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'Justified,' 'SNL,' and PBS pledge fodder --Shales on TV Live

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Tom Shales
Washington Post TV Columnist
Tuesday, March 16, 2010; 12:00 PM

Washington Post Style columnist and Pulitzer Prize winner Tom Shales was online Tuesday, March 16 at Noon ET to discuss television, its cultural impact and his columns.

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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 again, or hello for the first time. Herewith a confession: a wonderful kind reader who liked a column

I wrote about "Fathers Knows Best" and my mom, who also

knew best, sent me a box of cookies as a gift, which

is SO nice I can hardly stand it. Then - I LOST HER

NAME & ADDRESS so I haven't sent a thank-you note, which

is so stupid I can't stand it. If you are out there, Kind Lady of the Cookie, Thank You and please write in....

And now the questions and the insufficient answers....

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Toronto, ON: Could you explain why PBS has such stooopid programming on during fundraising weeks? Why would I be motivated to contribute to the Buffalo/Toronto station when they're mostly broadcasting concerts of old/dead/washed-up singers and seminars by self-help gurus (who are helping to enrich their own wallets primarily)?

Tom Shales: Of course one person's "stoopid" is -- I can't defend those daffy self-help things, and don't know what programming them says about who PBS thinks its audience is -- but I do kinda go for the old "do-wop" concerts, big-band retrospectives, you know - the geezer stuff. I really am not only enough to remember the big bands but some of their music is tremendous -- and some of them DID make a transition to television in the early days, like Guy Lombardo and Sammy Kaye. I share your opinion, though, that the choice of programming for pledge drives is quixotic and NOT REPRESENTATIVE of the regular fare......

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Anyone Else Notice...?: A weird, very small change that SNL has made. They have renamed the "What Up With That?" sketch, "What's Up With That?" It's bizzare that one letter would make the bit significantly LESS funny, but it really has. And it sticks out like a sore thumb. Any idea what the reason for this change was, Tom? My fear was that it was born out of some sort of fear of racist overtones, which, if accurate, is ridiculous and truly sounds the death knell of SNL...

Tom Shales: Say, you DO watch carefully! I cannot imagine why this change was made. You know -- it might have been a mistake made by the graphics department. Sometimes I see conspiracies where only errors are present. Here is a bit of trivia that I am afraid does not help answer your question: a ridiculous independent film was to be called "Rat Fink and Boo Boo," but the company that made the titles sent it to the director as "Rat Fink a Boo Boo," and he couldn't afford to have the titles redone so THAT became the name of the movie. I don't know why but I love that story.......

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Herndon, Va.: Mr. S: Your review of NBC's failed attempt to update "Beat the Clock," brought back memories of watching the original when I was a child. Bud Collyer (Superman on radio), with some generic blond lady as his assistant, would explain some fairly complicated stunt, then let the contestant (often swathed in plastic if it was messy) go at it. I think the grand, grand prize was all of $1,000 - but that could buy a new car back then - or a good part of one.

washingtonpost.com: Preview: New NBC game show 'Minute to Win It' is unoriginal and imbecilic

Tom Shales: Yes indeed. Bud Collyer was a hard-working guy - he emceed To Tell The Truth in the later early years, I think, plus many other game and quiz shows. "Beat the Clock" sure was Minimal Television, and Just-Barely-Entertainment, yet someone was showing reruns a few years ago and I found myself transfixed -- just from what you can learn about the manners, mores, styles, attitudes, etc etc of another time. I still think TV Land is insufficient and that there should be ANOTHER cable network of nothing but old stuff. Even old junk! (if there is another such network, my satellite thing doesnt carry it) Thank you and onward.. onward...

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I need to focus better: At first I thought you wrote you lost your mom's address, lol.

PS: I'm loving the BBC's "Survivors" (not to be confused with the American "Survivor)--which is about the survivors from a viral pandemic. It seems more realistic in what life would really be like in the immediate aftermath. Well, and there's the accents, too.

Tom Shales: Ah - I probably wrote it badly (about whose address I had lost). I have a wayward wish that one of those legendary "lost" letters that the Post Office finds after 10 or 20 years would show up in my mailbox and it would be, of course, from mom. "Mom's Letters: The Lost Episodes." I can still reread old ones when I find them around the house. If you like nature stuff, Discovery has a BBC coproduction called "Life" (catchy title) starting Sunday night - a followup to the incredible "Planet Earth."

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Baltimore: Followup to Toronto on PBS fundraising programming: I agree entirely. It seems odd that the stations (including MPT in Maryland) continually recycle the same stuff for fundraising, yet never run it at any other time. Of course, now PBS stations seem to fundraise continually. I remember when they held these pledgeathons 2 or 4 times a year, but now, they seem to happen monthly. Tom, do you know why it's now "All fundraising, all the time," for PBS stations? Thanks.

Tom Shales: No I don't KNOW why, but the fairly obvious answer may be that they are more broke than ever, what with government funding cutbacks over the years and now, in this recession economy, corporations less willing to fork over some dough for good-will PBS underwriting. It's a pity, because PBS still does seem to fill a unique role that no cable network quite matches. Then again, if in order to survive they have to fundraise constantly, and with reruns of reruns of shows unlike those they program otherwise -- what is the point? The point seems lost ......

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SNL : OH, but that "Boombox" version featuring Julian Casablancas (of The Strokes) was GREAT! So old, I have to say I'm glad I stayed up late! Can I have a fantasy about Julian, who is young enough to be my ...er nephew?

Tom Shales: oops, did I miss something? Boombox version of WHAT? And watch those Casablancas fantasies. This is a family chat room (for 30 years I have heard, "You can't say that in your column; this is a family newspaper." In fact Jason Robards says it, as Ben Bradlee of course, in "All the President's Men"). Something of a mantra at ye old WaPo.....

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Arlington Gay: Tom, was it just me and my partner or was SNL unusually funny last weekend? Except for one skit that I've already forgotten, we laughed all the way through it. That is rare these days. And Jerry Seinfeld was a particularly wonderful treat.

Tom Shales: You know, I've given up trying to gauge which SNL's people find to be hilarious successes, when the same show may strike many others as a dismal flop. I thought the show you mention was terribly weak, starting with such a painfully obvious sketch about that wacky Cong. Massa. But then I thought the sketch with the impressions was great and, like you, I was VERY pleasantly surprised by the Seinfeld appearance. In fact, do you agree that Weekend Update is rarely if ever a genuine bust, even if that Seth Myers guy is too smiley and shouts too much?....

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Alexandria: Tom, you dislike FX's latest gunslinger drama, and even disdain its profanities. But if I'm not mistaken, you loved HBO's Deadwood so much you found its profanities an additional treat. What would make profanities more enjoyable on HBO vs. FX?

Tom Shales: Well, you know, it's all a matter of how those profanities are -- no, I am kidding -- the difference is that people must pay to get HBO so I don't think HBO has to worry about its programming offending anybody; the audience elects to receive the service and can always cancel. HBO does not send itself over public airwaves the way ABC, CBS and NBC do, which is why I don't favor giving commercial broadcast networks more leeway on language, subject matter, etc (besides, theres a great deal of latitude already). Anyway, FX is a "basic cable" network which means lots of homes get it whether they choose to get it or not - it may come as part of a package, even bundled with truly basic stations like local network affiliates and independents. Does this make sense? if not, I have explained it poorly. It wouldnt be the first time....

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1970s television -- those were the days!: In 2007, Sony released the first season of "Maude" on DVD, as well as the first volume of the bizarre and fabulous "Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman." Three years later, there are no follow-up releases for either. Do you suppose we'll ever see more?

Tom Shales: I hope so. I think once they start their retrospectives, especially when they start with the first season of anything, they should feel duty-bound to issue the complete collection. But I suppose if Volume Uno doesn't sell well, the company in question may rethink the idea and quietly neglect to release any more years. That would be a shame, because DVD's are a medium that can really cater to minority tastes, what's called "narrowcasting" in the cable biz. Sony incidentally is on about its 14th reissue of the Three Stooges shorts. True they have been dazzlingly remastered and look gorgeous (Curly, gorgeous? Well yes), but if they can do the Stooges over and over and over, they ought to be able to do Maude once. By the way there was a Norman Lear multi-disc set released late last year that has more Maudes in it, I believe (I know it was released, I THINK it has multi Maudes).....

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Minneapolis: Hi Tom -- Thanks for taking questions today. I rarely ever tune in to the Animal Planet network, but I happened to catch a show the other night about people obsessed with collecting dangerous reptiles (similar to folks who hoard things until they are literally trapped by all the junk) and what happens when the owners can no longer control them.

Very grisly stuff, but utterly fascinating. I'm a little ashamed that I watched it, but hey, in my view network programming is dismal at best, and there was nothing on Turner Classic Movies that I cared to see.

Tom Shales: It doesn't sound like the kind of viewing that should cause you any guilt at all. I get both encouraged and discouraged by a show on Animal Planet about those noble souls who rescue animals that are being mistreated and attempt to bring the mistreaters to some-kind-of-justice. It's discouraging because you see the ravages of neglect and cruely on these poor innocent creatures. And then it's encouraging to see the professionals who respond to the emergencies and such and rescue dogs and kitties and other pets from harm's way. Sorry I don't know the title - Puppy Police? Kitty Kops? No -- not quite right ........

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that Seth Myers guy is too smiley and shouts too much?...: The SNL Short. Lonely Island (Andy Samberg and 2 other guys) did a music video of their comedy song with a popular singer doing the lyrics.

washingtonpost.com: Boombox (ft. Julian Casablancas)

Tom Shales: OH. Thanks for the explanation. I assume (probably mistakenly) that if I don't understand, there are others in the chat room who also don't understand. When in fact I may of course be the only one who doesn't understand. What we need in this world is more understanding. Starting at my house.......

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Olney, MD: Tom, I remember when PBS, A&E, & even Bravo used to show operas, ballet, symphonies on a regular basis. I think the last time I saw American Ballet Theatre on television was more than a year ago, when they did an amazing Swan Lake. If these stations don't show the arts, who does?

Tom Shales: You are right. I said that cable "narrowcasts" to particular minority tastes - but mostly those seem to be lowbrow tastes -- people mad for bloody kickboxing or whatever. People mad for "La Boheme" get much less attention. There IS a cable network called Ovation that shows artsy stuff (for lack of a better term, sorry) and there is this amazing service, the Arts Channel (I think) that does nothing 24/7 but show "classical" clips -- short orchestral pieces and solos, clips from high-brow films like "The Red Shoes" or whatever -- it's foundation-funded I believe and can be hard to find. I think a Maryland TV station puts it on in the wee hours overnight, just as a kind of filled. I used to find it on Channel 24 of the Fairfax Cox Cable System -- as you can tell, it's not exactly given prominence or high priority in the cable biz. No commercials, either. But also - I don't think they publish anything like a schedule, so it's pot luck all the time.

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UHF: Can I vote for best commercial currently running? It's the one with the sock monkey and his toy buddies breaking loose in a "How Do You Like Me Now" fantasy. I think it's for a car company but I'm always transfixed when it comes on. Nothing much else happening in commercial-land, especially all those lame Geico ads.

Tom Shales: Great - Couldn't agree more (well that's dumb, of course I could - oh forget it, it's just an expression). I love this spot and have yet to grow tired of it. Also McDonald's brought back that absurd singing fish (for it's filet o fish sandwich - Fish McSandwich?) for a brief encore, that one tickled me last year. (i THINK it's McDonalds). Interesting that Betty White's brief appearance in the beer commercial on Super Bowl Sunday has led to a whole Betty White rediscovery -- and to her hosting Saturday Night Live in May.....

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Washington DC: Old TV junk: Interestingly, Google has a lot of stuff available online. True, watching kinescopes on a computer screen is a challenge, but to see The Big Story, hosted by Burgess Meredith, recreating pieces of journalism from The South Bend Indiana Register and other publications, makes it all worthwhile. They've got episodes of Highway Patrol (Broderick Crawford, landing with a thud from the heights of All the King's Men and Born Yesterday) as well as other long gone shows of the '50s and early '60s. What a wonderful way to squander otherwise productive time!

Tom Shales: I've never even HEARD of The Big Story and I consider myself almost an expert -- at least a big buff (too big a buff but that's beside the point)-- on old TV. I long to see episodes of something called "So This is Hollywood" which no one else seems to remember, about a bunch of struggling hopefuls in a rooming house, I believe. And "It's A Great Life," a forgotten sitcom whose stars include James Dunn, the great actor who won a richly deserved Oscar for "A Tree Grows in Brooklyn" back in the early 40s. Michael O'Shea was also in it. I don't even remember what it was about, but as a kid I loved it. In the early days of cable, I ran into an indie producer who said he had a garage full of old "So This is Hollywood" episodes in film cans! Imagine my surprise! And imagine my displeasure with myself that i lost track of the guy and never ran into him again - so maybe he torched the old shows for all I know. (My apologies to people who are Bored to Tears by this subject -but if that's the case you have probably departed in disgust)....

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SNL Fan: I am the SNL fan who was disappointed in the show two weeks ago. I agree that some of the skits were funny, but they were one joke with the same joke repeated over and over. "Bidet" is funny the first, second, and maybe third time they say it, but after the fourth time, I was waiting for them to move on to another joke.

I love the "What('s) Up With That" song and sketch, but it was the exact same joke as before: guests don't get to say anything. I wish the skit would grow and tend something new.

I liked last week, and I agree with you on Seinfeld and some of the skits, because they were something new and different. I knew they don't always hit with something new, and I like repeating characters, but they need to stop repeating the same jokes over and over.

Just my opinion, from a fan who had been tolerant of the show for 35 years who just wants to see them experiment and find new ways to be funny.

Tom Shales: I think you make excellent points. But sometimes I do think insane repetition CAN make something funnier. Once the 2 actors in the bidet sketch had said it too many times, it seemd to get funnier and funnier the more gratuitous the repetitions got. Maybe this is an old law of comedy (the opposite, in a way, of The Rule of Three) that I should know, but I just think it works sometimes, others not - and of course for you, it didn't. I was convulsed (with laughter, not from too many Cheetos).....

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Herndon, Va.: Mr. S: Please, please keep asking for explanations if you don't understand . . . because if you don't, the odds are about 99 to 1 I don't either. AND, a plug for "Ovation" TV for those whose cable has it. No doubt some parts won't be enjoyable, but just wait, something will come on that you'll think is great, which you won't find anywhere else.

Tom Shales: Dear Herndon -I am not afraid to say "i don't know." Or "I don't understand." Or just "What????" since my hearing isn't too great (not a problem in the Olde Chatte Roome). Nor am I afraid to say, "I haven't the foggiest notion" or "beats me" or "Where am I?" Clearly, I should be at least reluctant if not afraid to say some of these stupid things ... Sorry about that.....

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Herndon, VA: When is the last episode of "Ugly Betty"? I am so sorry to see this entertaining show leave. Also, can we say that "Chuck" is stable for now? I love that guy ! Thanks

Tom Shales: No Chuck is not stable, the remodeling did not do drastic things to the ratings as far as I know. On the other hand, a so-so rating on NBC is more likely to get a show renewed than a so-so rating on CBS, because the CBS failure-to-success ratio is much, uhhh, higher? or lower? Whichever would mean that CBS has more hits and fewer flops and so its minimal ratings for renewing a show are higher than NBC's are. There, I've gone and made it MORE confusing. The last episode of Ugly Betty will likely air in May.

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PBS Fundraising: Say what you will, but WETA showed a 90 minute collection (really 60 minutes and 30 minutes of pleading for money) of SCTV during their weekend drive. God those people were/are funny! Is there anything funnier than the look on the face of Count Floyd (host of Monster Chiller Horror Theater and the station's erstwhile news anchor) when he introduces a "scary" movie he KNOWS is a real stinker? Dr. Tongue's 3-D House of Stewardesses! (Best "scary movie" title they ever had, which they didn't mention during the drive, was "Flesh Eating Monkeys from West Mifflin, Pennsylvania"!)

Tom Shales: I am very unhappy to hear about this SCTV thing but only because I missed it. PBS not very helpful in alerting TV critics to what-the-heck is on their air. I loved the SCTV show for years, including its NBC late-night incarnation in, I believe, the '80s. They were such a phenomenally talented troup, and their parodies were the best on the air, including better than SNL's or "In Living Color's" or the old "Fridays" show on ABC -- you name it, they were better. Yes I loved that Joe Flaherty as "station manager Guy Caballero" used a wheelchair -but only "for respect." He got none otherwise, being a complete sleazeball. John Candy's funniest work was on SCTV, don't you think? And those great women, Catherine O'Hara and --aw-oh, name-block -- the little wonder who played Pirini Scleroso -- oh the name is right on the tip of my iceberg - this is embarrasing AND infuriating -- ANDREA MARTIN. That's it, folks! Another miraculous save by your aging TV Buddy....

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TV Geezer: I've recently purchased DVD sets of some of the old shows that I enjoyed as a kid and was SHOCKED to discover that they were cheesy beyond belief. I always remember the show The Time Tunnel as being very cool - but I guess I was too young to realize that, even then, I could have written better dialogue. Even my cherished Mission Impossible seems so amateurish by today's standards - don't get me wrong, the idea was fabulous, but a lot of the acting and dialogue, ugh.

Tom Shales: Yes, sad but true. Production standards on cop, fantasy, sci-fi, and adventure shows, among others, have skyrocketed in recent years compared to the cheap and tacky stuff they got away with in earlier times. I was always aghast at how thoroughly TERRIBLE those Aaron Spelling soaps used to look, even the ones about rich people. Their houses looked like crap, you'll pardon the expression. And the shows were all overlit like crazy because it was assumed millions of people were watching on substandard TV sets; who could live in a house that was lit up like an airport runway all the time? The quality of television has hugely improved IF we are talking about the visual quality, and the standards of production......

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Old Blue in Exile: Growing up in California, like the previous chatter I also loved Broderick Crawford in "Highway Patrol."

Do you also recall a police series called "Lineup" about two officers in San Francisco in the 1950s, played by Warner Anderson and Tom Tully, and shot on location in The City? It was rerun in the late '60s on a UHF station in SF, but I haven't seen it since. Do you know whether it's available on DVD or online?

Tom Shales: I do remember "The Lineup" (there is even a reference to it in an episode of "I Love Lucy," one of the late Connecticut installments) and what I recall as location filming - but I can't say for sure if it is or isn't available on home video. Broderick Crawford sure had one of the easiest jobs in TV. Didn't most of his performance take place in a chair behind a desk? With Broddy-Baby talking into a police radio? I guess from time to time he waddled to a cop car and got in so he could sit THERE for a change. I'm not being mean, really - I think many actors who did TV and who had fairly big movie names demanded and got special treatment to make life easier. Fred MacMurray it is said filmed ALL HIS SCENES for "My Three Sons" within two or three weeks at the start of the season - and then his work was over. The other cast members had to hang around and shoot the rest of the episodes; Fred's scenes were dropped in as needed.

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seems like someone could make a truck load of money: showing SCTV reruns.

Tom Shales: You'd think. After YEARS of delay, some shows finally came out on DVD, but very high-priced for some reason (out of line with other, similar fare- somebody got greedy) and poorly put together. I mean they included all the little "bumpers" and interstitial stuff, over and over, the SCTV logo and musical theme, things that could so easily have been trimmed to make room for more COMEDY, ya know? OK, I guess it is a minor complaint - but the SCTV performers and their audience deserved better......

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Falls Church, Va.: I happen to think Tina Fey ruined Weekend Update by doing away with its trademark deadpan delivery, but I agree with you that WU is still probably the best place in the show to look for a few laughs even on a bad night.

Tom Shales: Interesting point. I don't know why Seth has to shout. The update is no longer really, or primarily, a send-up or a parody of a real newscast. Chevy Chase was a master of ridiculing pretentious anchormen, but over the years, Update has become just a collection of topical gags - with pictures - than a newscast parody. Which is fine, no problem really if the jokes are good. Seth is apparently one of the show's best writers, but his delivery is a little too 'happy' for me......

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Remebering Molly Dodd : Noting DVDs not being released, I note there has never been a video compilation of "The Days and Nights of Molly Dodd". I recall some reviewers putting this show as one of the greatest shows ever, and, perhaps I am answering my own question here, but I fear it was slipped away and few remember it.

As an aside, and here I am really dating myself, but I have had old timers tell me "Mr. Peepers" (I believe) with Wally Cox was one of the best shows ever. I presume, though, that no one has ever found a tape anywhere of the show, and it is lost forever. I am hoping, perhaps, someone has news that someone found some tapes in a vault. Just asking.

Tom Shales: Yes, Mr Peepers was a delightful, subtle, intelligent comedy and NO I AM NOT AN "OLD-TIMER" !!!! Be careful how you toss those terms around, Missy! (Or Misterry, as the case may be). I am teasing, not really offended. I thought Molly Dodd DID come out on home video, but apparently not. Sometimes the oddest details, tiny glitches in copyright laws and old contracts signed when the shows began, can prevent them from DVD release, or at least present big problems to a potential distributor. For a while, any show with music rereleased on tape or DVD had to have so many clearances that even the individual musicians in the orchestras had to be found and paid somehow. Crazy. But then some sort of fund-system was invented, I believe, and artists share in it. Oh and Mr Peepers DOES exist on kinescope (film of a live show shot off a TV monitor) and some HAVE been released on DVD. I wish I could be more specific in directing you to a source. But do try Amazon. Or go to IMBD and it may give counsel on whether a show is available on commercial home video. My, we do talk a lot about old TV in this chat room - that's just peachy as far as I'm concerned, and I hope it is agreable to those of you kind enough to drop by, whether to chat or not. Thank you, and thank you again MYSTERY WOMAN (and great humanitarian) for the cookies -- NOT the computer kind of cookies -- and goodbye.......

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