Whatever happened to Conan O’Brien? The move to cable television was supposed to liberate him, but too often, he still acts like he’s on NBC. Or still wants to be.
Look at tonight’s “Conan” (10 p.m., TBS). His first guest is Aziz Ansari from “Parks & Recreation.” So Conan is doing the dutiful thing, hyping an NBC show. His second guest is Mike Sorrentino, better known as “the Situation” from MTV’s “Jersey Shore.”
Now, “Jersey Shore” is a popular cable show and I guess some folks at “Conan” believe that one cable show’s ratings could rub off on their own. But Sorrentino was on Leno’s “Tonight Show” just last night. And Sorrentino’s “Shore” mate Nicole “Snooki” Polizzi is on NBC’s Jimmy Fallon tonight. At very best, this looks like Conan is picking through Jay’s leftovers and turning “Conan” into a minor league version of an NBC talk show.
But the real question is why is Conan interviewing Sorrentino in the first place? To be blunt, “the Situation” is — or to put it generously, portrays — a vulgar idiot. Conan, a veteran writer for “The Simpsons,” a graduate of Harvard and a longtime innovator in quirky late night fare, did not get where he is by appealing to the Situations of this world. One gets the sad feeling that Conan is dumbing down “Conan” to appeal to a broader audience. If that’s the plan, it’s not working.
Conan’s show has fallen to fourth place in the cable talk show wars, behind Jon Stewart, Stephen Colbert and E!’s monotonously crude Chelsea Handler. Stewart and Colbert win decisively in the young demographic, and they do it while booking obscure academics and authors. They win, not in spite of the fact that they appeal to their audience’s intelligence and curiosity, but because they do.
In the great high school of life, Stewart and Colbert are going for the A students, or those who’d like to think of themselves that way. Conan is an A student pretending to be a C student so he’ll be more popular. He just may not be smart enough to realize that young people can smell a phony a mile away.
Tonight’s other highlights
• The top four compete on “So You Think You Can Dance” (7 p.m., Fox), part one of the season finale.
• Four acts tangle on “America’s Got Talent” (8 p.m., NBC).
• A local magician customizes illusions for a rich clientele on “Royal Pains” (8 p.m., USA).
• Scheduled on “Primetime” (9 p.m., ABC): young stars.
• NFL spouses put their backfields in motion on “Necessary Roughness” (9 p.m., USA).
• Patty and Ellen take a new approach on “Damages” (9 p.m., Audience Network, Direct TV).
• Tommy’s tirade sparks disciplinary action on “Rescue Me” (9 p.m., FX).
• A Vegas showdown on “Happily Divorced” (9:30 p.m., TV Land). This series has been renewed for a second season.
Before he was Sonny Corleone, James Caan played cancer-stricken football player Brian Piccolo in the 1971 made-for-TV tearjerker “Brian’s Song” (11 p.m., Versus). Billy Dee Williams also stars.