“Rock Center With Brian Williams,” which debuted this week on NBC, had an understandable case of the jitters during its first episode. The act of starting a somewhat hip, broadly topical, nominally in-depth news show in prime time is something hardly anyone in their right mind would try nowadays. You’d be better off trying to make a romantic comedy set against the glory days of broadcast news.
Yet here it was anyhow, on the network that not so long ago pinned its hopes on Jay Leno at 10 p.m. and still hasn’t recovered. It was the first all-new newsmagazine launch in a long while, culling together some old hands and NBC News’s current top crop of reporters and anchors. The result Monday night was assured, quick-paced and enjoyably flavored with a few spicy dashes of Brian Williams’s dry rub. It’s no secret that there’s more to him than meets the eye — a newfangled old-fogyness that might possibly conceal the funniest man on the planet, had he not been trapped in the horrifying guise of an anchor.
“Rock Center” aimed to be casual yet serious, quick but thorough, genuine but cheeky. Harry Smith, late of CBS’s “The Early Show,” delivered a Steinbeck-style report from North Dakota, where an oil boom offers thousands of jobs to almost anyone willing to work (and live in North Dakota), which came across like a dispatch from Bizarro World, the comic-book planet where everything is the opposite of how it is here on Earth. Three men from foreclosure-heavy states made camp in a Wal-Mart parking lot and, seemingly within a day or so, had each found his best job opportunity in years.
Richard Engel, NBC’s man in the Arab world, delivered a story that was more a stunt of derring-do than a news report, sneaking in and out of Syria to see how the liberation movement there is able to keep the world informed of its protests. Kate Snow had a scoopy look at boardinghouses in American suburbs where women from China and other Asian countries come to give birth and then shop till they drop while their “anchor babies” await U.S. citizenship, which is still a golden ticket after all these years. (It was the kind of story designed to make smoke come out of your patriotic uncle’s ears.)
Williams shined while giving a tongue-in-cheek paean to the glories of air travel, as a way to introduce a story about a scientist’s quest to puzzle out a better way to get passengers boarded. Problem unsolved, but they did get to make use of the Hollywood soundstage airliner seen as long ago as “Airplane!” and as recently as “Bridesmaids.”
The show ended with a pleasantly weird riff between Williams and “The Daily Show” host Jon Stewart, who chatted about the trick-or-treating habits of upper-class New Yorkers.
“I think this is why we do test shows,” Stewart said in mock appraisal of “Rock Center’s” hasty debut. “Are we really going” to talk about trick-or-treating, Stewart wondered, in the same show that featured a report from Syria. “I saw you in the greenroom with” Engel, Williams observed. “You got your man-crush on.” The two also discussed Williams’s feigned (I think feigned?) confusion about the cultural significance and stamina of the Occupy Wall Street movement. “They’re coming for you,” Stewart told Williams.
To some viewers, “Rock Center” may have looked like a smart attempt to reflect the way news consumers can shift gears. To others it will seem like dad’s desperate attempt to play cool.
“This I like,” Williams said reaching out just before a commercial break to touch Stewart’s hairy shin, which peeked from between the hem of his pants and sagging dress sock — a TV man’s ultimate fashion nightmare. Stewart jerked his leg away in horror. By the time they came back from the break, Stewart had apparently learned that Williams wears socks that come up to his knees. Somewhere in there is a strange lesson in journalistic confidence.
(one hour) airs Mondays
at 10 p.m. on NBC.