Shales on TV Live: Post Emmys Special
Monday, September 21, 2009; 12:00 PM
Pulitzer Prize winner Tom Shales discussed the highs and lows of the 2009 Emmy Awards.
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: Good morning, or good noon, good day-after-the-Emmys -- and thank you for dropping in. The first question has nothing to do with the Emmys but that's perfectly okay. And awayyy we go......
Fort Washington, Md.: Looking at the picture of the primetime Emmy winners, I'm again disgusted by the fact that there is not one non-white person shown. And as always, the winner's list includes the typical white, "past their prime", mostly washed-up actors like Alec Baldwin (of the Baldwin clown family of actors), Ken Howard, and Jessica Lange.
At what point does the broadcast industry recognize the fact that there are other races in this country besides white people and that other races are equal to or more talented than some of the white people who dominate the broadcast industry. That's why I don't watch regular TV...it's more satisfying to watch a bunch of animals on the Discovery Channel. as
Tom Shales: Actually - first question now IS about the Emmys as you can see. A valid criticism which hasn't been heard for a while, I think because some of us thought the "problem" was "solved" with the addition of token racial minorities within the casts or supporting casts of prime-time shows.
I do think strides have been made and things have gotten better. Incidentally, I think Vanessa Williams was wrongly identified last night -- the woman who was supposedly Ms. Williams kept shaking her head "no."
Southern Maryland: I loved "Seinfeld" but never got into "Curb Your Enthusiasm," even though Larry David is a hell of a writer. The fictional Larry's social awkwardness and his obsession with what others think of him hits too close to home for me. Do you think part of his success with "Seinfeld" is that his comic temperament complemented Jerry's? I could sense his absence during the last two seasons of that show, almost as if the Beatles had carried on without either John or Paul. (A better comparison may be when Monty Python carried on for six more episodes without John Cleese.)
Tom Shales: I am not argumentative but when you say a show "hits too close to home," is that a criticism of the show -- or perhaps of oneself??? I think the closer to home it hits, the more validity it has -- when you stop and think "Oh my Lord, this has happened to me." On a simple level, I certainly got this feeling on the "Curb" premiere when Larry got a sealed-tight, plastic-wrapped item from the store and could NOT get it open and finally cut himself as we all have while trying to break the seals on human-proof packaging. Like so much in our society, it's designed with the criminal, not the ordinary guy, in mind - criminals can't break into it but neither can you or I. So I'm all for hitting close to home -- it's the comedy of pain, which even Laurel And Hardy indulged in!
I want to know: why NPH wore a white dinner jacket?
Tom Shales: I think the white jacket was so he would stand out -- look like something other than the average guest. Black would have meant he blended in, and a host should not blend in. In the earlier years of television, a white coat like that would be verboten because white "flared" on the old cameras, or actually caused an audible Buzzzzz. But TV technology has taken care of the buzzy white dinner jacket, or whatever you call it.
Cherry Hill, NJ: I think Vanessa Williams was (rightfully) shaking her head "no" to the dumb gag with the other nominees in her category wearing some sort of eyeglass/es when they were shown in close-up. Good choice on her part.
Tom Shales: I pushed another bum button again - but I think I got the last answer out at last. Now apparently that WAS Vanessa Williams and she was shaking her head for a different reason. I stand corrected. Actually I'm sitting. I stand corrected until someone sends different information. Maybe we'll eventually get to The Bottom of This !!!
What kind of lightweight is Kristin Chenoweth?: (No pun intended)Who needs paramedic help for a migraine? Millions of us deal with them on our own on a regular basis....
Tom Shales: I was on the Tony Kornheiser show and he was shocked at what a frail little sprig of a gal she was. I was sort of shocked that she won -- for a show nobody saw. But then it does go to prove that Academy voters really are watching the shows they vote on, which didn't used to be the case, at least not always. Their voting patterns zig and zag now, and it's less common to have one show SWEEP all the awards - except for 30 Rock, which wins by default since there are so few good sitcoms on the air. PS where's the pun? "Lightweight"?
Washington, DC: In your review of the Emmys, you wrote, "In something of a twist, 'Mad Men,' a melodrama about life in the '60s advertising game, didn't win an award until the show was more than half over...", but wasn't this due more to the fact that this year they divided the show by genre? What award in comedy, reality or variety did you expect Mad Men to win?
washingtonpost.com: '30 Rock' and 'Mad Men' Repeat for Top Honors at Emmys
Tom Shales: Oops! Gosh! I forgot about that! Well that's a monkey on me. No wait it's a horse on me, and I'll be a monkey's uncle. I could be a horse's uncle as well, although after "horse's" it's common to have a different word, also perhaps appropriate. Still, as a viewing experience, it was odd not to hear "Mad Men" until about 10:49 or so.
Williams: Cherry Hill, NJ was right - it was Vanessa Williams and she was saying no to the sight gag regarding eye wear.
Tom Shales: I think this settles it. Thank you. If anyone has any further evidence, however, we can consider it........
St Paul: Hi Tom -- Thanks for taking questions today. Do you think the Emmy people will ever come up with a rule limiting the number of Emmys one person can win for the same role? No more than two, maybe? A few years back we had Candice Bergen winning something like five in a row (she's great, but come on), and I'm afraid we're seeing that happen again with shows like 30 Rock (how much do you want to bet Alec Baldwin wins again next year).
Every year I watch hoping for some really exciting choice, but with the exception of Kristin Chenoweth and Toni Collette, last night it was the same old, same old. What do you think?
Tom Shales: One thing that will protect us from the same people winning year after year after year is that fewer shows are likely to last 6,7,8 years than used to be the case. Didn't Angela Lansbury used to win every year -- or did she used to lose every year? -- for "Murder, She Wrote."
If Jessica Lange is in a category, she will probably win, but this year she certainly deserved it for "Grey Gardens." Glenn Close seems irresistible to voters too, and now Tina Fey. I think though if you could statistically break it apart, the repeat voting is LESS common now than it used to be.
Philadelphia: Can't understand how "Grey Gardens" - which I found unwatchable thanks to presence of two annoying actresses, Lange and Barrymore -- beat out its competitors.
Tom Shales: One never knows, do one - as Fats Waller used to say. I would walk across the street in a blizzard to see Jessica Lange and/or Drew Barrymore and I loved Grey Gardens. To each their own (socially correct language sometimes screws up grammar) -- though honestly, it's hard for me to empathize with someone who thinks they're both terrible. They both sure looked cute all dolled up for the Awards last night.
Vanessa Williams: Just to go little deeper with this, I think she refused to participate in the goofy eye glasses gag as sort of an homage to the character she plays -- an imperious fashion magazine editor known for her put downs and withering glances. Or...maybe she just didn't want to.
Tom Shales: Vanessa, thank you! And yet you refer to yourself as "she." When I said we'd get to the bottom of this, I didn't know we'd actually go through the bottom and come out on the other side. Amazing how much one can say about a single moment. But then how about the night's LEAST-DESERVED Emmy, a silly one given to the opening number from the Academy Awards show!! Oh come on people! If I may call you "people." Of all that ridiculous and preposterous things, giving an Emmy to a musical number and an irritating one at that.
Reston, Va.: Hi Tom: I think you are off in your criticism of the Daily Show's win. Of all years for them to win, this was it. Given the fact that Jon Stewart and Co. had a hand in influencing the political direction of the country...well, you got to at least give them a token trophy or two.
Tom Shales: Maybe so -- I seem to be in the minority hating that Jon Stewart and his smug little show. Do you think they really helped get Obama get elected? And if so, is that their job, to get anybody elected? Aren't they messing around with things that "man should leave alone," in the words of the old mad-scientist movies ?
Aweso, ME: Love love loved that Joss Whedon and gang infiltrated the actual Emmys with a Dr. Horrible gag and weren't just relegated to the not-broadcast creative arts Emmys! Mwa-ha-ha-ha!
Tom Shales: I didn't realize Dr Horrible was a continuing character from --- from somewhere else. He needs better material, however, and Doogie needs to ratchet the over-acting down just a bit. It seemed childish - like a kiddie-blog. To me. But it was a cute idea, interrupting the accountants as they read the boring rules and regulations. On the other hand, I didn't think EVERY SINGLE THING on the Emmys needed to be funny, or a spoof of itself, like introducing people with credits from the earliest stages of their careers. It just wasn't funny the 5th or 10th or 20th time.
Family Guy bit: I actually turned away from the screen as that progressed. Who thought that was funny, other than a male 12-year-old you wouldn't want to leave alone with small, defenseless animals?
Tom Shales: Agree, thank you. I didn't turn away though -- not allowed in the Critics' Handbook.
Washington, D.C.: I thought the Dr. Evil mockery of TV on the Internet was the funniest thing I saw on the broadcast. How much TV do you watch online?
Tom Shales: I watch very little online because it looks terrible, most of the time, and it seems self-defeating to turn back the clock and return to television as it used to be, technically speaking. I bought some goofy gadget that supposedly brings in stations from around the world, but it's a ringer; it just brings in weird taped programming in various languages.
Re: Kristin Chenoweth: Geez, go easy on her. If she was feeling the beginnings of a migraine, as reports indicate, she could have been faint, dizzy, or have visual disruptions. I can see how it made sense for the Emmy folks to limit their liability by having her checked out by paramedics.
Tom Shales: OH MY MIGRAINE. No they are nothing to laugh at. Nothing to sneeze at either. But if you do sneeze at them, put your nose inside your elbow......
Lorne Michaels: This came up on thelive chat Lisa did last night -- both Tina and Alec praised Lorne so fulsomely and he looked vaguely uncomfortable. Is he not okay with public recognition, or (and I certainly hope not) is he ill and they wanted him to know how they valued his role in their respective careers?
Tom Shales: As far as I know, Lorne is not ill. He told me he wants to keep producing SNL until his last moments on earth, but I don't think he was feeling particularly mortal that day. Actually I don't think Lorne usually goes to the Emmys but since he now has so many shows up in various categories, maybe he wanted to show some solidarity with his troops. He goes to LA often anyway and has an office out there for his movie stuff. He does get embarrassed by lavish praise, a problem I've never had. Perhaps because -- oh never mind.
Best Running Theme...: I loved that Neil Patrick Harris introduced so many presenters with their first TV credits. I thought it added an interesting bit of trivia and I actually hung in a bit longer than I usually do because I was curious to hear more.
Tom Shales: Well there you go. A while ago I said that annoyed the heck out of me. It wasn't Harris who did the introducing most of the time but an announcer in a booth visible onstage. I thought it was an attempt to make fun of the winners and nominees at their moments of triumph, just so they wouldn't get big headed. Ya think ? Maybe? For me, it was a bore.
Dupont Circle: I was glad to see Jessica Lange win for her uncannily accurate performance as Edith Beale, but her award batting average isn't -that- great. She's won one Emmy out of three nominations, and two Oscars out of six nominations.
As for someone's earlier comment that she's "washed up," well, that's ageism for you. She's 60... I guess she should have been put in a home by now?
Tom Shales: Her comment was very touching, about how really great roles don't come her way that often any more. Of course she started with king kong, the very WORST version of that movie ever made. But she survived it and went on to some great things -- and may have others still waiting in her future. How many actresses are able to keep working as long as, say, Clint Eastwood or Spencer Tracy or Ernest Borgnine have?
Neil Patrick Harris: Not everything he tried worked, but he was a lot more fun to watch than those reality show host who did such a slovenly job with last year's broadcast.
Tom Shales: Yes -- that was an all-out, unmitigated, absolute and complete disaster (now i'll go look up my review and find out that i thought it was a triumph. no no, I couldnt have been that inconsistent - I hope). Thank you -- I don't say "thank you" every time but it is implicit and these questions & comments are MUCH appreciated........
Washington, DC: Hi Tom!
Do you have any thoughts as to why Jon Cryer would win this year after all these years? I enjoy 2 1/2 Men,but was he that much better this year than in years past?
Tom Shales: Hi!! There's no rhyme and even less reason to these things. Maybe his agent and management (and the network) put on a big campaign for him to win this year, making sure voters saw some of his work via DVD's and taking out ads in the trade papers like Variety and such.
Sometimes people just say "It's time we gave him something."
Did Susan Lucci ever win in the daytime Emmys by the way? That was such a great running joke but I did start to feel sorry for her. I sincerely doubt that her performance was dwarfed by those of other soap opera divas.
Laurel, MD: RE: Kristin Chenoweth:
A superb actress and singer who has suffered from crippling headaches most of her life. It was nice to see her performance as Olive Snook honored even though the show didn't live long enough to have much of an impact... Also nice to see the wonderful and versatile Cherry Jones recognized ...
Tom Shales: Thank you. I didn't realize migraine headaches had reached a sort of "celebrity-disease" status. Someone near and dear to me used to have them and I know from how crabby she became that migraines are no hoot. Still I can't see anyone doing a disease-of-the-week TV movie about them. Then again maybe Lifetime already has.
To the person who didn't like Grey Gardens: Have you seen the original documentary? Lange and Barrymore nailed those parts! At first I thought Drew was being her cute Drew self. But once I saw the documentary, I was blown away by how much both actors took on the personas of the two Beales.
It was extraordinary.
Tom Shales: We had a technical glitch. We are now back up. Sorry about that.
Arlington, VA: Jon Cryer, really?!? I will never understand why Two and a Half Men wins awards. I know a lot of people watch it, but that doesn't mean it should get trophies. I guess it's just a matter of personal taste and these things can never be objective, but I just found it absolutely ridiculous that he beat out anyone in that category, much less everyone. Nothing against him personally but I really did not get that one.
Tom Shales: Jon Cryer has "paid his dues" you know? Over the years he has been a good soldier etc. He once had his own series and everybody expected it to be a hit, something about working in the mail room at the William Morris Agency. But it bombed. It may have been one of the first signs that sitcoms were in trouble. I am not a big fan of 2 1/2 Men because all the jokes seem to be about the same thing, sex -- either an excess of it or a lack of it.
Albuquerque: I guess I didn't mind hearing about the early TV acting credits, but I sure kept wishing they could have SHOWN some clips from those experiences. A little embarassment can be a great leveler among nominees!
Tom Shales: you are right, Albuquerque (home of Ethel Mertz!). It would have been fun to see them as they were "then" -- although that would have taken a ton of work to dig up all that material, and then get it cleared so it could be aired. There's a huge business in old footage and some people who own rights to things charge small (or large) fortunes to others who want to use it.
Daily Show Dislike: Tom, I'm so glad to know I am not alone in my dislike for this snarky show. Especially knowing that the supremely wise and entertainingly witty WaPo tv critic extraordinaire agrees. Perhaps it is because in the distant past, I wrote actual news for an actual network news broadcast, in which we used facts and reported things that happened. The smugness of Stewart and his staff are hard to swallow. I don't find them funny, although it is clear they do, and if this show really did affect a prezz election, we all are in trouble.
Tom Shales: Thanks! I don't usually get many folks agreeing with me on The Daily Show. It's sort of a Johnny Carson monologue without Johnny. Or a Jay Leno monologue, to be a little more au courant.
I hate the Jon Stewart grin of "oh boy, we zinged 'em with that one" or "everybody in the world is incompetent except us." I do think that Mr Colbert puts on a better show by far, though I can miss it for weeks on end and not feel any deep longings.....
Silver Spring, Md.: No, Angela Lansbury never won an Emmy, despite 18 nominations. (Not all of them were for "Murder, She Wrote.")
Tom Shales: Thank you. I knew she either won all the time or never won. Surprised it's "never." She didn't win any Oscars either, I don't think. Grew rather bitter about her career because parts went to more beautiful actresses than she, but there WERE more beautiful actresses so that's the way the bustle bounces.
Jon Stewart Fan: Hey Tom - What is it that you don't like about The Daily Show? Smart? Funny? Topical? Scathingly sardonic? More intellectual than a Comedy Central show has the right to be? Although I will grant you that sometimes the prepared bits don't always hit the mark, I love the fact that when he is interviewing somebody really interesting he doesn't cut off the interview to fit the airtime available - the television time is edited, but the entire interview is available online if you want to catch it. I would have been happy with any of the nominees winning for writing in that category (daily writing is HARD), but, particularly this past year, the Stewart crew has seemed to really be on their game.
Tom Shales: Well then you were happier last night than I was, and I in turn am happy for you. And perhaps you in turn are happy for me inasmuch as I am happy for you. And I in turn -- well, that's enough happiness for one Monday.
Tom Shales Fan: You can not be praised enough. If Lorne Michaels ever wants to turn over running SNL, or Rupert Murdoch is still looking for someone to run a network, you would be our first choice.
Tom Shales: Hmm, are you teasin'? I think my leg is being pulled.
OUCH! Or maybe this is quite sincere -- but I can't quite see myself at Fox. I can't quite see myself at any job that involves a large amount of authority over others -- or a job that carried with it something as scary as
Responsibility. Oooh, scary!
D.C.: I sincerely enjoy your approach to these chats -- like last week when you couldn't remember neil patrick harris' name and asked folks to remind you of it; so many of the folks doing these chats would have googled it and never admitted to forgetting anything -- acting all omniscient. You sound very real and I like that.
Tom Shales: Thank you. Someone else might say, "Don't you know ANYTHING?" I must admit, my memory isn't nearly as good as I wish it were.
Of course when I started at this job, there were only two or three decades of television history and now there are, what, six or seven? So much to remember! I try to give my memory exercise by identifying old character actors in movies - Slim Summerville or Frank Morgan or Eugene Pallette or Etienne Girardot. All men, well of course Sara Allgood too and -- oh, I'm out........
Los Angeles: That failed Cryer series "The Famous Teddy Z" was just too hip for the house. I suspect Cryer won because he's "paid his dues" being around for so long doing good work. As for NPH, his career is in stellar shape, Emmy or no.
Tom Shales: Thanks! Who needs a memory when I have such smart,
helpful, generous readers (who would never allow me
to suck up to them)....
Herndon, Va.: Tom: Any word on how the Emmy's did in the ratings?
washingtonpost.com: From TVbytheNumbers.com: The 61st Annual Emmy Awards were up from last years lows, but were still the third least viewed on record. Compared to last year's ceremony, the Emmys were up +6% in both households (from 8.2/13) and adults 18-34 (from 3.2/08), +9% in adults 25-54 (from 4.5/10), +11% in adults 18-49 (from 3.8/09) and added +980,000 viewers (from 12.34m, +8%).
Tom Shales: Thank you Washington post dot com. Remember there was a big hot football game on NBC. Even some of the Emmy winners said they were going to rush backstage and catch some of the game...
Olney, Md.: I just wanted to say that I was very happy that Michael Emerson won his way overdue Emmy for Lost. His Ben Linus is a unique character and he plays him magnificently. Congratulations to you, Michael.
Tom Shales: I don't know who any of those people are but -
Please, see "Dr Horrible": It's great! Whedon made it during the writer's strike, and it is so much fun to watch! I anxiously await the next installment, and not just because it features Nathan Fillion (yum).
washingtonpost.com: Hulu - Dr. Horrible's Sing-Along Blog
Joss Whedon took questions about it on the post.com last summer: Joss Whedon Talks 'Dr. Horrible,' 'Dollhouse' and More
Tom Shales: I will check out Dr Horrible. I can't imagine he compares favorably with Dr Evil - but it sounds like something I would find funny. Thanks
Washington, D.C.: Tom, I've followed you in print but this is the first time I've participated in a chat with you -- and your extemporaneous style has me in stitches! With respect to earlier comments about racial diversity in the broadcast media, as an Indian I believe that my own race certainly has made strides in the past few years. But I also feel that there is an ebb and a flow to the general issue, and right now the popular shows might be less diverse. Having said that, I find it interesting that the main picture of the "30 Rock" cast accepting the award conspicuously lacks Tracy Morgan ... hmmm???
Tom Shales: Yes, that is not good. Tracy Morgan is definitely part of the reason for that show's strong showing, at least on the Emmy awards (it still doesnt get the greatest ratings in the world).
Thank you for the kind remarks. On racial diversity, i get the awful feeling that TV would simply slip back to the old monochrome standards of years ago if people didn't keep reminding them about their responsibility. I'm sick of white heros with African American or Hispanic "sidekicks" and yet it still happens now and then. Why can't the white guy get the kick in the side sometimes?
Hartford, Conn.: Your chats are fabulous! I think I love you....
Tom Shales: Hartford, I'll be right up
Takoma Park, Md.: I'm amazed that the Emmy's still exist. It seems so 1970s (and not just because Ken "The White Shadow" Howard won an award). Why don't they just put them on AMC and call them the CableACE awards?
Tom Shales: I was thinking about the old CableAces last night. If they'd kept the two sides separate, then broadcast TV wouldn't have to be worrying so about losing territory (and Emmys) to the basic cable upstarts. Then again where would you put HBO, which has big big budgets and production quality BETTER than networks on some of their better things.
Narrative Introductions: You are confusing NPH's introductions of the PRESENTERS by announcing their first, trivial role, with John Hodgeman's narrative of the WINNER as they approach the stage. The former was pretty clever and funny.
Tom Shales: Thank you. I must admit, the show is a blur. But then it was a blur WHILE it was on, too.
Arlington, Va.: Tom,
I was watching the broadcast with my family and was absolutely disgusted that they showed a clip of a toddler beating a dog violently until he bleed. Then they followed that up with a montage of "highlights" from the world of reality television that included several adults throwing temper tantrums that would put my 5-year-old to shame. I love Doogie Howser but this show just stunk.
Tom Shales: Good for you. I agree for what it's worth, tho the temper tantrums didn't bother me too much, since they reveal an aspect of human nature. A child beating a dog half to death only reveals the nature of the sick geeks who came up with the "idea."
McLean, Va.: To heck with all this health care stuff, can Congress get to the important things? Like a bill stating that Neil Patrick Harris must host every awards show in perpetuity? Seriously awesome job last night.
Tom Shales: Awe-some! And cool, too. He got a little cocky once or twice (maybe it was going TOO well) but mostly he brought a lot of charm to the gig. And speaking of gigs - this one is running out of time. In fact it HAS run out of time.
Thank you very much. I won't do the Tuesday chat this week but will return to the Tuesday-at-noon schedule NEXT week. Have a good day.
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