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‘Rock Center’ Review: ‘It’s hard to be different. It’s harder to be good’

It’s been 20 years since the launch of a successful prime-time newsmagazine, and last night’s debut of Brian Williams’ “Rock Center” on NBC showed why.

It’s hard to be different. It’s harder to be good. It’s a million-to-one shot to be different and good.

“Rock Center” was, at times, different and good, but it didn’t come close to being both at the same time. In fact, the embarrassing final segments with Williams and Jon Stewart made “The Playboy Club,” which “Rock Center” replaced at 10 p.m. Mondays, look like “Meet the Press.”

For most of the broadcast, ‘Rock Center’ played it straight, with well-produced taped packages and live studio debriefings between Williams and correspondents Harry Smith, Richard Engel and Kate Snow.

Smith reported on oil boomtown Williston, N.D.; Engel on Syria’s resistance movement and Snow on pregnant Chinese women who pay to give birth in the U.S. in order to obtain American citizenship for their babies before returning home.

Williams did a short piece on a Chicago scientist’s idea to lessen the agony of air travel’s boarding procedure. As a tease, Williams and Stewart did a lame bit on set while seated in a row of three airline seats. Unlike unsuspecting viewers, Stewart had buckled his seatbelt.

Maybe because it was Halloween, the goblins were already circling by the time Williams sat down to chat up his buddy Stewart, on whose Comedy Central ‘Daily Show’ Williams has killed 19 times. Last night was a double homicide.

When Stewart is anchored behind his ‘Daily Show’ desk and in control, he is without peer. The same is true for Williams as a guest on any late-night venue. But with both men out of their natural habitats for humor, the result was painful to watch

Clearly uncomfortable, a fidgety Stewart spent most of his two segments trying to figure out why he was there. Still, he had the night’s best line: “This is why they make test shows.”

The forced shtick, like Stewart’s handing to Williams a bow-tied, four-pack of beer (he said he drank the other two), fell flat. As did Stewart’s mocking of his host’s “vascular support” knee-high hose. Williams tried to return fire, referring to Stewart’s unfashionable shorties as ‘tennis socks.’

It was not a Bill Maher moment. It wasn’t even an Andy Rooney moment.

Williams tried talking Halloween, then got serious and asked Stewart, inexplicably, his thoughts on the Occupy Wall Street movement. “Are we entering a semi-permanent era of protest?” Williams said. His seriousness in asking the question seemed like a set-up for a punchline.

It was, in a way, but it came at the conclusion of the program. As Stewart rested his head on Williams’ shoulder and smiled like Elmo, Williams deadpanned: “We’re registered at Bad, Bath & Beyond.”

At least BB & B is a recognizable brand. It may take a while before the same can be said for ‘Rock Center.’

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