The cast reminisces about great moments in live television: the Moon landing, the Beatles on Ed Sullivan. Then a series of "flashback" sketches offers a history of live TV. There were no big, evident glitches, and only one flubbed line, when Fey confused two characters' names early in the Eastern version. The guest stars and cameos came at a frantic pace—Paul McCartney, Jon Hamm, and Donald Glover, along with plenty of Fey's friends from her SNL days, including Jimmy Fallon, Amy Poehler.
If the writing was typically sharp, the targets of the humor were a tad familiar. A spoof of The Honeymooners lampooned the sexism in 1950s sitcoms. A send-up of NBC's Nightly News in the 1960s mocked the sexism in broadcast journalism. There were two jokes about men being scared of menstruating women, and Rick Sanatorum's name seemed woven into the story for the express purpose of demonstrating how topical live TV can be. But the larger problem—one that made this episode such an admirable failure—was another quality typical of 30 Rock—the lack of depth in the characters or a believable story. For all the sharp writing, beloved stars, and technical accomplishment, Fey and company didn't make much of a case for live TV. In fact, 30 Rock Live perfectly illustrated why the tagline "shot live before a studio audience" has gone the way of rotary dial—and it isn't money.
The episode quite naturally was clunkier than 30 Rock's usual well-lit, well-edited, and nicely scored world. That's a realm where actors are free to retake scenes a dozen times until they get exactly the desired effect. Sure, the live format is exciting. But the tension and energy isn't worth the trade-off in staginess. The format's rushed pace, along with the applause and laughter from a live crowd don't give the actors very much room to be subtle. Then again, most members of the cast aren't actors. Fey, McBreyer, and Tracy Morgan came out of sketch and improv comedy.
Fey, brilliant though she may be, has always seemed more interested in skewering the sitcom than in making one and has never seemed able to commit to characters as real human beings. Fey is too self-aware—and too much of an improv comic—which is why 30 Rock can never go two minutes without a character saying something wildly incongruous, or self-conscious, or otherwise breaking the fourth wall and reminding viewers that they are, in fact, watching a TV show.
The thing is, viewers of scripted TV shows usually don't want to be reminded they are watching an illusion. Usually people want to lose themselves in the character's lives. That's hard to do when, as on 30 Rock, the audience is always being reminded otherwise.