By Hank Stuever
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, October 15, 2010; C01
As stunt television goes, none could have been more meta than Thursday night's admirable live episode of NBC's "30 Rock," in which a show about a "Saturday Night Live"-like TV show that stars actual "SNL" alum as its writers and cast tried to do 22 minutes of live comedy, while staying true to "30 Rock's" postmodern, chock-a-block, blink-and-you'll-miss-the-joke editing style.
Tina Fey and company accomplished the task with verve to spare, at least on Eastern/Central time. (An encore, taped live for Pacific/Mountain time, happened too late to review here, but something tells me we'll all play critic for most of Friday, once NBC posts both versions to the Web for viewers to make side-by-side comparisons.)
Aided by guest cameos from Julia Louis-Dreyfus (in this episode's most brilliant move, she was cast as Fey's Liz Lemon look-alike for the show's trademark swooshback segues), Jon Hamm, Matt Damon and a much-missed Rachel Dratch, the "30 Rock" cast almost seamlessly hit every complicated cue and set-up. "Does it seem weird in here to you?" Jack Donaghy (Alec Baldwin) asked Liz in the opening scene.
He compared the show's live-video screenosphere (as opposed to its usual filmed look) to "a Mexican soap opera."
My first thought was "Three's Company"-O-Vision, but really, we'd know that look anyplace: It's the comforting video tones of an episode of "SNL."
But rather than be pinned down by an "SNL" sketch's fixed camera positions, "30 Rock" worked hard to replicate its usual frenzy, which meant a lot of moving cameras. The episode wasn't long enough to ask for a Dramamine, but all the motion certainly added to the thrill.
Built around one of its usual wafer-thin story lines, the episode centered on how everyone forgot Tina's 40th birthday and how Alec gave up drinking as a show of solidarity to his pregnant fiancée.
I mean Liz's 40th birthday and Jack's teetotaling. Why is "30 Rock" the only show in which I'm constantly having to remind myself to call the actors by their characters' names? Perhaps its because "30 Rock" is the only show to assume that its audience possesses PhDs in applied ironics, able to quickly navigate their way through its constant mishmash of the absurd.
"30 Rock," and everyone involved in it, has always assumed that the world beyond Rockefeller Plaza has unlimited fascination for the assembly process behind "Saturday Night Live." Should you not be one of those people, then "30 Rock" can many weeks seem like a pre-"Office" chore. It is a show people frequently rattle off whenever I ask them what they like to watch, but it's also a show they almost never talk much about anymore, or quote from, or seem to enjoy. I would bet that some of your DVRs have more than a few unwatched "30 Rocks" in the queue. Mine always does. Perhaps the live "30 Rock" will remind us wayward fans how much fun these people can be to watch.
But this was not the occasion for a full diagnosis. There simply wasn't enough time to do anything but chuckle -- especially in the rare moments that we saw attempts at actual skits in "30 Rock's" fictional live comedy show, "TGS."
This has always been "30 Rock's" intentional blind spot -- to show almost zilch of a "show" that the characters are working on -- and from what little we saw Thursday night, maybe that's a good thing. Hamm's "SNL"-style faux-mercial about replacement limbs for amputees (using limbs harvested from executed prisoners) had that same weird whiff of racism that sometimes mars an "SNL" sketch. It's no real surprise to learn that the writers at "TGS" struggle with mediocrity in the exact same way as "SNL's" writers, and maybe that's yet another sly joke from Fey's subconscious.
Inspired by the cut-ups and blown lines in vintage "Carol Burnett Show" sketches (which were taped, in case anyone had forgot) Tracy Morgan's character decided to "throw" sketches in which he played President Obama and Oprah Winfrey, hoping that the "TGS" audience (which was the "30 Rock" audience; keep following me, here, if you can) would find his crack-ups and blown lines as hilarious as Burnett's studio audiences did in the 1970s.
That's a lot of work for a joke. And were Morgan's furtive glances at cue cards during the show part of the shtick? Or part of the process?
No matter. "30 Rock" live is just the sort of semi-daring attempt that TV has needed lately. It also asked of us something we hardly ever give anymore, except to dancing competitions, the NFL and the occasionally highly hyped episode of "SNL": our undivided, communal attention. Even if you watched a couple of minutes behind on your DVR, you were late to the show.
Because live is still, even now, live. At the credits, in one of those "SNL"-but-not-"SNL" ensemble group hugs of exhausted congratulations, Jenna Maloney (Jane Krakowski) blurted to Liz/Tina: "Are we still on the air?!"
But was that Jane asking or was it Jenna?
In that moment, meta became more meta than meta ever was.