Can it really have been only a year since “The Jay Leno Show” made its debut, to stellar ratings?

Jay’s back, Conan’s gone to TBS, “Southland’s” on TNT, David Letterman’s still bitter and angry, and apparently Jeff Zucker didn’t reinvent network television.

A quick trip back into the way-back machine (with thanks to CBS Radio’s Steve Futterman, who noted the anniversary for a piece that’s running today), by way of my original review. And without patting myself on the back too much, “Nailed it.”

The Jay Leno Show

NBC, Mon. Sept. 14, 10 p.m.)
Taped in Los Angeles by Big Dog Prods. in association with Universal
Media Studios. Executive producer, Debbie Vickers; supervising producer:
Larry Goitia; producers: Jay Leno, Jack Coen, Stephanie Ross; director,
Liz Plonka; writing supervised by Leno, monologue writing supervised by
Host: Jay Leno


To what should be the surprise of no one, Jay Leno’s new show looks a
whole lot like the old one — defined more by his real estate than the
cosmetic changes brought to “The Jay Leno Show” to mollify fidgety
affiliates. Then again, Leno wasn’t eager to leave “The Tonight Show” or
begin meddling with the formula, though he again played the good
soldier by amending the format to try retaining more viewers leading
into local newscasts. NBC might be gambling on this cheaper model, but
in terms of content, Leno clearly isn’t.

All the old trademarks
were there at the outset, from an opening 10-minute monologue (during
which Leno apologized for the network’s relentless promotional blitz) to
“Headlines” to close the hour. What came in between, alas, felt as if
it was working a little too hard to prove that this is really a “comedy
show” instead of simply “The Tonight Show” at an earlier hour — and
that people shouldn’t drift off to sleep halfway through it. (The
still-unanswered question is for those who get what used to be their
“Tonight” fix at 10, what will that do to Conan O’Brien at 11:35?)

problem with the new approach, even in the premiere, is it feels like
some bits are being padded to avoid front-loading the show. Coming out
of the monologue, for example, Dan Finnerty and the Dan Band crafted a
taped segment at a car wash that started with promise and petered out
long before the rinse cycle began. A mocked-up interview with President
Obama played better, but that, too, would have benefited from some nips
and tucks.

OK, so the desk was gone, but Leno’s
armchair-to-armchair chat with Jerry Seinfeld felt suspiciously like the
awkward non-interviews that the host regularly conducted on his
previous show. Oprah Winfrey dropped in via an over-sized TV screen, but
that gag was a trifle thin.

As for the unexpected gift of having
Kanye West slated to perform right after his attention-grabbing outburst
at Sunday’s MTV Video Music Awards, Leno’s gentle pre-song interview
merely looked uncomfortable — for both of them. (For some reason, the
Hugh Grant “What were you thinking?” line went unsaid.)

All told,
the best joke belonged to Seinfeld, alluding to Leno’s summer hiatus and
much-ballyhooed return. “In the ’90s, when we quit a show, we actually
left,” Seinfeld quipped.

But that’s never been Leno’s work ethic,
which helps explain the don’t-let-him-go-elsewhere fix in which NBC
found itself. “The Jay Leno Show” figures to generate solid sampling
these first few nights, but that’s before the heavy machinery arrives on
the other networks next week — when the game, and the sweating, begins
in earnest.

Until then, NBC would be strongly advised to keep those “The New King of 10 O’Clock” press releases under wraps for awhile.