If Rosie O’Donnell and company were consciously determined to strangle the rebirth of variety shows in the crib, they couldn’t have done a better job of it than this pre-holiday turkey. Bearing an uncanny resemblance to a particularly awful Vegas revue, “Rosie Live” awkwardly trotted out one celebrity after another before culminating with a big number featuring dancers dressed as food. Too sincere to work as kitsch, NBC’s misguided special/series-trial-balloon doubtless tested the loyalty of even O’Donnell’s most ardent fans and had anyone outside that category praying for the commercials.
Granted, O’Donnell’s syndicated daytime series and stint as a liberal voice on “The View” left her with no shortage of admirers — but egads, not like this. Emerging in a black sequined outfit, she rifled through some tepid standup musings (briefly exulting in Barack Obama’s victory) before turning the night into a musical showcase, including duets that she performed with Liza Minnelli and Gloria Estefan.
Despite the big-name talent, however, the night had a decidedly amateurish feel, from Alec Baldwin’s strained banter with the host (after entering, inexplicably, to “Jesus Christ Superstar”) to his “30 Rock” co-star Jane Krakowski singing a medley about the gifts (a.k.a. product placement) handed out to the giddy studio audience.
Beyond the teeth-grating sweetness of it all, the production itself was consistently subpar — poorly lit, badly shot, and failing to incorporate any taped bits that might have provided a respite from the live elements.
In essence, people like Conan O’Brien and Clay Aiken kept “dropping in” with absolutely nothing to do. These interludes look even more pallid when compared with Stephen Colbert’s recent Christmas spec, which had the good sense to play with the genre’s conventions.
Not so “Rosie Live,” which seemed hell-bent to approximate “The Ed Sullivan Show,” and probably had ol’ Ed spinning in his grave. The nadir came when Kathy Griffin popped by playing cable harridan Nancy Grace, after a graphic asked regarding O’Donnell’s show, “Good idea or recipe for disaster?”
Actually, reviving variety isn’t a bad idea in theory — especially for NBC, whose primetime cupboard has become inordinately bare. Still, the “disaster” description applies creatively, and unless the network can afford to dole out free GPS systems and Blackberries to bribe the TV audience along with those in the studio, one serving of “Rosie Live” should be more than enough.