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TV: More Mea Culpas than a Confessional

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A new TV spot compares Dominos pizza to cardboard and ketchup (this is news?), a claim I found startling only when I realized the advertiser was Domino's Pizza. They want me to know they're sorry about their crummy pies and promise to do better.

I spot a trend. Suddenly my TV set has more mea culpas than a confessional. Comedies admit they're not funny and never really were. Networks retreat from the stratagems they'd promised would be revolutionary. Everyone's saying, in the immortal words of Emily Litella, "Never mind."

NBC, home to both "Chuck" and, for the moment, Conan O'Brien, is the poster network for "Never mind." This week the company unveiled its revamped "Chuck," an action/comedy that mined the middling appeal of actor Zachary Levi to middling success. When it debuted in 2007, "Chuck," about a skinny-tied, short-sleeved computer nerd turned reluctant spy, was part of the geek chic that produced the very funny "The Big Bang Theory" (score one for Aspergers!) and the math-genius crime drama "Numb3rs," a show more clever (and with an appealing star in Rob Morrow) than its hybrid number/letter title.

"Chuck" has, as they say, a "loyal following," which is to say most people don't find it funny. Earlier this month, the series' cocreator, Josh Schwartz, told The New York Times that producers promised NBC to tone down the silliness and play up the action. Lose a nerd, gain a spy. Comedy? Never mind.

But the season premiere of "Chuck" this week pointed up the problem with never mind solutions. They tinker. They're half-hearted. They resurrect rather than innovate. The hipster-cute Levi, with little of the macho charm that David Boreanaz brings to "Bones" or Nathan Fillion to "Castle," is no more or less convincing as a neo-Neo than he was as a hapless goof. On Monday's episode of the show named after his own character, the star ceded considerable screen time to a supporting actor with better pecs.

But the "Chuck" do-over seems like genius compared to what might go down as the biggest Never Mind in TV history. Last summer, Jay Leno's publicist assured me that Jay's camp believed his new primetime program would change the landscape of television. Mission accomplished.

NBC's plan to move Leno's dismal 10 pm program, "The Jay Leno Show," to the 11:35 slot, bumping "Tonight" from its berth of a half-century, was rightly rejected by O'Brien, who said moving "Tonight" past midnight would shatter a tradition and diminish a legacy.

Unfortunately, O'Brien's decision likely will put Leno back where we late-nighters can't avoid him. Despite all the talk that Leno's primetime failure had to do with entrenched viewing habits (comedy at 8, drama at 10), couldn't it be that America finally realized that Leno isn't, you know, funny?

I'm not sure the oddball Conan was a great choice for the mass-appeal program, but I was delighted that the once-great "Tonight" at last had a host who might grow in the job. Or at least read a cue card without staring. C'mon, Jay, there's still time. Wouldn't it be nice to be a stand-up guy instead of a stand-up comic, and respectfully decline the Never Mind?

Greg Evans is a freelance writer and editor with a focus on pop culture -- high, low and in-between. The former General Editor of TV Guide Magazine, his writing has appeared in The New York Times and Entertainment Weekly, among other publications. He was a theater and film reporter for Variety and Daily Variety through the final decade of the last century, finishing his stint there as theater editor and chief critic. He lives in Brooklyn.