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TELEVISION REVIEW

New time, new channel, new set — same Conan

For his new show, Conan O’Brien stuck with a familiar format. For his new show, Conan O’Brien stuck with a familiar format. (TBS via AP)
By Matthew Gilbert
Globe Staff / November 10, 2010

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In short, meh.

The subtitle for Conan O’Brien’s new TBS talk show, “Conan,’’ ought to be “More of Same.’’ Monday night’s premiere was notable primarily for giving us Conan as he was and, probably, always will be — tense, ironic, likable, sometimes clever, sometimes funny, sometimes not. His between-shows months of emotional bonding with his fan base in theaters and online — pushing the role of talk-show host into some new areas of intimacy with audiences — have not altered his essential comic DNA.

Also, the premiere made it clear that the new show will be sticking to the dated Late Night 101 formula — the monologue, occasional video sketches, and, alas, the banal desk interviews. Monday’s deadly guests were Seth Rogen and Lea Michele, both of whom awkwardly made their way through prefab material about being, nothingness, and more nothingness. Their reason for appearing in the premiere was to invite younger viewers to “Conan,’’ a statement of audience intent.

There were no attempts during the hour to tweak the late-night structure for cable, to expand beyond what late-night TV means on the networks. There was no promise of surprise or reinvention in the air. Despite the fact that he’s now situated in the TV region where Jon Stewart, Stephen Colbert, and Chelsea Handler live, Conan basically stuck to his old-school “Tonight Show’’ grid. And yet, the most entertaining aspect of network late-night TV in the past year has been the battle over “The Tonight Show’’ — and not “The Tonight Show’’ itself.

Even the set of “Conan’’ was stubbornly conventional and familiar, from the desk and couch to the seascape backdrop with a giant, movable moon. “Conan’’ is not necessarily unpleasant, with Andy Richter standing by with quips, but still: It’s not exciting or ambitious. Perhaps Conan is waiting to regain his sea legs before heading out in new directions?

The premiere began with a barrage of anti-NBC and unemployment jokes, including a well-done pre-taped sketch of Conan looking for a job, working at a fast-food restaurant, and receiving words of hope from Larry King. But Conan’s dependence on the negative NBC material throughout the night started to feel redundant and obsessive. “People asked me why I named the show “Conan’’ — I did that so I’d be harder to replace.’’ Etc., etc., etc.

Seriously, enough already. I understand that Conan, still bearded, has needed to process his grief about losing “The Tonight Show.’’ But at this point he has made just about every joke worth making. It surely was a mess, the whole NBC-Leno-O’Brien debacle, but the punchlines are old and whiny — especially given his financial compensation. Conan is in danger of defining himself by NBC’s rejection — instead of by his ability to be funny and offbeat.

Matthew Gilbert can be reached at gilbert@globe.com

CONAN
On: TBS
Time: Monday, 11 p.m.-midnight