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Shales on TV Live: Barbara Walters and Diane Sawyer -- Status report

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Tom Shales
Washington Post TV columnist
Tuesday, February 2, 2010; 12:00 PM

Washington Post Style columnist and Pulitzer Prize winner Tom Shales was online Tuesday, Feb. 2, at Noon ET to discuss television, its cultural impact and his columns.

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Today's column: Tom Shales on 'This Week' with Barbara Walters, 'World News' with Diane Sawyer (Post, Feb. 2)

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: Good morning plus about 30 seconds and thank you for visiting the Chat Room. Now your Little Old Chatmeister will peruse the first of today's questions and comments. ANY SUBJECT welcome......

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Rocklin, Calif.: During last week's discussion of NBC's past glory, one show that was not mentioned was the 80s' "St. Elsewhere," my favorite hospital drama of all time. I am not sure if it was technically a hit, but I do seem to recall it stayed around for a few years. It also launched the career of Denzel Washington (and, as I remember, Howie Mandel, but, still...)

Tom Shales: St Elsewhere's ratings were not in the superhit stratum but if it were on the air now and got the same numbers, it would hailed as a hit indeed. And yes it was another high point in prime-time drama for the "old" NBC, the one that could still hold its peacock head high. Who could have known what a HUGE star Denzel Washington would become, though I hear his new movie isn't much.

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Annapolis, Md.: Can you suggest a few good books on the culture and history of television? Modesty may prevent you from including "Live from New York," and you've mentioned "The Box" a couple of times, but I'd be interested in anything that can help explain what it was like to be a television watcher at different times, along with a dash of cultural context ("... and that program helped to change the way America thought about comedy/African-Americans/politics/serial drama/Shakespeare").

Tom Shales: As you say, "The Box" can't be topped. Ahem. Otherwise there are no books appreciating television as good as the Pauline Kael books appreciating movies. Most tend to be intellectual like Marshall McLuhan or fan-letter junk, like pop biographies of stars (tho there are exceptions there, too -- I found the fairly new biography of Raymond Burr pretty compelling because he managed to be so quiet about being gay and not many actors could probably pull that off today - these are not 'quiet' times. I can't remember the title of the Burr book. I interviewed him once. E-NOR-mous. I wrote "No man is an island - with the possible exception of Raymond Burr." Forgive me for quoting myself.....

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Landover, Md.: Tom: Going back to your mention of Crackerfuls a week or two ago, I've seen three varieties: cheddar cheese, four cheese and garlic herb. I've tried the cheddar cheese and four cheese, but not the garlic herb. Love your reviews and your columns from years ago. Thanks.

Tom Shales: I'm SO glad you asked! And answered, actually. I am painfully ignorant on the subject of Crackerful flavors. I do know that like everything that comes along, it is non-healthful. I am supposed to avoid carbohydrates. Lotsa luck. They are in everything. Three crackers and you've got your minimum requirement for about a week. I am exaggerating but it is a great source of frustration. Right now beside the computer sits the world's dullest food: Cottage cheese. Ugh. The worst, but I have to suffer I guess... You know, for my art.....

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Not an office at the ABC Network: St. Elsehwhere, that's it! We explain "Lost" by showing it was all the imagination of a patient in a mental hospital looking into a snow globe. Whoa, thanks.

Tom Shales: Ya think? I wonder if there will be any lollapalooza revelations -- I know you're joking but how far will they go, and how angry will viewers get? I am sorry to admit that LOST lost me way back when. I think I got tired of waiting for the darn monster. Monsters should be seen and not just heard. By the way, great movie if you like thoughtful sci-fi: DISTRICT 9. Nominated for best picture though it will not win (right, opposite har-har Avatar). Saw this film 10 days ago and it still haunts me. The only monster movie that ever almost brought tears to my eyes, at least that I can think of. Great film & it's on pay-per-view now, I think, depending on your cable system....

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Vienna, Va.: I know you hated the pilot of The Deep End, and I agree that it wasn't too strong. But I liked the second episode much more -- esp. the pot case. It was a nice balance of law, humor and personal stories. It is not nearly as well done as The Good Wife, to be sure, but it is still nice "escape TV." I was wondering if you saw the second episode and if you liked it better than the pilot? Also, do you think this show will stick around?

Tom Shales: The pot cast? Oh, case. The pot case. I am very sorry to confess I did not see the 2nd episode. Usually when I don't like the premiere, I give up. I know it sounds - what, lazy? Irresponsible? I don't know what it sounds, actually. Maybe stupid -- but so many shows come and go, go and come, it's not practical to try to keep tabs on them all. Also to tell the truth, I am not a big fan of episodic television! How do ya like them apples, as my father used to say? I think the other parts of television are more interesting. But if a good episodic show comes along, I am thrilled to pieces. I think I am just as inclined to recognize and love a good series as someone who watches prime-time every night of the week.... (I sound like I am trying to start an argument. Arianna Huffington, where ARE you?)......

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Indianapolis, Ind.: Any thoughts on Undercover Boss?

Tom Shales: You mean mine? Heh heh heh. Not at the moment.....

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Arlington, Va.: Why do you make such a habit of pointing out/making fun of peoples' weight in your columns? It seems odd coming from some one of such large carriage to be doing so.

Tom Shales: Thank you. I have always felt that comments on people's weight, especially if excess, would be nasty and callow coming from a thin, physically fit person, but because I have the problem myself, I have maybe a right to recognize and even ridicule it in others. I think some people look good fat. I saw an old character actor in the British film of "Great Expectations" and he was magnificent in his hugeness - plus it was necessary that he be fat for the part. Dickens had a lot of fatties, come to think of it, didn't he? Honestly I try NOT to mention it much any more. Fat people do indeed suffer enough. There's also the mitigating fact that those in the public eye, especially TV performers, are putting themselves out there to be inspected and studied, including their physical selves... I am still offended that fat people in TV scripted shows usually are either buffoons or bad guys.....

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Centreville, Va.: I'm moved to participate in this (or any) W.P. online discussion for the 1st time because my husband and I have been amazed that during the huge controversy over the Leno show at 10 p.m. no one seems to have made mention of something we see as the reason for the failure of the show.

We were looking forward to having a pleasant alternative to the violent and disturbing trends in late prime-time TV. We've always liked Leno. We were happy to see his funny monologues back and delighted by his use of unknown (to us) comics for sketches, with varied success. These were original, at least. But the "earn your plug" and the very boring car racing segments (to advertise the sponsor!) made us view this show as one big infomercial for NBC and related sponsors. No wonder people didn't watch!

Why has no one mentioned this sell-out by Leno? He lost all our respect when he became a shill for NBC. Perhaps he always has been. They needed a cheap show and he gave it to them. I guess it's case of a desperate network pairing up with a host who will do absolutely anything for attention. What a screw-up!

Tom Shales: Thank you! A very good point! and now it HAS been mentioned. I have a theory, perhaps porous, that Leno never tried to make that show good and wanted it to go away asap. In fact I still think it was all part of a diabolical plan to get the Tonight Show back -- sort of like a pretender to the throne of some small European country gathering up loyal subjects and hoping to retake the castle for himself. Remember I DID SAY "sort of".... You are so right about the feebleness of such segments as the auto obstacle course and the generous plugs for sponsors. Excepts from "The Jay Leno Show" will be included in a forthcoming compilation retrospective called "That's Not Entertainment."

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re: Lost Finale: While I doubt they will pen a Seinfeld-esque finale, there will definitely be disappointed/angry fans at the end. There's no way they can write something that will please everyone.

Tom Shales: Very true. Are they themselves responsible for getting to that point? Didn't the show go on hiatus for like ages at a time - I suspect while the writers tried to hammer out some plausible plot twists. As I recall, fans of the show got sick of waiting. Someday there will be a true interactive participatory TV drama where viewers vote on what direction the story will take - who will die, who will marry, who will get rich, etc. Believe it or not, I saw a variation of that DECADES AGO at "Expo 67 Montreal." There was much innovative film on view and one of them let an audience armed with clickers in its little paws vote on various twists and turns in the plot and sub-plots. Alternate scenes had been shot and would be dropped in according to how the audience voted. I hope I am explaining this coherently. Now in the computer aqe, and with the web more and more allied with TV, it would seem technologically a snap to bring off. Eh?

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Potomac, Md.: I agree on Diane Sawyer's excellence as anchor, although she does need to cut back on the amount of Hollywood coverage.

One suggestion: In a future column would you please give the best phone numbers or e-mail addresses for promptly submitting comments to networks and local channels on their telecasts and shows.

Thank you for all your good work.

washingtonpost.com: Tom Shales on 'This Week' with Barbara Walters, 'World News' with Diane Sawyer (Post, Feb. 2)

Tom Shales: Thank YOU for the comment. Yes that's a good idea - helping to facilitate feedback. One caveat: we do not live in a pure democracy, where mass will decides every single issue, and I don't think purely democratic entertainment is practical or desirable either - where a majority would rule on how the story "turned out" or what corners it would turn along the way. Which completely contradicts what I just said about an inter-active TV show. I guess I think one would be cool, but like anything, too much would be anathema. And "too much" is always the goal in television land......

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Washington, D.C.: Are you at all familiar with British TV? What do you suppose are the odds of success for a U.S. version of "Torchwood"?

Tom Shales: I don't know what the odds of success would be but there is probably an American version in production or pre-production right now. I would prefer they just import the original, and perhaps so would you, but then again you've already seen it - and so have others with a keen interest in the genre. I think it could work, which is a pretty namby-pamby answer, but a safe one.

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Anonymous: What's your opinion of Men of a Certain age? It looks like one long Viagra commercial. And the men are so whiny, they should just call it Women of a Certain Age. Sorry women.

Tom Shales: Wow, you are in the minority but only according to an informal, non-scientific analysis of people who come into this here chat room. Take, for instance, the next guest------

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Men of a Certain Age: I'm liking this show. Is there anyone else watching it?

Tom Shales: There you go, another opinion. And I think we have one or two more in the old chat-bag here.......

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Annapolis, Md.: Have you heard if TNT plans to order more episodes of "Men of a Certain Age"? The acting, and especially the writing, are a cut above anything else on television. I have watched every episode and am unhappy to see that only two more episodes are left. This show is truer to reality than any of the so-called reality shows.

Tom Shales: Hello, Annapolis. The TV Team researcher is checking on "Men of a Certain Age" but I think there is virtually no chance that the network would cancel it because it is doing well in the ratings (relatively speaking) and has received much praise, both from critics and viewers. We will try to get a date for you -- wait, that makes this sound like a hook-up club. You know what I mean by "a date."

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Football Fanatic: Regarding a show where the plot twists and turns on audience response: It's called a video game.

Tom Shales: yes of course. Aren't these mostly individual or two-player deals? Forgive me if I'm wrong - but video games make me dizzy. They also make me feel old since I could never BEGIN to play as well as, say, my 15-year-old godson or 13-year-old goddaughter. But the popularity of these games does reflect the audience instinct to become part of the show and have some sort of voice in the plot.....

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Gaithersburg, Md.: A pleasant reach back into television time is the Twilight Zone DVD box set. Creativity abounds.

Tom Shales: Yes indeed. And I was surprised, pleasantly I guess, by the number of episodes with which I was not familiar. There are disappointments in there too. "Number 2 Looks Just Like Me," and I am sure I have that title slightly wrong, was on the Syfy channel the other day (meaning like 4:30 a.m.) and it was such a predictable, stretched out affair, like a joke where the punchline was not only easy to see coming but took forever to arrive. Then again, the make-up was pretty good. I shouldn't bad-mouth (bad-"finger"?) the show because the standards were so very very high. And an attempt at a modern version in the '90s was somewhere between a bummer and a bomb, or both....

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CSI Miami: How does David Caruso have a job in acting? It's his strange head tilt and flat tone of voice that really bother me. Is there medication to help me avoid watching him because I keep watching CSI Miami like I did last night.

Tom Shales: I share your utter bewilderment. Plus he talks in such a wee small whisper that I can barely understand what the heck is saying...

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Football Fanatic: Hasn't Sunday Night Football been a big draw for NBC? Granted, it isn't going to save the network, but I understood it's always done well, even with John Madden's departure.

Tom Shales: Uhhh ... yeah ... but I don't see the significance in any of our ongoing arguments, I mean discussions. Putting on NFL football is a no-brainer -- OF COURSE it will do well. But it's not a very creative programming move. Besides, the NFL prices the games so high that nobody can make money on them. The networks have to hope to make money on the shows that air before and after and the shows whose promo's air during the game....

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Slagville: District 9? Didn't see it, but everything I read suggested it was a remake of "Alien Nation" with James Caan and Mandy Patinkin

Tom Shales: No it wasnt a remake of Alien Nation tho it did have certain resemblances. For that matter, there was even an element of "The Fly" in there -- unlikely as that sounds. It has to do with the hero's physical condition. The movie just has more depth and more to say than most of the sci-fi pictures of recent years. I should warn you, I also loved Cloverfield, or Cloverleaf, or Cloverpuss, whatever that monster-in-New-York movie was called. I found it genuinely thrilling and I don't even like hand-held camera stuff, usually... (not that there's any escaping it at the movies or on TV any more)...

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Exeter, N.H.: I tend not to watch TV shows until they are syndicated or available on Netflix or OnDemand. I don't think that I would have enjoyed many of the shows that I have enjoyed over the past few years if I had to watch them spread out over a season. Assuming that there are more viewers like me, how might this impact TV?

Tom Shales: This impacts TV not nearly so much as people who delay watching by a few hours or days by using DVR's supplied by their cable systems, or of course TiVo or any similar such devices. Waiting until a show hits syndication doesn't really impact the networks, because not that many people do it (or at least not enough to show up in the research).

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Anonymous: "Wow, you are in the minority"

Well, I do consider Get a Life the third greatest TV show ever. So I'm usually in the minority.

Tom Shales: I LOVED GET A LIFE. and by "in the minority" I certainly meant nothing pejorative. God, to think of all the good TV shows that died because they "only" appealed to a seeming minority of viewers. I was just surprised by your response, I think, because every week two or three chatterers say how much they like the show. Actually the fact that you do NOT like the show is part of what makes the world go 'round. Did you see the special last night on what like on earth would be like if there were no moon? Fascinating. Maybe it was a rerun, it's so hard to tell with these cable networks, but it was provocative and very nicely illustrated with special effects,,,

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Expo '67: I was there! (I was 5, but...)...didn't see you there?

Tom Shales: You were five? Funny thing - I was Minus Five.

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Fat in Atlanta: Thank you for your comment to the smug Alexandria. We fatties can handle ourselves.

Tom Shales: Well I don't particularly subscribe to your categorizing Alexandria Reader as "smug." But "we fatties can handle ourselves" sounds a welcome defiant note.

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Carbs and Twin Peaks: Why is cottage cheese knocked so much? I think it is yummy especially with melon or apples mixed in. Not many people I know like it. Does this mean I am like a strange person from Twin Peaks? By the way, that was a great show that apparently people didn't like enough.

Tom Shales: I confess, I hate fruit. I think it should all have been forbidden. Okay, maybe not oranges and bananas. As for Twin Peaks, it was a short-lived sensation. Here was a case, I think, where the producers took the audience for a ride and then dumped them in a ravine. The second season, the later episodes of "Twin Peaks," I found sorely lacking in Making Sense. By the way, publicity for the last episodes of "Lost," from the producers, says something like "Thank you (dear fans) for proving a show doesn't have to make sense." I beg to differ...

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Peoria, Ill.: Have there ever been any DVDs released that compile a bunch of TV pilots that never made it to air? I'm just wondering what happens to all those pilots. Do they get thrown away? Sit in the big warehouse shown at the end of "Raiders of the Lost Ark"? (I realize I could just Google my question, but that would deprive me the honor of directing it to you, my good sir.)

Tom Shales: I dont know of a DVD but someone was asking about good books on television a while back -- and there's a couple terrific, very entertaining books that are really just lists of Pilots That Never Made It -- ideas for shows that got to the pilot stage but you will wonder how, and "what were they thinking" is bound to pop into your head. Of course I don't have titles for you or author names, for which I apologize. Maybe Google "UNSOLD PILOTS" or something like that ...? Amazon will probably come charging in with an offer....

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Reston, Va.: "we fatties can handle ourselves"

The best bumper sticker I've ever seen said this: "Fat people are harder to kidnap."

Tom Shales: Ha ! Very good!! But let's hope no one considers that issuing a dare....

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Anonymous: OK, I'll give MOCA another try -- but the commercials are so unappealing. And it looks washed out for some reason.

FYI: Top two shows ahead of Get a Life -- Simpsons and Seinfeld.

Tom Shales: You not only have good taste but largely mainstream taste, yet your preference for "Get A Life" shows you have a wild, fiery independent streak (these character analyses are FREE but if they catch on -- Your Favorite TV Shows Reveal Your Personality -- I will try to make money from it on the Internet.)

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Brooklyn, N.Y.: How do you feel about Tim Tebow's anti-abortion ad that will air during the Super Bowl?

The problem I have is that ad indicates that professional athletes' lives are worth more than the rest of us. Tebow's mother's story isn't unusual, except that she happened to give birth to a star athlete. Had she given birth to a janitor, the ad wouldn't exist.

Tom Shales: I'm against it - which is easy to say, of course. I think that Ms Jackson's malfunctioning wardrobe was enough of an intrusion into the sacred escapism of The Big Game -- and to make it a bulletin board for posting advocacy messages seems like a big, big mistake. This is only one ad, but what does a network say to the next guy - the one who wants to air a pro-abortion rights ad, or an anti-gun or pro-gun ad, or a this or a that? They will kill the fun.

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Anonymous: You don't hate blueberries do you. Even in pie form?

Tom Shales: No, now that you mention it, many a fruit is transmogrified into glory when baked in a pie -- not four-and-twenty blackbirds, no, but then they ain't fruit. I can go for peach pie, apple pie, cherry pie, yes you have found a genuine weakness for fruit in altered form, I confess. Send your pies to ME, 1150 15th St NW, Wash--- No don't not even as a joke. I am joshing. Besides any pies sent would never make it upstairs. "something" would "happen" to them....

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Hartford, Conn.: Did you see Jon Hamm on SNL last weekend? Any thoughts?

Tom Shales: He seemed to do okay - but -- how about the Michael Buble, or however it's spelled (pronounced Boo-blay, I think)? He was really good in the sketch he appeared in. In fact I thought most of the cast members were having a lousy night, and the material was dreadfully thin - including that crummy, meandering "cold-open" sketch version of the State of the Union speech.....

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Kukla Fran and Ollie: Tom, I always get a smile when you mention Kukla Fran and Ollie, it's terrible that today's TV watchers cannot know this gentle trio. Are any of the shows on DVD? As for cottage cheese -- have it with pineapple, peaches, fruit cocktail or my favorite, red pears, it really makes it so much better, you'll even ENJOY it. Bananas or kiwis also work.

Tom Shales: Gentle it was. And gentleness is very much an extinct value, I fear, in television and elsewhere. There are some episodes of K F & O available on DVD, a small boxed set of shows they did during one of their several revivals. This was a limited effort but it brings back very happy memories. And it's in color -- as the real K F & O was fairly early in its career, because it was NBC and NBC was owned by RCA and RCA had the color-TV patent.....

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Settle a bet: Climb into your "Way Back" machine and tell me if you think Northern Exposure could be considered in top ten of television series ever aired.

Tom Shales: Not in MY wayback machine, no. I found it too precious and too uneventful -- but -- I respect it (there IS a distinction, I think --- you can respect stuff you don't like, tho not stuff you hate, and I sure didn't hate this show. It just left me cold - which is appropriate when you think about it -- also great cast).....

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Tom Shales: Thank you. To the reader who asked about "Better Off Ted," WE SIMPLY DO NOT KNOW, for which I apologize, but come back to our little corner of the computer next week and we will try to have an answer. Good night, all !!!

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