Washington Post TV Columnist
Tuesday, September 29, 2009 12:00 PM
Join Pulitzer Prize winner Tom Shales every Tuesday at Noon to discuss television, its cultural impact and his latest columns.
Today: The "Saturday Night Live" four-letter gaffe, what he thinks about NBC's new action series "Trauma" and the smutty success of Seth MacFarlane who has a new dirty cartoon, "The Cleveland Show," joining Family Guy on the air.
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: Testing 1-2-3. It's me Tom, on a different computer. I was going to use a friend's Mac but chickened out. Fascinating isn't it? No, I know. So we should get to questions and thank you for clicking in.
Philly: SNL's "F-Bomb" drop wasn't that much of a surprise. The whole gimmick of the sketch was that a bunch of surly biker chicks qualified everything as "friggin,'" so it wouldn't have taken much for a player, especially a new one, to slip up. What shocked me was that NBC doesn't plan for that sort of thing by keeping the show on a 3-4 second delay. I thought that was standard practice for live TV after the Janet "Wardrobe Malfunction." Even SNL should have learned by now -- remember Sinead O'Connor?
Tom Shales: I agree that the mistake was waiting to happen, and in a sketch like that, where the point was, I guess, the awkwardness of trying to substitute a safe word for an unacceptable one, and with a new performer doing it and reading it off the cue cards -- well do you agree it was a stupid sketch in the first place? I feel sorry for her and hope she isn't made a scapegoat by the network which, as you say, could have taken preventive measures.
Williamsburg, Va.: Tom:
I know that the character and tenor of The Tonight Show has changed somewhat for obvious reasons. Has Conan's recasting of the look and feel of this television institution gained traction (no pun intended) or is the jury still out? Do you personally like this somewhat more edgy, younger version? Did NBC get it right again?
Tom Shales: Sorry I'm a little bit slower than usual. Yes the Tonight Show has indeed changed in tone and that is what has frightened a lot of viewers away. Now that Poor Conan has literally suffered for his art, maybe people will give him another chance. Do I personally like him and the "edgier" tone? I think maybe it isn't edgy enough -- more like his old later show. He is a likable guy, I think, and am surprised that so many people find him abrasive, silly, whatever.......
College Park, Md.: Does The CW (which came from the merger of UPN with The WB) finally have a hit with The Vampire Diaries?
I actually watched it and found myself enjoying it. It's from Kevin Williamson, the creator of "Scream" as well as "Dawson's Creek," and in my humble opinion, combined the best elements of both. Never knew if a character was going to hook up or be eaten up.
Tom Shales: Sad to say this is one show I haven't checked out. I am impressed if they truly have found a new angle for vampires. Good grief, between vampires and zombies TV and the movies really have become the Land(s) of the Dead. Enough already! I will take a look on your recommendation. And no, I'm not shirking my duties by not having watched, we are dividing shows up among staff writers more this year, thank heaven. I just had a horrible thought -- maybe i DID see this show and have simply forgotten it.........
That was no accident: That F-bomb was completely planned. Without that, they wouldn't have gotten a week of free publicity, and viewers and critics would only have been talking about how lame the show is.
Tom Shales: I can understand your cynicism, and -- though I wouldn't say we are close friends --I have known Lorne Michaels for more than 30 years and i could tell by the sound of his voice on Sunday that he was NOT happy it happened, not at all. I just cannot believe they would be so crass -- the show really doesn't NEED publicity. And if they planned it, they wouldn't have waited until 12:45 or so to do it. No in this case, I think you are a little too suspicious. Honest.
Alexandria, Va.: Regarding The Cleveland Show ... As a fan of the Family Guy and, to a lesser extent, American Dad, I simply don't see enough "new" appeal to justify another series. Fox has made it hard not to watch, sandwiching it in between the Simpsons and Family Guy, but that may do more harm for the former than the latter in the long run. Viewers might just decide to start tuning in at 9 p.m.
Tom Shales: Even today, with so many viewer choices and the popularity of remote control clickers, there is such a thing as "flow" in network schedules -- the shows ahead of and behind Cleveland's show are the "tent poles" that supposedly will hold it up and carry it along -- and there's another hit, a time-period hit as they say. Scheduling is not based on the quality of a show but on the basis of its supposed appeal. I think there is a world of difference, though, between Simpsons and the two other shows -- which of course are made by other people. Simpsons has art and wit -- neither is apparent to ANY appreciable degree in that stupid Cleveland show.
Fairbanks, Alaska: With all due respect, sir, your panning of Family Guy carries little weight when you actually gave this season's premiere of SNL a positive review. NO ONE thought it was funny buy you and Lorne. So here's my question, why are you so in love with SNL at the expense of your credibility?
Tom Shales: WHY do I get this question every week? First I didn't even review the season premiere of SNL, which was just last Saturday, the show with the "F Bomb" in it. Maybe you mean a review of the new live Thursday-night half-hour show, an extended weekend-update. I can't defend loving this show because to me it's just a very important part of television and I would miss it terribly if it went away -- 2 things that can be said of really few shows on the air. Very few. Even people who rant on and on about how awful it is Still Seem to Be Watching It -- it's a "happening" every week, a kind of event. And it is responsive to the world today, often in clever ways. The job has gotten much much harder for SNL since so many imitations of it have blossomed in cable.
Bethesda, Md.: This is probably way off any thread in the discussion today -- but...
My dad had always thought that TV went downhill when Rod Serling got out of the business. After revisiting The Twilight Zone episodes on DVD, I tend to agree. Thoughts?
Tom Shales: Yes, well, I could say TV will never be what it was when you could watch "Kukla, Fran and Ollie" every day (also available to a limited degree on DVD) but then I watched that show in my very early youth and it became actually precious to me, now a part of the happy memory of youth. TV changed, it had to, we can't really expect it to go back to the rhythms, content and attitude of the early days. And no matter how it seems to deteriorate, the possibility of tuning in and seeing something great remains, even if the odds aren't quite what they used to be.
Charlottesville, Va.: I also liked The Vampire Diaries.
I'm a huge Jasmine Guy fan and she plays Tituba Bennett (love that name), a witch and grandmother to one of the main cast.
Tom Shales: There you go -- a lot of a show's appeal has to do with the chemistry of the performers. And of course different people will naturally react different ways. This is so elemental I feel a little dumb even saying it. But you bring up a point that sometimes critics overlook, the fact that much of a show's popularity will depend not on scripts or direction or creativity or even originality, but on how telegenic and likeable the performers are. This is one thing about TV that I do not think has changed.
Ballston Dude: The F-bomb to this season's premier of SNL is the Kanye interrupting of the MTV VMAs. The only thing worth talking about. We certainly are not talking about Grady's tapes or the lame airplane skit.
How many months did the cast have off? They could have come up with some better material and ideas over that amount of time.
Does anyone else think the F-bomb actress looks like Michael DeLuise from Encino Man?
Tom Shales: One reason the show is live is that it carries that little ticking time bomb of unpredictability. This was a case where the explosion was not the kind that the producers or the network (or the sponsors) prefer -- but as you say, it heightens the profile of the show (deepens it? I don't know how you make a profile more profiley. But you know what I mean). By the way, the cast does have time OFF as you say, so they aren't sitting around all summer thinking up material. Besides it would be dated. The show traffics in currency (not money, immediacy). We will leave it up to those "tuning in" to decide about Michael DeLuise (Dom's son?)
Alexandria, Va.: It seems that just about every female writer on the Web or in print is disparaging "Cougartown," perhaps no so much for the show itself as for the whole premise, the social phenomenon it purports to illustrate, and particularly just for the name. How, then, did it manage to draw such big ratings? Was it a male-only audience? Will it be sustained throughout the season?
Tom Shales: As sort of implied earlier, people do sometimes watch things to hate them. I had a friend -- a late friend, unfortunately - who just hated and loathed and despised an ABC drama called "thirtysomething" -- you remember it I am sure -- and he never missed it. He wanted to be reminded of what he was hating, I guess. Or he secretly found something about it seductive. Maybe he wanted to hate it more than he actually did.
Los Angeles, Calif.: I couldn't agree more Mr. Shales. Apres Kukla le deluge!
Tom Shales: Thank you, Mr. or Ms. Los Angeles! When I wrote about KF and O many years ago, received quite a bit of mail from around the country -- people who's happy memories had been re-awakened merely by the mention of the show and a photograph of the trio. It was of course the creation of a man named Burr Telstra -- gone now, as are they all. But clearly not forgotten, at least by those of us who treasured the show, whether we watched as kids or later as adults. It was perhaps the gentlest TV show ever. (at least until Mr. Rogers came along)........
Since you're the expert (seriously!) on SNL, here's a question: are the majority of audience members New Yorkers or tourists?
I ask because I've had the "oh, this could only happen in New York, and we're sophisticated and that's why we laugh" experience with some real crap, SNL included.
Tom Shales: I would guess -- guess, mind you -- it's about 40 per cent tourists, the rest New Yorkers. And yes, there is that awful New York Smugness that is sometimes obvious. Sometimes the audience of stocked with friends and associates of the musical act, whoever it is that week, because they get a bit cartload of free tickets (well they're all free -- but not that easy to get).
Washington, D.C.: The Cleveland Show was just stupid. I used to watch Family Guy, but for the last two years or so, that show only goes for the inappropriate dialog/song, with something funny placed in between. Since I see that Seth M. has decided to kick it up a notch with The Cleveland Show, I won't watch. My husband who can be quite adolescent in his TV watching did not even find it funny. After the Simpsons, we will hit the DVR to watch what we couldn't get to during the week.
Tom Shales: It sounds mean-spirited maybe, but I am glad to hear you hated the show, because I saw no value in it. I did forget to mention, though -- the theme song is kind of cute. My teenage goddaughter thought it was catchy and cute. She couldn't abide the rest of the show -- just the open and close. I'm with her.
Berkeley, Calif.: RE: Vampire Diaries
The actor who plays Jeremy, the little brother of Elena, is named Steve McQueen. Turns out he really is the grandson of "The King of Cool" Steve McQueen.
Tom Shales: How about that ? But I thought that SAG rules or some other union or regulating body forbade the use of duplicate names by actors. For years there was confusion about two Harry Morgans, one on MASH (and many other shows), the other a panelist-type who was on "I've Got a Secret" and other shows. Never knew how they got away with that, although for a time one of them was billed as Harry (Henry) Morgan. Or maybe it was Henry (Harry) Morgan. Probably the rule does NOT apply once the first actor to claim the name has died. Jason Robards was "Jr." until his father, also Jason Robards and an actor, had been gone for quite some time.
"Glee" and "Modern Family": I am a big fan of both of these new shows. Knowing how often the networks agree with me, I don't foresee either making it through the season as a result. What's the word on these two shows? Should I spare my feelings and not get too attached.
Last week's episode of "Glee" was just amazing, IMHO.
Tom Shales: CRISWELL PREDICTS!!! Actually it's only Shales predicting. The prediction is that both shows will make it through the season based on initial response and even on critical reaction, though that is a factor that the networks rarely care much about. It can be influential when a show is teetering between cancellation and renewal. Like, I am proud to say, the critics saved "Cheers" from cancellation many years ago. Please -- no applause! No generous donations to the Tom Shales Is Broke fund.......(although if you INSIST).... No not even then, sorry.....
Seattle, Wash.: Is The Wire the best TV show of all time? I've been watching the DVDs of the seasons (I have season 5 to go), but I can't think of any other show that's as good. The Sopranos was almost as good, but The Wire just feels more real.
Tom Shales: You are certainly not alone in your opinion. When people ask me to name a "best show" ever or my "favorite show" ever, I can't answer, because how can you compare, say, 60 Minutes with I Love Lucy? Its a thankless task, really. I am much more interested in other people's favorites than in my own, frankly -- and I'm not trying to sound humble.
Washington, D.C.: New shows grade report that I've seen so far:
1. Flash Forward: A, except if it goes too Lost-like I might not like it. I like Lost but it's not similar enough to follow that path.
2. Modern Family: A -- I actually laughed out loud! Have you seen it?
3. The Forgotten: D. Horrible. At one point they had a "high school mascot database" on the computer. Please.
Tom Shales: We agree right down the line, I believe, though I haven't seen much of The Forgotten. I forgot to watch LOL, har har har (sorry). Modern Family is one of the best sitcoms in a long, long time, if they can keep up the high standards of the opener. And I agree on Flash Forward -- if the plotlines start wandering around and getting all tangled up, and if you're "Lost" if you miss a single episode, I will drift away........(from the show, I mean).....
Eugene, Ore.: Isn't it time that SNL just bit the bullet and find a new cast member to play Barack Obama. Fred Armisen is known for being notoriously bad at it for reason.
My own recom is -- Trevor Noah.
Tom Shales: Who's Trevor Noah? Sorry, I hope it isn't awful that I don't remember. Nice name, though. Yeah, Fred Armisen is kind of under-qualified for the role.
Toronto, Ontario: Hi, Tom!
I'm one of those people who disliked the whole concept of Cougartown and yet tuned in to see what it was all about. I found it frenetic and forced...And it felt exhausting watching Courtney Cox trying so hard to be...what? Funny, sexy, appealing, employed?...Don't think I'll bother tuning in again.
I kept thinking of an Audrey Tatou quote I read this week: "I prefer the mentality of Chanel, who invented a kind of sexiness that doesn't rely solely on a woman's physical appearance, but on her personality, her uniqueness, her strength of character." Those are the kind of 40-ish women I'd like to see more of on TV. I'm so sick of long hair parted in the middle and cleav.
And wait a minute...Jasmine Guy as a GRANDMOTHER!?!
Tom Shales: I have no "Answer" but I loved your comment, so I am passing it along to the folks out there in InterSpace.
Anonymous: Steve McQueen's grandson is credited as Steven R. McQueen on the show.
Tom Shales: Aha! Thank you. And it supports my notion that union rules prohibit two living actors from sharing a name. Listen, when I get it right, I shout it from the rooftops. Okay, I couldn't make it to a rooftop but still, it doesn't happen all that often, so I may get carried away....
Cougartown: My wife and I watched the first episode for no reason other than inertia, and her reaction was that the whole thing was just creepy. Mine, of course, was that it wasn't funny and Ms. Cox isn't even that attractive. She's no Sela Ward, y'know?
Tom Shales: And your obedient servant has to catch up on this one and report back later...
Baltimore, Md.: @Seattle, Wash
One thing that I love about The Wire is how it so defines Baltimore, Md. now.
I love when shows make the extra effort to make it feel like the shows actually take place in a real community rather then Anytown, USA in a studio backlot. I'm thinking The Office does have so many Scranton, Pa. references. And True Blood really does feel like a Louisiana town. There are so many example these days of it.
Tom Shales: And as it happens, Baltimore was not at all thrilled with its image -- accurate, many people (including you) would say -- as portrayed on that great show. The mayor of Baltimore was happy when it ended. Really. I am not a fan of Baltimore or at least of its over-zealous police department, but that's a long story for another time.
Alexandria, Va.: Re: Kukla, Fran, and Olie: My family didn't get a TV until I was 10 or 11, and even then in the viewing area where we lived we could get only one channel, all the way through my high school years. As a result, I never saw a lot of those classic shows that now seem to form the basis of so many contemporary cultural references. Are those shows available on DVD, or if not, will they be?
Tom Shales: Things like Howdy Doody are available as nostalgia items. Amazon dot com probably has a whole bunch of titles -- or a more specialized "old TV" type service probably has them. Things like "My Little Margie" (which one may remember fondly only to discover it was a HORROR! But in some ways a fascinating monstrosity). I watched the pilot for "Bonanza" on DVD the other day - what a hoot! Some of the worst acting ever committed to film. Each character was strictly one-note (Hoss = lovable doofus) and each actor played that one note to the breaking point. The show got better as of Episode No.2, don't know the background on that. I'm just saying -- fond memories are sometimes better kept as memories; you can be disillusioned to discover a beloved old heirloom of a show was a stinker. There are many many examples of the opposite being true, however.
Albany, N.Y.:For what it's worth: "Glee" may or may not survive until the end of the year, but Fox did just give it a 22-episode pickup, so the odds are good.
Tom Shales: Good. If the show can hang on until American Idol returns, they would be VERY compatible primetime mates.
Eugene, Oregon: I lived in Johannesburg for a few years and Trevor Noah is pretty big TV host/comic in South Africa and great with impressions including Barack Obama.
He's father is Swiss and his mother is South African and he's spent a lot of time in the USA. I just thought he was hilarious.
Tom Shales: Thank you very much. For the record, it would be hard for SNL to hire someone just for one impression. There are bound to be weeks when Barack Obama sketches are not really called for, ya know? I would like to see this Trevor Noah perform, and am sure I will get the chance based on your high praise.
Judiciary Square, Washington, D.C.: Since we've already heard that The Beautiful Life show, or whatever it was called has already been canceled, do we know what show might be next based on this week's numbers? I really like Flash Forward and am hoping it stays.
Tom Shales: I can't predict, sorry. The numbers for last week come out Thursday, I think. I would put a wee bit of money on Flash Forward because it represents a very large investment - big budgets for both production and promotion.
Madison, Wisc.: "union rules prohibit living actors from sharing a name."
Maybe, but Steve McQueen died 7 November 1980, yet his grandson and namesake who acts on "The Vampire Diaries" was born 13 July 1988.
Tom Shales: So? I am sure the rule gets bent a bit. Does seem to be a different matter if the second SteveMcQueen is related to the first, as was obviously true. If I go into acting and want to call myself "Marlon Brando," I think somebody would say "No you can't do that" --I mean officially, not just some somebody saying it sounds like a bad idea. Of course you could try "Marion Brando" if a woman. Or "Marlo Brando." ??? Brandon Marlowe? Ah the possibilities.
Digital TV Aspect Ratio: Hi, Tom. I watched "House" last night and, for the second week in a row, was convinced that FOX was broadcasting the show in 16 x 9, even though I have a standard 1.33 x 1 aspect ratio on my TV. We watch now with a digital converter box.
I knew that the settings could be altered on HDTV sets, but until I played around withe the converter box remote control last night, I didn't realize I had to adjust the picture on my old-fashioned set! Now I know better, but am wondering if I'll have to do this only for certain programs. Is there any way to know which programs are being broadcast at 16 x 9, and which aren't?
I know Lisa has covered a bit of the difficulties with the digital transition, but I do wish you Post TV writers would pursue this some more. I'm resigned to the fact that nearly everyone has pay-TV, and so the digital conversion hasn't struck them as a story worth following beyond the initial transition, which was billed as Wonderfully Successful. It wasn't really, although we're getting by. For now.
Tom Shales: I know that many problems remain. These stories are hard to report simply because few of us are experts on (or can even make heads or tails of) the technical aspects of television. I do find it appalling that AMC televises its own "Mad Men" in the widescreen format and yet often airs widescreen movies in the cruddy pan-and-scan version, lopping off the sides. Makes my blood boil - not literally of course. I hope.
The Morgans: No confusion. Henry was a radio personality from the 1940s who transitioned to television, mainly on the old CBS panel shows. Harry was a B-movie heavy who took a supporting role in "December Bride" and starred in its spinoff, "Pete and Gladys," before moving to the revived "Dragnet" in the 1960s. Boy, do I need to get a life.
Tom Shales: Sorry we went dark there for a moment. There was a question asking me how I felt about the swearing on The Wire vs the swearing on Cleveland show. WELL FOR ONE THING, THE WIRE DID NOT INVITE CHILDREN INTO THE TENT. I don't care WHAT language is used on a show aimed at adults. Also on HBO, this is not broadcast TV available to all. You have to choose to get it and you have to pay to get it. Big big big big big difference.
Annapolis, Md.: So okay, if you could program a cable channel 24/7, and you could show anything from TV history (nothing live like news and sports), what would you show? KF and O, Capt. Kangaroo, Howdy Doody in the AM? Then game shows? Soap operas? Sitcoms at night, or dramas, or a mix of both? Comedy-variety on weekends? All 60s, all the time?
Tom Shales: My dear friend, I would go back to 1948 and to Ed Sullivan and Molly Goldberg and Kukla Fran & Ollie and Mr Peepers and Lucy and Milton Berle and Martin & Lewis AND PLAY IT ALL STRAIGHT THROUGH AGAIN. Oh and one stipulation: I would be young again, and grow up with television just as I have already done (though I hope I would turn out better -- and maybe that television would, too)
Eugene, Ore.: Trevor Noah (YouTube)
For you to watch after the Live Chat ends.
Not on his best bits...
Big fan of your columns.
Tom Shales: Thank you! Very kind. I will check it out.
Washington, D.C.: How was the profanity on the Wire more appealing than the dirty talk on Family Guy?
Tom Shales: Heres the question I referred to earlier. I am not sure any profanity is "appealing." Have you seen the uncensored Comedy "Roasts" of celebrities shown in the middle of the night on Comedy Central? The dirtiest words I have ever heard on TV, I think. But somehow that is part of the, to stretch a term, "charm." I have bleeping by the way. I hate hearing a "Beep" where a word should be.
Foggy Bottom, Washington, D.C.: Another old timer checking in! What about "Mr. Peepers" and "Our Miss Brooks"? I remember wishing I had teachers like them!
Tom Shales: Ah yes. For 1 dollar, who was the little old lady that Miss Brooks lived with? Wait -- I can't answer that myself. I was thinking "Mrs. Odets" but she was the lovable neighbor on "My Little Margie."
"There are bound to be weeks when Barack Obama sketches are not really called for, ya know? ": Have they had such a week yet? Seems like a pretty safe bet to make a hire, plus he could fill half of their Token Black Guy quota.
Tom Shales: Well, a good point or two, yes. By the way, I was kidding about the dollar.
Anonymous: The Vampire Diaries Girls MTV Film Awards 2009 Actress Interviews Season Premiere (YouTube)
How could you not love those girls?
Tom Shales: Errrrrrrrr ... okay, I do.
Charlottesville, Va.: How do rate Ken Burns newest production about the national parks?
Tom Shales: Haven't seen it by how stupid of PBS to start it in the middle of solemn Jewish holidays. And on that note, good night and God bless as Red Skelton used to say -- and THANK YOU.......
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