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andrew ryan: television

Don't let Tina Fey's bewildered expression fool you. She may be small and soft-spoken, but she's always in charge.

Possibly you've noticed Ms. Fey making the talk-show rounds this week in promotion of her bestselling memoir Bossypants. On Monday, she was the reason to stay up past midnight for The Late, Late Show with Craig Ferguson. On Tuesday, Fey was her usual charming self on The Ellen DeGeneres Show. Later that night, there she was again, looking right smart in her little black maternity dress on Conan.

Also earlier this week, Fey made a live appearance at a Los Angeles theatre with comedian Steve Martin for what was apparently a very entertaining interview session. The interview was immediately followed by an hour-long confab in which Fey dutifully signed copies of her books.

The astounding aspect of Fey's talk-show marathon is that she's currently five months pregnant. In most of the past week's TV spots, she's focused less on pushing the book and spent more time talking about the impending birth of her second child, due later this summer (and unconsciously rubbing her baby bump as she does it). That's just how Tina Fey rolls.

This mama is media-savvy, though, and on each talk-show appearance, Fey gently interrupted the baby talk long enough to make note of the 100th episode of 30 Rock (NBC, CITY-TV, 10 p.m.).

Tina Fey remains the primary reason to watch 30 Rock, which marks the occasion tonight with an hour-long episode. Like Mary Tyler Moore before her, Fey can turn the world on with her smile.

Edging toward the close of its fifth season, 30 Rock is still the funniest show on TV, or at least the sharpest comedy currently airing on network television. Yes, Modern Family is brilliant and yes, The Big Bang Theory has its moments, but 30 Rock is smarter, faster and, unlike most modern sitcoms, it still takes place in the real world.

The fact that 30 Rock has managed to remain consistently funny of late is probably a tribute to Fey, who holds rank as executive producer on the series. Whereas her TV persona of harried TV producer Liz Lemon is adorably clueless, Fey has quietly kept the show running in rocky times.

The past several months have not been bump-free for the cast or creators of 30 Rock. Fey's former SNL co-star Tracy Morgan, who plays the addled comic Tracy Jordan on the series, was notably absent for several episodes after kidney-transplant surgery.

Also throwing a spanner in the works was the pregnancy of cast regular Jane Krakowski. Her character, the self-centred Jenna, is decidedly not pregnant in the 30 Rock plotline. For most of her scenes this season, Jenna has been shown carrying a large handbag, or some other convenient object, to conceal her own baby bump.

And then, the Alec Baldwin incident.

Earlier this month, Baldwin, who has earned two Emmys for his portrayal of the insecure network executive Jack Donaghy, ruffled some feathers by telling a reporter that the next season of 30 Rock would be its last, which seemed to be news to NBC and everyone on the show. The next day, Baldwin recanted, or at least clarified, his statement.

The sad news is that Baldwin was very likely speaking the truth. The 100-episode milestone is famously known as the point at which a network show becomes eligible for second-run syndication in the United States.

NBC has officially renewed 30 Rock for a sixth season, but once the show starts making more money airing in the dinner-hour market than it does in prime time, its days are numbered. Which is probably ample reason to enjoy the show now, while it's still fresh.

As in real life, tonight's episode finds The Girly Show, 30 Rock's dysfunctional show-within-a-show, approaching its 100th episode - and imminent cancellation. Liz and Jack plead with network boss Hank Hooper (Ken Howard, in a marvellous comedic turn) to give them one last chance. Hooper agrees, with the strict proviso that the landmark episode showcase the unique comic talents of Tracy - who of course has gone missing without a trace.

In other developments, comedy art imitates life as Jenna contemplates motherhood, with the dim page Kenneth (Jack McBrayer) possibly playing a part, and there are guest cameos from Tom Hanks, Michael Keaton and Condoleezza Rice. Yes, that Condoleezza Rice.

And the calm in the centre of the storm tonight remains, as it should be, the unsinkable Liz Lemon, seemingly frantic and overwhelmed but always keeping the show on its rails. Of course Liz is the only person capable of locating Tracy, or putting out any of the other fires that inevitably surface within the 30 Rock universe. Like Tina Fey or any other good mother, she's completely in charge.

Check local listings.

John Doyle returns on Monday.

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