At least no one has to tell Brian Williams to pull up his socks. Rock Center With Brian Williams, the new NBC newsmag that relentlessly puts the urbane anchorman at center stage, was solid as a rock on Monday's opening night (10/9c), and often just about as exciting. Substantive without being stuffy, workmanlike but something less than a wow, the show often seemed indistinguishable from his Nightly News gig, albeit with longer stories and more opportunity for in-studio banter. (Williams' own whimsical piece about the airplane boarding process, delivered from an airline seat on the set, felt like the sort of bright throwaway you get at the end of the news.)
Nothing about Rock Center's launch had the "must see" feel you often get from CBS' 60 Minutes, which has been on a roll lately. If they start delivering bigger stories, will we come? Anything's possible.
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The big "get" for the first night was The Daily Show's always welcome Jon Stewart in studio, but when they weren't joking about their hosiery — unlike Williams' long socks, Stewart's at times revealed an embarrassing glimpse of skin under the pants leg — things grew strained as they boringly discussed Halloween in the big city: "You and I are going to talk fun-size candy?" Stewart cracked in disbelief. The chat eventually turned to the Occupy Wall Street movement, but didn't build toward much. It ended in a mock cuddle, as Stewart nestled next to Williams during the sign-off, while the anchor joked, "We're registered at Bed Bath & Beyond."
Williams' sense of humor is well known, so it's no surprise he can have fun with his own image. Rock Center, however, does take its journalistic mission seriously, and the storytelling is what will really matter. On that count, there is much promise. Harry Smith delivered a well-written, beautifully shot and compellingly personalized piece about a North Dakota oil-boom town where, lo and behold, there are more jobs available than people (or places to house them). Richard Engel lived up to his dashing foreign-correspondent reputation by filming himself being smuggled into Syria without visa or permission, in broad daylight, to track down dissidents to see how they're getting the word out. (The State Department is helping with encryption software, a fascinating detail.) Kate Snow's account of "birth tourism," a racket where foreign (here Chinese) women come to the U.S. to give birth — and their children instant citizenship — was enlivened by a rather alarming tour of one of the houses where the babies are nursed while their moms go shopping.
Nothing cheesy or sleazy, not even a peep of Kardashian gossip, for which we can be all grateful. But nothing really electrifying happened, either. It feels more like something you might tune into if nothing else was on — but when is that ever the case?
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