'There's ... Johnny!': TV Review

The real-life clips are good, at least.
11/16/2017

Paul Reiser's love letter to 'The Tonight Show' picked up by Hulu has a little too much sugar and nostalgia to be worth the effort.

There might not be a show inside the new period-piece drama, There's ... Johnny! that could survive the concept on paper — that a 19-year-old kid from Nebraska moves out to Burbank after misinterpreting an invite and viewers get to watch him behind the scenes at The Tonight Show while real clips of Johnny Carson and the show fill in the blanks.

Whatever that show might be, it would have to be better than The Larry Sanders Show, which of course it's not, and far less reverential and gosh-darn naive than There's ... Johnny! evinces in the two (of seven) episodes shared with critics.

As it is, this long-gestating dream project from Paul Reiser and writing partner David Steven Simon (it took 10 years to get made) was originally slated for NBC's dead streaming service, Seeso, and then picked up and saved (but not developed) by Hulu.

Reiser and Simon clearly have a fond affinity for Carson and that era of late-night television, when Johnny and Ed McMahon and The Tonight Show ruled the country, and while the original clips certainly make the concept interesting, the actual series suffers from a big divide in tone.

And when you see the divide, you might end up wanting the show that's not there.

For starters, the concept is that teenager Andy Klavin (Ian Nelson), from Carson's beloved Nebraska, decides to write the late-night show asking for a signed picture for his mom and dad, who love the program. He also tosses in a paragraph about needing a job. You guessed it — the photo arrives and there's a piece of paper in there as well, which Andy takes for a job offer (the show tries to explain the letter and how it's sent to everyone who asks for a picture, but it doesn't really make sense). Anyway, inspired, Andy jumps on a bus and heads to Hollywood. The series is set in 1972, not long after Carson moved The Tonight Show west, and sometimes the notion of "Hollywood" as opposed to "Burbank" gets fudged, which is fine because most people don't know the difference anyway.

A lot of unbelievable things happen in the pilot, but none more than Andy showing up just before 11 p.m. (it's believable that a naive kid wouldn't know the show was taped in the afternoon, yes) and then proceeding, with a helpful gust of wind that blows his letter close to the studio, to actually walk inside, turn on the stage lights, dance on the stage, sit at Carson's desk, play the drums and then fall asleep (with Carson's rubber chicken) on the couch. It's a Hallmark movie moment.

That is one very big red flag that Reiser and Simon want this to be a light, nostalgic series that could have very well been on NBC. But then, when Andy is given a lowly job backstage, in the offices, we get to meet the writing staff (annoying and unfunny as expected, and unfortunately spot-on sexist as well, but given the times we live in post-Weinstein, it really stands out) and the show's best attribute, Jane Levy as Joy, assistant talent coordinator for The Tonight Show and an early-20s bundle of talent, ambition, screwed-up family, bad choices in boyfriends and what promisingly looks to be a feminist streak.

When the camera is on Joy, we've got a show.

Levy is an excellent actress who deserves better roles after busting out on ABC's Suburgatory (and may get it in 2018's J.J. Abrams/Stephen King series Castle Rock for Hulu), but is left to steal all the scenes she's in on There's ... Johnny! and, especially, create a tonal divide when she's paired up with Nelson's Andy character. Where Levy gets to swear and be real and confident, Nelson is left to live in this saccharine nostalgia show that pivots into place every time he's on the screen. And just to reaffirm, There's ... Johnny! is about Andy, not Joy.

Beyond the terrible title that hinders the series, it's impossible (depending on the shows you like, of course) to look at this effort and not wish it was a much rougher, unvarnished look at Carson and what it must have been like working on The Tonight Show in the early 1970s (and beyond). But There's ... Johnny! is a show that will be reverential, will pine for that feeling that Reiser and Simon remember from its heyday (as do many older viewers), if for nothing else than Carson's estate is cooperating and has sway over the tone.

What transpires might be a fine series, beyond the two overly earnest, broadcast-network styled episodes viewed, but asking Nelson to play Andy as the most naive kid from anywhere, much less Nebraska, strains the brain and diminishes the potential. If Carson is only going to show up in real-life clips, we'll never pull back the curtain on his warts-and-all life offstage.

In exchange, what we should get is a show about Joy, because Levy really brings it. Instead, this is Andy's story. And you're really going to need to brush your teeth to prevent those cavities after watching him live it.

Cast: Ian Nelson, Jane Levy, Tony Danza, Andrew Schulz, David Hoffman, T'Keyah Crystal Keymah, Nate Smith, Daniel Strauss, Roger Bart
Created by: Paul Reiser
Written by: Paul Reiser and David Steven Simon

Directed by: David Gordon Green
Premieres: Thursday (Hulu)

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