Conan O'Brien's contractually mandated wandering in the wilderness that is Everything That Is Not Television came to an end Monday night with the premiere of his new TBS late-night show, " Conan." Technically, it came to an end the previous week with a three-minute walk-on to new late-night neighbor George Lopez's "Lopez Tonight," which "Conan" has bumped to midnight; a sexy mock-sexy promo involving a garden hose; and an impressive American Express commercial in which O'Brien travels to India to buy, weave and dye the silk for the curtain for his new show. But those were just appetizers: This remains, for the indefinite moment, the story of a talk-show host and his still unpredictable future.
The first lines of this new chapter were promising, if not quite the fulfillment of his last wild nights at NBC, when caution was thrown to the wind. And except that it was a constant subject of discussion and scripted humor, the shift from broadcast to basic cable had no obvious effect on his presentation; it neither inhibited nor liberated him. (They do still bleep the bad words.)
His new set, which is dominated by a background seascape and a big moon that O'Brien can move by remote control ("It cost me hundreds of thousands of dollars and we're using up a lot of fossil fuel"), is actually better looking than his "Tonight Show" set, and the smaller size suits him — less a comedown than a welcome adjustment. The last frame felt too big for the picture.
It is probably too much to say that leaving "The Tonight Show" — which is to say, appearing to have been fired from "The Tonight Show" — was the best thing that could have happened to O'Brien, but it made him interesting and topical in ways that he would not have been had he stayed on NBC. He toured like a rock star, graced the cover of Rolling Stone, gathered close to 2 million followers on Twitter, and, as a victim of corporate incompetence, became a most unlikely thing for a person in his line of work: heroic. This is something of an illusion, of course — just as it should be impossible to regard as a victim any man given more than $30 million not to host a talk show — but it is by such illusions that we participate in our culture, that greater illusion that looks like life.
"Conan" opened strong, with a filmed piece tracing his journey from NBC to TBS, although in this "Godfather"-inspired version it involved being shot by men in black suits, and a bottoming out in which he applies to Jon Hamm's Don Draper for a job ("You have no advertising experience; plus, it's 1965 and you're 2 years old") and is saved from suicide by an angel-winged Larry King: "I have two words for ya. Basic. Cable."
"Thank you and welcome to my second annual first show," said O'Brien (still wearing his hiatus beard), when he finally appeared after an ovation that "lasted longer than my last job." The monologue contained (only) a couple of swipes at NBC, including a film clip involving the intellectual property known as the Masturbating Bear. Ricky Gervais appeared in a taped segment that predicted O'Brien's further downward progression to the Food Network, a Dayton, Ohio, morning show and satellite radio. The host displayed a Conan O'Brien Halloween mask, identified on the package only as an "Ex-Talk Show Host" mask; "Inside it smells like tears," said sidekick Andy Richter, who remains the person who brings out the best in O'Brien.
A youth-friendly troika of Seth Rogen, Lea Michele and Jack White comprised the night's guests. These segments, though they were a little giddy, as befitted the night, were also fairly standard talk-show exchanges, built around a few clearly prepped subjects, with effusive expressions of mutual regard. Rogen discussed his engagement, Proposition 19 and getting in shape to play the Green Hornet; Michele commented on her controversial GQ photo shoot. White and O'Brien — inaugurating his new show, as he closed down his last one, with a guitar in his hand — played Eddie Cochran's "20 Flight Rock," from an album they made together.
"That was fast," O'Brien said at the end of the hour. Jay Leno's name had not come up.