LOS ANGELES — As far too many of us know, Jay Leno, who has been parked weeknights at 10 p.m. since last September, is moving back to "The Tonight Show," the job he left at the end of May. When he returns from the canceled "The Jay Leno Show" to his former chair, after the Olympics, it will be as if the past eight months had never happened.
And in other ways, it will not; certainly Conan O'Brien leaves this dispute with some new ideas about the business he's in. And though it remains to be seen whether L'Affaire Conan has seriously injured Leno's likability, his fans — and he does have them — seem happy enough to regard him, as he seems to regard himself, as a victim of NBC's dithering and, indeed, of his own niceness.
To be fair to Leno, the "failure" of his 10 p.m. show is partly a matter of context — the audience for "The Jay Leno Show" was roughly commensurate with that of Leno's "Tonight Show" — and only became a problem when NBC executives woke up to the fact that they'd left their affiliate stations out of their dollars-and-cents reckoning.
What is less arguable is his failure to make anything new or interesting out of his prime-time opportunity. But Leno is a fundamentally conservative entertainer who relies heavily on his writers and researchers; he can tell a joke, can be funny in a scripted bit, and can capably interview any celebrity who already knows what they're going to say. He is a solid enough host, practically speaking, but he is also an inert one, unable to inhabit the moment in any exciting way. He barely bothers to ad lib.
Leno's final 10 p.m. broadcast was no different from his previous 10 p.m. shows; there was no sense of occasion, which, after all, seemed just about right. The opening monologue did contain a nod toward the moment ("The show was supposed to last two years, but our sentence was reduced to five months for good behavior") and a pretend "look back" at the last five months, whose unintended effect was to point out how little new he brought to the hour. Donald Trump appeared by satellite to say, "You're fired," which is, of course, not the case.
The episode was certainly not hard to watch. Entertaining first guest Ashton Kutcher came on to "reveal" that the whole time change was "a punk" ("Six years ago, I sat in an office at NBC …"). He was followed by Academy Award nominee Gabourey Sidibe, from "Precious," who was followed by the final "10 at 10" satellite interview, with Bob Costas. Costas observed that it was "probably like being involved in the last broadcast of a Clippers season."
I happen to think that moving Leno to 10 p.m. was an interesting gamble; if it had been an unqualified success, it would have changed the shape of broadcast TV. And I would hate to think that its failure means that its time slot will forever be off-limits to comedy, or to anything but doctor shows, cop shows and news programs that might as well be cop or doctor shows.
If Leno's new "Tonight Show" is no better than his old "Tonight Show," that will just be all right with many, though it is possible that some of his audience may have learned to love David Letterman in the interim, or remembered the pleasure of a good book before bed. Still, it is a move backward that is hard to regard as any sort of move forward.