TV Shows That Went Live: A Recent History

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When 30 Rock decided to do a live episode last night, it might have been a ratings success, but it was hardly a first in the world of television. Casts with far less Saturday Night Live experience — and much more dramatic scripts — have thrown down the live gauntlet, with mixed results. In general, the move can be a ploy for a re-sparking of audience interest or a bumbling failure that threatens to derail a show’s narrative arc. Here, we look at what happened when a handful of other TV series went live.

Roc (First live in 1992)

Roc was a dramedy on Fox starring Charles S. Dutton that ran for three seasons, from 1991 to 1994. Perhaps taking the crown for risk, producers decided to do the entire second season of the show live. Writers used this real-time aspect to deal with extremely current issues, including the 1992 presidential election. Or maybe they were just proving to viewers that they were, in fact, broadcasting live.

ER (First live in 1997)

Hospital drama ER premiered its fourth season (September 25, 1997) with a live episode called “Ambush,” which was framed as a PBS documentary. At one point, the camera man actually gets bowled over during an argument with a patient’s fellow gang members. While the premise sounds interesting and believable, actors had difficulty adapting. Salon points out that Laura Innes (playing Dr. Kerry Weaver) temporarily forgets she’s supposed to using crutches. Here’s an interview with the crew after the west coast performance:

The Drew Carey Show (First Live in 1999)

Drew Carey’s sitcom performed three live episodes between 1999 and 2001. Carey and cast one-upped previous crews by performing their episodes three times, for Eastern, Mountain, and Pacific time zones, with many of the lines improvised. From this clip it seems like another episode of Carey’s improv show Whose Line is it Anyway right down to a gimmicky bell forcing actors to improvise. However there are interesting similarities between this clip and 30 Rock‘s episode, including how to deal with flashbacks and a couple of guest stars.

The West Wing (First live in 2005)

West Wing producers decided to do a live episode during season 7 in 2005. Why? The series’ plot called for a Presidential debate between actors Alan Alda and Jimmy Smits. As executive producer John Welles explains in a documentary about the episode, “We don’t do live television unless we think there’s really a compelling reason to do it. I mean in the instance of this, we felt that the only way to really get the intensity of a presidential live debate was to do it live.” Unfortunately, as Salon put it, the episode felt “canned as the supposedly micromanaged alternative” and “an interruption of regularly scheduled programming.”

Will & Grace(First live in 2005)

Will & Grace broadcast the premiere of their 8th season (September 29, 2005) live in honor of it being their last. Since the sitcom is usually filmed in front of a live audience, the aspect of broadcasting the show live wasn’t as foreign to the show as dramas like ER and The West Wing, or even 30 Rock. In a strange coincidence, Alec Baldwin guest-starred in the premiere. Later in the season they did another live episode, which took place mostly in a bathroom, and included plenty of “breaks.” Here’s a clip.