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TERRY GROSS, Host:

He took on those roles after Tina Fey left the show to develop her NBC comedy series, "30 Rock." In addition to creating "30 Rock," she stars in it and has written some of the episodes, including the first episode of season three, which you can see tomorrow night on NBC when "30 Rock" returns. Our TV critic, David Bianculli, says, it's just as funny and clever as ever, but there may be a difference this time. This time, he says, people might actually watch it.

DAVID BIANCULLI: Tina Fey's amazing ride as Sarah Palin, imitating the Republican vice presidential nominee on "Saturday Night Live" and in primetime, began less than two months ago. That's when Fey made her first appearance as the governor of Alaska, sharing the same podium as Amy Poehler as Hillary Clinton, and the audience's sheer delight was obvious immediately.

(SOUNDBITE TV SHOW "SATURDAY NIGHT LIVE")

TINA FEY: (As Governor Sarah Palin) You know, Hillary and I don't agree on everything...

AMY POEHLER: (As Senator Hillary Clinton) Anything.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

POEHLER: (As Senator Hillary Clinton) I believe that diplomacy should be the cornerstone of any foreign policy.

FEY: (As Governor Sarah Palin) And I can see Russia from my house.

(SOUNDBITE OF APPLAUSE)

POEHLER: (As Senator Hillary Clinton) I believe global warming is caused by man.

FEY: (As Governor Sarah Palin) And I believe it's just God hugging us closer.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

POEHLER: (As Senator Hillary Clinton) I don't agree with the Bush doctrine.

POEHLER: (As Governor Sarah Palin) And I don't know what the...

(SOUNDBITE OF APPLAUSE)

BIANCULLI: Also in September, Tina Fey went to the Emmy Awards and won a bunch of them. Her NBC sitcom, "30 Rock," won as Best Comedy. She won for Best Comedy Writing and for acting, and her co-star, Alec Baldwin, won as Best Actor. All those wins were deserved. The only thing that's not deserved is how few people are watching the show. Forget the Top 10 or the Top 20 or even the Top 40. Last season, the audience of "30 Rock," right in the middle of what used to be known as NBCs "Must See TV" Thursday line-up, didn't even make the overall Top 100. That's a sin. But it's a sin that just might be corrected this season.

One of this month's installments of "Saturday Night Live" featuring special guests both Tina Fey and the real Sarah Palin, earned the show its highest ratings in 14 years. Even though it was a late night program, it drew so many viewers it would have wound up in that week's Top 10, beating all but a handful of primetime shows. So the question is, will the people who flock the Tina Fey as Sarah Palin on SNL follow her to primetime and support Tina Fey as TV producer of Liz Lemon on "30 Rock"? Boy, I hope so. And there are two reasons to be hopeful.

One reason is that the three special primetime editions of "Saturday Night Live's Weekend Update," two of which featured Tina Fey, did very well in the ratings. And they aired on Thursdays in the same timeslot to which "30 Rock" returns this week. The other reason is that "30 Rock," as it begins its third season, is sharper than ever, and it was plenty sharp to begin with.

Last season ended with Alec Baldwin's Jack Donaghy giving up his NBC executive job to work for the government. This season begins with him returning to New York in hopes of reclaiming his old job. And he and Tina Fey's Liz Lemon are reunited in the very first scene. And it's a cleverly staged scene, too. Liz is making her way down a Manhattan sidewalk dressed and walking unusually girlishly.

The soundtrack emphasizes this and pokes fun at it by playing a piece of music that's very "Sex and the City." And Liz even encounters her own Mr. Big - a guy in a limo who rolls down his window and says something to her. At first, she's insulted. But when it turns out to be Jack, she hops out of the limo, they awkwardly almost hug, and the two of them walk very briskly down the street in a delightfully rapid fire, screwball comedy walking.

ALEC BALDWIN: (As Jack Donaghy) Hello, pussycat.

FEY: (As Liz Lemon) Ah, really. A lot of ladies get right into the car after that line, you creepy piece of - Jack! What are you...

BALDWIN: (As Jack Donaghy) Oh, I'm sorry. Oh, hi.

FEY: (As Liz Lemon) Come out.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

FEY: (As Liz Lemon) When did you get back from D.C.? How did you get out of your government job?

BALDWIN: (As Jack Donaghy) Uhm, I'm not at liberty to discuss that. That information is classified, at least until Cheney dies, which is going be a long time from now. That man is mostly metal. The important thing is I'm here, and I'm going to get my old job back.

FEY: (As Liz Lemon) Yes! Please come back, Jack. Devin is the worst. It's like he doesn't even care when we should have cake for people whose birthdays are on the weekend.

BALDWIN: (As Jack Donaghy) The Friday before, at lunch. So what's with the outfit, Lemon? Did the people from that makeover show finally respond to your letter?

FEY: (As Liz Lemon) Oh no. I am dressed up because the adoption agency is doing my home evaluation today.

BALDWIN: (As Jack Donaghy) Just be yourself, Lemon.

FEY: (As Liz Lemon) I'm going to be better than myself. My apartment is spotless. I have practiced all my answers. I got rid of all my Colin Firth movies in case they considered them erotica.

BALDWIN: (As Jack Donaghy) That man can wear a sweater.

FEY: (As Liz Lemon) There is no chance that I'm blowing this.

BIANCULLI: There's so much to love about "30 Rock," and I've gushed about this show from the very start, so I won't repeat myself here. But the more you get to know this rich collection of characters, the more you'll adore them all. And I also love the writing on this show, which very smartly surprises you just when you think you know where things are going.

Even next week's show, which features Oprah Winfrey as a special guest star, uses her in a way that's unexpectedly and wonderfully hilarious. For the real Sarah Palin, election day isn't until next week. For the fake Sarah Palin, that is for Tina Fey and "30 Rock," the time to vote is now. I'm David Bianculli, and I approved this message.

GROSS: David Bianculli is TV critic for tvworthwatching.com and teaches TV and film studies at Rowan University.

Coming up, the McCain campaign has been accusing Barack Obama of having socialist leanings. Our linguist, Geoff Nunberg, considers the emotions the word socialism stirs up in many Americans. This is Fresh Air.

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