I’m getting the feeling that the recent Golden Age of Television may be over. With Mad Men ending last night, my every-week watch list looks like this: Community (great), Boardwalk Empire (we’ll see), Bored To Death (ditto), The League (up-and-down), Modern Family (ditto), and 30 Rock (ditto). Not exactly a murderer’s row, especially for October.
Given the scarcity of decent content, I was pretty disappointed when I turned to Hulu this weekend and saw that I had two options for 30 Rock… the East and West Coast versions of a “live” show. Uh-oh… the dreaded “live” show, the worst network trope since the “vacation trip” (see: Modern Family goes to Hawaii). Both of these conventions exist to massage actors’ egos. The “vacation trip” episodes are obvious… the cast and crew get to go to an exotic location at network expense. The “live” show is more subtle… it allows overpaid, pampered actors to reassure themselves that they still have the skills that got them to where they are.
Given that the majority of its on-air talent comes from SNL (Tracy Morgan, Alec Baldwin), Second City (Scott Adsit, Jack McBrayer), or both (Tina Fey), 30 Rock seems like a perfect candidate to do a live show (although if it ever falls to the quality of SNL, I’m dunzo). There’s no doubt that it features plenty of comedians with the ability to improvise and think on their feet… if they ever do a touring show, I’m in. But could they actually do a live network show that made the gimmick worthwhile? I pressed play on the West Coast version (it was one second longer, so maybe someone farted… I could only hope).
By the midway point, I couldn’t take it anymore (it didn’t help that the episode was overloaded with 30 Rock’s kryptonite, “special guest stars”). It wasn’t that the performances were bad… I’m sure that in a club setting, they would have been fine. It wasn’t that the writing was worse than usual… although the number of jokes that referenced that the show was live was annoying.
The problem, as with all live shows, was that many of the arrows in television’s sheaf were missing. While they may get all the credit, the actors and writers are only part of the equation. Cameras, editing, music, sound effects… all of these departments do work that adds to the comedy. Many of the laughs come from cutting to or from a look at just the right moment, or using just the right angle to allow the background to inform the joke, or letting the music set the mood that the dialogue works against. During a live show, the acting and writing have to carry the entire load. Ironically, for a gimmick meant to prove the chops of the stars, a live show points out how much help they need to be successful.
Unsurprisingly, given their impressive streak broken recently only by Obama’s election, the American people have gotten together and made the wrong decision. The live episode was 30 Rock’s best rated of the season, up nearly 50% from the week before. Looks like P.T. Barnum wasn’t wrong… there’s a sucker born every minute.