Well, what did we expect The Jay Leno Show was going to look like?
Despite NBC's monumental hype and the months-long buzz suggesting fresh and different prime-time entertainment, last week's debut of Leno at Ten-o was startlingly identical to The Tonight Show from which he was unseated so the network could keep Conan O'Brien. (This would be like the Tigers sending Justin Verlander to Toledo so they could hang onto Zach Miner.) Jay dumped his desk but kept the monologue, the big-name guest — even the studio band is the same. Old-school comics are most comfortable when they cling to the tried-and-true.
In reaction, the nation's critics, perhaps feeling somewhat hoodwinked, excoriated Leno. My old friend Robert Bianco, the fine USA Today TV columnist, described the show as a "cut-rate, snooze-inducing, rehashed bore." (Bobby, you've got to learn to open up!) However, as you may have heard, Leno's opening-night ratings, sparked by the promise of something new and Kanye West's weepy apology, were sensational. In Detroit, more of us tuned in to Leno than any other series in prime time, catapulting WDIV (Channel 4) to the No. 1 station in America for a night. And while Leno has yet to touch those numbers since, he is routinely winning his 10 o'clock time slot — before the return of such rivals as CSI: Miami and The Mentalist. How is it possible that critics can eviscerate the same program viewers seem to embrace? I have a theory.
Television critics, if they're doing their job properly and full time, have to watch every series on TV, many on a regular basis. If you think that sounds cushy, strap yourself in front of the tube for three straight episodes of Kourtney and Khloe Take Miami and get back to me. You can avoid the rubbish on your remote; critics cannot. As a result, reviewers are constantly yearning for something original, programming beyond the relentless glut of reality crap, cops-and-robbers procedurals and medical melodramas. The disconnect is, the mass audience — not you, but those other nimrods — has shown time and again that it doesn't feel the same. A year ago, a majority of critics, this one included, gushed over ABC's Pushing Daisies as refreshing, high-concept network fare. Didn't last a full season. Ratings rule.
And that is why, besides the repurposing of Leno, the biggest developments of this fall TV season include a new rendition of NCIS: Los Angeles, premiering at 9 last night on CBS/Channel 62 (with LL Cool J and Chris O'Donnell? What, Ice Cube and Corey Haim said no?); a revival of Melrose Place, which occupies the same 9 p.m. Tuesday time slot on the CW/Channel 50; NBC's Trauma (9 p.m. Mondays and Saturdays, beginning next week) with Derek Luke, kind of a mishmash of ER and Third Watch with more stuff blowing up; and Glee on FOX/Channel 2, airing at 9 p.m. Wednesdays, High School Musical meets Saved by the Bell. Old-school networks are also most comfortable when they cling to the tried-and-true.
Many of the new series you already may have sampled. What do you think of Community in NBC's Thursday comedy block at 9:30? The TV return of Chevy Chase aside (as he is little more than a curiosity here), it strikes me as the network's funniest effort since Seinfeld and a fitting companion to The Office and 30 Rock. Beyond the return of Law & Order SVU, moving to Wednesdays with new episodes (whoo-HOO!), tonight marks the beginning of a second wave of untested fall arrivals. Among them:
• Modern Family, 9 tonight ABC/Channel 7: A sitcom with the lively quirkiness of Arrested Development, the multiple storylines of Parenthood and the Ed O'Neill of Married: With Children. If the large ensemble cast and triple plotlines don't confound viewers, this could be ABC's first smash comedy in ages.
• Mercy, 10 tonight, NBC: Nurses are TV's new doctors, and newcomer Taylor Schilling is riveting as zealous, outspoken Iraq veteran Veronica Callahan, now serving a tour of duty in a New Jersey hospital. Unfortunately, Nurse Jackie and HawthoRNe have beaten her to the punch on cable.
• Cougar Town, 9:30 tonight, ABC: Courteney Cox as a middle-aged MILF? The premise is funnier than the script.
• Eastwick, 10 tonight, ABC: Just because John Updike died this year is no excuse to exhume The Witches of Eastwick for TV, even if Rebecca Romijn is one of the New England sorceresses. The obvious question: Why bother?
• Flash Forward, 8 p.m. Thursday, ABC: This is ABC's Lost for 2009, a movie-quality, edgy sci-fi hour in which everybody on Earth blacks out for two minutes and experiences a vision of their future on a certain date next April. Say it with me: Oooooh. Elegant Detroit-born actor Courtney B. Vance (Law & Order: Criminal Intent) is among the series regulars.Jim McFarlin is a media critic for Metro Times. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org