Although Arsenio Hall devoted his opening-night monologue to what he’s been up to for the last 19 years, the announcer wasn’t really joking by introducing the host as “back from a very long weekend.” That’s because “The Arsenio Hall Show,” inevitably and perhaps shrewdly, looks like a carbon copy of the syndicated show Hall left in 1994. And if you think about it, why not? In today’s fragmented TV universe, a series with a fraction of the audience Hall delivered in his heyday will likely be heralded as a success. So enter the new “Arsenio,” a touch wiser, perhaps, but essentially, same as the old one.
Hall’s most inspired gag was also the most obvious — enlisting Jay Leno, playing his shrink, to tell him if he works hard and does a good job, why shouldn’t he be able to host a latenight show for as long as he likes?
After that, though, the new venture — syndicated by CBS and anchored by the Tribune station group — made clear there’s no point in reinventing the wheel. Indeed, almost everything about Monday’s opener felt like the product of a time warp — a musical appearance by Snoop Dogg, light banter with guest Chris Tucker, a walk-on endorsement from a spacey Paula Abdul.
Granted, the scripted bits were hit and (more often) miss, with so much time spent delving into the way-back machine as to become a trifle tedious. Then again, Hall can be somewhat forgiven for reveling in the moment, and his own enthusiasm — looking like someone genuinely happy to have this second shot — helped power through the clunkier elements.
Hall is in his 50s now, but that still puts him in good company in terms of older hosts chasing after a younger audience. (The crowd, naturally, was young, wildly appreciative and attractive — or at least, the women the camera kept finding were.)
The latenight landscape is far more diverse and crowded than when Hall made his initial splash — back when there was Johnny and not much else — but even that potentially plays to his advantage. For starters, the Tribune stations on which he airs were once local-news powerhouses and cash machines; today, not so much.
At its peak “Arsenio” was described as a free-wheeling party, and as often happens in the throes of middle age, it’s hard to find old friends to stay up and hang out. Fortunately, Hall doesn’t have to clear the old bar, or even match his booking power, to demonstrate that while he might not be the hippest guy in latenight anymore, Arsenio 2.0 can still emerge as a survivor.