Queen Latifah with guest Willow Smith on the premiere of "The Queen Latifah Show"

Queen Latifah with guest Willow Smith on the premiere of “The Queen Latifah Show”

*Queen Latifah kicked off her new daytime run Monday with guests Willow Smith (her mom Jada Pinkett Smith is an executive producer of the show), fellow old-school rapper MC Lyte and her “Hairspray” co-star John Travolta. For folks who missed the big debut due to coverage of the Navy Yard shooting, here’s a review of Monday’s broadcast from The Hollywood Reporter:

After more than 10 years since her last foray into the talk-show world, Queen Latifah (a.k.a. Dana Owens), the 43-year-old actress, Cover Girl spokeswoman and former rap artist, has returned older, wiser and ready to inspire. The Queen Latifah Show’s inaugural outing could have just been called Queen Latifah and Friends, but who could begrudge the Queen the fact that she would want to gather her nearest and dearest to celebrate her new start?

Latifah has said in recent interviews that she wanted her new series to be more positive and optimistic than other talk shows, even her own that ran from 1998-2001 (and not be the kind of show that incorporates those dramatic paternity tests). So far it seems to be working. Latifah laughs and jokes and joshes around through her opening sequence, and that, combined with the warm, autumnal colors of the set (designed by Lenny Kravitz), evokes a cozy and genial feeling. She also seems to be borrowing a leaf from Ellen DeGeneres‘ playbook by dancing at the start and end of the show, as well as with her guest (friend John Travolta, whose Saturday Night Fever look she copied in her wardrobe choice).

The levity was balanced, though, with one emotional segment that felt particularly Oprah-esque, when Latifah brought in music students from a south Los Angeles high school to record at Sony, with a special appearance by Alicia Keys. The unintentionally funniest part of the segment was how the students actually showed Keys up by playing one of her songs in a jazzier way than she does, and having a lead singer brimming with vocal talent rivaling Keys’ own. At one point the camera caught a sly glance from Keys to Latifah, as if to say, “Did you set me up?” [Watch below.]

Later though, Latifah extended even more generosity to the students and their beloved teacher, Vince Womack, by sprucing up their music room and bestowing them with new instruments (while wearing a confoundingly configured dress). It was a teary segment that sets the tone for Latifah’s inspirational approach to her series, and her openly counting her blessings while thanking her audience for being with her through these exciting times (her enthusiasm for her own show is hard to ignore) felt, again, a lot like Oprah in spirit.

Aside from a very funny Emmy-related sketch that kicked off the hour, there aren’t too many aspects yet that distinguish The Queen Latifah Show within the talk-show landscape — except for Latifah herself. Her conversation with John Travolta was frothy and forgettable, and a performance by Willow Smith (a personal friend who, yes, again donned that weird fake British accent during her song “Summer Fling”) was fine, but didn’t necessarily match the age group or interests of her core audience. [Watch below..]

But Latifah is — as Travolta said of her while lavishing her with praise — a “light,” and someone who fills up a room with her presence. She’s also energetic and sincere. Her showrunner, Corin Nelson (a veteran of many talk shows, including Chelsea Lately, The Rosie O’Donnell Show and The Nate Berkus Show) should be able to help steer the series in the right direction as it settles into its first week.

Capitalizing on Latifah, though, should be paramount, and the one thing that might make it stand out would be more segments dedicated to her discussing current issues, showcasing her personality. It is Latifah herself who can elevate the series from just another afternoon talk show to something worth tuning in for. Overall, she is off to a decent start.