TV: Review: Conan

Written by Hunter Phillips on . Posted in TV

There was no way Conan could live up to its hype.

The NBC late-night debacle of January 2010 needs no introduction, and that alone would have been enough to build insurmountable anticipation for tonight’s premiere. But Conan O’Brien and his loyal, sometimes rabid, fan base built Conan (the show, not the man) into something far larger. Over the course of the last nine months, Conan (the man) became what more than a few news outlets have called America’s 21st Century folk hero.

After the Legally Prohibited From Being Funny on Television Tour, the creation of one of Twitter’s most prolific accounts, and a relentless marketing campaign that made Lost’s finale look like it was undersold, Conan could only hope that his two million Twitter followers would follow him to TBS. Hopefully, they’d bring all their friends with them too. Conan faces stiffer competition than ever in his new timeslot — he’s up against The Daily Show, The Colbert Report, and the first half hours of Jay Leno and David Letterman.

That’s enough about speculation. Did Conan succeed triumphantly, or will he fall into obscurity as a speed bump in television history?

Well, short answer: Conan’s premiere was a resounding success for the audience it was built for — fans of his old Late Night show who felt shortchanged by the watered-down Conan of The Tonight Show. I felt like Conan was tailor-made for people like me. I had been watching Conan on NBC habitually since fourth grade, and last winter’s disaster in late night was personally devastating.

As a longtime fan, tonight’s episode of Conan was a marvel to behold. Conan felt loose and natural, like he did in his Late Night time slot. It’s as if the weight of hosting a venerable program like The Tonight Show is gone, and Conan can do whatever he wants (and he does).

However, this approach isn’t going to win over anybody who’s on the fence. For example, my girlfriend’s parents hate Conan, pegging him as “weird” and “cringe-inducing.” They are diehard fans of Jay Leno, though. It’s simply a matter of taste in comedy — and obviously Conan, and subsequently Conan, aren’t for everyone. It’s also safe to say that anyone who was sympathetic to Leno during last year’s transition period won’t be tuning in on basic cable.

Now, on to the specifics of the show itself. The premiere opened with a fantastic cold open, portrayed as a chronicle of Conan’s descent into turmoil and eventual redemption in being picked up by TBS. The cold open featured Conan’s “wife” and 14 kids, two attempted Mafia hitjobs, and a disturbing clown costume. Jon Hamm (or is that Don Draper?) appears in a very funny cameo, as does Larry King, Conan’s guardian angel. It’s a great start, reminiscent of the also-great cold open of Conan’s Tonight Show.

The show then moves into a little shakier territory. As much as I love digs at NBC and the limitations of basic cable, I can’t wait for Conan to move into his more standard fare. It’s difficult to gauge how the show will function with this kind of joke being prominent, but judging by Conan’s enthusiasm, it’ll be back to business as usual in a few days.

As for the guests, Seth Rogen and Lea Michele played along, with Rogen in particular providing great fodder for Conan to joke with. A highlight was the winner of the “First Guest” poll, with Arlene Wagner, curator of the Leavenworth Nutcracker Museum, briefly appearing. I was only slightly disappointed in her not garnering a seat on the couch for an interview.

The show ended with Conan, always the guitar aficionado, playing alongside Jack White in an engaging performance. During the song, Conan’s joy in being back on television was obvious and glorious to behold. Sidekick Andy Richter and the rest of the staff and crew appear just as excited as Conan himself, and with a surprise appearance from The Masturbating Bear, the show soars on that energy.

It’s rare to see an entertainer so deeply invested in his craft, but Conan has proved the hype true by creating a show with so very few wrinkles and kinks. Without any limitations, and with the full support of TBS, Conan can be every bit as absurd as its host wants it to be.

Here’s to a long basic cable run, Conan. After this year, you’ve earned it.

Conan airs Monday through Thursday at 9:00 P.M. Mountain Time on TBS.

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