[Bianculli here: My own review of the premiere of NBC's The Jay Leno Show can be heard today on NPR's Fresh Air with Terry Gross, or on the Fresh Air website after about 5 p.m. ET by clicking here. Meanwhile, here's contributing writer P.J. Bednarski's take on Leno's move Monday from late night to prime time...]
America may still be able to fall asleep watching Jay Leno.
His 10 p.m. premiere showing on NBC Monday night was a showcase for bad television and an embarrassment for a network trying so hard to create a marketing "event" that it forgot Leno's talents: A powerful gimmick in the variety show/talk show toolbox is real or illusionary spontaneity, not a video screen featuring a "surprise" appearance by Oprah Winfrey. God, that was painful.
The first show was bad enough to get a network-TV-watcher a little peeved. If this is what we're going to get every night, NBC will have failed to launch a programming experiment that could have been interesting, and should be kicked around for wasting the moment. One night does not a massive failure make, but NBC and Leno too eagerly began digging their own grave Monday night.
Even the monologue wasn't very crisp. Leno cracked wise about the University of Wyoming's decision to name its center for international students after that great world Kumbaya-chanter Dick Cheney, and Leno couldn't resist the irony of the item. Trouble is, Conan O'Brien did exactly the same joke last week, and The New York Times repeated it in its Laugh Lines feature in Sunday's Week in Review.
The funniest moments in the show all involve Kanye West. He was supposed to to be creating an instant headline with the celebrity heartfelt apology of the week, that for rudely dissing Taylor Swift on an MTV awards show Sunday night and leaving her on stage humiliated.
Leno managed to get West at least squeamish -- or at least looking squeamish -- by asking what West's recently departed mother would have thought of his MTV appearance. West's response has to be boiled down to a paraphrase -- if you DVRed the premiere, and have the time, transcribe West's reply and try to find the full, coherent sentence. I don't think it's there.
Anyway, he said she wouldn't have liked it, in so, so many words. It was pathetic to watch Leno try coax this emotional crescendo, but after West did a lackluster shame bit, it was time to move on. Said Leno, all bubbly-like, "Hey, you ready to sing? Give it a shot?" Somehow, West pulled it together.
Unfortunately, Leno did not. This was one bad hour of television.
P.J. Bednarski is a veteran TV critic and former executive editor of Broadcasting & Cable magazine.