In 2010, multi-camera NBC sitcom 30 Rock presented the episode “Live Show,” a charming experiment in filming a live episode — two, actually, one for each coast — despite the risk of flubbed lines or technical difficulties. I actually just watched the episode a few weeks ago, and I think it’s superb.
So, the news that 30 Rock will be presenting a second live show during May sweeps is mostly welcomed. The only element that gives me pause is the plot itself. Here’s the synopsis, from the Washington Post:
In the episode, when the bosses at Kabletown — new owners of NBC – announce they will no longer pay for the network’s weekly late night sketch comedy series TGS to be a live show, show exec producer Liz Lemon (Tina Fey) and network suit Jack Donaghy (Alec Baldwin) focus on how much easier their lives will be if the show is canned, fast and cheap.
It’s left to Kenneth the Page to carry the flag for the communal experience of live television. He tries to convince the TGS staff to fight to remain a live show, by taking them through a look back at the illustrious history of Studio 6H.
The original “Live Show” is about everyone forgetting Liz’s 40th birthday: Tracy wants to “break” on live TV, but Jenna is threatening to show her nipples if he does; and Jack is taking his forced sobriety, in solidarity with Avery’s pregnancy, really tough and trying to inhale alcohol fumes from people’s breath. Within all this flurry, Liz feels overlooked, not to mention old.
But if the central focus of the upcoming live show is live shows themselves, I worry that the homage will seem way too self-aware and turn out an exhausting, instead of intricate, story. It’s the difference between telling that an art form should be treasured and showing us proof of its value.
That’s not to say that “Live Show” didn’t have its self-referential moments. TGS is itself a live variety show in the style of Saturday Night Live, and at one point in the episode Tracy and Jenna’s antics cause Liz to abruptly cut to commercials. (But that gave 30 Rock the chance to showcase guest star Jon Hamm.) However, the episode also gave us winking jokes like this, when Seinfeld alum Julia Louis-Dreyfuss stands in for Liz Lemon in a cutaway that Tina Fey would never have physically been able to do.
I’m sure that things will go off without a hitch. Or they won’t, and there’ll be some funny, unscripted moment that will show that even if the plot is meta, 30 Rock isn’t always in control. Which makes for entertaining television.