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Shales on TV Live: Law and Order, more

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Tom Shales
Washington Post TV Columnist
Tuesday, May 18, 2010; 12:00 PM

Washington Post Style columnist and Pulitzer Prize winner Tom Shales was online Tuesday, May 18, at Noon ET to discuss television, its cultural impact and his columns.

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Today's column: 'Law & Order': Canceled, but the case isn't closed just yet

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: We're a little late folks, so good night. Anybody remember when comics or at least variety-show hosts used to say that on TeeVee?? Well I have launched the brilliant innovation of saying it in a chat room. We have some old business to attend to but let's let it get older and get to new business first. It's logical - in a way. ONWARD, and let no man write my epitaph JUST YET. And no woman either. I'd rather not be in the epitaph business for a few more years.....

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Arlington, Va.: The great aspects of L and O (all versions) was its New York location -- that little slice of humanity known as Manhattan Island was a character in every episode. Moving it to La La Land is an unspeakable heresy. Chicago would be a better fit for an L and O knockoff. Better yet would be for Dick Wolf to end it while it still gets respectable numbers. I hope that NBC has some decent hour long dramas in the pipeline.

Tom Shales: I agree -- Chicago or even Peoria ANYPLACE BUT L.A. But as you know I am sure, he is doing yet another L&O spinoff this one in Los Angeles with the cutesy acronym-title of L.O.L.A., "Lola," which could be an homage to the French filmmaker Jacques Demy, who always had a woman named Lola in his films -- but is more likely just laziness; let's shoot it in L.A. and save the dough or whatever. Well actually it costs as much or more to shoot in L.A., I take that back. I do remember years and years ago (HERE I GO AGAIN) when Kojak, to save money, shot in L.A. instead of on-location and the difference was SO obvious. Remember those phony-baloney "New York streets" on "Seinfeld"? Oh brother. (The diner was real, that's Tom's Diner I think, way up on the upper West Side near Columbia U)

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Law and Order: This is actually a Law and Order SVU question. WHAT is going on with Sharon Stone on that show? She overacts in an embarrassing way. The preview for next week looks like her character will be killed off, which would be a blessing, but they really misstepped with her.

Tom Shales: I think the answer may be the simplest one, she can't act. But there've been movies in which she has proven that supposition quite wrong. So the better answer is the very familiar one (very familiar to visitors to this chat room): I DON'T KNOW but our crack staff of researchers and experts will track the answer down !!!

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Washington, D.C.: You've probably gotten this comment more than once, but just in case you haven't: SVU isn't the L&O that shows first on USA. That would be L and O: Criminal Intent. SVU is on in reruns on USA, but the initial episodes always air on NBC.

It is a shame that the mothership is ending, since I've really liked the current cast and their interactions with each other.

Tom Shales: Oh, what did I do, reverse them, or use the wrong title for the starts on USA, repeats on NBC show? For the longest time, and this has to do with, I think, absent-mindedness and confusion rather than outright dumbness, I called one of the shows "Law & Order: SUV," and told people it was about crimes committed in Sport-Utility Vehicles. Ha ha.

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Baltimore, Md.: Tom: I am a long time L and O viewer and for me the air went out of it a bit when Jerry Orbach left. His portrayal of Lenny Briscoe was so true and Orbach's skill as an actor so remarkable that Dick Wolf broke his rule about not dealing with personal lives to give Lenny strong overtones of guilt and grief -- guilt over the alcoholism that cost him his family and grief over the daughter who died of a heroin overdose.

Orbach, of course, had been a musical comedy star long before L and O -- he created the role of the conniving attorney in the original production of Chicago. When he was partnered with Jesse Martin, an original cast member of Rent, they would kill time on the set with song and dance duets, which always shocked and pleased guest performers.

And as much as I like Sam Waterston, when I see Michael Moriarty episodes I am struck by the contrast between his cherubic looks and his desire to nail the bad guys to the wall.

Tom Shales: Yes. I was thinking he left the show because he died. No, he died first, then left the show. I am NOT joking about that, just trying to adjust a common misconception. History gets blurred as the years go by. Orbach was So terrific in that part. I thought the character was sometimes given things to say that were genuinely cruel, but Orbach managed to say them without sounding vicious; I think if you'd read them on the script page, they would have seemed horribly inappropriate. And it's still hard to believe that the gruff guy on Law and Order so tenderly introduced the song "Try to Remember" off-Broadway in The Fantasticks. He was nothing if not versatile......

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Tennessee Valley: I remember back when they used to say on Tee Vee: "remember, the tee vee adds ten pounds. So don't eat any tee vees."

Tom Shales: I don't remember that ! Are you SURE? People also used to say "The camera adds ten pounds" but I always meant to say, during on of my ignoble TV appearances, that the camera adds A HUNDRED AND FIFTY POUNDS as a way of dismissing my "seeming" enormousness. Which reminds me, I wish there was a way I could get to the microwave and heat up my omelet and not miss a beat here in ye olde chatte roome. Why don't they invent a PC with a microwave oven in it? I'll bet Mac has thought of that.... THANK YOU, Tennessee Valley authority, by the way.....

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Correction: Just a minor correction on the L and O column -- it isn't L and O: SVU with Meloni and Hargitay that gets its first run on the USA Network, then re-run on NBC, it's Law and Order: Criminal Intent (L and O: CI), which now stars Jeff Goldblum, Saphron Burrows and Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio (sp?).

Tom Shales: Sorry. Yes we sort of corrected that a few questions ago. But are you sure it isn't Meloni and Hargitay? No I know it isn't. Just testing you. We will publish an addendum of corrections at the end of next week's chat session. It will only take about 45 minutes to read.......

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Noooooooo: My FlashForward....

Tom Shales: Yes, I had that one right at least. I predicted that Flash Forward would flash right into a brick wall. And indeed, sorry as I am to confirm to you, it went kaplunk, which is an odd sound to make when hitting a brick wall, but television is a funny place. Not Funny-Ha-Ha, mind you.....

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All Star L and O: One thing I liked about L and O was the constantly changing lineup which allows you to pick an All Star lineup.

Mine is:

Best DA: Sam Waterston Best Police Captain: S. Epatha Merkerson Best Detectives: George Dzundza, Jerry Orbach Best ADA's:Jill Hennessey, Richard Brooks

Tom Shales: I'm with you all the way ... until you get to George Dzundza. Good actor but always seemed kinda sad to me. Then again, I always seem kinda sad to me. But that's different. And I'm not playing a cop on TV. Not yet, that is. (I think I once begged Dick Wolf to put me in as an extra, a member of a jury. But they don't have juries on every show and besides, he said NO, NO, NEVER IN A MILLION YEARS, and that was back when it looked like L&O would run for that long.

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SNL finale: Regrettably, after Alec Baldwin's monologue, things seemed lifeless and mechanical. I was really looking forward to his appearance, and fear that the Betty White hoopla made the season finale seem less robust. Did you think Alec was up to his usual vibrant standard?

Tom Shales: Alec B, up to his "usual vibrant standard"? No, honestly, I don't, but the last show of any season is usually an ordeal that the cast just wants to be through so they can all get out of "school" and go on to their summer activities - which mainly now are making movies.

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Ashburn, Va.: First, US Sen. Fred Thompson might take issue with your assertion that Thompson left the show to "run for Congress." Actually, he ran for president...having already served in the Senate.

In any event, what are you hearing about plans to at least wrap the show up properly -- ER-style, with a nice episode to finish and a show honoring it. And it wouldn't it be entertaining to see crazy Michael Moriarty on NBC one last time?

Tom Shales: Sorry, Uncle Fred. Now as for wrapping up the show properly, no, I think I have already seen the final episode and you will see it too if you watch next Monday May 24. That is the episode I allude to in today's column, the one in which S.Epatha learns about the results of her MRI. It is not giving anything away to tell you that she has to have the MRI twice because the first time, the health-care "professionals" screw it up. And is she mad.

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Alexandria, Va.: Mr. Shales,

I know I am a week late, but I must tell you your review of the dreadful "Need To Know" on PBS was one of the most spot-on, screamingly funny critiques I have ever read. Bravo to you! Your columns are simply priceless. It does beg the question: How on earth could such an ill-conceived show make it to the airwaves? Meacham exudes smugness to an unbearable degree and his co-host was a lightweight as an MTV veejay let alone a "political" reporter/interviewer.

washingtonpost.com: Tom Shales on PBS's 'Need to Know' (Post, May 11)

Tom Shales: Wow, I took a lot of grief for that review. The delicate sensibilities of some bloggists compelled them to call it "vicious." Vicious? Oh please. Kathy Lee never whimpered about the reviews, I don't think friends of the "Need to Know" gang should claim grievous bodily harm either. I do however want to apologize to co-host Alison Stewart for the line about her looking as though she'd have been more at home in Bill Clinton's lap. That was seen by some as a graphic sexual reference (it was not meant that way, but c'est la vie); I was talking about cozying up, nothing more sinister than that. I perhaps should have said that co-host Jon Meacham looked as though he wanted to broadcast from Clinton's lap too. They were both too soft on Bill, but then he brings that out in journalists - of both sexes, oui? (I occasionally lapse into high-school French - attempt to sound worldly).....

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Long Island, N.Y.: Tom --

Do you care to comment on Alison Stewart's response to your review of "Need to Know"?

Personally, I can see her point that saying "she looked as though she would have been much more comfortable in Clinton's lap" can be perceived as somewhat sexist (especially considering the president you were speaking about).

Tom Shales: And again, it was not meant to be sexist. Some of the angrier blogs, the ones who are always angry about somebody saying something, have tried to link the "lap" remark to something I said about the Roman Polanski case and -- ugh, I really don't want to wade into that sea of worms ... I will tell you with a hand on the Bible or any other widely respected book that several years back, Marlo Thomas wrote to me from an airplane yet, "Tom Shales, you are a feminist," and I have proudly considered myself one ever since. Of course, some may disagree...........

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If you watch reruns of Law and Order: You can catch Jerry Orbach playing the role of a lawyer for a woman who I think was accused of murdering or ordering the murder of her husband. S. Epatha Merkerson was also a guest star once as a mom who's kid was killed.

Tom Shales: Wait - before he joined the cast as a regular, or after he'd left, and came back for a kind of cameo? I don't know about the timing there. Meanwhile, I wish S. Epatha hadn't decided to appear in commercials (for a product that I cannot recall) because it compromises her imposing dignity, and exploits it in the name of merchandising. Then again, actors have to eat! And make money. And Dick Wolf isn't known as a producer who splashes money around...........

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L and O spoiler: --I said spoiler, so all you have been warned.-- I read a recent interview with S. Epatha Merkerson where she said she had decided months ago to leave the show at the end of the season. This, of course, was all decided well before the cancellation. So while we won't get the series finale that we deserve, at least we should see an appropriate closure and sendoff for one longtime character. (And no, I don't know whether that means Van Buren is going to die or just retire.)

Tom Shales: Yes well I TOLD YOU SO, at least about her closure. It's nice really that it's done in an understated way. I don't think it would be true to the spirit of the show to have everybody come back to wave bye-bye. It would come across as self-indulgent.

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SNL Finaly: I was humored by the microwave bit. Some of the others went on too long (the girl with the teeth).

I was hoping for a 'canteen boy' throwback or maybe a more original skit created.

I don't find the 'Grady' skit funny. Snookie is entertaining and some clever writing in there.

Tom Shales: The Grady skit, the Grady skit --oh yeah, the guy who does the very clunky sex-advice videos. Was "Grady" a character on "Sanford & Son," or am I getting my references mixed up? I don't like the sketch but I do think that Kenan puts it over. I also love him in the recurring "Scared Straight" sketches in which the convicts always evoke the plot of some classic movie as they try to spin cautionary tales....

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Tom's Restaurant: Yep, the exterior of the diner in Seinfeld is Tom's Restaurant at 112th and Broadway. I was a student at Columbia in the early 90s when camera crews were filming the exterior over and over again -- we didn't know why. The place is also the inspiration for the Suzanne Vega song "Tom's Diner." The interior on Seinfeld is a set of course, and much brighter than the real thing.

Tom Shales: Yes, the exterior is in Manhattan, the interior on a soundstage in Los Angeles - actually I think it's over the hill in the Valley, on the same lot where Garry Shandling shot his classic "Larry Sanders" show.

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L and O all-stars: Dzundza seemed sad because he really hated being on the show. That's why he disappeared so quickly.

And I think the grizzled veteran/young stud formula was a necessary part of the show, so I'm going to go with Orbach and Noth in my all-star lineup. Not to take anything away from Dzundza and Sorvino, of course, but Jerry was the man. So I would mostly stick with the late Season 2/Season 3 cast, except that I found Robinette (forget his real name) kind of annoying and considered Jill Hennessy a slight improvement. Must have Stephen Hill, Michael Moriarty, and Don Cragen (again, forgetting the actor's name). (Sorry, S. Epatha, it's a close call.)

Tom Shales: We should do some calculations and come up with the all-time, all-time, chatters' favorite cast. But you know what? It would be too much work.

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Ohrbach and Merkerson: Yes! The previous chatter was right. Jerry played a defense attorney early in Season 2, I think, then became Lennie Briscoe later that season (or possibly at the start of 3). I forget when S. Epatha played the mother, but of course it was before she became Anita Van Buren at the start of Season 4 (if memory serves). Dick Wolf brings back his favorite guest stars over and over, often in different roles and across the different series. And, of course, he has always relied heavily on established stage actors -- they're good and they're local. I'm not sure whether those are the only two who became regulars after playing someone else.

Tom Shales: I would guess, and just guess, that those were not the "only two" guest stars who morphed into series regulars. I thought you were going to say of Wolf, "he has always relied heavily on the kindness of stagers," heh heh....

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Yesssss...FlashForward canceled: I really wanted to like it, I did. But Joseph Fiennes is terribly miscast, had ridiculous lines. And the budget for that show must have been severely challenged by all the scenery he chewed up day in and day out.

FlashForward is a really interesting concept for a miniseries or a short story. I like how in the early episodes it depicted what would happen if everyone knew their future -- from people being hedonistic risk-takers to simply deciding not to pay their bills anymore (since they knew they would not be around).

Then it was all paranoid Joseph Fiennes accusing his wife of cheating on him constantly, and rumors of a dark shadow conspiracy it seems the writers hadn't figured out.

Sorry, but it was time to go.

(and it was really hard not to think of the characters as Charlie and Penny from "Lost")

Tom Shales: I know it doesn't have the same premise as "Flash Forward," but it does have a kind of similar sensibility -- the movie "Jumper." Ever see it? I should think it would make a very good series, about a guy or a bunch of people who can jump about in time and space virtually anywhere they want. Like the hero in the movie had lunch on top of the sphinx or something in Egypt then rushed back to, I don't know, the Eiffel Tower. Sounds ridiculous but it reminded me of fantasies I had as a kid. That is, fantasies I had as a kid that could legally be put on television. No really - if you haven't seen the movie, please rent it and deliver a review of it here next week. And for extra credit...........

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Commercials: S. Epatha Merkerson did commercials for the Uni-Ball pen. But, Sam Waterston does all those TD Waterhouse ads.

Tom Shales: Oh yeah, the stock broker thing. How proud he must be, though as I recall, the firm he "represented" didn't have to go to jail. (Come to think of it - few did -- but that's another story -- and tragedy --)

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D.C.: Who would be on your list of best women characters on TV (past or present)? I find that too often they are portrayed as miserable parade rainers who don't seem to like their husbands -- i.e. wives on King of Queens, Raymond, Curb Your E.

Personally, My three favs are Marge Simpson, Lois from Malcolm in the Middle and Peggy Hill.

Tom Shales: Parade Rainers! Nice turn of phrase. I sure liked Mrs. Pynchon on "Lou Grant," to name one of many, but that was of course ages ago. Somehow Mrs. Pynchon reminded me of someone I knew (if not closely). Bea Arthur as Maude, there was a Herculean turn. There are too many to list, it's kind of a thankless exercise ... Carol Burnett in the "Mama's Family" sketches ... a pretty daring touch for a comedy-variety show. By the way, let's stop this "movement" to have Carol Burnett hosting "Saturday Night Live." It's just getting silly now. Betty White was a special case. And now there are some Facebookers or Twitterpates who are "demanding" Betty host the Oscars - what?!? Leave her alone, already!

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Olney, Md.: A L and O Reminiscence: I knew they really used great on-location filming when a program about a hidden basement in a synagogue showed an interior shot of where I had my Bar Mitzvah (Not the basement, the main sanctuary)!

Tom Shales: Wow. That's authenticity.

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Lt. Van Buren for Hire: I believe Merkerson also does ads for Motrin or Advil or some kind of pain reliever...

Tom Shales: Say, she's a busy diva. Who is the actor who says "You're in good hands"? He is tremendous. He played the President, I believe, in the first cycle of "24" shows......

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L and O: Someone please correct me if I am wrong, but I was thinking Jerry Orbach actually did leave the show before passing. I want to say that his character retired and in real life he was moving to another Dick Wolf show? And then he passed and I remember in an L and O episode, Lt. Van Buren talks to one of the detectives about hearing the news... so they also wrote his character as passing away.

Tom Shales: I think you are partly right. That is, he DID leave the series for reasons other than his death. Yes yes yes. But as for the rest of that - we have to get our crack team of ace researchers - currently having a long lunch with our ace team of crack researchers (no they are not researching crack, cut it out) - on this case........

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Charlie Sheen: How is it possible that he keeps getting these massive salary increases? What else could he do but play himself on a mediocre sitcom?

Tom Shales: Yeah well he may not be getting them any more. And listen, when you're the star of a show that does well in the ratings, the reward is money, and I doubt if many actors so affected would want it any other way.

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Why you did not get to be on "Law and Order"...: You apparently did not try hard enough to get an appearance on the show. The writer-humorist Fran Lebowitz has made regular appearances on L and O as Judge Janice Goldberg. She claims she got the job by visiting the set, putting on a robe she found there, and then demanding to be a judge.

Tom Shales: Damn. One of the few advantages to living in New York....

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Dzundza Rules!: Tom, George Dzundza was one of two great actors on L and O -- Jerry Orbach being the other. Look at the first year -- GD acts the pants off the others.

Tom Shales: I'm not sure I want to see pants acted off the others. But seriously, I take you at your word (whatever the hell that means) -- that is, I meant no disrespect to Dzundza or his fans. I even like typing "D-z-u-n-d-z-a."

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Allison and the lap thing: I thought your comment about Allison Stewart was spot on. As I was watching the interview (before reading your review) I thought she looks starstruck or even fawning. It made me squirm.

Tom Shales: Thank you. Now are you now or have you ever been a sexist??? Come on, fess up! No wait, this is the land of the free, you don't have to do any fessing.......

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Anonymous: Is it true Sam Waterston is being paid to change his name to Same Waterhouse?

Tom Shales: Har har har! Another chatter points out how funny they found it when Sam got all hot and bothered and in high moral dudgeon (that is when the character did, and Sam had to act himself into a dither). I always found him more effective when he UNDER-played.

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NBC Fall lineup: I didn't see Parks and Rec on the schedule for fall; don't tell me it's been axed! Okay, you can tell me. Has it?

Tom Shales: Hello -we checked with TV Team Chief of Research, Development, Parks and Recreation, and she says: The

show is NOT on NBC's fall schedule BUT -- and it's

a big butt, I mean but (it must be the medication,

sorry) -- NBC has the show high on a list of possible

returnees mid-season or sooner if some other show

flops. So there's a good chance it will be back....

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Anonymous: Is there a chance another network can pick up the show and keep it alive? Maybe Mayor Bloomberg will buy it himself or the city of New York?

Tom Shales: Yes, Dick Wolf is shopping it around even as we speak. I hope it doesn't go to cable, the way Southland has done. They are too damn CHEAP. Southland is only to do maybe half as many episodes as it would have done on NBC, CBS or ABC. Or even Fox. or CW (last week's big goof - I'd be more embarrassed about that one if I didn't think it was kinda funny -- and sorry, but I confess freely, I don't watch CW on a regular basis (more than twice a year) unless I have to review one of its shows.........

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Orbach's other role on L and O: Der. Of course he appeared early, before he was Detective Lennie Briscoe. Not after he was dead.

Tom Shales: Really?!?! Oh we're out of time. I knew he did NOT appear on the show following his death. Nobody is THAT good an actor. Except maybe for -- but that's another story. And another section of the paper. Did I mention that the head of the TV Team Research Staff is the brilliant Emily Yahr? I think I clumsily dropped her name. I wish I had someone right here next to me (NO NOT ON MY LAP) to help me out with matters of fact. I'll put that into next year's budget ... right! ... if there IS a budget ... if there IS a "next year." I feel confident that there will be a next week, so please return then. All will be in readiness, except maybe my brain...... Thank you

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Olney, Md.: Dennis Haysbert is the Allstate spokesman.

Tom Shales: oops, wanted to squeeze this in. He's a damn good actor AND a terrific spokesperson..........

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