Expectations were high when Conan premiered on TBS earlier this week.  Ousted former Tonight Show host, Conan O’Brien, brought his act to basic cable where he would be free from the restrictions of network television, yet he played it safe his first week and delivered a show that, apart from the set and the beard, was a carbon copy of his old gig and reminiscent of every other late-night talk show.

Admittedly, it’s difficult to gauge a show like this on an episodic or weekly basis, but Conan was flat and uninspired during its initial week.  In past interviews, O’Brien has mentioned his love for the talk show format Johnny Carson perfected, so no one expected the lanky redhead to deconstruct the format the way Craig Ferguson has done on CBS, but Conan lacked any sense of originality or uniqueness.

The initial episodes of a series are crucial in developing a fan base.  Though Conan premiered with a rabid built-in fan base, it shares a time slot with The Daily Show with Jon Stewart and The Colbert Report, both of which cater to O’Brien’s younger demographic.  Conan needed to show viewers from the start why they should watch/DVR it instead of Stewart, Colbert or the seemingly hundreds of other late-night options.  Instead, Conan debuted as a near mirror image of O’Brien’s toned-down Tonight Show, disappointing those who hoped he would take advantage of cable’s freedom and provide edgier, more off kilter material.

In the Conan premiere, O’Brien addressed his NBC situation with a funny, but not amazing Godfather homage (an opening that paled in comparison to his cross country trek to The Tonight Show) and made the expected quips about transitioning from broadcast to cable TV.  However, the TBS cracks never stopped, as if the writers only worked on cable-themed jokes for the past few months.  A trip to visit the TBS censor, which seemed like a brilliant idea, fell flat (despite introducing “Taking grandma to Applebee’s” to the sexual euphemism lexicon) and the show even resorted to showing silly animal clips from the internet.  Also, there was too much of Andy Richter cracking jokes that only O’Brien laughed at and no La Bamba – the band member whose horrendous acting has brightened many evenings.

Perhaps too much has been expected from Coco’s first week, but in its extremely short tenure, Conan did nothing to set itself apart from the buffet of late-night talk shows.  While the initial ratings were spectacular, if Conan wants to keep viewers past their initial curiosity, it will need to be more than just another talk show.

Still, there were flashes of brilliance that gave Conan promise moving forward.  Having Kanye West’s rambling interview playing in the corner of the screen while O’Brien told intentionally cheesy jokes was the perfect example of the weird ideas that have set Coco apart from his competitors for nearly two decades.  Shows like this need time to develop a rhythm, and though the first week was bland business-as-usual, Conan will find its stride.

During the Tonight Show debacle earlier this year, I wrote that NBC was falling victim to entertainment Darwinian selection – that placing The Tonight Show back in Jay Leno’s hands prevented it from evolving and put it at risk of extinction.  Now, Conan has essentially put an identical program on a different network nine months later and runs the same risk.  However, O’Brien is a creative and risk-taking comedian (the same cannot be said about Leno), and Conan will evolve and hopefully give its host the redemption he deserves.

Culture Despite an Uninspiring TBS Debut, Conan Still Shows Promise