The Jay Leno Show -- TV Review

NEW YORK --The stakes soared for NBC and Jay Leno on Monday night. The network's gamble in putting "The Jay Leno Show" into the relative unknown of final-hour primetime raised many questions, but numbers will tell that tale soon enough.

But based on the premiere, the menu of the new show is awfully familiar. You've been to this place before -- a wide sweep of stage with a section set aside for bandleader Kevin Eubanks (and his Primetime Band). Here, the stage shifts depending on need: puffy chairs appear for interviews, a panel reveals a performance stage, and Leno himself steps through neon-tinted walls reminiscent of a trendy Asian eatery. (The desk made a special guest appearance for Headlines at show's end.)

And Leno? Looks the same -- still in the suit/tie combo, all shock of silver hair and oversized chin, slapping hands with the folks in the front rows. He's funny in a familiar, tasteful way; that blunt edge promised in some of his promos never cuts through too much. Jokes about the Dick Cheney Center for International Students ("because who loves foreigners more than he does?") are about the speed at which Leno travels.

But give the man credit for taking it on that chin when being upstaged by his guests. Jerry Seinfeld stole the show with an Oprah clip; VMA gatecrasher Kanye West took a seat before performing with Rihanna and Jay-Z to offer a Hugh Grant-esque mea culpa moment. In the long run, however, Leno's hidden strength might come in handing over segments, a la "The Daily Show," to comics -- as he did with Dan Finnerty's sweetly hilarious serenade of a car wash customer. Down the road these kinds of segments could provide new lifeblood for up-and-coming comedians tired of just telling jokes.

Yet, "Jay Leno" remains the network equivalent of pulling punches. A show echoing late-night's established paradigm of monologue/funny segment/interviews/band/goodnight would be too staid for the primetime hour, where networks traditionally have installed their edgiest innovations. But five nights a week of "Jay Leno" presents a too-high risk factor to deviate too far from the norm -- and what's left is an unsettled sense that they're throwing things on the wall to see what sticks.

Production: Big Dog Prods., Universal Media Studios
Host: Jay Leno
Executive producer: Debbie Vickers
Writers: Anthony Caleca, Mike Colasuonno, Larry Jacobson, Michael Jann, John Kennedy, Wayne Kline, Kevin Lynn, Jon Macks, Andrew McElfresh, John Melendez, Joe Medieros, Steve Ridgeway, Michael Riedel, John Romeo, Dave Rygalski, Peter Sears, Jim Shaughnessy, Jeffrey Spear, Troy Thomas, Rob Young
Supervising producer: Larry Goitia
Producer/writer: Jim Wise
Producers: Jay Leno, Jack Coen, Stephanie Ross
Director: Liz Plonka
Production designer: Brandt Daniels
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