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'Conan's' return to late-night: New format is underwhelming 

Andy Richter, left, Tom Hanks and Conan O'Brien

Andy Richter, left, Tom Hanks and Conan O'Brien on the TBS show "Conan" which returned on Tuesday. Credit: Team Coco / Chris Millard

TALK SHOW  "Conan"

WHEN|WHERE Monday-Thursday at 11 p.m. on TBS

WHAT IT'S ABOUT Last fall, Conan O'Brien voluntarily put his nearly 10-year-old late-night TBS show, "Conan," on ice while he went on tour and tried to figure out its future.  A few facts then were known: When it returned on Jan. 22, it would return as a half-hour show and no longer have Jimmy Vivino and the Basic Cable Band. Other than that? Only Conan knew, or would know after he returned. Tuesday night, the result: Conan and sideman Andy Richter were back, this time in casual wear, with a brief opening monologue by the host, followed by a comedy bit (Milo Ventimiglia was on hand for a "This is Us"-inspired sketch), and finally the guest, Tom Hanks.

MY SAY Same show, same Coco, same Andy, different set, no band, and all in just 21 minutes, not counting commercials. Now, for the quiz part of this review: What's missing?

What's missing, obviously, is what was supposed to be here. After a three-month sabbatical during which time Conan — on tour, or off on a mountain, pondering the future of late night — was supposed to come back with a dramatically revised model of this time-honored, threadworn TV format. While not explicitly stating as much as implicitly suggesting as much, fans were promised a New Coco for a New Era.

 That hasn't happened, at least with the first edition as evidence. Instead, "Conan" now feels like a lonely, underfunded outpost in the wilds of late night TV, where the other hosts venture out nightly with their artillery aimed squarely at the easiest target in the known universe. For the record, O'Brien had just one reference to President Donald Trump last night, and hardly a scabrous reference at that.

Hanks is always a good guest, but someone who always seems like the first guest on refurbished shows. "Always" is the problematic word here: Among his many talents, Hanks just feels like the peerless, perfect late night show guest. We know because we've seen him in this role before many times. So to add to the above list: Same guest.

First nights of new shows shouldn't be judged and Conan O'Brien deserves benefit of the doubt more than anyone. Back in 1995, even a couple of years after his "Late Night" launch, he was still working on 13-week contracts, just in case Jon Stewart changed his mind. After "Tonight" imploded — no fault of his own — he took his time to both lick his wounds and puzzle out his next move, which was a good one. 

But the new "Conan" arrives in a crowded space, where people don't watch in real time, and where viewers are out for blood as much as for comedy. Late night, such as it is, also has new, radically new, entrants — Desus and Mero arrive on Showtime next month, or Terence Nance and the psychedelica of his "Random Acts of Flyness."

What does the new "Conan" need? Perhaps some of it's already here.  His sabbatical trip to Japan, or "Conan Town," was inspired; his trips always are. His podcasts, "Conan O'Brien Needs a Friend," are revelatory and like all good podcasts, addictive.

A little more of this, or that, and "Conan" has a future. The host certainly has earned one.

BOTTOM LINE Underwhelming open that feels underfunded too.

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