 13, according to Nielsen.
Dancing With the Stars, on ABC Oct. 13; 239,000 viewers.
NCIS, on CBS Oct. 14; 221,000 viewers.
The Presidential Debate, on Fox News Channel Oct. 15; 220,000 viewers.
The Presidential Debate, on NBC Oct. 15; 210,000.
CSI, on CBS Oct. 16; 202,000.
60 Minutes, on CBS Oct. 19; 201,000.
On the Record (post-debate show), on Fox News Channel Oct. 15; 189,000.
House, on Fox Oct. 14; 183,000.
Numb3rs, on CBS Oct. 17; 183,000.
CSI: Miami, on CBS Oct. 13; 179,000.
The Mentalist, on CBS Oct. 14; 169,000.