Will This Be 30 Rock's Breakthrough Year?

It should be the best of times for 30 Rock, which begins its third season on Thursday. It has taken home the Emmy for outstanding comedy in consecutive seasons, and stars Tina Fey and Alec Baldwin won lead-acting Emmys as well.

What's more, the decision to delay the start of the new season in order to make room for some prime-time election-oriented Saturday Night Live specials, which was made during the summer, turned out to be an unexpected bonanza for the show after the selection of Sarah Palin as the Republican vice presidential nominee. SNL alumnus Fey became the logical choice to portray her look-alike Palin on both the regular and prime-time versions of the series, a portrayal that has made her pretty much the toast of show business. Fey-as-Palin has even popped up in ads for 30 Rock, an attempt by NBC to leverage her new prominence.

The network needs to take these unorthodox steps to promote its star and its series because 30 Rock, for all its critical acclaim and press attention, is not a hit, not even by the diminished standards of prime-time in 2008. The series almost certainly could not have survived its low-rated debut season without being championed by critics, and while its numbers were a bit more encouraging in 2007-08, the writers' strike took a toll on 30 Rock, which was cranking out classic after classic last fall but then saw its momentum interrupted.

It's all a bit reminiscent of the fate of Arrested Development, another Emmy winner and critical and cult favorite whose network, Fox, finally gave up on trying to turn into a mass hit, canceling the series after three seasons. And while it helps NBC to have one of the few series remaining on a broadcast network that the Emmy folks still deem worthy of attention, the network would probably prefer a highly rated trifle at this point. The peacock people were a distant fourth in last season's ratings race, and it is off to an even more discouraging start this season.

There is precedent for a quirky series to catch on with the public after a slow start, Seinfeld being a key example from the network's own recent Thursday night history. NBC desperately needs this to happen again. Fey herself illustrated the desire to build an audience when she spent much of her Best Comedy acceptance speech listing all of the platforms other than over-the-air NBC where 30 Rock can be seen.

The quality and critical cachet of 30 Rock has made it a popular destination for guest star spots -- witness last season's story arc with Edie Falco as the congresswoman/lover of Baldwin's Jack Donaghy, and the appearances by series rarities Carrie Fisher and David Schwimmer. The Emmy categories for guest starring roles in a comedy were dominated by 30 Rock nominees, which certainly doesn't hurt when it comes to seeking out name guests. The series is kicking off 2008-09 with its most high-profile list of guest appearances so far.

Oprah Winfrey will pop up on next week's episode, playing herself as Fey's Liz Lemon meets the legend on a plane trip. Salma Hayek will appear as the latest love interest for Jack, Jennifer Aniston will show up later in the season, and even Steve Martin, who rarely does any television outside of Fey's old SNL stomping grounds, will put in an appearance. This sort of stunt casting should attract some short-term attention, but the recent past shows that there are risks involved in airing stunt after stunt -- witness the way that a former Thursday night NBC show, Will & Grace, overdosed on the strategy.

One of the former stars of Will & Grace, Megan Mullally, appears on Thursday's premiere as an adoption agency caseworker tasked with checking out Liz's suitability for parenthood. Liz prevails upon her coworkers to please not screw things up, with predictable results. Meanwhile, Jack Donaghy endeavors to regain the power he lost at the conclusion of last season, as he battles nemesis Devon (new father Will Arnett) for control of NBC.

One open question about the impact of Fey's Palin portrayals is whether the notoriety is counterbalanced by a risk: that in a heated political environment, the show will come across as too political to draw a wide audience. Baldwin is already a bete noire to conservatives and portrays Jack as a clueless Republican; and Fey has made it clear that she doesn't have much use for the real Palin. Still, Fey's moonlighting in Campaign '08 has to be regarded as a lucky boon for a series that greatly deserves a bigger viewership.