Shales on TV Live

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Tom Shales
Washington Post TV Columnist
Tuesday, October 13, 2009; 12:00 PM

Washington Post Style columnist and Pulitzer Prize winner Tom Shales was online Tuesday, Oct. 13, at Noon ET to discuss television, its cultural impact and his columns.

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.

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Tom Shales: Hello, hello, it's me, Tom Shales, this week attempting two multi-task -- answer your questions with one hand and housebreak a supposedly housebroken Portuguese water dog with the other. He just tried to eat a squirt gun. This isn't going to be easy. Onward....

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Chantilly, Va.: Mr. Shales -- I often disagree with you, but respect your opinion. After reading your chats I decided to give SNL a chance again -- I thought if you said the show was funny, it may possibly be. Alas and alack, the show is terrible. Awful. Boring. Un-funny. I know, I know -- nobody else does it any better; so perhaps no one should do it all. What's wrong with a show like SNL taking a 1-year (or 5-year) hiatus and figuring out how to be funny again. Oh well; of course, my heart goes out to those who are both Redskins AND SNL fans -- must be a terrible time to be alive.

Tom Shales: Every week someone says SNL isn't funny -- which is certainly everyone's privilege. I did think the most recent show, with that skinny actor-guy (Ryan Reynolds?) was dull, but did you see a sketch about a naughty little girl that has the catch phrase "Dilly???" I can't translate it into print on a page, but it's a recurring bit that I find absolutely hilarious and totally meaningless. Just pure silly stuff. Also Weekend Update ALWAYS has a few good ones, doesn't it?? Maybe I am too easy to please where SNL is concerned. We grew up together -- make that, we grew OLD together.....

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Regrets, You've Had a Few, Haven't You?: Have you ever regretted a positive review you gave a TV show? I was recently thinking about a long ago interview I heard you do on "The Don and Mike Show," in which you said your favorite new show of the season was "Cold Case." I watched "Cold Case" for few years, but it had long since grown stale and predictable in its choice [of] subject matter. Lisa de Moraes wrote not long ago that the show barely made it back on the CBS schedule this year.

So, back to my question: Do you regret that particular review, or do you expect that people understand that shows that start well don't stay at a top level forever?

Tom Shales: Wait a minute! If I rave about a pilot, premiere episode, or the first several episodes of a new series, I am hardly guaranteeing that in five or ten years, should it live so long, or even three, it will still be great. OF COURSE the writers and producers run out of ideas. It can't be easy, and I hope I never imply that I think it's easy. It does still amaze me that some of the classic OLD shows did 39 episodes a year (vs 23 now) and yet could remain fresh for 6, 7, 8 years. Simply astonishing. We can't expect that of everybody who does a TV show. I think "The Cosby Show's" last episode was probably as good as its first. But thanks for writing. (Oh, I have regretted positive reviews for shows that did a nosedive in like their 2nd or 3rd week, or shows whose regular episodes were awful compared to a first-rate pilot. I wish I had an example. I know it's happened. Some shows have been re-reviewed when it seemed prudent).

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Centreville, Va.: Did President Obama really do a promo for the George Lopez late night show? I have some problems with a president doing a commercial endorsement on behalf of a profit-making enterprise, as opposed to the Red Cross or something like that. What was the White House thinking?

Tom Shales: As far as I know, this story is true - was it George Lopez, or Jimmy Kimmel? I think it's refreshing to have a president in office who speaks his mind -- look at how outspoken Harry Truman and FDR were. It doesn't bother me if he expresses maybe questionable opinions on Subjects Of No Importance. So if Obama wants to make promos, it's probably not unethical - but it's a waste of time that should be spent on other things, like rescuing a nation from the debilitating effects of recession. I am quite debilitated myself - this cannot stand, as G H.W. Bush used to say.

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Western Pennsylvania: What do you think of the White House strategy to take on FOX -- and what do you think is the White House's ultimate goal in publicly complaining about one of the most powerful and popular news networks?

Tom Shales: I think it's a bad idea for a presidential administration to pick a fight with a media outlet -- but did the W.H. pick this fight, or was it thrust upon them? Were the Obamans taunted into responding? You may not remember, but JFK got angry at the New York Times for a while and very publicly ordered the WH's subscription suspended. If it wasn't the Times, it was the Herald-Trib, now kaput. So for the Obama W.H. to "take on" Fox isn't unprecedented. Harry Truman wrote a very angry letter to the Post's music critic, the late Paul Hume, after Hume trounced the piano playing of Harry's daughter -- we tend to think that anything Obama does hasn't been done before. Or -- not. I don't like having an ideologically-based national network news organization, but since Fox is fairly up-front about its prejudices (I don't know if they even claim to being fair and balanced any more - What a Joke!), it's not much worse than regrettable, I guess.

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Oakton, Va.: Do you think Southland will find another network home? I really enjoyed the quality of writing and acting -- as well as the diversity of the cast.

Tom Shales: The prospects look good for Southland ending up on a cable network like USA or TBS or even FX, or perhaps even a pay-cable outfit like HBO or Showtime. HBO and Showtime always promote themselves as alternatives to the stuffy old networks, so they might tend to shy away from picking up a network reject. Then again, they could always advertise Southland as "The show that was TOO GOOD for NBC!" Or even "Too good for 'the networks'." That might bring a few more people into the tent. Jay Leno is, in a way, to blame for this misfortune, because his producers want compatible shows as a "lead-in" for Jay -- nothing too depressing or grittily realistic. So Jay not only kills off five 10 pm dramas, he's now having a bad effect on 9 p.m. shows as well. It's just not worth it to have him on at 10 o'clock. He is looking like a bad bad sport.

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Alexandria, Va.: By making Macy's Department Stores withdraw their invitation to the cast of "Glee" to perform in their Thanksgiving Parade, NBC is obviously sending the message that they think they can beat the Fox series. CBS clearly thinks they can, too, since they've picked up the competing series ("Modern Family" and "Cougar Town") for the rest of the season. Are NBC and CS right? Will "Glee" in fact get beat in the ratings and die?

Tom Shales: Gosh, I sure hope not. That would be a crime, especially when there are so few good shows right now, and this one is ambitious enough to have music and drama and so on. NBC is in the fifteenth quadrant of pitiful desperation. It's sad to see the network that more than once achieved greatness just groveling in the dirt and detritus. Wait - I think Detritus was a Roman Emperor. He came after Metrobus, pronounced Met-TROB-uss.

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Hartford, Conn.: Hello. Why does the original "Law and Order" have Lt. Van Buren suffering through cancer on the show? It's so much personal type info that Law and Order does not usually have on episodes. Is S. Epatha Merkerson leaving the show?

Tom Shales: I thought S. Epatha had ALREADY left the show. Perhaps our crack staff of researchers (not that they use crack) could Google this one up. I see she "S" is doing commercials now; looking good, too. As for the lieutenant with cancer, I thought that ALSO was done a season-or-two back. Are you sure you're not watching the off-network reruns on A&E or Bravo or whoever has them? I am sorry not to be more au courant on Law and Order. If S. EpathaMerkerson married F. Murray Abraham -- oh never mind, she wouldn't, I hope.

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Arlington, Va.: I obviously don't live in D.C. but my periodontist who is really enthusiastic about Michelle Rhee and what he perceives as her goal of improving the D.C. schools. Still, I was taken aback by the article in the Post by a newly minted new D.C. teacher who got her walking papers. So, does Rhee know what she is doing and could she actually be effective?

Tom Shales: Say there, where did you wander in from. This here's the television chat! We talk about television programs and industry stuff and not only do we know nothin' about birthin' babies, we also know nothin' about Ms. Rhee and her pursuits. But I wish her good luck. Please look around and you'll find a forum just right for your question, seriously. Maybe our crack staff -- well, they're busy right now. Oh wait - they just told me to ignore this question. Fine!

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I don't like having an ideologically-based national network news organization...: well then I guess you don't like NBC, MSNBC, CBS, ABC, PBS, etc., etc., which all lean (or fall hard) to the left in both their news and opinions.

Fox has conservative-leaning pundits on at night, but their newscasts are generally pretty balanced to both sides. Or at least more balanced than all the other news outlets.

I guess many people have grown so accustomed to one-sided news, that they don't like the other side having a say. If all of the other news outlets gave both sides equal treatment, there may not be a need for Fox News. But, they don't and so there is.

Tom Shales: I really don't think the networks you mentioned are as biased as Fox. They at least try to maintain the illusion of fairness. Yes, they've been very easy on Obama, but I think ANY president coming into office with the country in such dire straits would get - and SHOULD GET - the benefit of a few doubts, and maybe a gloves-off approach for a while. You may have noticed, or you may choose not to notice, that coverage of Obama has become much more critical and much less adulatory(is that a word??)in the last few weeks; he was practically given the Bronx Cheer for winning the Nobel Peace Prize! (Do people think he stuffed the ballot boxes? Even he said it was undeserved at this point). Also -- I have seen Fox bias at all hours on that network and even during their inane "Fox and Friends" morning coffee klatch.

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AAUGH! Wiig again?: Dilly is funny? Another just painful skit with Kristin Wiig playing an annoying socially awkward character. Yes they all have different names, but really, deep down they are almost identical, same face pulled, same odd behaviors, same driving me crazy.

I still watch occasionally, but usually the only funny part is the Weekend Update, and sometimes the guest star ("The Rock" did a much better Obama impersonation than Fred Armisen!)

Tom Shales: I liked The Rock's Hawaiian dance. It was a restaurant sketch. Regis asked him to do it the following Monday when he was a guest on Regis & Kelly (yes I watch it sometimes. Regis slays me). I fall on the floor laughing over Dilly and the sweet simplicity of it; I don't know, some people thought MTV's "Beavis and Butt-head" was NEVER funny. And as I have said too often here, that creepy Jon Stewart never makes me laugh, or rarely. I guess it just goes to prove - I am always right. No, LOL LOL. In fact I would like to go and loll around the house. That's LOL with an extra "l." Sorry - I guess I'm just smarting over your dismissal of Dilly and of the great, madcap, hilarious and versatile Kristen Wiig.

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Shows keeping it fresh: A big part of the reason that old shows were able to stay fresh for 39 episodes a season is because there were so many ideas that hadn't been done yet. Now that we are 30-40 years past the 60s and 70s, it's much harder to find new ideas.

Tom Shales: Yes, I suppose. So many formulas for scripted comedies and dramas have been done ad infinitum that even kids can now predict what will happen between the second and third commercial breaks - and so on. Reality television is much-maligned, but it really did introduce something new into the TV vocabulary and repertoire. Some of those shows have been very smartly done. Also, small cable networks have made prime time and other "dayparts" safe for informational programming, and if too much of that is about "The Man who Cleaned Hitler's Dentures" or whatever, much of it is valuable and arresting. I'll watch almost anything on the Discovery health channel; I minored in medicine. Or rather I am minoring in it now.

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Chinatown: I don't understand the SNL haters. If you don't like it, don't watch it.

I think for a 90-minute live comedy show, it has more hits than misses. I think they are really lucky to have Andy Samburg. I think his digital shorts, mostly the music videos, are genius.

Tom Shales: Thank you, Chinatown. (I thought we weren't supposed to say "Chinatown." Or maybe it's all right.). At least one can say for SNL that it provokes strong opinions, the for's and the againsts. But you talk about shows that have stayed vibrant and fresh for five or six seasons; SNL is into its thirty-fifth!!!

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Back to Dave: So, I hear that Jimmy Kimmel may be (has been) dating a staffer. Are we "outing" our late show hosts? Do we care? But what the heck is happening with Sarah Silverman?

Tom Shales: Sarah and Jimmy were an item, right? I don't think there's anything especially terrible about "dating a staffer," but many of the Letterman critics say when you are hit upon by The Boss, the pressure to consent is almost in the area of statutory rape. If someone came forth with a case of a staffer who was fired because she rebuffed advances from Letterman or Kimmel or Conan O'Brien, I think THAT would be news, and very disparaging. But again - just dating doesn't seem so fraught with calamity to me. Before she married Ben Bradlee, Sally Quinn and I were HOT and HEAVY. I of course was the "heavy" part. She was (and always will be) hot.

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About Those Regrets: Thanks for your response to my earlier question about regrets. I guess I'm curious as to how long your love for "Cold Case" lasted. Is it ongoing?

Tom Shales: My love for Cold Case is itself a cold case. But rare is the series I can take for more than 3 seasons. I guess a current exception would be Larry David's "Curb Your Enthusiasm" on HBO. That thing could run forever and I'd still be laughing - at least I think so. Larry David does, by the way, what every writer of television, and maybe movies, should do: he carries around a small notebook so at any moment that an idea presents itself - usually in the observed behavior of some other person, perhaps a complete stranger -- it can be written down and saved. Too many ideas slip away if you don't jot them down. I speak from experience, not that I've had an embarrassing surplus of good ideas. That is definitely not by problem.

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Kristen Wiig Rules !!!!: Kristin's character of the inventor-of-everything is perhaps the funniest skit since androgynous Pat.

Tom Shales: Agreed, agreed. I am glad we have scared some SNL fans out of the bushes. I don't like her Target store check-out lady but even so, it doesn't prompt me to change the channel. I prefer to stick it out and see what the NEXT sketch is going to be. Two ringers in a row and I start channel surfing....

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Mad Men: I believe we are about the same age. I don't remember the sixties as being quite so depressing. Do you think Hollywood still loves the show?

Tom Shales: Well, it got another richly undeserved Emmy for best drama series, didn't it? Maybe there's some sort of self-flagellating appeal in the thing. The sixties were full of hope until President Kennedy was shot, and that was only three years into the decade. Then it became a funeral march -- Dr Martin Luther King, Bobby Kennedy, and so on. Is "Mad Men" really ABOUT the '60s or does it just happen to be taking place then?

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Midlothian, Va.: Wondering about the Leno show. How is it doing? I can't stand him -- think he's the most untalented success out there -- and I'm hoping the show crashes and burns quickly before NBC cancels every drama on its schedule to make room for his lame routines.

Tom Shales: You have a friend in me. I thought the Tonight Show took a giant step down when Jay replaced Johnny Carson (and took a step up again when Conan replaced Jay, though Conan is certainly having his share of troubles and tough breaks). The show is doing poorly but NBC insists it will stand by Jay and that he will shine over the course of a year because he won't be showing as many reruns; he'll offer new shows in, say, June when the dramas are all in reruns. We shall see.

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Alexandria, Va.: No, you don't need a staffer to say she was fired for not sleeping with the boss before there's a problem. There's a problem as soon as staffers can say that another one was given preferential treatment (in terms of on-air appearances, that translate to extra money) because she was sleeping with the boss, and they weren't. That does seem to be the case with World Wide Pants.

Tom Shales: Yes, you have a very good point.

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Clarificati, ON: The character is "Gilly" rather than "Dilly".

Tom Shales: I have been debating this with my godchildren for weeks!
Last Saturday, Drew Barrymore was in one of those sketches and she played, what, Jilly? Silly? Then at the end they ran a card with the title of the show-within-the-show and that settled the Gilly-Dilly argument -- but I have forgotten which way! I happily take your word for it and will call her Gilly from now on. Until corrected again.

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Re: SNL - this is your #2 post: I agree with your first poster Tom. SNL isn't funny. On the other hand, I loved MAD TV and mourn it's loss. Reruns of MAD TV would be preferable to SNL! Do you think there are any new sketch comedy shows out there on the horizon?

Tom Shales: Mad TV's sketches were more simplistic but often very funny. They would do straight parodies of shows, not the more complex things that SNL writers like to try. The writers at SNL believe you should never write the first idea you have for a sketch; you throw that out and try to come up with a better one. At Mad TV, it was clear they often stuck with that first idea - but sometimes they really made the most of it. I was "quoted" in one sketch when they needed a TV critic to praise a make-believe show. Later I sued them for 25 dollars and 57 cents. The case is still in runaround. No, I am just fantasizing again.

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the piano playing of Harry's daughter: It was Margaret Truman's SINGING that Paul Hume lambasted.

And to the letter writer who ascribed "Modern Family" and "Cougar Town" to CBS, it's ABC!

Tom Shales: Thanks, it is hard on the fly here to get them all right, and I try to say when I'm not sure. You're POSITIVE about the singing? Come to think of it, it was Harry himself who played the piano. I know "Modern Family" is, indeed on ABC. "Cougar Town," phfffft.

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Portuguese Water Dog: Are you using a crate? It should help a lot.

Tom Shales: Does your last name begin with an "O" by any chance? Actually we have one of those airplane carrier type cages and he's supposed to spend the nights in there for now. I think he is quite delicate and doesn't like going outside on the cold wet grass, so no matter how much we take him out, he waits patiently to leave his imprint on the rug in the den. It's green, maybe he thinks it's nice warm, dry grass. Really though, I think of myself as a connoisseur of cute dogs, and this may be the cutest ever. Very eager and joyful and seems to have settled into the new surroundings with very few problems of adjustment. Still waiting for that always-happy moment when he first barks at a stranger who DARES to come to the door, or even pass by too close to the house. Thanks for the tip.

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NBC: Any chance the Thursday "comedy" lineup will be the only sentient thing that survives the scourge of Leno? I confess that if NBC would actually implode. the only thing I would really miss is the delightfully cheeky Ms. Fey and her band of merry pranksters.

Tom Shales: She is cheeky - and they ARE merry - aren't they? I would say of your "any chance" question that there's a very good chance. I hope NBC doesn't try transplanting any of those sitcoms to try to "build" another night around them, because I don't think any is strong enough yet. They would just probably turn a near-hit into an outright flop. It would be kinda nice to see NBC return to its Thursday Night glory, the one night it has for a loonnnggg time been able to master and conquer.

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Alexandria, Va.: Fox News' "Fair and Balanced" chit-chat on the couch on their AM show reminds me of that late 19th century classic tome, "An Unbiased History of the War Between the States, As Told from the Southern Point of View".

Tom Shales: Very good. Thanks.

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Chantilly, Va.: "Chinatown: I don't understand the SNL haters. If you don't like it, don't watch it."

I'm not a hater; I want the show to be good, I really, really do. But it isn't. Not to mention the fact that in order for me to determine whether or not the show is any good, I have to watch it. And now that I have -- well, the show may not take a much needed sabbatical from production, but I'll take a hiatus from watching. But it's all okay, you're entitled to your opinion, too.

Tom Shales: And the debate RAGES on! .....

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Actor v. Writer: When you get down to it, is the writing or the acting (or animation, though my son did not want me to include "animation") the more driving force in a story?

Tom Shales: I've always said television is a personality medium. That a strong telegenic personality can rise above any other element on a show that isn't great. That's from the viewer point of view (!). From the other side of the tube, TV is a writer's medium, or a producer's medium, and not a director's medium the way films are. But you'll go right to sleep if I stay on this course - and besides we are out of time. We stayed away from the Roman Polanski business on purpose this week because it just seems to drag the conversation down, and I don't want to get into any more trouble about it (I was a chew toy, speaking of dogs, on blog after blog last week). Anyway thank you very much for participating or just following along.

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