The first episode of Late Night With Jimmy Fallon went as well as could be expected for a brand-new talk show host. It may have had its predictable rough spots that critics could easily tear apart, but there was nothing catastrophic that can't be fixed. The second episode seemed to go better, and we're sure the 200th episode will be much improved as well.
While early ratings mean little, Fallon could wipe the ample sweat from his brow that the show wasn't stillborn. What was disconcerting, however, was that the latest entrant into the late-night wars seemed to be carefully concocted to only compete with all the other guys hosting late-night talk shows. Monologue with setup and punch line, taped comedy bits, a couple of guests and then some music to send you on to sleep, or to Carson Daly.
The formula was safe, and once Fallon settles in he will probably have numbers somewhere in the area of his competition.
And that is part of what is slowly killing broadcast television: No one will dare to be great.
Fallon's format is emblematic of what is going on at broadcast networks: everyone playing it safe and clinging to what has worked for years, when in fact that may be what is causing the most damage.
NBC, which doesn't have that much to lose, relatively speaking, blew a chance. The network unfortunately just tried to compete in an aging format that is getting picked apart by cable and online competition. It's disappointing that the network didn't take a shot.
And with a relatively young host who said he wants to talk about tech and new-media stuff, why hold up cardboard photos like Dave and Jay do? If you want to show old shots of your hairstyles, get a mini-version of a John King magic wall and at least make it look cool. Sending out Twitter messages about what to ask Cameron Diaz isn't enough to boast that you're the late-night show for techies.
We understand that playing it safe often brings short-term success, or at least minimizes the fall. Look at CBS's primetime, which is sticking to crime dramas and its brand of comedy, and reaping the relative benefits. In a recession, we acknowledge the proclivity to retreat to the fetal position.
But most new scripted shows look alike (here's hoping Glee on Fox will be a little different at least) and reality has definitely hit a rut. So while Jimmy Fallon's show will settle into a nice little player, it also is yet another missed chance for any semblance of reinvention in network TV. Not that we were expecting anything different.