Tonight, Tina Fey, Alec Baldwin, and the cast of 30 Rock (including guest stars Jon Hamm and Matt Damon) will perform a live episode of the Emmy-winning NBC series, something viewers have been anticipating since it was announced this summer.
At a press conference earlier this week, Fey revealed that the episode will have a John Hughes-themed plot: Her character, Liz Lemon, will go through a story arc in which everyone forgets her birthday. The outing will also find Baldwin's Jack Donaghy trying to give up drinking in support of his pregnant fiancé and Tracy Morgan's character reveling in his love for live TV. The set up seems to be the making of a classic 30 Rock episode, but can it live up to the hype given the anticipation of a live show?
30 Rock isn't the first series to attempt a live broadcast. The Nell Carter sitcom Gimme a Break! pulled it off flawlessly in 1985. Early '90s dramedy Roc made use of its cast of accomplished stage actors—including Charles S. Dutton—to produce an entire season of live episodes. Given its premise—a background look at the production of a weekly variety series—and its cast full of sketch comedy and theater vets, 30 Rock should, on the surface, be the perfect series to contribute to the live TV library. But looking back at some of the more recent attempts at the feat raises the question: will the live episode of 30 Rock be brilliant—or just plain gimmicky?
With its 1997 season premiere, ER became the first series to broadcast two versions of a live episode, once for the East Coast and a second go-round for viewers on the West Coast. The episode featured a PBS-style documentary crew filming a day in the lives of the doctors and nurses, which worked well to transmit the tense emergency room drama—the medical procedures and general chaos—into a live format. Given the technical nature of ER and its staging, the episode was extremely exciting, and its success an impressive feat. (Watch a clip here.
Similarly, The West Wing came up with an inspired premise for a live outing: during the presidential elections of its final season, the series aired a live debate, just like one that would air during a real U.S. election. It was shot just like a NBC News debate, and featured three actors: the two candidates (played by Alan Alda and Jimmy Smits) and a moderator. The episode was so believable that a poll of viewers found them split on which candidate had "won," and delivered one of the few bright spots in the series' ratings anemic final season.
While the attempts by TV dramas at live episodes were both successful, the two most recent comedies to attempt it didn't come off as well, evoking more of a "ratings stunt" reaction than "compelling television." The Drew Carey Show became notorious for producing "event" episodes, with contrivances like "What's Wrong With This Episode?"—contests in which viewers pointed out deliberate continuity mistakes—designed to increase ratings. The series produced three live episodes in its run, featuring members of Carey's Whose Line Is it Anyway? sketch comedy team. The plot structure was very loose and largely improvised, devolving into a low-quality pandering for laughs that all amounted to very little.
Will & Grace's season eight premiere was performed live. There was no special event or impetus for the broadcast; the episode followed the series' classic sitcom structure. Aside from a sight gag that ended with the cast breaking character in a fit of giggles, the whole thing played very flat and lacked the sharpness and looseness typical of the program—kind of like filming a play and airing it on television, which often lacks spark.
So how will 30 Rock fare? SNL alums Fey, Morgan, and frequent host Baldwin should feel at home—the episode is being filmed at the actual 30 Rockefeller Plaza, in Studio 8H where SNL shoots, as opposed to in Long Island City where 30 Rock films. Castmate Jane Krakowski is a Broadway veteran and Jack McBrayer has roots in sketch comedy as well. The added element of Hamm and Damon, plus the other "friends of 30 Rock" that Krakowski teased should make the episode at the very least, lively.
But like Will & Grace there seems to be no inherent reason for this episode to be live, which could serve as a detriment. Sure, the episode will follow the production of a live television show, TGS, but so does every episode of the sitcom. The West Wing and ER excelled because their broadcasts capitalized on big storyline moments and occasions that lent themselves to a live format. Furthermore, the show's ubiquitous quick flashbacks, often the comedic highlights of an episode, will be few and far between given the logistical restrictions of filming live.
Simply put, there's the danger that, despite the caliber of talent involved, the live 30 Rock will come off as a gimmick. Tune in to NBC tonight at 8:30, when live from New York, we'll find out if it does.