October 14th, 2010
The most common word I’m seeing in evaluating tonight’s 30 Rock is “experiment,” which is more evaluative than you might think.
We call it an experiment because it wasn’t actually very good. This is not to say that I didn’t enjoy tonight’s 30 Rock (I did), or that the episode was a failure (it wasn’t). If the episode had actually lived up to expectations, we’d call it a risk worth taking, or a ballsy decision, but instead we consider it a one-off experiment in order to better reconcile its struggles within the show’s larger creative efforts.
As noted, I thought “Live Show” was fun, and think that there were parts of the way the episode was designed which worked quite nicely, but any deeper commentary built into the episode was killed by the live format. Many of the jokes landed, and a couple of the meta moments were successful, but any character development and much of the potential meta-commentary were lost in the midst of audience laughter.
The most directly successful elements of “Live Show” were those which required no context: throwing Dr. Spaceman and Jon Hamm’s Drew into SNL commercial situations (which I hear were different on the East and West coasts), it’s basically just like an SNL skit. It’s not particularly brilliant, but mock commercials feel incredibly comfortable in this form, which 30 Rock as a whole does not.
The two leads, of course, feel comfortable: Fey and Baldwin know Studio 8H quite well, which gives them a definite advantage. We open with Liz and Jack not just because they’re our leads, but because you know they’ll be able to make the live comedy work. And yet once we get to Jonathan in the lobby, you realize that it won’t all work that well: Maulik Pancholy is a fine actor, but the rhythm of the scene is all off. The antagonism seems sudden and broad, the water bottle gag seems gimmicky, and while I can see how Jonathan’s existing characterization inspired this scene it seems entirely absent within the scene itself.
This happened with most of the characters, which isn’t entirely uncommon for 30 Rock: after all, Jenna taped vs. Jenna live really wasn’t much of a difference, considering how broad the character is on a regular basis. However, what we saw in “Live Show” didn’t feel like acting, it felt like recitation – those who avoided this trap, meanwhile, were left with pretty broad interpretations of the material (Jack McBrayer, in particular, whose Kenneth was given a very small, purely comic role). For me, 30 Rock is nothing without its heart, and it seemed like this hour was missing it: Liz seemed overly obsessed about her birthday, Jack seemed one-minded about his desire to quite drinking, and every character seemed to be missing the humanizing moment we might have gotten had not audience laughter been king. We got plenty of Jeff Richmond’s jaunty score, but where were those quiet melodies that usually go hand-in-hand?
However, I don’t want to make it seem as if the show is of no value now that it was all jokes and little character development: I laughed at many of the jokes, and I enjoyed the novelty of the live environment. What I found most interesting, though, were the comments made regarding the liveness of the episode. In some instances, this was through broad meta-commentary: Jenna singing lyrics to the theme song relating to the live episode is an example, something that is clearly outside of the show and its characters. However, some of its was much more subtle, in particular Tracy’s storyline in the episode. His discussion of “breaking,” Horatio Sanz’s favourite pastime, is explicitly a conversation about the value of liveness, and thus his storyline goes beyond “Ha ha, we’re live” to an actual dissection of how live comedy operates.
Tracy Morgan is obviously quite experienced at this, but what’s interesting is that his character is by far the least “natural” of any of the characters. When he was performing as Obama in the sketch within the show, he was emphasizing the liveness of a fictional sketch taking place within a fictional television show within a television show which is being aired live. The layers of representation there are thick, and yet Tracy can break through them because he is always playing for the fences: from the shared professions to the identical first names, Tracys Morgan and Jordan more or less blend together, which makes him the ideal character to break the fictional 3rd 4th wall in an episode without a real one.
However, while I appreciated that part of the episode, it sort of speaks to the episode’s problem. The reason Tracy breaking wasn’t successful is that he did it on purpose: it was forced liveness, and by calling attention to himself the impact was lost (or, rather, displaced from liveness to Tracy’s behaviour). And while I appreciated the episode as a fun diversion, I couldn’t help but feel that any impact the episode could have had beyond novelty was lost in the way it called attention to itself. Sold as an event, “Live Show” became something completely separate from 30 Rock, unrecognizable beyond the actors involved and the basic setting. With character largely off the table, this felt like like the cast of 30 Rock putting on a live performance instead of a live performance of 30 Rock.
Of course, I say all of this and still laughed quite a bit. I think “fun” is the word I’m seeing most often outside of experiment, and I agree: Julia Louis-Dreyfus as Liz’s dream self was extremely clever, the way they used the camera spin to mimic the dream state was ingenious, and I thought the topicality of the Brett Favre and Chilean miner jokes was a nice gesture to SNL’s topicality. Plus, some of the story elements worked live in ways they might not have on tape: Jenna’s alien arms, for example, would have seemed bizarre on screen, but something about it just worked live. Similarly, when things got out of control at the episode’s conclusion when the Janitor’s birthday was stolen for Liz, and Rachel Dratch was on Scott Adsit’s back clawing his eyes out, that was just plain funny. The simple humour in the episode hit far better live than it would have ever worked on tape, so the end result was enjoyable.
It was not, however, 30 Rock, nor were any of these characters truly recognizable. I think “Live Show” ended up defined by those gags and unable to say anything substantial about the show’s characters, basic notions of liveness, or pretty much anything. I consider this less a failure and more a missed opportunity, though – as a comic diversion featuring Matt Damon, Jon Hamm and Alec Baldwin in a hand-knitted poncho, this was just fine.
- Open question: why do you think Rachel Dratch left the show in the first place? Was it simply too odd to have one actress playing multiple characters? Or was there no longer room for characters who wouldn’t be around the following week?
- On the East Coast airing: Hamm’s commercial was fine, but I preferred Spaceman, simply for the air quotes on “Doctor.” I’m a sucker for air quotes, and Drew isn’t able to close the quotation. Point, Spaceman.
- Two difficulties for the show when filmed live: establishing time of day and pace. You can’t show Liz walking down a hallway, or establish that it is night or day. That kept the rhythm of the episode from feeling even close to similar to 30 Rock, in my book.
- I think my favourite bit of writing in the episode was Carol co-opting the surprise party.
- Bit of an awkward moment when Jenna talked about her boyfriend, and I realized she was talking about Will Forte, who of course just quite SNL, whose studios were used for this episode.
- As I noted on Twitter, the Jon Hamm commercial we got in the early airing was a direct ripoff of the Season 2 Angel episode “Dead End” (which I reviewed recently) in which Wolfram & Hart is stealing appendages from criminals and giving them to employees.