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Television Review

Despite fresh, prime-time home, Leno delivers a familiar feel

Comedian Jerry Seinfeld appeared on Jay Leno’s show last night. Comedian Jerry Seinfeld appeared on Jay Leno’s show last night. (Reuters/Nbc Universal)
By Matthew Gilbert
Globe Staff / September 15, 2009

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“The Jay Leno Show’’ premiered last night with a big old disconnect.

NBC’s prime-time Jay Leno experiment has been hugely anticipated - both inside and outside the TV industry - since the move was announced in December. It has been called network TV’s riskiest change in decades, one that could forever alter the nature of nightly programming. And yet there it was, seeming very, very much like “The Tonight Show With Jay Leno,’’ brimming with the kind of safe, middle-of-the-road humor that has always been Leno’s trademark.

The network revolution arrived in the fumes of a two-hour episode of “America’s Got Talent,’’ and it looked a lot like a worn-out Barcalounger.

From the opening monologue and the overly scripted banter with guest Jerry Seinfeld (and, via satellite, Oprah Winfrey) to the goofy-headlines segment at the end of the hour, “The Jay Leno Show’’ was numbingly familiar.

The boilerplate talk format was reminiscent not only of Leno’s “Tonight Show,’’ but of almost every other late-night talker on the air right now. Another serving of movie and TV show plugs, coming right up.

Even Leno, while delivering his opening jokes, seemed relatively unenthused about the premiere. He set forth his usual flurry of average one-liners - about Joe Biden, Nancy Pelosi, and his own ad campaign - with an ordinary energy level, unwilling to be anyone but the easygoing Jay his late-night audience already knows and loves. If he was keyed up and inspired about his new gig, he hid it well.

Last night, Leno benefited greatly from the drama surrounding Kanye West. The singer had crashed Taylor Swift’s acceptance speech at the MTV Video Music Awards on Sunday night, and immediately became the object of viral hostility. That buzz dovetailed with the promotion of Leno’s show, and many were eager to hear West defend himself.

Looking excruciatingly humbled, West mumbled fragmented answers to Leno’s Barbara Walters-like questions about how West felt and what his late mother might have said. “My entire life,’’ he said, “I’ve only wanted to give and do something that I felt was right. And I immediately knew in the situation that it was wrong, and it wasn’t a spectacle. . . . I’m just ashamed that my hurt caused someone else’s hurt.’’

West attributed his behavior toward Swift to overworking and the celebrity lifestyle: “I deal with hurt. And, you know, so many celebrities, they never take the time off. I’ve never taken the time off to really - you know, just music after music and tour after tour,’’ he said. West then joined Jay-Z and Rihanna for a performance of “Run This Town.’’ Oddly, in the stage lighting, the three singers looked almost like avatars of themselves.

Obviously, it’s too early to make a final judgment about “The Jay Leno Show.’’ As the weeks unfold, it will be interesting to see if Leno lets himself go a little, if he pushes himself and his comedy into new places.

Few of us can imagine the pressure he must be feeling about his series. There’s a little at stake in the Leno experiment - you know, the stability of the anemic NBC, Leno’s status as a talk-show alpha dog, the primacy of scripted TV in prime time, and the future trajectory of an industry in turmoil.

We’ll see if Leno has any surprises in store.

Matthew Gilbert can be reached at gilbert@globe.com. For more on TV, visit www.boston.com/ae/tv/blog/.

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