Imagine a TV world where the late-night comedy audience is not fragmented in a clutter of Dave or Jay or Stewart/Colbert, Conan, the Jimmys and Craig. For 30 years (1962-1992), Johnny Carson was the go-to guy for after-hours TV, the affable but untouchable host of NBC's then-legendary Tonight Show.
No one has ever surpassed his timing — his topical, tart monologues a thing of beauty, even (or especially) when they bombed — his cool on-air temperament and his impeccable taste in anointing new waves of fresh comic talent. A terrific entertainer who knew how to share the spotlight, off-camera he was an enigma to many, including his many wives. Which may have prompted this quote: "If you laid any joke open, you could find something unpleasant underneath."
PBS' invaluable American Masters series attempts to pierce the persona in the captivating new documentary Johnny Carson: King of Late Night, a two-hour biography in which he is described as "the Citizen Kane of comedy" (by The Simpsons' Al Jean, a former Tonight writer) and "the great American sphinx" (by biographer Bill Zehme). With clips both familiar and rare (a 1955 appearance on his idol Jack Benny's show), and interviews with professional and personal intimates, including wife No. 2 Joanne, Carson emerges as a Nebraska boy who turned to magic to combat shyness (and maybe someday earn his mother's approval), a TV pioneer who scaled the heights by learning to be himself in front of an adoring national audience.
While most of the testimonials extol his gifts, he is also portrayed as a "cheap drunk" (courtesy of Joanne) protective of his fiefdom: "You had to be good, but not too good," explains sidekick Ed McMahon. And Joan Rivers, his first permanent guest host who had a falling out when she got her own late-night show on Fox, likens him to a "tough, aggressive killer." Heeere's Johnny at his best and worst, as art and commerce collide as they always do in TV. But when that camera was on, he was magic.
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THE SHOW MUST GO ON: That's the mantra fueling the season finale of NBC's Smash (10/9c), which after a long and rocky tryout period — call it the first season, applauded for its tunefulness but often mocked for its clumsy soap-operatics — manages to end on a high note, the best episode since the pilot. The show will go on, because Smash has been renewed for a second year, but it won't return until midseason, which will presumably give the new guy in charge (Gossip Girl's Josh Safran) plenty of time to polish the creaky drama. The framework of this backstage series is still a fresh and fertile ground for juicy storytelling, as long as the focus stays on the passions and pitfalls of putting on a show.
The finale is enjoyably frantic for good reason: The marquee star is out for good, the vultures are circling (from gossip columnists to producer Eileen's ex-husband, all smelling a disaster in the making), and there's a mad scramble not only to ready a new Marilyn — will it be green Karen or calculating Ivy? — but also to write a new closing number so Bombshell doesn't fade out on a suicide. (The new song, which closes the episode and the season, is a knockout, on par with "Let Me Be Your Star," the pilot's memorable climax.) It's not a perfect hour — not with Ellis still scheming, Julia's dreary family still lurking about, and dour guilt-ridden Dev still pining for Karen, while trying to get his missing ring back from Ivy — but the melodrama for once is subsumed by the spectacle of a musical chaotically taking shape before our eyes. That's the special allure of Smash, and it's good to be reminded while we settle in for the long wait for Act II that it still has the potential to be smashing.
HOUSE CALLS: I'm not sure what Fox's House has in store for next week's series finale, but it's going to have to go the extra mile to upstage tonight's penultimate episode (9/8c), a powerhouse showdown between Hugh Laurie's House and Robert Sean Leonard's Wilson (a performance that could earn this fine actor his first Emmy nomination). These two stubborn doctors square off over Wilson's plans (or lack thereof) for treatment of his cancer, an illness that's casting a pall over the entire hospital. House, as always, has an arsenal of manipulative tricks up his sleeve, but Wilson is adamant that for once, it's not all about House. "Does it ever stop being surreal?" Wilson asks Thirteen (Olivia Wilde returning for a meaningful visit) about living with a terminal illness.
It gets very real, though, in explosive scenes of catharsis for Laurie and Leonard, before a twist ending that reminds us how fleeting time really is for these doctors and this show. Even if you've drifted away from Princeton Plainsboro in recent seasons — this one in particular was a chore, up until the Wilson dilemma — you might want to check back in now.
THE GUIDE: What else has the TV watercooler buzzing? ... The return of NBC's America's Got Talent (8/7c), introducing Howard Stern as the controversial new judge (replacing Piers Morgan) with two-hour audition episodes tonight and Tuesday. How outrageous will he choose, or be allowed, to be? Will he scare children and make old people cry? These questions are reason enough to explain why he was chosen for the gig, and NBC is so confident this summer hit will make even more noise with him on board, they're premiering the show several weeks earlier than usual. ... Weddings figure prominently in the finales of CBS' How I Met Your Mother (8/7c), in which Barney's bride is revealed in the second of two back-to-back episodes, and Mike & Molly (9:31/8:31c), where the title twosome finally get hitched after many comic obstacles. (In the first half of the Mother finale, Lily goes into labor.) ... The cast of Mad Men opens up to James Lipton on Bravo's Inside the Actors Studio (7/6c), with creator Matthew Weiner explaining why Jon Hamm had to audition seven times before being cast as Don Draper. ... Craig Ferguson begins a week-long stay in his native Scotland on CBS' The Late Late Show (12:37/11:37c). ... Emily Maynard, having ended a relationship with Brad Womack, becomes the first single mom to claim the title of The Bachelorette (ABC, 9:31/8:31c). ... HBO examines The Weight of the Nation in a multi-part documentary series about the U.S. obesity crisis, airing Monday and Tuesday (8/7c).