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Shales on TV Live: 'Gary and Tony Have a Baby,' ABC's 'Wipeout' and 'Downfall'

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Tom Shales
Washington Post TV Columnist
Tuesday, June 22, 2010; 12:00 PM

Washington Post Style columnist and Pulitzer Prize winner Tom Shales was online Tuesday, June 22, at Noon ET to discuss television, its cultural impact and his columns.

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Today's Column: CNN documentary 'Gary and Tony' takes big-hearted look at gay parenthood

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: Greetings and thank you. We will probably have rather a small crowd on this hot hot HOT June day. And now things I shouldn't have said -- In my preview of a CNN documentary about 2 gay guys trying to "have" a baby, I praised those who made the program for taking a "big-hearted" look. Well the ultra-conservative blogs interpret this as meaning the whole network has come out in favor of same-sex marriage and that entire "gay agenda" we are always hearing about . I SHOULD HAVE SAID it is a refreshingly DISPASSIONATE look, without campaigning one way or the other, because it is no tract on behalf of an ideology. So my apologies to Soledad O'Brien, who is a terrific reporter. And it IS a good show, whatever your viewpoint......

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New York, N.Y.: Noting how we New Yorkers get our water from the Poconos and how we don't have a water filtration plant (one of the few big cities not to have one), it was disturbing to watch the documentary "Gasland" on HBO last night and realize my water and that of 11 million could be contaminated from fracking fluid from natural gas drilling (it did not mention what would happen if the gas leaked out). I mean, if our water is contaminated, there would be no more "Saturday Night Live". Is there are word on how "Gasland" did? I guess it may be too early, but do documentaries like this tend to get reactions, or do people tend to forget about them after awhile?

Tom Shales: HBO's Monday night documentaries -- though some air on other nights - are among the best things on the network and yet largely unsung. I would write about every one of them if the editors would let me. As for impact and whether they have lasting effects, I guess you'd have to take each one separately. And yes it's probably too early to gauge reactions. One positive sign: how negative the reaction is from people in positions of power. The less they like it, the more likely it has struck a nerve and made some good points. One oddity: HBO has scheduled a documentary about the suicide doctor, Kevorkian, for July. They just did a docu-DRAMA on the guy with Al Pacino. That seems like plenty of attention for now. Obviously a right hand at HBO doesn't know what the left hands are doing - at least not always.

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Amherst, Mass.: So which reality show will Gen. Stanley McChrystal be showing up next season?

My bet is "Biggest Loser."

Tom Shales: Whoa! I think we know where you come down on this one -- you come down on the general's head. Thanks for the comment

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Brooklyn, N.Y.: Mr Shales, If you watch the beginning of the movie Time Bandits you will see how director Terry Gilliam predicted the future of TV game shows and the effect it would have socially.

It's an amazingly prescient prediction of the future when a young kid is neglected by his parents who are mesmerized by the glow of their TV and the game show they watch is called "Your money or your Life" and a contestant must answer questions before her husband is drowned in a vat of oatmeal while the audience laughs.

Watch here at the 5 minute mark: Time Bandits Movie Part 1 (YouTube)

Tom Shales: Fascinating. "I did not know that," as Johnny Carson impersonators used to say. I'll have to fish the movie out of my collection, if it's there, since it's been many many years since I've seen it. Keep in mind though that spoofs of game-show (and thus a kind of reality show) excesses have been going on in the movies for years, all the way back to films of the 30s and 40s that spoofed RADIO game shows of the time, and programs like "People Are Funny" that required contestants to make colossal fools of themselves.... And thanks.

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Southwest Michigan, USA: I've watched on June 7, 14, and 21 the pilot and episodes 2 and 3 of "Persons Unknown" (NBC Monday summer drama/thriller) and want to know if the ratings and "green light" to air the remainder through Episode 13 will actually hold up through August. Thanks for letting those of us in mid-America know what the likelihood of it actually airing seem to be!

Tom Shales: Emily Yahr, TV Team Information Office and Executive Vice President (among her other titles) reports what you will probably consider bad news -- last night's ratings for Persons Unknown. It attracted a mere 3.2 million viewers to come in third among the Big Three. True Beauty on ABC drew 5.4 million viewers and the winner, a rerun of CSI:Miami on CBS, grabbed 7.6 million. Sorry. At this rate, Persons Unknown may become Show Unknown before the end of summer. it's Show Unwatched at this point ... Well that's it for tonight - Thanks, and drive safely. Ga'bye everybody!!! Take care of your grandmothers!!!

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Herndon, Va.: Mr. S: I'm glad to see your Web folks have posted the link by your chat to the Qs and As from Monday. That should ensure that no one tries to leave your chat for another one going today. That aside, what did you think of "Justified" on FX, which just completed its first season? I enjoy Elmore Leonard's writing, but am not sure as to how well it translated to this show.

Tom Shales: A reprieve!!! Thank you, Herndonian. I am sorry to say I only saw the pilot, the first episode of Justified and didn't like it, while conceding that fans of Elmore Leonard, of which I am not one, would probably be pleased, or partly. Are you going to catch up on the episodes you missed? I heard good things from friends, again people partial to Elmore's prose. I don't know -- I never knew an "Elmore". I'm just glad Mom and Dad didn't stick me with THAT one -- though Mr Leonard has obviously done just fine.

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Tom Shales: And now, during this brief lull, I'd like to do what no one ever asks me to do -- sing. Yes, I am a closet singer, which means my voice sounds great to me in a very small confined space with the door closed, sealed off from the rest of the world. For my first number -- by the way, i think it's a bummer the way American Idol only allows young people to enter. "America's Got Talent," the cut-rate imitation, at least lets in people who have passed such thresholds as 30 and 40, maybe even 50!!!! Now the spell check tells me I have misspelled thresholds. Hmm. Let me check here --- oh it says one h. Thresholds. Doesn't look right to me!!!

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Two Daddies: As a conservative who honestly couldn't care less about gay marriage: CNN could show this documentary around the clock for a week, and it still wouldn't have the impact of the completely-drawn gay parents on "Modern Family."

Tom Shales: Good point!!! That is a great show, and one reason is that gay couple, who are portrayed without the usual goody-good gloss. You know, it's "safe" now to portray gay people as dimensional, not as victimized saints or, as in the case of that Showtime series Queer as Folk, as nonstop party animals. I mean, they're people, and on this show, funny people; sometimes the humor is related to their sexual-orientation, sometimes not. Thanks for the great note........

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Herndon, Va.: Mr. S: For those of us old enough to remember the original "Let's Make a Deal," with the immortal Monte Hall as emcee -- ABC late night once did what was perhaps the saddest show I've ever seen -- on people who dressed up in ridiculous costumes -- but didn't make the cut for the section from which Monte picked contestants. There they were, looking like idiots, and only in the audience -- no shot at a prize. "Door 1, Door 2 or Door 3?"

Tom Shales: Awwww. That is GRIM. But what made you think of it just now? I'm curious. Lordy how i hated that show, but it ran happily for years. It belonged to a genre I called Humiliation Television. I thought Monty Hall was one of the most obnoxious of game show hosts, a species not known for its wits. Though I always like Dick Clark on "$10,000 Pyramid" (the top prize and title rose over the years, eventually to a hundred grand, I think) and of course Richard Dawson on :Family Feud," despite all the smooching..... Who's the guy who hosts "Dancing with the Stars?" He did a Hollywood Squares revival for a while. Affable and amusing without trying to hog the camera......

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St. Paul, Minn. : Hi Tom -- Thanks for taking questions today...I look forward to this every week. I'm in a summer funk as far as TV is concerned...if you had to pick one summer show that I should watch, what would it be? Or should I take my own hiatus and do something productive like work in the garden, read a book, or just enjoy the weather?

Tom Shales: Enjoy -- THIS weather? Good for you if you can enjoy it. All I do is run to the bedroom to keep changing shirts ... Now the best summer show ... As you may know, new ones are being introduced in perhaps greater profusion than ever, as TV becomes more and more a year-round business. The fall "new TV season" has become almost meaningless, especially since we are now in a "new TV season" in June. What do I recommend? I would prefer suggestions from all you chatters (chatter-ers?). You know I don't watch much TV -- har har. I'll have to think about it. Don't go away -- P L E A S E !!! (Oh I see, you're in St. Paul. Well the weather must be MUCH better up there. Pardon moi)......

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Washington, D.C.: So what do you have to say about WIPEOUT? I think it may be one of the stupidest shows in the history of television, and its hosts and "writers" should be put out of their misery. On the other hand, it is fun to see my three kids cackling hysterically for a full hour, so it can't be all bad.

Tom Shales: No, I'm sorry, I like stupid to a degree, but this is just TOO stupid. People being knocked into water by large wheels and levers and what-have-you. You can tell the show is edited down to just the falls and clobberings, so it's a solid hour of that. Bam, splash, Wham, splash, Clunk, splash, Thunk, splash -- law suit, splash. No we never hear of suits over injuries, no doubt because the contestants sign all rights away when they agree to appear. I used to think John Henson had a good future as a TV host (he did Talk Soup on E! -- which I called Eek! -- for a while) and am sorry to see he had to sink to this to make a living. The show really makes me long for "Battle of the Network Stars." I would rather see celebrities get wet than poor hapless real people trying to make a buck by - yes - humiliating themselves. But wait - are there some hidden charms to this thing that have eluded me???

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TVCrossroadsCouple, NoVa: Have enjoyed reading your columns for years, Tom. There seem to be some good series on these days, especially considering all the options on cable, and my boyfriend and I want to find a new show or two (or new to us) that we can enjoy watching together.

He loved Arrested Development and liked The Shield, and these days he tends to go for live sports, Simpsons, Southpark. I also really like Arrested Development and enjoy shows like Mad Men, Damages, Castle, and Six Feet Under back in the day (which he thought was dark and depressing).

We'd love your thoughts on which of the new series -- or returning ones -- you think we would enjoy together. Input welcome from other chatters, too. Thanks in advance for your couples TV therapy. P.S. If it helps, he's mid-30s and I'm an early 40-something.

Tom Shales: Hmmmm. I am flattered you folks out there in Television Land would listen to any of my recommendations. Emily? Emily?! Wherefore art thou, Emily? What are the promising new shows that I haven't seen yet? What do I like -- I forget sometimes. Yes it's true. I definitely want to catch up with True Blood on HBO but it's an acquired taste -- ahem -- and I can certainly relate to people who find it too gross and gooey, and perverse. I think they've really accomplished something, though, by finding yet another spin on the vampire thing, which is done to death - ahem, AHEM -- almost perpetually. And "Entourage" is coming back, my favorite wish-fulfillment fantasy, though the wishes are starting to out-do the fulfillment thereof...... And Mad Men is coming back too. Though i don't like it, it has a genuine cult following ... I will try again to "understand." I like to like hits, you know what I mean? It helps me feel mainstream. I think TV critics should be in harmony with the Great Audience, although of course that Great Audience has long since splintered into dozens of constituencies. My how I do rattle on !

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Rockville, Md.: Philip K. Dick (who wrote the Blade Runner book and several very good novels) wrote "Solar Lottery" about a quiz show government. The "quizmaster" ran everything.

God story. And written in 1955

(Wikipedia: Plot summary Solar Lottery takes place in a world dominated by logic and numbers. Loosely based on a numerical military strategy employed by U.S. and Soviet intelligence called minimax (part of game theory), the head of world government is chosen through a sophisticated lottery. In theory, each person is supposed to have an equal chance of becoming the Quizmaster, the head of the lottery system and the most powerful person in the world. This element of randomization in the society serves as a form of social control since each person is stripped of their individuality.)

Tom Shales: Hmm. Sounds like that movie with Arnold Schwarzenegger (and the aforementioned Richard Dawson) -- "The Running Man" (??) in which a guy ran literally for his life on a game show. And then there was the recently and unsuccessful made cheapie Death Race 2000 with Sylvester Stallone before he got really big with "Rocky." About an auto race where the drivers get points for obliterating pedestrians. Sick but funny. I wonder how many of these there are. Maybe it's enough to qualify for a "genre." And by "God story" I assume you mean "Good story." (I just want you-all to know that I noticed).

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Boston, Mass.: I love the show Wipeout. Why do people like watching other people get hurt?

Tom Shales: Schadenfreude? The joy that comes from pain or misfortune endured by others? It helps explain LOTS of trends in popular culture and entertainment. We do know that the contestants no more get hurt than Larry Mo and Curly did from bopping one another with hammers or squeezing each other's noses in vices. I guess Wipeout is a live-action cartoon -- Roadrunner with people instead of a wolf and a bird. ??

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Rockville, Md.: Bob Eubanks was the one THAT I thought really hated his contestants and even his audience. But he was really "California hip."

"What is your husband's favorite condiment?"

Tom Shales: Oh yeah. ALL that innuendo, and he wasn't taking any chances, he put a leer behind every double entendre. He made it into a triple entendre. He disgraced himself with a racist remark made off-the-cuff in one of Michael Moore's awful movies (I say "awful" but they wouldn't be as awful if Moore weren't in them and didn't narrate them -- just my personal opinion. I have like an allergy to him). Eubanks sometimes had that weird frozen look - he'd go immobile waiting for the contestants to make yet ANOTHER smutty-sounding remark. Oddly,though, I loved the suggestiveness of "The Gong Show," especially whats-her-name (darn - a former singer - first name began with J or maybe was Jaye -- no not Jaye P Morgan -- anybody know where I could get a good synthetic brain?). They just seemed like kids talking naughty behind the barn - and of course NBC bleeped the beepers out of the poor thing. Chuck Barras ought to release THE UNCUT GONG on DVD or to cable..... Really! I'm (half-) serious! It must be the heat.......

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TV show suggestions: I'm watching the DVDs of the UK version of "Life on Mars" -- highly recommended!

Tom Shales: Ahh. Sounds great. The original UK versions of "Life" and "Planet Earth," both narrated by David Attenborough, are much preferable to the U.S. revised versions messed-up by the Discovery Channel, with Oprah Winfrey and Sigourney Weaver, respectively, doing the narration. WHY did anyone find it necessary to drop out the original narration and replace it???

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TV Couple: I share the poster's pain. While my husband and I share many similar interests and a common sense of humor (or so I thought), we really can't find many shows we both like. He has accepted True Blood, and I have accepted It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia (which has a sort of Arrested Development/Curb Your Enthusiasm funny cringe factor) as our current common shows.

Tom Shales: I haven't seen "Always Sunny" but I mean to catch up -- it looks like it has potential, or is it on TBS, where all the energy seems to go into the promotional campaigns rather than into the shows themselves (of course, there are happy exceptions). Those dumb slogans -- "We know drama," "We know Comedy." They should be "We know drama, we know comedy; we just haven't found any yet." or "We WOULD know it, if we ever saw it."

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Boston, Mass.: Thanks! Those guys can be funny at times too. Stupid can be good after a long day at work.

Tom Shales: What guys? Game-show hosts, or pratfalling contestants? Maybe both. And I see what you mean about Stupid being good escapism. It's mind-clearing. The trouble is, of course, that when there's too much mind-clearing television, or enough so that people can make a steady diet of it, you have an instrument with tremendous potential being mis-used for idiocy alone. That's the history of network tV in a nutshell, where it belongs (no not really -- but no one could make the argument there's been too much good, serious TV and not enough silly junk, whereas the opposite case would be easy to support).....

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Burnt Hills, N.Y.: Hi Tom: This summer, we're enjoying the new-to-us offerings from the BBC -- Not Going Out, Doctor Who, Gavin and Stacy, and reruns of Top Gear. I'm especially looking forward to James May's Toy Stories, which looks like fun. Are you a Top Gear fan?

Tom Shales: I've peeked in on Top Gear. For those who haven't seen it, it's a British show on the BBC America channel about car culture and especially, as I recall, about really hot really fast cars. Good vicarious thrills -- since it's few of us can afford really hot, really fast cars and we couldn't drive them on U.S. highways anyway, since the absurd 55mph limit still prevails in most areas. I'm not familiar with ALL the other titles. "Doctor Who" has of course been around -- from our friends in the UK - for years (decades?) and keeps getting refurbished and repolished and sent out again into the world........

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NoVa: The late night shows have been out of the news lately...any new gossip/ratings on Leno v. Letterman?

Tom Shales: I don't think they pay much attention to the ratings on late-night in the summer months -- and both Leno and Letterman take SO many weeks off, it's almost non-competitive. I did say almost, of course. I will check with TV Team Research Director and CEO Emily Y. -- Oh Emily!?!

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Leverage, White Collar and Top Chef: That's what I'm watching this summer.

Tom Shales: Good for you but frankly, you can talk all those psychotic screaming chefs, put 'em in a blender, and set it on "puree" as far as I'm concerned. I don't understand audiences - or the would-be young chefs on the programs -- wanting to subject themselves to that kind of egomaniacal boorishness.

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Tempe, Ariz.: How weird, I just saw my first episode of "It'Always Sunny in Philadelphia" and it was AWESOME.

It was the one where they have an "intervention" for Danny DeVito's character.

"It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia" (IMDb)

Check out that episode since it got me hooked.

Tom Shales: I will check it out indeed. We usually don't allow no chat from Arizona around here -- but then, we wouldn't want to be exclusionary, just because the whole state is nuts.

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Hollywood, Calif.: Re: stupid TV, what about that Jackass phenom of a few years ago..?! I couldn't watch it every week, but will admit to having laughed out loud at a segment or two. It just made me feel so dirty, as I usually go for the smartly written, somewhat obscure shows.

Tom Shales: Made you feel "so dirty" -- in a "good" way? Yeah, I thought it had its very peculiar appeal, too, though the phony, forced laughter of the host - that tall skinny guy who, i guess, helped create the show - struck me as a real wet blanket. If you want to be slightly depressed, check out the DVD with the true story of Steve-O and what happened to him during the years he spent on the show (he turned up, clean and sober, as a contestant on "Dancing with the Stars" after his long series of ordeals). And I'll always remember one of the guys wrestling an alligator and finding it stimulating in ways he didn't expect. I just hope no kids got seriously hurt trying to imitate those lame-brained stunts.....

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Andy Rooney: Nearly 92 and no plans to retire? Does 60 Minutes fear an ageist backlash if they usher him out the door?

Tom Shales: They fear Andy Rooney! He'll start some kind of movement, and not the kind of movement most 92-year-olds would be grateful for (I'm sorry, I apologize, that was over-the-line -- oh forget it).

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Bloomington, Ind.: Could you imagine if Roseanne was married to Antonio Sabato Jr. in her sitcom? It wouldn't make any sense.

Yet in all these sitcom's today is some overweight, balding schlub married a ridiculously good-looking and fit wife.

Double standard or what.

Tom Shales: One can hope this will be remedied as more women get into the sitcom-writing business ... though Susan Harris, years ago, was a glorious exception that didn't seem to inspire much imitation. I have long resented all the balding fatties on TV who manage to marry or romance gorgeous women. They fill a lot of us balding fatties with false hope!

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Burnt Hills, N.Y.: On Top Gear, the three hosts end up doing goofy things and hurting themselves instead of audience members. It works for them. As for game show hosts, I always liked Bob Barker on The Price Is Right, but he made me cringe when he hosted Truth or Consequences. And I agree with you on Tom Bergeron -- he makes America's Funniest Home Accidents palatable.

Tom Shales: Thanks for the help with Tom Bergeron's name. Yes he's got class, especially for someone in that line of work. Did you see Bob Barker beating up Adam Sandler in Happy Gilmore? HILARIOUS. And now a warm and genuine thank you to all of you who came through today with questions and comments, many more than we could get to, although an hour ago it looked like a serious drought. It means a lot that you took the time and trouble to participate. Please come back and bring a friend. Bring a whole flock of friends. Or enemies, if you consider this some form of torture. Seriously THANK YOU and good bye. For now.

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