THIS STORY HAS BEEN FORMATTED FOR EASY PRINTING

NBC took a risk and lost. Now it’s time to pull the plug on an experiment gone wrong.

By Matthew Gilbert
Globe Staff / October 20, 2009

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There’s something hollow and disingenuous about the nightly kick-off of “The Jay Leno Show.’’

Wearing his best “modest face,’’ which looks more like a “maniacal-wizard face,’’ Leno is greeted at the stage’s edge by a small rush of audience members. They high-five Leno like a pack of dutiful, embarrassed eighth-graders. Then the standing ovation recedes on cue, the music peaks, Leno speaks.

This little flurry of staged enthusiasm is as inauthentic as the opening salvo of an infomercial. It’s the visual equivalent of a happy laugh track, signaling the viewers at home to feel roused and ready to buy.

But, over a month into Leno’s new gig, I’m definitely not buying, and neither is a significant chunk of the TV audience.

NBC’s “The Jay Leno Show’’ has quickly become a low point of prime time, the nightly programming segment when network TV has the chance to be ambitious and adult. The series is built of the same shoddy material that’s generally relegated to the late-night and daytime peripheries - prefab celebrity chit-chat, stale games, and movie, TV, and product plugging. Just what we need: more insincere soft-sell and pointless play.

From the excruciating and product-placement-based “Green Car Challenge’’ that makes “Wipeout’’ look like highbrow TV, to the silly “Ten @ Ten’’ segments that enable people like Billy Crystal to promote their latest performances, the show is pushy pablum at its most tedious. Making celebrities play “Earn Your Plug’’ simply isn’t a witty enough twist to add irony to the hour’s relentless promotion.

And watching Leno talk to kids via computer about their science experiments after 10:30? The show is paced like a turtle. With arthritis. In slo-mo.

When NBC announced last year that it would create a nightly Leno show, the network’s risk-taking spirit was exciting. This would be one of TV’s first nightly prime time series, and new episodes would air 46 weeks per year. Clearly, the failing NBC, and network TV in general, have long needed to experiment in this way, to let go of creative preconceptions that were developed before the world of cable TV and on-demand viewing. Bold changes were overdue.

But Leno as a catalyst of change and growth? Seriously? As Leno himself might say to NBC, “What the hell were you thinking?’’

Leno’s brand of comedy, honed over 17 years on “The Tonight Show,’’ is still painfully middle-of-the-road, as he opens his monologues with lines such as “Halloween’s comin’ up, you getting excited about Halloween?’’ He has put no extra thought, no added value, into his approach, for those viewers who might expect something more from a 10 p.m. series than they did from his 11:30 slot. And what is a mild sedative in late-night is a sleeping pill in the more creatively energetic environment of prime time.

Maybe NBC is actually making money on “The Jay Leno Show,’’ because it’s inexpensive to film compared to a scripted series. And, of course, the networks are for-profit businesses. And we should be grateful NBC didn’t just opt for more reality TV. But there are better ways to give a network a jolt than five hours a week of banality, aren’t there?

Matthew Gilbert can be reached at gilbert@globe.com.

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