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Conan on TBS: A Look at the Future, All the Way to the Year
I suppose you can call this a review of Conan O'Brien's new series, the audaciously titled Conan. I mean, I watched the first episode and here are some thoughts on it—but how am I supposed to review a talk show based on one episode? To me it's only seems feasible to review a series after it has finished its run, so without further ado here are my thoughts and observations on the new Conan in this not really a review, but you can think of it that way if it's easier for you.
Right off the bat we are treated to a prologue that's intended to setup the show by giving a comical account of O'Brien's fall from grace at NBC. Everything about the production of the sequence looks and sounds like a show on its last leg on Comedy Central (think, Important Things with Demetri Martin, or its replacement, the god-awful Nick Swardson's Pretend Time). It's not the production we have come accustom to seeing with Conan, and by contrast makes me yearn for the value found on something as technically precise as Conan's last gig. What caps it off is the absurdly amped up studio audience. I get that it's not a huge crowd, but it's no good to crank up the crowd volume to enhance the jokes.
Once the show gets underway in the traditional sense we can expect to see on a regular basis, we are greeted with what looks like a rushed animation sequence for the titles. It's a simple style with silhouettes against bright colors, slowly v/o'd by our old pal Andy Richter. When all is over we are finally revealed the set, a budget conscious interpretation of Late Night with Conan O'Brien. The overhead is filled with lights meant to be unseen by the TV audience, making for a low and intimate set. The stage is flat, no stairs or steps leading from one section to the other. The guest entering current is an off-brown champagne color and unfortunately doesn't have the impact or complexity of his Nintendo inspired design from Universal. The band is off to their usual side, Conan's right, and their region of stage space again reflects their pre-Tonight Show landscape. When attention turns to the musical guests, we see a very Tonight Show style presentation with blue and red lights illuminating concave cube. The last point I want to get to on stage design is Conan's backdrop. It's a vast, blue, moonlight view of the ocean. For years talk shows have shown cityscapes in the same way, and the change here isn't unwelcome. If it were a city, it would bring to mind Conan's original gig just a little too much. The remote controlled moon is a nice touch, but I doubt its on-air functionality can keep audiences tuning in. Another unfortunate change is the lack or Pierre Bernard graphic art to serve as a placeholder for the TV audience after the commercial breaks. Instead of listening to the Basic Cable Band wrap up their song while scoping out a pasta Conan, we get some thrown together backstage footage.
So what does the show offer? Well, if you've seen Conan's prior work, then you can only hope for an encore of his trademark creativity. For the time being many of his signature sketches are being held captive by NBC and the only to reach bond are the String Dance and a bear whom shall go nameless. The formula on his past shows contained a lot of re-used material. It seemed that Monday or Tuesday would start out with a hit sketch, and Conan would have to milk it throughout the week. For example, he would start the week off with the Walker, Texas Ranger Lever and ultimately turn to it throughout the week. I would attribute this to lazy writers. For this new show to conquer, the next hit sketch or character needs to be right behind the corner, and this time he can't allow anything to catch moss.
At the moment we don't yet know what's in store. I for one hope to see plenty of man-on- the-street segments. Jay Leno's, Jaywalking is predictable and Jimmy Fallon doesn't even attempt them. The comparative efforts of the interview packages on The Daily Show are becoming short in number, and though they are good, no one has ever been as consistent in engaging a crowd on the street as the man with the red pompadour. They are always something new and exciting, and they break up the monotony of choreographed sketches.
The first guests are not really household names, but young stars. This is surely an attempt to please the Twitter and Facebook crowd. I guess the thought of a man in his late '40s is more appealing than the men on the network programs in their '60s. This is supposed to be the young show, and yet the talent will be aging with the audience. I can't see an early '20s crowd ditching Late Night with Jimmy Fallon for something that just isn't as good as of this moment.
I see a lot of cut corners that make Conan look like the red-headed stepchild of Lopez Tonight. By contrast Lopez's set looks like the Bellagio and his format more innovative with less calls to a former program, and this coming from the show following Conan on the same network. If Conan is to be a flagship for a reshaping of TBS, then the station needs to make some immediate changes. Chances are that the low ratings expected of a cable late-night talk show will keep Conan on air for a number of years, likely enough to assume that the show is a success. But smart viewers will have the old shows to look back at as reference points, and when they do the difference may be substantial.
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