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’30 Rock’ live — and kicking

It sometimes seems like NBC’s “30 Rock” is beyond criticism. Tina Fey’s write-what-you-know, single camera sitcom has been a critical darling since its premiere and maintained its status as an accolade magnet ever since. Decorated with Emmys, SAG awards, Peabody awards, and Golden Globes, “30 Rock” seems to have fallen off the top of the award tree and hit every branch on the way down. And for the most part, this is all acclaim well-earned. But the success of this week’s hilarious and first-ever live episode brought some of the show’s weaknesses into focus.

“30 Rock” has never performed particularly well in ratings, and that’s not surprising. This is unapologetically a show about the “East Coast, liberal media elite,” and that’s pretty much the most negative thing you can say about anyone in America these days. So if relatability is at all a measure of watchability, it’s no surprise that this show gets flogged by “$#*! My Dad Says” on a regular basis.

Tina Fey rehearses a scene from Thursday’s live episode of “30 Rock.” (Photo: NBC)

But before we condemn the program as too-high-falutin’ for the USA, we shouldn’t ignore its obvious strengths. “30 Rock” is funniest when it indulges in clever wordplay and absurdist quipping. There’s something exactly right about Jack’s (Alec Baldwin) famous exchange with Liz (Fey), where he unsuccessfully attempts to make a joke about his hero, former GE boss, Jack Welch. He quips: “Jack Welch has such unparalleled management skills they named Welch’s Grape Juice after him, because he squeezes the sweetest juice out of his workers’ mind grapes.” Dumbfounded, Liz gently tells him this doesn’t make any sense. But the audience was almost with him for a second, and therein lies the giggle.

Tracy Morgan has at least one or two brilliantly crazy lines every episode as the spoiled, out-to-lunch movie star Tracy Jordan. And Fey is never afraid to be the butt of her own jokes, often in the form of hilarious self-deprecating flashbacks.

But despite these moments, which are plentiful enough, there is flimsiness to “30 Rock” that can’t be ignored – and that may be why more people aren’t watching. It’s brainy and neurotic for sure, but it’s almost completely lacking passion. There’s not very much in the way of subtlety here, and even after four seasons, real character depth and high-stakes situations are hard to come by. Most of the actual story in “30 Rock” comes from a seemingly endless parade of romantic plotlines. And with the exception of a small arc with Jon Hamm as a doctor who is used to getting by on his looks, they’ve almost always been un-engaging.

More interestingly, the dynamic between Jack and Liz is devoid of any “will they or won’t they” tension, which is too bad for a show that could use some tension now and then. It may be too clean, too polished, too self-conscious to be great. This is a show about rich people, with problems so surface-y it’s hard to do more than wait for the next funny one-liner as the story unfolds.

Don’t get me wrong, I don’t think sitcoms need “heart” to be funny – just look at Seinfeld, the least mushy show in history. But I do think they need some layer of pathos, which “30 Rock” doesn’t and Seinfeld had in spades. For a sitcom to play well to a wide audience, viewers need to identify with the characters and their predicaments, even if that means identifying with their own worst selves. Because it doesn’t speak from the gut, “30 Rock” doesn’t work for most of America.

And yet, 30 Rock’s brainy mastery of the well-delivered gag is why this week’s SNL-esque live show worked so brilliantly. The humor the show does best really sings in a sketch setting – and because it was an authentic do or die, one-take situation the intensity the show so often lacks manifested in a big way. Fey and company managed a real triumph, by out-SNLing SNL.  It was fast-paced, inventive, and delightfully meta. (The episode starts out with Baldwin’s character looking around the set wondering why things seem so different.) Particularly successful was a running joke about the pluses and minuses of breaking character while performing live.

None of this is to say that “30 Rock” would be better served by changing formats permanently, but this week’s experiment was a good indicator of what it might be lacking. It was cathartic to see a messier version of the show, and I watched both the East Coast and West Coast versions getting laughs both times around. And if it worked so well for this member of the “East Coast media liberal elite” I bet a little more intensity wouldn’t cost Tina and company too many Emmys in the future.

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