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Critiquing the Fall TV Lineup

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Tom Shales
Washington TV Critic
Wednesday, September 19, 2007; 2:00 PM

Post TV critic Tom Shales was online Wednesday, Sept. 19 at 2 p.m. ET to discuss the lineup for the fall television season and his picks for the best and worst new shows.

The transcript follows.

Videos: Fall TV Previews (washingtonpost.com)

Pulitzer Prize winner Tom Shales has been The Washington Post's chief television critic for 30 years. He is the author of several books, including "On the Air," "Legends" and "Live From New York."

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Tom Shales: Hello out there in Television Land. Or, er, Computer Land. I have enough Diet Coke to last about an hour. So ... onward.

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Vienna, Va.: What's the buzz on Ken Burns's "The War"?

Tom Shales: The buzz on Ken Burns's "The War": Because I had to watch so many hours of new shows, someone else, an expert on World War II, is looking at the miniseries. Of course, my expectations are high -- Burns will want to say things that he feels have not been said, so there is bound to be controversy. I wish I could tell you more -- I definitely will be watching or will take a look at the tapes ASAP.

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Studio City, Calif.: Hi Tom. Having seen countless new shows, the same plots, characters, jokes, etc., what moves you? What are you looking for a TV show to provide for you?

Tom Shales: What am I looking for in a TV show? I guess just that it succeed on its own terms, that it be true to some apparent purpose, have something unique to say or, I guess, just succeed as pleasantly frivolous escapism. I think I am capable of liking any kind of show -- even if it's not my favorite type -- as long as it's done well and with some attempt, however slight, at originality. This is one of those perpetual questions to which I wish I had a more inventive answer...

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New York: Why do TV networks show us different versions of the same theme over and over? All networks once had to have Westerns (I know, I'm dating myself), all networks had to have crime lab shows, and this season all networks have to have shows about geeks. What happened to variety? Are Americans incapable of absorbing multiple themes of TV series?

Tom Shales: Ah yes, the year of the geek! Also the slacker. If we could combine those two words into one, we would be able to label this trend -- The Gleeker? The answer to sameness in TV is always the same: Whatever worked last year or the year before will be imitated to death this year. Fred Allen said -- ages ago (I was of course a mere fetus at the time) -- "imitation is the sincerest form of television." Now I can't see exactly which geek or slacker shows were hits last year -- hmmm -- maybe it's something the TV folk got out of the movies?

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Ashburn, Va.: I've been a science fiction fan since I was a kid (and more specifically, a big cyberpunk fan since the mid-'80s) so I'm interested in the updated and newly restyled "Bionic Woman" -- the ads make it look like there's some complexity to it (and yes, I'm old enough to have watched the original as a kid). But will a science fiction fan be happy in the end with this series, or is it just going to be "Alias" with cybernetic trappings?

Also, I really like Kevin McKidd in "Rome," so I've been looking forward to "Journeyman"; but it doesn't sound like you like it at all. Is it that drearily bad? Oh, and I'm happy to see that "Chuck" might have more to it than just "pretty woman and geek are forced to meet via ridiculous script-writing machinations." Thanks.

Tom Shales: I can remember when it was a TV programming law: Science fiction will not work in prime time -- women will not watch it. That's not my belief, that's just what was thought. And apparently that changed -- a lot of things changed. I didn't flip over the new "Bionic Woman" because I saw a familiar urge at work: Take something old and "improve" it by making it darker, edgier, broody, moody, creepy. Yes, it's really "The Bionic Alias."

I thought the premise of "Journeyman" silly and overly complicated, but it may succeed (with you and other viewers) in spite of that. "Chuck" has a terrific streak of humor to compensate for the preposterousness of the plot...

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Springfield, Va.: I'm sure I'm not alone: There is nothing on the "new" list this season that I give a hoot about. I'm sure I'd fine an enjoyable show or two if I decided to watch, but I already watch too much TV as is. I'm not going to go out of my way to find something new to kill time. Given my viewing history, I should be an easy sell for the TV marketers. It's not just that nothing has grabbed my interest; it's also that I'm sick, tired, disgusted, etc., of tuning in and risking getting hooked on a show that the network decides to yank, no matter how much the critics and a solid group of viewers like it. And whether or not it's a fact that there's going to be less reality TV, as far as I'm concerned, any "reality" TV is too much. I can't stand it. I'm in my early 40s, single and have (a little) money to spend, but the networks couldn't care less about me. Back at you, networks...

Tom Shales: You say "the networks couldn't care less about me." Maybe not the major broadcast networks -- but this is supposed to be (I repeat, supposed to) the beauty of cable, and indeed if you have certain interests not met by regular TV, there might be something in that proverbial 500-channel universe to tickle your fancy, or whatever needs tickling.

I have been beating the drum for HDTV because it makes TV much more involving somehow -- I am watching animal documentaries by the score, and things about building bridges and diving into the sea, just because the pictures are breathtaking! So get yourself an HD set and you may find more stuff to like.

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New Haven, Conn.: Your review of "Back to You" suggests that reverting to the old sitcom formula is per se a bad thing. Does every show have to be blazingly original -- and, for that matter, is every blazingly original show watchable? My answer is no on both counts. I welcome anything that's not a "new" reality series, too many of which are themselves retreads. And what do you think it will say if "Back to You" is a hit: That we're returning to something comforting, like the way markets (used to) turn to the U.S. dollar in economic crises? And what does it say that the show's on hipper-than-thou Fox instead of CBS, where I'd expect to find this?

Tom Shales: I agree with you, New Haven, Conn. -- everything doesn't have to be "new" with a capital N. Or a capital E or W for that matter. I treasure old movies for one thing, and some old TV shows. I just felt "Back to You" was old in a bad way -- that it would have seem hackneyed had it premiered a decade or more ago, and it has that old hiccuppy rhythm of standard sitcoms: you know, insult jokes, double entendre, a bit o' smut, and so on. It's hard to care about characters who just blurt out wisecracks and put-downs all the time. But I would give this show a chance because of the venerability of the stars and because it is at least distinct from all the shows that do try to be hip, chic, stylish and very of-the-moment. I have no idea if any of this makes sense...

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Low-promotion premieres: I'm intrigued by the premise of "New Amsterdam," but I haven't heard anything about it beyond the premise. Have you seen it?

Tom Shales: "New Amsterdam"? What's that? Yes, it's hard even for a TV critic to keep up. I am not familiar with this title, except as a place, of course. Do you know any more about it, like whence it'll come? (Which network?)

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Oakton, Va.: I have a vision of you sitting in a very large living room surrounded by six TV screens, watching simultaneously as you try to write your columns. Is this where such brilliant lines as today's "that certain air of savoir-faire ("in the merry old land of Oz")" come from? Despite the fact that you sometimes sound cranky, I think you're actually having yourself a pretty good time.

Tom Shales: Having a good time? Nonsense! I am suffering mightily. I don't have a very big room in which I watch TV, and my limit is three or four screens at a time -- gathered together from other rooms when all the networks are covering the same event, like a political convention or a big speech.

"That certain air of savoir faire (in the merry old Land of Oz") is of course from "The Wizard of Oz," and an editor wanted to take it out as being beside-the-point (in fact there was no point, as I recall) but I got it kept in on the grounds that somebody might get a laugh -- and apparently someone did. And thank you for that, and for the fanciful vision of how I go about my "work."

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Richmond, Va.: I watched a couple episodes of "Tell Me You Love Me," and I'll be passing. It was all whining without any character development. I don't care about any of the characters, they all seem self-centered. And I am as liberal as they come, but that gratuitous super nudity was too much. Sorta made me feel dirty watching it ... in the bad way.

washingtonpost.com: Steamy and Stimulating (Post, Sept. 8)

Tom Shales: So you found the nudity "gratuitous" on "Tell me You Love Me." I can understand that. It also seemed self-conscious to me -- but only at first. After I watched two or three episodes I became more intrigued. The characters are indeed self-centered, but examined selves is one of the themes of the show, so if they weren't self-centered they probably would be on the wrong program. So far it is not at all a "blockbuster" for HBO in a league with "Sopranos" or even "Entourage"; the ratings are low, but I think the show will be talked-about and that its popularity may increase. You may want to give it another try -- or not. It may not be your cup of hot (to trot) latte.

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Falls Church, Va.: I was reading about the new Kelsey Grammar sitcom on FOX, and was wondering if there has been a successful show about a TV newsroom since the old Mary Tyler Moore show? Certainly, neither "Good Sports" nor "Good Morning, Miami" would count.

washingtonpost.com: "Murphy Brown"

Tom Shales: A show about a newsroom? I can't think of any other than the ones you mentioned. Of course, radio and TV stations have been used in some way or another -- "WKRP" naturally comes to mind, and "NewsRadio" (I may have the title wrong, sorry) with what's-his-name and what's-her-name. (How's that for an authoritative answer? Well I apologize but there's no time to look everything up.)

It seems a setting well-suited to comedy. I worked at a small radio station when I was in high school and it was a lot of laughs -- you know, hi jinks and shenanigans, that sort of thing. Oh and antics, we also had antics almost daily ... (seriously, I remember the five "bulletin" bells going off on the UPI machine on the Friday in November 1963 when President Kennedy was killed)...

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Fairfax, Va.: I know you're a big movie fan and I've read a number of DVD reviews written by you. Remember "Easter Parade" and "Meet Me In St. Louis"? Have you ever considered moving over to the Big Screen? I think you could be as influential as Roger Ebert.

Tom Shales: Roger Ebert?! Who's he? Oh, I'm just joshing. I've been told I look like Ebert, or he like me, and I used to brag that he weighed more than I did -- but fate intervened, and indeed fat intervened, and those tables have been turned. Roger is quite ill now but he still is reviewing movies.

As for me, I reviewed movies for 25 years (!) on National Public Radio and finally grew very tired of it. I think at some point television actually became a more interesting "beat" for a critic -- and besides, it's the medium I love most. I would love to review more DVDs of old films, but the editors don't seem terribly interested.

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Seasons new and old: I recently found your first collection of columns at the DC main library (It was somewhere between the nonfunctioning elevators and the missing bathroom sinks.) It was fun reading interviews and reviews from the '70s: Will "Saturday Night Live" and its newcomers last? What is "Gunga Dan" Rather doing now? What the heck is happening to news coverage? Is Farrah really that dumb? Question: Do you ever review your old columns?

Tom Shales: My apologies -- there was an interruption -- it was the fault of AOL, my entry into this universe and the most unreliable, miserably undependable rip-off I have ever encountered in any medium anywhere. AOL -- horrible, horrible service. Part of the Evil Empire: Time-Warner-AOL. All very Satanic if you ask me. Infuriatingly unreliable ... oh, I said that.

To the reader who found my first book, a collection of columns: Thank you for investigating that! I don't think I want to pick it up and read it any time soon, though -- brrrr. Kinda scares me...

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Burlington, Vt.: I, for one, will always be grateful for gratuitous nudity. I prefer it with subtitles, though.

Tom Shales: I agree with Burlington, Vt. -- what's wrong with a little gratuitous nudity now and then? A Canadian network has experimented with nude newscasters (okay, stupid, I'll grant you, and not very appropriate when the news is bad and full of calamity). Anyway, people have to pay to get HBO and Showtime and such, and I think nudity is implicitly one of the things they're paying extra for...

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Bethesda, Md. (formally Elgin, Ill.): Hi Tom. I have nothing to ask, but wanted to let you know I usually agree with everything you say, and plan my viewing accordingly. Perhaps that's because we grew up in the same town? I'm not looking forward to the new broadcast season that much, but we have HBO, so we will get by.

Tom Shales: I always love hearing from people who come from Elgin, Ill., my hometown. My father was mayor there for a few years -- but mayor was a part-time job that paid, I think, about $1,500 a year. Still, he had a wonderful time, as he loved people. I know this is a digression, but when someone says "Elgin" I cannot help drifting into at least a little reminiscence...

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"Private Practice": Is it worth getting excited/hopeful over? I loved Kate Walsh's character on "Grey's" so much, but the pilot last season crashed and burned in my opinion. Does the real season look any good? Please give me hope for a Kate-Tim hookup!

Tom Shales: I must tell you, I loathed "Private Practice." It didn't even seem acceptable on a minimal level as a piece of work by "professionals." The characters are insufferable and the script -- at least the pilot script -- was derivative, dull and kind of leering. I am not a big fan of the original show, but I can see its appeal. If "Private Practice" succeeds, though, I will be surprised. Of course, TV is full of surprises -- in that sense.

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Burke, Va.: Tom, didn't the Emmys the other night show perfectly why the networks are bleeding share? Whoa, multi awards for Tony Bennett. Whoa, a long song medley from the cast of "Jersey Boys" -- a Broadway show about a second-tier ''60s vocal group. Could they have skewed older if they'd tried? I'm 48 for God's sake, and my family definitely watches more series on cable than on network -- and we don't even get HBO.

Tom Shales: I certainly agree that the Emmys reflected how mediocre most of television is right now, but then most of it always has been mediocre. Most of the books that are published are mediocre (sorry, I use this argument all the time in TV's defense, but it is true, it's just that TV is so much more invasive than books or movies; we can't as easily escape its mediocrity).

All those Emmys to that Tony Bennett show! Baffling! It was basically an infomercial, a protracted ad for a new Tony Bennett CD. Why, in the old days -- (sorry, but I do remember them) we had weekly variety-musical shows easily as good as that Tony Bennett "special" was. That really was ridiculous. The whole Emmy show was pretty galling.

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Manassas, Va.: Tom, just finished the new TV Guide last week. Looking at what is coming, and the time it is coming on, is it any wonder that sitcoms/serial shows are failing? When the first hour of prime time is filled with game shows and reality drivel, it doesn't allow those of us who have to face the No. 2 commute in the nation time to watch and invest in new shows -- and not everyone can TiVo. Question: Is there any sign that the game-show-and-reality wave is peaking? Thanks.

Tom Shales: Is there any sign that the game show/reality show fad is peaking? Or has peaked? Now now, no peaking!

Sorry.

There are signs that the trend is waning but you never know, and I think reality shows are now a fixture, the way we'll always have one-hour (scripted) dramas and half-hour sitcoms and such. Actually, one of the changes in TV is that we have hour-long sitcoms ... or at least comedies ... or at least dramas with high comedy content, like "Desperate Wives" and "Ugly Betty." That it's harder to categorize shows is, I think, actually a good sign. Some of the old restrictive parameters have been trampled over -- even the people who make TV shows are getting bored with the old formats and their rigidity. In that way, TV actually is improving.

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South Rockville, Md.: Will "Cavemen" actually last through the first episode or will ABC rip it off the air mid-broadcast and replace it with "Just for Laughs"?

Tom Shales: "Caveman" ripped off the air and replaced with any old thing ("Just for Laughs" was mentioned)? That's highly probable. Even if "Caveman" achieves the minimum number of viewers necessary for survival, ABC is likely to find it embarrassing -- and yes, even networks can register embarrassment. It's likely to be the most-derided new show of the season, the one that takes the worst battering from critics and columnists. And my Aunt Hazel.

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Colorado: Am I right that "Damages" is a one-season series after the British model? Any chance that cable networks will pick up on the idea of 22-episode movies? So many good premises/casts/etc. are wasted by dragging on too long.

Tom Shales: "Damages" will do a second season if the ratings seem to justify it. Basing shows on British models is of course very common, but much is often lost in translation, and there are many examples -- the one that pops to mind is "Queer as Folk," which was two short seasons in England but went on for several years over here (via Showtime cable) -- of imports running longer than the originals.

Look at "Fawlty Towers." It only ran two seasons and yet is a worldwide cult hit -- but in the U.S., the system seems to demand that anything successful be bled dry over as many seasons as possible, thereby accumulating enough episodes for syndication. I think this system might be changing, but slowly, because it's dictated by economics and nothing speaks louder than money.

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Washington: Hi, Tom. Not really a comment on the new season, but I've been reading your reviews for years (perhaps decades) and I have to say I continue to enjoy them. My faves over the years are your reviews of the State of the Union addresses (I flip to those the morning after before I read the news analyses) and your reviews of Kathie Lee's Christmas specials. Thanks for the reading!

Tom Shales: Thanks for the kind comment re: my "reviews" of State of the Union addresses and Kathie Lee Gifford Christmas specials. Now if we could just combine the two -- have Kathie Lee give a State of the Union speech, for instance. Then you'd have something -- something ghastly, but something. I wish Kathie Lee would come back. I'd much rather see another of her mushy-gushy specials than watch another State of the Union speech. Just a personal preference ... not a political statement...

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Baltimore: No mention of "Pushing Up Daisies" yet -- it appears to have a unique style and interesting concept, any substance?

Tom Shales: I call it "Pushing Up Daisies" myself, but I think it's just "Pushing Daisies." Either way it's death of course, and I found it rather deathly. Yes it is visually distinctive, gorgeous to look at, and it's whimsical and cute for a while -- but the narrator just will not shut up, it's more like a monologue than a TV show. And I for one am not as amused by death (a sign of getting older perhaps) as those folks in Hollywood seem to be -- what with all the death-themed shows in recent years, at least on HBO and Showtime. "Pushing Daisies" is an impressive pilot, but I wonder if it will wear well, being so precious and cutesy-wutesy.

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Washington: What's the prognosis for "Aliens in America"? I've heard good things about it, but I also think there's much room for cringe-inducing "Muslim meets Midwesterners" moments.

Tom Shales: "Aliens in America" hasn't been made available to critics yet -- usually but not invariably a bad sign.

On a procedural note, the question from Silver Spring, Md., was answered, but the system (my system I guess, via AOL) froze up and now the question has turned pink (!). The reader said "Back to You" sounds like it appeals to a college-educated audience, and I said, to sum it up briefly, "don't count on it."

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Washington: Re: Geek/Slacker shows -- gotta be inspired by the movies: "Knocked Up," "Superbad," "Rocket Science," etc.

Tom Shales: Yes on Slacker Shows -- there are innumerable movies about laggardly goofs and the scrapes they get into, some of them very funny, but they must have "inspired" the TV trend.

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Washington: Not sure why you're defending Sally Field's right to political speech -- why doesn't FOX bleep some of its own programming and maybe MSNBC would do the same? I think you make a good point -- FOX can say they were bleeping obscenity when they really were bleeping political speech -- but really, who cares what she says? I'd rather hear from that guy who got tasered in Florida. Pity Kerry didn't defend him as much as you're defending that ditz Sally Field. Ever heard of Boniva?

washingtonpost.com: Going Out With a Bang and a Bleep (Post, Sept. 17)

Tom Shales: I think time is up, but on Sally Field -- I am not defending what she said, but I am objecting to it being censored. This was a live show, supposedly taking us to a newsworthy event as it happened. The censorship was absurd and infuriating, because it was done out of fear of FCC fines, not to spare the audience's sensibilities. It also smacks of censoring political speech, which is a very very very very un-American thing to do...

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Arlington, Va.: After reading your "Back to You" review, I am reminded of why I feel sad for you. Your job seems to have made an abrupt shift after "Seinfeld," and with the advent of reality TV. Have you found yourself saying "this isn't what I signed up for"? If a mediocre "Back to You" actually brightens your eyes for a moment, what does that say about the state of Tom and TV? Is it no longer Entertainment for you?

washingtonpost.com: On the Laugh Track (Post, Sept. 19)

Tom Shales: Has TV changed so much that I now wish I had some other job? Well, I wish I had the job of, oh, president of the United States. (What am I saying!? No I don't.) No, but really, I still have a foolish faith that TV will get better before it gets worse, and then if it gets worse it will get better again. Ugh, I think I need some Advil...

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"K-Ville": I watched "K-Ville" last night ... considering the dialogue was some of the worst ever written for a television show, how many times do you think it will air before it gets cancelled? I give it no more than five.

Tom Shales: Dissatisfied with "K-Ville"? So was I. Preachy and sanctimonious, and I found the lead character very somber and uninteresting. Don't know how it did in the ratings, so I have no idea if it will last through the season. But then I have no idea if I will last through the season.

As George Gobel used to say, "I see by the old clock on the wall..." You never heard of George Gobel? Oops, I've dated myself again. Anyway thank you very much for the great questions and for "tuning in" or whatever it's called...

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