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'The Arsenio Hall Show' premiere on WPIX offers a solid return

Arsenio Hall participates in

Arsenio Hall participates in "The Arsenio Hall Show" panel at the CBS Summer TCA in Beverly Hills, Calif. (July 29, 2013) Credit: AP

Arsenio 2.0 returned Monday night and looked, felt, sounded an awful lot like Arsenio 1.0. Which is a good thing — let's just get that out of way right here at the outset.

That's always good, when you can come back after 19 years and "X "months to remind viewers that hosting a late night talk show is a bit (after all) like riding a bike. Master it once, master it twice. "The Arsenio Hall Show," and its MC, had a solid open.

The key for Arsenio was the same key that opened the door for him so many years ago — almost exactly a quarter of a century. Do you like him? And does he — as host and ringmaster — affect that magical bond with the audience in which he almost seems to like you? The first question can be answered in the affirmative.

Hall was always, or almost always a likable presence — never hot, never cold, never rough, never raw, but a smooth brand of late night silk that wore well into the early morning hours. That smile, that laugh, that sense especially that when someone says something he has actually listened to what they have said ...

That all returned in force last night: Arsenio is likable in this context, and so the biggest hardest test has been passed, efficiently and effectively. The second question is harder to answer because hosts don't want to appear obsequious (one of his old and hardest to shake faults, by the way), and in late night a degree of acerbity can go a long way, as Craig Ferguson, one of late night's funniest people, knows.

But Arsenio is his own man and his own brand — that mutual likability potion that he served up so effortlessly years ago was his ticket and will have to be his ticket now. Again, early signs are good.

This will also be — if the first show is an indication — a black, late night alternative. Again: smart move. Late night TV was long ago commandeered by white males (Chelsea Handler the obvious exception) who somehow collectively discovered the sensibility of people who tuned in at that hour. That makes sense — they are all simply trying to do what Johnny Carson did; Johnny trained a nation how to watch late night, and what to expect from it. Little wonder those who followed would attempt the same.

But Arsenio once did something fundamentally different — prove that black culture wasn't just some sort of exotic curiosity that TV trotted out for the amusement of the masses on occasion, but in fact was the driving force in popular culture, especially in music, and to a lesser degree comedy. Why ignore that? Celebrate it — and celebrate it he did.

Last night he began with Snoop Dogg and Chris Tucker —  smart choices because they served as reminders of that mandate of old, even if they both long ago entered the mainstream, thanks in part to the host before them.

The opening show, in fact, was swaddled in retro, and very nearly approached nostalgia  — beginning with the opening seconds with a smart bit about how anxious he felt about this new gig, though how he's comforted himself with the idea that if he works hard, tells some jokes, gets good numbers, well. then ...

"I should be able to stay in late night forever ..."

Cut to Jay Leno: "Yeah, good luck with that ..."

Smoothly delivered, intercut with pretaped bits, some funny (Storage Wars") others not ("Tunado") — which is about the same for any show — Hall accomplished a number of goals with his opening monologue, but the most important of them was to remind viewers that they once derived real pleasure from the guy telling these jokes.

Why shouldn't they get a little pleasure again? That's the bargain you, the viewer, strike with any host. Do you like him or her? Is he mostly funny or at least amusing? Comfortable? Likable? Arsenio made a reasonable good-faith effort last night at providing answers.  So far, those would be "yes."

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