February 10, 2014 12:00 PM

Good Night, Jay

Leaving The Tonight Show 22 years after he started, the host wasn’t an innovator. But he was a master of consistency

As he gears up for his farewell – again – Jay Leno has been revisiting sweetly nostalgic moments, including the baby-faced Tonight Show debuts of Matt Damon and Jennifer Lopez. And then there’s early Jay: In a 22-year-old clip he replayed during a recent chat with Bob Costas, I was reminded of his Chipmunks-style laughter. These days the laugh is less squeaky, less eager. I wondered when it had changed.

I was a teenage insomniac when Leno took over The Tonight Show in 1992, and I couldn’t wait for Johnny Carson to leave. Johnny was my parents’ Tonight Show host; Jay was mine. (For the record, Johnny was 66 when he signed off; Jay is 63.) But as Leno settled in, his humor became as institutional as the show itself. Every joke sailed down the middle, rolled by the host with the consistency of a pro bowler.

That consistency, of course, has been key to Leno’s longevity. And yet today Leno is a bowling alley guy in a virtual-lane world: His successor, the energetically adorable Jimmy Fallon, is a master of the viral video, a form that requires the kind of free-flying imagination that has never been Leno’s hallmark. Despite the friendly transition (in contrast to 2009’s botched handoff to Conan O’Brien), it’s clear Leno is going grudgingly into that good night. It’s time. But my inner teen, the one to whom he was a comfort, will always be grateful to him.

FLEMING

BBC America, Wednesdays, 10 p.m. ET/PT |

DRAMA

This four-part series boasts a strong premise: Dominic Cooper is author Ian Fleming, whose experiences as a British Naval Intelligence officer in WWII helped inspire his iconic creation James Bond. Naturally there is liquor, sex, gambling and political intrigue. It’s a polished production, as shiny as the brass buttons on Fleming’s uniform. Cooper is compelling as an overconfident hothead who sees creative potential around each corner. Trouble is, no matter what the writers dream up for Fleming, Fleming has already dreamed up better for Bond.

UNDER THE GUNN

Lifetime, Thursdays, 9 p.m. ET/PT |

REALITY

With his stiff syntax and ramrod posture, Tim Gunn could march into the Downton Abbey dining room and take a seat, no questions asked. In this new series, the Project Runway guru slides into Heidi Klum‘s role as host to allow three Runway alums to guide a group of aspiring designers. The coach-team setup gives the show a slight Voice vibe, but the whole thing feels flat. Besides, no one can out-mentor Lord Gunn.

WAHLBURGERS

A&E, Wednesdays, 10:30 p.m. ET/PT |

REALITY

How good of a son is Mark Wahlberg? He got his ma her own show! In theory this new series is a family effort, with Hollywood big shot Mark, New Kids on the Block brother Donnie and chef brother Paul sharing camera time. But it’s matriarch Alma, with her smoker’s rasp and “I beg yah pah-don” Boston accent, who occupies the spotlight as the clan works to expand their burger business. Plot points include hiring and restaurant-location scouting. This is not the cartoon drama of Keeping Up with the Kardashians. This is advertising with a side of bruthah (and muthah)-ly love.

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