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Sunday, April 29, 2012

30 Rock goes live again

This week, NBC's 30 Rock is "Live from Studio 6H." Jack (Alec Baldwin) decides that he will save the company a lot of money if they stop filming TGS live. Almost everyone agrees to the scheme except for Kenneth (Jack McBrayer), who locks twelve of the staff in a room and reminds them of the heyday of live television, shown to viewers in clips acted out by the cast. Meanwhile, Jenna (Jane Krakowski) disagrees with Paul (Will Forte) over the perfect proposal, and Hazel (Kristen Schaal) plans a stunt to get herself on air, a la Sinead O'Connor.

Quick question: Is the picture of Sinead that Hazel rips ups actually Tina Fey as Sinead?

This is the second time 30 Rock has gone live, and there's a big difference from the first time. "Live from Studio 6H" feels more like a series of skits than a cohesive story. This is bringing many of the performers back to their Saturday Night Live roots, of course, and they excel at funny shorts. But it does not really feel like an episode of 30 Rock, despite keeping much of the same spirit and tone.

Continuity is not that important this week. Last time a live show was done, Julia Louis Dreyfus (Seinfeld, Veep) played a semi-convincing Liz Lemon (Tina Fey) in a cut scene. This time, Amy Poehler (Parks and Recreation) plays Liz without even changing the color of her blond hair! Also, twelve major cast members are locked in a room, and yet somehow they keep slipping out to put on different costumes and perform various bits of "classic" NBC shows. What's up with that?

Yet, story cohesiveness is not the point of "Live from Studio 6H," so it's hard to get upset. The episode is meant to be nostalgic and humorous, and it does both rather well. The various bits play on a number of famous shows such as The Honeymooners and Laugh-In. These are comedy gold. Everything else in the episode is fluff, except for the proposal.

The cast of 30 Rock is fantastic. For "Live from Studio 6H," all the stops were pulled out in bringing even more talented people on board, most having appeared on the show before. Sadly, this means that some of the best supporting players are relegated to background status. However, all of the guest actors are terrific. Jimmy Fallon (Late Night with Jimmy Fallon) kills as a young Jack, and Donald Glover (Community) is the perfect earlier version of Tracy (Tracy Morgan), getting the mannerisms spot on. Jon Hamm (Mad Men) returns, but not as his recurring 30 Rock character. Instead, he participates in a very memorable sketch. Chris Parnell (Suburgatory) is the familiar Dr. Spaceman, and Fred Armisen (Portlandia) manages to stand out without any lines at all. Brian Williams (NBC Night News and a 30 Rock veteran) is great as an old-timey newscaster on the West Coast (Hamm takes the part for the East), and Cheyenne Jackson finally returns to the series!

And 30 Rock manages to single-handedly kill the "Zou Bisou Bisou" craze started by Mad Men only a few short weeks ago.

Because the show is live, two versions are done, one each for the East and West coasts. Thankfully, in the era of internet, both are freely available to everyone. Only a handful of jokes change, and Cheyenne and Jenna again split the theme song, which makes more sense in the East because Cheyenne's character doesn't return until mid-episode. But the East coast broadcast has a major leg up over the West, because in the East, Sir Paul McCartney gets a fantastic cameo. The West, though, is left to suffer through Kim Kardashian instead.

30 Rock is what it is. "Live from Studio 6H" is not typical, but it will not disappoint long-time viewers who delight in the zany slapstick the series thrives on. Credit must be given to the show for taking such a big chance and playing in such an unexpected sandbox.

30 Rock airs Thursdays at 8:30 p.m. ET on NBC.

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