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Conan O’Brien’s new show is more of the same—and that’s a good thing

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Oh, CoCo. The string dance makes us so happy.

It’s not entirely fair to judge Conan, the heavily hyped and highly anticipated new late-night talk show starring Conan O’Brien, after watching just two episodes. Shows like this tend to take months to hit their stride, to figure out the right balance of comedy bits and interviews, to calibrate the chemistry between the host and his supporting players. But O’Brien has also been doing essentially the same thing for the past 17 years, and one of the strengths of Conan is that it doesn’t make an effort to change who he is or what he’s about. Rather than the debut of a new show, Conan feels like the continuation of one that began back in 1993 on NBC as Late Night With Conan O’Brien.

The Details

Conan
three and a half stars
Monday-Thursday, 11 p.m., TBS.

In that sense some might find it disappointing; with his move to TBS, O’Brien has the freedom to create any kind of show he wants, and what he’s put together so far is a very traditional late-night talk show: a monologue, a house band (minus longtime bandleader Max Weinberg), sidekick/announcer Andy Richter, celebrity guests plugging their latest projects, musical acts. But that’s clearly what O’Brien always aspired to do and was best at, and his success comes from adding surreal elements (like the Masturbating Bear, who made a welcome appearance in the first Conan episode) to the standard format.

For now, that’s enough, and it’s enjoyable just to see O’Brien back on TV, where he belongs. His first episode was heavy on references to the Tonight Show debacle, but he also seems ready to move on, and by the second night the monologue had already segued into jokes about news stories. Those bits are fine, but the byproduct of O’Brien’s poor treatment by NBC was that he really cut loose and indulged in his more oddball tendencies, and Conan will be best if it embraces the distinctive personality and weirdness of O’Brien’s last few Tonight episodes and subsequent live tour. O’Brien isn’t going to reinvent the late-night talk show, but he has the opportunity to give it a much-needed upgrade.

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