Shales On: Liz Cheney, Sunday Shows, 'Flash Forward,' More

Tom Shales
TV Columnist
Tuesday, September 1, 2009; 12:00 PM

Join Pulitzer Prize winner Tom Shales every Tuesday at Noon to discuss television, its cultural impact and his latest columns.

New Weekly Column: 'This Week': Talk Without The Discourse

Shales, The Washington Post's chief television critic for 30 years, is the author of several books, including "On the Air," "Legends" and "Live From New York." His column, "Shales on TV," appears in the paper every Tuesday.


Tom Shales: Hello again or hello for the first time, depending on whether you joined in last week. This is Tom Shales the TV critic ready to answer your questions or field your comments on anything I have written (such as today's column) or anything at all, preferably something having to do with our old friend Television. Ready set go---


Rockville, Md.: I have no reason to offend you, so bear with me in this question. Is it possible that you have so many locked-in views that Cheney is not even in your "wavelength." Perhaps her style is that of a younger and more conservative person who really does not engage with you on an intellectual level? I saw most of that program and my problems were with Sam. I think he is so dogmatic as to be unwatchable. You might as well play a tape when he talks.

Just a thought.

Tom Shales: Yes, I should have noted that Sam carried some of the blame for that donnybrook-for-two, that mish-mash that was supposed to be a discussion, on "This Week" this week. But Sam seemed to be playing defense while Ms Cheney was on the attack - this is just how it looked and sounded to me. And her "technique" of talking right on through and over anyone else is a calculated rhetorical trick that seems to me kind of mean-spirited from the get-go. I don't think I am immune to a bright-young conservative's arguments - honestly.


Alexandria, Va.: While all the cutbacks at The Post have depressed this long-time subscriber, it is so great to see your byline more regularly.

1. Although I missed her specific appearance on "This Week," I'm not sure it's fair to single out Liz Cheney. While I find both of her parents appalling and no doubt the source of her boorishness, she strikes me as just another political shill that justifies the "mute" button on my remote. The larger blame, which you hinted at in today's column, belongs to TV news in general, which long ago gave up any pretense of integrity in search of higher ratings and entertainment value. Why they continue to present such extreme ideologues from both sides, and then consider their Sunday talk shows to be informed discussions, is beyond me.

2. I have read you for many years and cherished the annual Kathie Lee Gifford Christmas reviews, which were almost as funny as the shows themselves. Did you happen to catch the musical "Saving Aimee" at Arlington's Signature Theatre several years ago, which Gifford composed? While I detest Gifford almost as much as the Cheneys, I have to admit her work was pretty good. Too bad she couldn't stay behind the scenes in show business all the time.

Tom Shales: Whew. Well thanks for the comment which doesn't really require much comment from me. I have a short antidote. I mean anecdote. Years ago I was phoned & asked to be on some news show, this happened a lot in years past, and first I was quizzed on the topic to be discussed. And what I said essentially was that I thought both sides of the argument had validity and that it wasn't a clear cut black and white issue. Bam - that was the end of THAT conversation. They wanted someone who totally adhered to ONE view or the other, not somebody who could see both sides. I think this is a very real problem that results in a lot of yelling where there should be an "exchange of ideas."


Peoria, IL: Tom, I'm a big fan of your stuff -- your writing is simply top-rate. Thrilled you're still writing for The Post.

Are there any shows out on DVD that you recommend for someone who likes long-form TV? My favorite show is "The Wire," and I really enjoyed your review of season four (by far the best season!). Lately I've been trying to find another show that's as satisfying -- or at least semi-satisfying. If it helps any, my favorite current shows are "Lost," "Breaking Bad" and "The Office."

Keep up the great work!

Tom Shales: Thank you. I was accused by one reader last week of letting thru too many questioners who praised me. Why, the very idea. Why - the very GOOD idea. Sorry, I will try to be more open-minded. I like the long-form things too, and was thinking the other day of the age of the miniseries and how some of those were just terrific and kept people riveted for days or weeks or months. "The Sopranos" was sort of that; it didn't seem like just a regular series. I think ABC's forthcoming show "Flash Forward" will be kind of like that; it's a mystery like "Lost" but maybe just maybe it has been written WITH AN ENDING so it doesn't have to go on for years. I wish more of these shows were NOT open-ended, but it's all decided by economics.


Boston, Mass.: Even being from Boston it seemed like the coverage at the end of Kennedy's burial service was gratuitous (as was the reading of Kennedy's letter to the Pope and the response). I think even MSNBC switched off coverage eventually (it was too dark for the cameras anyway). Any feedback from the different networks/channels about their coverage at the end (in darkness)?

Tom Shales: I wasn't around for the darkness. Reuven Frank of NBC News used to tell a story about the networks all agreeing on a moment of silence in honor of some fallen world leader or great political figure - this was years and years ago -- but the plan ran into an obstacle: No one could decide where the "silence" would originate. Get it? Sorry, I am not ducking your question but I think the Kennedy coverage almost HAD to be excessive because it truly was the end of an "epoch" as a Post headline said, and of a dynasty, though there will still be Kennedys around for a long long time.


Rockville, Md.: My idea of a talk show is "Charlie Rose" and I do like "Inside Washington."

Tom Shales: Charlie Rose does a fine show and he has some kind of financial protection -- an endowment from a big corporation or foundation (the Ford maybe) so that he doesn't have to go begging for renewal money every year. He arranged this himself, I believe, and he goes to all kinds of cocktail parties to meet rich people who can support his show. Proving again that public television is a strange animal. Thank you......


Rockville, Md.: "I don't think I am immune to a bright-young conservative's arguments --= honestly."

Neither do I. But I thought it made a question that interested me. Nice answer.


Tom Shales: The networks would like to have a bigger selection of young conservatives -- a deeper pool to draw from when they are trying to achieve some kind of balance on a discussion show. The conservatives who are good all seem to get their own shows, on radio or TV. Some of them, and you know who I mean, are so shrill that they make noise more than answer questions. But this is probably true of many liberals too.


Georgetown, Washington, D.C.: Mr. Shales, I've always followed your reviews and treasure them, but I was mildly shocked last week when you said that your favorite channel is one that shows old movies.

For a TV critic, that's a serious disconnect.

Do you not watch television on your own time? For example, the Post spends an inordinate amount of resources on Lost, which is fine by me I guess -- do you keep up with it? Or is this one of the shows that requires too much of an investment?

Tom Shales: I cited TCM and its old movies as TV I watch purely for my own pleasure - maybe part of the attraction is I know I won't see anything I'll want to scribble notes about on TCM whereas on other channels, I may get an idea for a column or something, and then I'm "Working" not watching. Well also there's this: I love old movies. I lost patience with "Lost" but try to drop in now and then. It reminds me of the old Saturday morning (or afternoon) serials. I always loved "jungle" adventures with Clyde Beatty or whoever; this is sort of a serial with benefits - you know, IDEAS.


Silver Spring, Md.: This whole summer has been "talk without discourse." Exhibit A: the average health-care town hall meeting.

Tom Shales: Yes - sad but true. And when a contributor to a talk show as solid and civil as "This Week" uses a technique similar to an angry farmer shouting at a politician about health care ("socialized medicine," sorry) it's not a good sign. I think there are maybe more articulate if just as outspoken conservatives that Stephanopoulos could have on. Or not, its his show....


TV Shows With Endings: I really enjoyed Harper's Island this summer, in part because I knew it had an ending. I enjoy TV, but it isn't important enough to plan my life around. I can't commit Thursday night, 9 p.m. for the next 3 years, for example.

I would really love more of these long mini- series: perhaps one season long shows. Any chance of that happening?

Tom Shales: I think there is a better chance of it happening now than there was a few years ago. Closed-ended long-form shows were cost-prohibitive because they couldn't be rerun, and they didn't even have an afterlife in syndication. But now there is a new ancillary market: DVD's, home video. People will plunk down 20,30,40 bucks for a long-form show they may have missed or liked so well they want to see it again, and that probably helps defer production costs. This "Flash Forward" thing I mentioned has some impressive special effects - although Los Angeles is burning in the first episode and they could have just shot that on the street and saved money. Sadly enough....


Nashville, Tenn.: Hi Tom. I read your piece about Conan's "Tonight Show". While I think he's funny, I think the set is killing his comedy. It's just SO big, he seems to have been swallowed up by the big room. Letterman had the same problem at first in the Ed Sullivan Theater until they quit doing a "really big show". Is it just me, or are these shows a lot funnier when they're more intimate and up close?

Tom Shales: Why Nashville, funny you-all should say that, because it was a point I made in my column last week. That the set is beautiful but too cavernous. All they have to do is move everybody closer together. Dave's show has a more intimate feel, also because of the lighting. There's a tradition at Universal to flood everything with bright, operating -room light. It may sound silly, but stuff like this does affect the viewers' experience. So Conan - turn down the lights and move Andy and Max closer. Did you see that reptile guy on "Conan." He was bleeding profusely from the head and nobody even came to his aid! The show must go on, but this was ridiculous


Washington, D.C.: It's easy to blame Fox for this sad state of affairs...but I have to say the trend of anti-discourse predates Fox.

I can recall when Tim Russert first began hosting "Meet the Press." He converted it from a panel of reporters interviewing the guest to just Tim, pulling up old clips from the past and playing, "Gotcha!" Tim didn't exactly invent the concept, but he perfected it.

Digital technology makes it easier to search video and isolate snippets of speeches and statements that can easily be taken out of context and distorted.

Given that environment, everyone is now all so media trained and self aware that it is next to impossible to get real information out of an interview anymore.

Tom Shales: I think what you say is discouragingly true. Although the fact that a quote from a politician can be not just referred to but actually played back -- not just the words but the actual person actually saying them -- is good. It may require public figures to be more careful about what they say, though not so careful, one hopes, that they are afraid to say anything. Russert did a fine job but he had an ego and his "re-purposing" of "Meet the Press" did turn it into "Meet the Tim."


Ft. Lauderdale, Fla.: What did you think of the Daytime Emmy telecast? Vanessa Williams was great, especially her opening number. Whose fault is it when the show runs so long the big winner has no time at the end to speak? Is there a producer who is supposed to cut something out as the show goes along? (such as Vanessa's second song?)

Tom Shales: Please accept my apology: I did not watch the Daytime Emmy show. I heard it was something of a debacle, but isn't it always? And - did Regis win anything? I hope.


Mad Men: I have been a huge fan of this show since the beginning, however this season is losing me for two reasons. the first is that the plot lines seem to be craaaawling along setting nothing up at all and moving nothing along. The second reason are the commercial breaks. For every 7 minutes of show I counted 4 minutes of commercial breaks. I don't remember this happening in other episodes, but it needs to stop if they want people to watch. Your thoughts?

Tom Shales: The commercial breaks on cable are EVEN LONGER than the commercial breaks on a prime-time broadcast-network show. It's abominable. And they will show not just one but maybe two of those longer, 2- and 3-minute ads for some darn sponge or mop or "erectile dysfunction" corrector in one break. You truly do forget what show you are watching. We kind of "did" the "Mad Men" thing last week, but I am sure it will come up again. I agree with you about the crawling.


Dunn Loring, Va.: Re your column disparaging Liz Cheney's style, what was the last column you wrote so harshly criticizing a liberal pundit?

Tom Shales: Ah yes, it's our dear old Dunn Loringite. Dunn Loringer. Whatever. You have an ideological axe to grind and it's awfully predictable. Where do you get the idea that if someone criticizes a conservative they must also criticize a liberal? Is there some kind of "equal time" law or "fairness doctrine" that applies to everybody who says anything that is broadcast or cablecast? That's absurd. CONSERVATIVES DOMINATE THE BROADCAST AND CABLE MEDIA IN THIS COUNTRY. They have very little to complain about in terms of access to an audience. When was the last time you criticized a conservative? It's a meaningless question whichever way it is asked.


Bethesda, Md.: Tom, I love your columns. Do you hear much anymore about your star turn years ago on the Larry Sanders show? (I loved the episode.) And do you have a personal relationship with Garry?

Tom Shales: Thank you, oh wise and perceptive person. Why can't Dunn Loring learn from you? Oh wait -- LOL, LOL !! (We used to say, "Just kidding"). Anyway, my appearance as myself on Larry Sanders came up somewhere on the internet a couple weeks ago but didn't exactly cause a sensation. It was fun to go out there (L.A.), have a "dressing room" of my own (a small cubby hole in a trailer parked behind the sound stage) and so on. But I angered Garry when I complained about not getting paid (eventually I was given a gift) and he doesn't like me any more.


Tower Lakes, Ill.: After watching Liz Cheney I have decided to cease the Sunday morning Stephanopoulos agenda. What I found most offensive about Ms. Cheney was her total inability to listen to what anyone else said. At one point it looked as though everyone except Sam was snoozing. Liz Cheney's approach does not work if this segment of the show is supposed to represent a discussion or discourse of serious issues of the day. My question is why you do not view this as a crisis? Isn't it a crisis when discourse is reduced to a free for all?

Tom Shales: Okay - it's a crisis. No I agree with you that there is no point in having people come on and spew planned and rehearsed tirades that are unresponsive to what others on the show are saying. If Ms Cheney is good for ratings (I doubt she is either good or bad for them) then that would be the excuse for having her on - but a poor excuse, and I should think George Will would be upset by this even if Stephanopoulos is not. But there's that old TV thinking that still rules: If people are shouting, that means it's a "lively" discussion with the kind of conflict and "fireworks" that viewers supposedly love.


Re: Georgetown: Um, hello, TCM is, you know, on TV.

Really glad NBC is delaying "Southland" until October, so it's not lost among the new show rollouts. Now, if there could be a Thursday 10 p.m. exception, that would be great for it.

Tom Shales: It seems likely NBC will have to make some exceptions to its Jay Leno At 10PM rule. Some pre-emptions for special events as you say. It will probably be the chosen spot for late-breaking news specials, for one thing; jettison Jay and put in the new stuff. I know TCM is on TV. But HBO isn't TV, it's HBO. And TCM isn't TV (well of course it is but in a way it isn't -- ?), it's a living museum of American culture.


Tucson, Ariz.: What is the future of television programming when it comes to 'bigger ratings' for less money like 'reality shows'? Can viewers expect even less?

Tom Shales: Even less what? I can't believe that the reality trend hasn't peaked and that we will begin to see fewer such shows, but maybe I am just thinking wishfully. I mean, a "reality" show about unusual wedding cakes? Isn't that pretty close to the bottom of the barrel. Yet no matter how dumb or redundant a reality show may be, you'll bump into SOMEONE who loves it. Whether it's driving on icy roads or trying to seduce cuties over umbrella drinks on a Caribbean Island, somebody -- apparently enough somebodies to make a rating -- will just wallow in it. Maybe it's a good thing --what the futurists of yesteryear meant when they said cable would bring about "narrowcasting" instead of "broadcasting" and that minority interests would be served.


Thank You!: I loved your response to Dunn Loring. He/she asks the same types of questions during nearly every chat, always with the same bent. Thank you for saying so.

Tom Shales: Oh, you're welcome, but I didn't do it in anger. I'm too tired for anger. It's a nice thing about getting older; takes more to upset a person. I have always thought of MYSELF as a conservative in that I want the government to keep its big fat nose out of my life as much as possible. But I guess Dunn Loring and I would differ on which things the government should involve itself with and which it shouldn't/Sorry, this is TV Time....


Sunday Mornings: I remember that you once referred to the show as "Meet the Russ." It's interesting that there is not really any "press" involved at this point. Of course, "Face the Nation" should be something like "face a couple million educated, well-to-do people who aren't at church." I do miss the Brinkley version of "This Week," which wasn't always strictly about politics.

Tom Shales: Meet the Russ? That's definitely better than "Meet the Tim." Not good - but better. I loved the Brinkley show; talk about civil! Brinkley was about as gracious as anyone could be. My best friend and I used to count how many times he said goodbye to a guest: "Thank you for being with us, good to have you, always nice to see you, don't be a stranger...." etc. This is said with great affection. I do not think Brinkley would be happy with Ms Cheney but then time moves on and who knows that Brinkley's laid-back approach would have been considered old-fashioned by new young ABC executives and he'd be asked to retire. I do think the show is in good ends but there will never be another David Brinkley.


Annapolis, Md.: Speaking of Kathie Lee's Christmas reviews, my all-time favorite is one from a few years back on SNL when they did the TV Funhouse animated thing with Jesus sadly watching all the commercialized efforts to bank his name ... Kathie Lee, Falwell, etc. ... and then he sees on a storefront TV Linus doing the meaning of Christmas and dances down the street to the Peanuts theme. Pointed yet touching. Classic.

Guess that wasn't a question.

Tom Shales: They don't all have to be questions. I think I remember the sketch you mention. They do some sweet and even subtle things from time to time on "SNL," but then younger viewers groan that it isn't funny enough every moment it's on the air. I remember strange sketches about a Scotch tape boutique in a broken-down mall (from the first 5 years, I believe) that had few laughs in them but did cast a weird, almost eerie spell, sort of like the TV series "Northern Exposure" would later do. I did say Sort Of!!


Reston, Va.: Tom,

I'll give you that conservatives have got the radio all sewn up (mostly because nobody listens to liberal radio shows so they die), but how do conservatives dominate cable media? FOX is only one channel, up against CNN, MSNBC, and don't forget ABC, NBC, CBS, and PBS. Sure FOX's ratings beat MSNBC and CNN and PBS put together, but that's about viewer choice. Clearly on TV, liberals have more voices, but like radio, less people watch them.

Enough of politics though, what do you think of the shows on BBC-America? I love many of them but some are simply so short....

Tom Shales: MSNBC as a "liberal" soap box is a somewhat recent development. Frankly I don't like ideology-based channels no matter what they're selling. They're mostly preach-to-the-choir things anyway, so I shouldn't let them bother me. Maybe there are more liberal voices on TV but that didn't stop America from electing Ronald Reagan and not by a Bush mini-margin either. I like BBC-America including its newscast. Some of its shows later show up on US-based networks. But they show the same crummy commercials for slicers and dicers and mincers and mashers that the other stations show - the same spots on wrestling as on "Upper Crust Theater" or whatever. Obviously sponsors just buy cable and don't buy specific shows - something that really ought to change. I wish we could get the BBC live from England via satellite EXACTLY as the Brits see it. I would love that. No "Americanizing" just the real deal, a look into another but highly compatible culture......


Longmont, Colo.: Compare present PBS with that of, say, 40 years ago: Thomas Hardy, Henry James, many other with first-rate actors. Today to my mind: second-rate actors and scripts; altogether, maybe fairly good soap opera. Who would watch this stuff?

Tom Shales: It isn't PBS's fault. All the money went away and many of the shows played "follow the money." They went to BBC-America among other places. Funding was cut and public TV had little money for original programming or even for importing the best of Britain or wherever. It IS sad, you're right, and it's sad that the shows we used to see for free on public TV without commercials are now on cable, which one must pay to receive, and are stuffed with spots galore. You remember Spots Galore, the famous gangster? Ugh, sorry.......


SNL: I really liked your SNL book a few years ago, and I'm wondering if you still watch it? (I confess that I do so I can impress my kids with my knowledge of current bands -- and if Alex Baldwin is hosting it is not to be missed.)

Tom Shales: I always watch it and always will. The show repeated last week, with Sarah Palin AND Tina Fey, was one of the best that season, I thought. They are coming off a terrific year, and had better ratings than NBC's prime-time Saturday line-up.


Alexandria, Va.: "But Sam seemed to be playing defense while Ms. Cheney was on the attack."

If this is true, all I can say, as a feminist, is Go, Liz! Anyone who can put Sam Donaldson on defense is a star, in my book. For far too long men have constantly interrupted women, hogged the conversation, spoken more while women spoke less. There are social science studies that prove that when women and men speak an equal amount, men think that women are speaking "too much." Let's hear it for "impolite" women who actually speak their minds and aren't cowed by the likes of Sam Donaldson.

Tom Shales: Good for you. It's another angle on what happened. I'm quite prepared to believe it or at least think you have a point worth making. I do think that Sam interrupts other people without regard to race, creed or sex.


Atlanta, Ga.: Tom, I'm a big fan, but can you explain this sentence?


I think you meant to write that Liberals dominate the broadcast and cable media in the country. True, Fox News has the highest cable ratings, but other left-leaning outlets on cable and, certainly, network television are more numerous than right-leaning.

Do you have examples of the conservative dominance?

Tom Shales: Well now let me see. The networks are all owned by Big Business and Big Businessmen certainly tend to be conservatives. The Fox News Channel isn't a minor detail to be lumped in with other networks; it is a 24-hour-a-day conservative propaganda machine; MSNBC is liberal only during prime-time and late-night, don't you think? Phil Donahue is off the air and has been for years; he was too "liberal." Perhaps with a liberal in the White House, the pendulum WILL swing the other way for a while. Chacun a son gout, n'est-ce pas? Yes nothing like some bad high-school French to end a chat. Thank you very, very much for joining in.


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