Live TV Sitcom Enthralls Viewers With Lively Intimacy

TV live. What a concept. In the age of the canned sitcom and the enhanced laugh track, the Fox Network comedy "Roc" is attempting to recapture the old-fashioned immediacy of live television (at least, Eastern and Central time; Mountain and Pacific zones get a tape delay). Successful in its taped format last year, the show dared to go live one night and scored higher in the ratings than ever before. Then, HBO Independent Productions decided to try a whole season live.

So far, so good. The first two shows of the season have been a lot of fun. The trailers have even encouraged viewers to tune in just to see who might blow a line (star Charles S. Dutton flubbed during the season premiere), encouraging the public to engage in the risk of live performance. But the theatrically trained actors don't goof much, and they do create a lively intimacy.

The show's situation involves a working-class black garbage collector (Dutton), and his wife, a nurse (Ella Joyce). They share their home with Roc's father (Carl Gordon) and his unemployed brother (Rocky Carroll). Conflicts arise between Roc's hard-work ethic and his brother's jazzier lifestyle. Rocky Carroll plays brother Joey in sharp edges. Ms. Joyce's Eleanor is a supportive, loving wife and a woman of strength and intelligence. Mr. Gordon's Andrew retains his dignity with an abrasive wit. He both de fies and supports his working-stiff son.

But it's Roc's world. The show was designed for Mr. Dutton by creator Stan Daniels ("Taxi," "Mary Tyler Moore") who saw him perform in August Wilson's "The Piano Lesson" (Carroll and Gordon co-starred with him). Dutton plays Roc as a cross between James Earl Jones and a bull moose. He has a deep, booming voice and a gruff exterior disguising a sweet disposition and a good heart. Dutton attacks his lines with marked force and a sort of gleeful belligerence in his manner - very funny, very explosive.

It may not have the social consciousness of "All in the Family," but "Roc" is wittier, kinder, and more spirited than many others in the working-class family genre - including the overrated "Roseanne." The stories are rather thin even for sitcoms, and they meander a bit pointlessly sometimes. But the humor is fairly strong - particularly when it does border on social commentary. And you can't help feeling each actor's potent presence in this ensemble, the heightened energy of live performance.

Live TV of course, is nothing new. TV networks used to broadcast live all the time in the early days of television, and they still do on occasion. But the advent of taping dramas and situation comedies made it easier to cover bloopers, use a variety of camera angles to increase visual interest, and relieve the pressure of production schedules.

EXECUTIVE producer Vic Kaplan, whose experience in live TV (specials and variety shows like "Not Necessarily the News") is extensive, finds the live sitcom a challenge for everyone - cast and crew.

"There is an intensity we feel here," he says. "We wouldn't attempt it with another cast... I have been lucky to have hired some of the best technical, production staff experienced in live TV. They have to do their jobs as precisely as the actors do."

Ella Joyce says it would be hard to handle the pressure of a live show without a theater background. "You have to be used to one-take action and to a live audience. I'm used to it because I've done shows eight times a week with 2,000 people in the audience." Theater actors are used to covering mistakes on stage, she points out, while film and TV actors's mistakes are covered by editing and retakes.

There are lots of differences, too, she says. An actor doesn't play to the back row in live TV, he plays to the camera. There's a new script every week, and consequently the problem is one of maintaining continuity of character as the plots change, she says. Rehearsals are more rigorous, and costume changes have to be swift. There's no time for lazy errors. And opening-night butterflies happen every week.

"We are discovering that the audience is enthralled just like in the theater," Joyce says. "They follow us from one moment to the next. Also, it's a relief to have the spontaneity of first-time laughter - nothing compares to that."

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