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Live, from New York, It's Thursday Night!
April 26, 2012  | By David Bianculli  | 4 comments

NBC’s 30 Rock is performing and presenting this week’s episode live, a trick it pulled off successfully two years ago. But these days, is watching TV in “real time” a treat – or an annoyance?...

Thursday, April 26, marks the first day of the May ratings “sweeps.” In TV, sweeps are months – February and November are the other key ones – used to set advertising rates until the next “sweeps” come along. And the weekly tabulations are compiled from Thursday to Wednesday, which is why, this year, the May sweeps arrive in the waning days of April.

Were Thursday not a sweeps night, 30 Rock would not be mounting a costly, complicated, theoretically attention-getting live episode  at 8:30 p.m. ET – and then another live version three hours later, for the benefit of viewers on the West Coast. Stars Tina Fey, Alec Baldwin and Tracy Morgan couldn’t feel more at home for this live event: It’s broadcast from Studio 8-H, the home of Saturday Night Live.

The episode itself should be fun, and go well (the 2010 one was a delight, with such unannounced celebrity cameos by Julia Louis-Dreyfus "standing in" for Fey's Liz Lemon, and other surprises). But I wonder: Does “live” generate the excitement it should on TV any more? In the 21st century, when many people time-shift their shows and watch at their own convenience, could having to watch something “live” – other than sports or breaking news – be seen as a giant step backwards?

And truthfully, that’s exactly what it is. No one made a big deal of live TV when television began in the late 1940s, because that’s all there was. But just as the medium eventually adopted color, it also embraced pre-recording, so live became a novelty, not a necessity.

It recent decades, it has been a novelty – and produced some exceptional TV. George Clooney and his gang did an episode of NBC’s ER live in 1997. In 2005, NBC’s West Wing held a live “presidential debate” between candidates played by Alan Alda and Jimmy Smits.

And in comedy, special live episodes were presented, over the years, by The Drew Carey Show and Will & Grace. The Fox sitcom Roc, starring Charles S. Dutton as a garbageman, did an entire season live in 1992-93.

But the habits of audiences, like the shapes of TVs, were different then. I’m still excited by the prospect of watching actors put everything on the line and deliver a performance that’s unique to that moment, and that evening. It’s why I love the theater.

But live alone isn’t a guarantee of great entertainment, as almost any episode of Saturday Night Live will attest. It’s got to be special, and I suspect, from a writing and directing standpoint, 30 Rock, going live once again, will be.

But will there by a measurable ratings spike, which is the only reason NBC agreed to this stunt? Probably not enough to count.

Why bother, some people will say, when I can just wait for the DVD?

And other people, I’m afraid, will say, “Who watches 30 Rock?”

They should be, though. And watching live, on a rare night when 30 Rock actually is performed, in real time, from 30 Rock.

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(2 of 2) ...then you know what I mean.) The funniest moments can be when the cast gets thrown off by an unexpected moment, and there were a few in here. Still, it was great! I just fear that this is one of the last bastions of smart TV comedy on the networks, and that flame is close to going out. But for tonight, bravo, guys and gals of 30 Rock!
Apr 27, 2012   |  Reply
David Bianculli
Well said, sir.
Apr 27, 2012
I saw the West Coast performance earlier tonight. Very funny, though not always split-second crisp. Little smirks and giggles crept in, and while it detracted from "perfection", it made the totality of the experience that much more fun as a viewer. (If you remember the SNL cast losing it during a "Debbie Downer" skit a few years back... (1 of 2)
Apr 27, 2012   |  Reply
Oh, sweeps week. I'm not sure I could come up with a worse method of collecting statistical data if I tried.
Apr 26, 2012   |  Reply
David Bianculli
Sure you could. Ask a bunch of young editors at a magazine or TV show to compile a list of "all-time" anything.
Apr 27, 2012
Loved it the last time they did this, and looking forward to tonight's show. It's a bold move for one of the best written and performed shows on tv; sad that so few have signed on for this show. I end up watching "on demand" the next day as it's almost impossible to catch all the clever writing first time around - especially Alec Baldwin's Jack.
Apr 26, 2012   |  Reply
David Bianculli
So what did you think? And the OnDemand idea is a great tip. Thanks!
Apr 27, 2012
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