Talk Show Host Soup

I hope everyone caught "The Tonight Show" last night -- the first since Conan O'Brien made it official, telling NBC he was rejecting their plans for a shakeup -- because it was one of the more riveting hours of TV in a while.

With nothing to lose and cementing his lame-duck status, Conan's gloves came off and he gave it to the network but good, ripping their last-place status and pointing out several times that he only had seven months on the job.

He also took a few swipes at Jay Leno, who will presumably be returning to "The Tonight Show" to replace Conan. One gets the feeling there's a lot more going on behind the scenes than is being reported.

Guests Tom Brokaw and Zachary Levi -- both with strong NBC connections -- took the time to salute Conan during their interviews, and the audience gave him an extra-long opening ovation.

One may not be a Conan fan, but it's easy to understand his frustration. After years of waiting in the wings, he finally lands the crown jewel of the late-night scene. However, without a strong lead-in and trying to transition from Leno's older-skewing audience, Conan on "Tonight" was going to be a lot of work, and he had little time to do it in.

It's a bit ironic, since in the past NBC showed great patience with its programming. Leno took three years to beat David Letterman head-to-head, and that was because of a serendipitous interview with actor Hugh Grant, who had just been arrested soliciting a prostitute.

Conan himself struggled trying to replace Letterman on "Late Night," opening to low ratings and terrible reviews. But NBC stuck with him, and eventually Conan built his own brand.

But those were the days when NBC still had some kind of prime-time programming. Under the "leadership" of Jeff Zucker, the network has sustained so much damage that a rival TV executive couldn't have hurt NBC more if he or she tried.

Conan's got slightly less than a month still on the job, and it will be interesting to see how many more body blows he lands upon NBC during that time.

Meanwhile, in other talk news, former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin made her debut last night on Fox News as a correspondent. No matter what you think of Palin -- and let's face it, people pretty much love her or hate her -- she's made herself into an interesting presence, so this is probably a good get for Fox. Palin has shown herself to be enough of a presence on shows ranging from "Oprah" to "Saturday Night Live" that she should probably do pretty well in the long run.

WEDNESDAY'S BEST BETS: It's Night 2 of "American Idol" (Fox, 8 p.m.), this time running 90 minutes.

ABC renewed "The Middle," "Modern Family" and "Cougar Town" for second seasons yesterday, and celebrates tonight with new episodes of each from 8:30 p.m.-10 p.m. They are followed by "Ugly Betty" at 10 p.m., very much on the bubble these days.

CBS has new episodes of "Old Christine," "Gary Unmarried," "Criminal Minds" and "CSI: NY."

NBC, meanwhile, has "Mercy" and "Law & Order: SVU" from 8-10 p.m.

On cable, "Leverage" returns to TNT tonight with a brand-new episode at 10 p.m., following a couple of reruns from last season. Once again, Jeri Ryan guest stars as a new con artist as the team infiltrates the world of fashion. And once again, Parker (Beth Riesgraf) steals most of the scenes she's in.