The Live “30 Rock.”

The most likely outcome of last night’s live 30 Rock was that it would play like a good, extended SNL sketch. It was broadcast from the SNL studio, directed by an SNL director (Beth McCarthy Miller). Tina Fey was head writer on SNL, and you might have expected her to fall into old patterns when back on the SNL stage.

But the show didn’t play like that. To my astonishment and delight, it played like something from the “golden age” of live television, bringing back memories of Playhouse 90 and Studio One, shows that successfully adapted the immediacy of theater for the medium of television; in moments, it also resembled ABC’s “live-on-tape” Stage 67 musicals like Stephen Sondheim’s Evening Primrose. An SNL sketch tends to play flat in its use of physical space. You get a lot of side-to-side, but not a lot of front-to-back; the camera doesn’t move much, and instead you get cutting from one static camera angle to another. The visual compositions on this live 30 Rock had depth, peopled in every plane, with central characters moving through scenes in the front-to-back dimension naturally, the camera dollying with them in long, fluid setups.

I wonder if this is simply what happens when you take a 30 Rock script that could have been written for filming and, for a stunt or “to see if you can,” do it live instead. That’s possible. It’s also possible Tina Fey adjusted her recipe because she wanted to capture the long-thought-dead flavor of Playhouse 90, out of affection for the style and the period; not so much working on a dare within the limits of live, theatrical television as reveling in its opportunities. That’s where I lean, because the episode was too successful for that not to have been her intention. What doesn’t seem likely is that she and the cast and crew approached it as an SNL sketch only longer. It didn’t feel at all like that.

The show, because it was contemporary in its humor and energy, proved that there is nothing dated about the techniques of live dramatic television–and honestly, that surprised me. I would have guessed the style was past its retirement age by forty-five years and would never work again. Hail Tina Fey.

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