Thanks to a powerful promotional push and a serendipitous bit of booking, more than 17 million viewers tuned in last night to observe Jay Leno's prime time debut. If critics' reactions are any guide, quite a few of those 10 million went to bed underwhelmed.
The Jay Leno Show represents a new strategy for NBC, one aimed at minimizing overhead rather than maximizing ad revenues. The premiere episode reflected that lack of ambition. For all the talk about how it's a bold experiment that could change the face of network television, the program was little more than The Tonight Show transplanted to 10 p.m., full of reheated gags about Dick Cheney, reality TV and erectile-dysfunction drugs. (What, no O.J.?)
"[I]t was startling to see how little difference there was" between Tonight and Leno, wrote Alessandra Stanley in The New York Times. Mary McNamara came down harder in Leno's hometown paper, The Los Angeles Times: "This is the future of television? This wasn't even a good rendition of television past." McNamara also called it a "strange, shallow puddle of comedy" and "the comedy of the undead." One of the few raves came from the New York Post's Linda Stasi, who praised Leno for curating "that smart and smartass mix of talent and controversy that separates the pros from the bores."
The controversy came courtesy of Kanye West, who appeared as a guest the night after he drew boos at the MTV Video Music Awards for interrupting singer Taylor Swift's acceptance speech to tell her she didn't deserve to win. Leno mined the episode for drama rather than humor, adopting what Stanley called "the lugubrious tone of Dr. Phil" in his questioning. (Or maybe that should be Barbara Walters, seeing as West had to fight back tears.)
It wasn't funny, but at least it was interesting. The same can't be said of Leno's canned-seeming interview with headline guest Jerry Seinfeld, his overly-promotional remote chat with Oprah Winfrey, or an excruciating segment featuring comedian Dan Finnerty serenading a car-wash customer. The latter seemed to figure into the show's plan to attract car advertisers by playing up Leno's obsession with all things automotive. And, indeed, several car companies were among last night's sponsors. But if luring their dollars requires resorting to comedy this forced on a nightly basis, The Jay Leno Show would probably be better off without them.
Leno's return: Strong ratings, so-so reviews