Shales on TV Live

Tom Shales
Washington Post TV Columnist
Tuesday, July 13, 2010; 12:00 PM

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

Shales, The Washington Post's chief television critic for 30 years, is the author of several books, including "On the Air," "Legends" and "Live From New York." His column, "Shales on TV," appears in the paper every Tuesday.


Cincinnati, Ohio: Just a comment: loved today's column. You sound like Michelle Singletary, and that is meant as a huge compliment! Out here in the Midwest we are deluged, all through the local news shows, with ads for payday loan places, where your bad credit can get you a loan anyway, and "gold stores," where you walk in with a handful of old chains and go out with a wad of cash. The barbarians have really breached the gates. TV rarely tackles a topic that pays its bills: Misleading credit card ads (Post, July 13)

Tom Shales: Thank you Cincinnati, Good Morning Mr and Mrs. America and all the ships at sea. Plus all the ships not at sea but just sitting in dry-dock (like me -- I've been in dry-dock for years). As you may have deduced, the questioners with the kindest compliments get moved to the front of the line, heh heh heh. I think TV is entirely complicit in the recession and doing nothing to help us out of it -- and a warning: Cable costs and possibly satellite and FiOS costs ARE GOING UP as part of the New Inflation. Just watch your bills over the next few months..... And welcome everyone if I forgot to say that. Please, call the neighbors! Alert the grandparents in the attic!!! We're chatting tonight in the old chat grounds.......


NYC: Have you bought a new computer yet?

Tom Shales: Thanks for the kind concern, NYC. I am stranded between PC's and Mac's, I am trying to figure out which has the least number of MADDeNING FLAWS. They're about equal, I guess. Such are most of the decisions one faces in life, at least when choosing between Column A and Column B.


Silver Spring, Md.: Okay, I watch Real Housewives of New Jersey. I can't help it. I am annoyed though by last night's big fight between Teresa and Danielle. It seemed like Teresa was poking and poking, looking for a reaction. Is this type of thing manipulated by the producers? Did they recommend to her that she should attempt to "chat" with Danielle, or is Teresa truly that obnoxious? I know reality TV isn't scripted -- but to what extent are the situations manipulated and promoted by the production team?

Tom Shales: My humble advice: Forget about whether a word of it is "true" or not, and just assume it's "true-to-life," meaning what happens COULD happen and what's said COULD be said -- of course, that's the definition of a good scripted drama too -- so there is no real difference so far as credibility is concerned. Larry David bases most of his story "ideas" on things that happen to him or that he sees happening to others in daily life. He is never without a notebook to jot down ideas or dialogue he will later 'quote.' Is this any less real than the housewives who know what the producers want - whether they are told outright or not -- and give it to them? Any one or any thing can be nudged or contorted to make it more "entertaining" on any & all "Reality" shows....


Erie, Pa.: Do you watch AMC's "Mad Men"? If so, are you anxious for the fourth season to get going as it will this month?

Tom Shales: Hello Erie, and welcome, you must be new to Uncle Tommy's Chat Shack. Yes I got nearly everybody mad at me last season by confessing I can't stand Mad Men because it's too slow and the scenes are too long and the characters are creepy and it trashes the fifties, my favorite decade (or have they moved into the sixties so they can trash that now?) Honestly, I am happy for those who enjoy the show. I think it satisfies a need for drama that television isn't otherwise honoring very faithfully. People like to get absorbed in stories about characters with whom they can identify -- there you have the sappiest truism of all time, but like many truisms, it's true! "Mad Men" is a substitution for really good drama until a better one comes along. Enjoy!


Washington, D.C.: How do you feel about Norman Lear telling Florence Henderson on her "Florence Henderson Show" that this is the "golden age" of television? Even she was startled.

Tom Shales: Off-hand, I would say old Norman has flipped his pork-pie hat (does he still wear that infernally stupid thing?). Norman must be trying to sell the networks on a new show; else why would he call this, of all times, the golden age of anything? It's a golden age for the Geek Squad and anyone else who repairs computers. Maybe Norman meant that the TV PICTURE (digital, HD, whatever) is better than ever ...


San Diego, Calif.: Curious about your take on Rachel Maddow taking her show to Afghanistan last week? And earlier this spring, she recorded her show from Louisiana coast.

Might the pundit actually be trying to do real newsworthy programming? I hope her ratings were good since ratings seems to be all cable news seems to care about.

Also, the idea of traveling out the NYC studio for Sean Hannity, her FOX News counterpart, is go to a right-wing protest rally in Cincinnati and get paid for doing so.

Tom Shales: Yeah, Sean Hannity has all the integrity of .... oh gosh, there's no time to think of anything really snotty. Hannity used to make Combs (?) look smart; there's a frightening thought for you. Rachel Maddow works tirelessly to make her show better, more informative not just more manipulative. She's a truly conscientious anchor, or whatever the right term would be -- and she probably knows that her ratings would go up if, instead of mounting ambitious shows from remote hot spots, she simply sat there and SCREAMED her opinions, either into the air or at some poor schlemiel dragged in as a foil. Bless her for her imagination.....


Fairfax, Va.: Your thoughts on this year's Emmy noms? Any glaring omissions?

Tom Shales: Dave Letterman was complaining about not having been nominated for the first time in 26 years. But then no one could say he's really been slighted by the Academy with all those years of perfunctory, knee-jerk nominations. Was this past season noticeably better than any of the preceding ones? I don't think so, though it certainly wasn't "bad." I think it was gutsy of Conan O'Brien to nominate himself when he knew NBC would nominate Leno and the happy news is that Conan got the Academy's official nomination and Jay was left out in the cold. Good. I think the public AND the industry have both tired of Jay's berserk ambitiousness. It's SOOO shameless. And I saw his monologue Monday night - it was SOOOO unfunny, except for one or two high points. Otherwise, I am not familiar with all the Emmy noms yet; please tell me which nominations ticked you off the most.......


Arlington, Va.: What was the golden age of television, in your opinion? Is there any show on now that, if there were others on-air of its quality, would qualify this as the golden age?

Tom Shales: Hmmm. Well the Golden Age is traditionally about 1948 through 1960, because although videotape was invented earlier than 1960, the invention really began to make its presence felt, and to revolutionize production, in the late 50s, early 60s. It's complicated because Playhouse 90 clearly belongs to the Golden Age, which was remarkable for featuring original live dramas or conscientious adaptations virtually every night of the week (on one of the three networks or another). Playhouse 90 was obviously 90-minutes instead of an hour but also, it originated in HOLLYWOOD and not New York, and it was usually on tape, not live, so it failed to meet all the "criteria," yet it also presented some of the greatest and most lasting of the Golden Age dramas, including "The Days of Wine and Roses." Anyway, this is an idiotically long answer. The Golden Age was Live Dramas and that will never happen again, though cable could do SOMETHING like it if only there were more quality dramas - also more anthologies and fewer episodic cop, doctor, medical examiner and lawyer shows. Am I making any sense, or am I just behaving as usual?


Baltimore, Md.: Hi Tom. Maybe you can improve my day (which has already been quite good, actually). Recently, I've been feeling very nostalgic for hardcore science fiction, particularly Battlestar Galactica (the one that ended last year, I'm too young to know the original). All of the sci-fi on TV these days is soft, like Eureka, Warehouse 13, and even Lost. Not even Stargate Universe is hardcore enough for me... so please tell me that some network somewhere is developing a new show with lots of spaceships and explosions, and I just haven't heard about it yet... Thanks!

Tom Shales: Gosh I wish! I will check with TV Team Historian, Researcher, Mistake Fixer and Vice President in Charge of Quality Control -- Emily Yahr !!!! She will know if the networks -- including the cable networks --- have any "hard core" sci fi on tap for the fall. I'd like to see a new Flash Gordon or Buck Rogers but with lots of nudity. Wait Wait - I didn't mean to say that. I take it back. I Renounce Thee, Oh SuperEgo!!! And Libido!!! But remember, even in this age of CGI and other computer tricks, them explosions is pricey. The fewer special effects, the cheaper the show is to produce. That may partly explain all the "soft," thoughtful, talky-tacky and tacky-talky shows.....


Reston, Va.: Tom, I'm with you on the credit card ads...what a scam.

My bigger issue, though, is with the Walmart check-cashing commercial. Young couple, apparently living pay check to pay check, apparently don't have a bank some money by cashing their checks at Walmart instead of the corner liquor, what do they do with the money they saved? Put it in the bank? Save it for a rainy day? No...they buy a TV. Seriously?! How frustrating....

Tom Shales: Yes but remember, a TV is a NECESSITY. And don't forget that old statistic about how TV's outnumber toilets in American homes - or maybe it's bath tubs. Whatever it is, it's meaningless. Oh the computer just FORCED me to make "bath tubs" two words. Anyway, I agree with you completely on the Wal-Mart ad. And all ads, by the way, that treat the recession as just a moderately annoying phase we're going through -- like Lent or something. (Not REALLY, i am NOT being sacrilegious).....


Philadelphia, Pa.: "The Jay Leno Show" makes it impossible for this to be any sort of golden age. In terms of television as an artistic outlet, I agree with the 50s into the 60s. In terms of entertainment and social change, the 70s and 80s. Remembering when NBC Thursdays actually were "must see", where you could camp out for a couple of hours of quality entertainment. Even Night Court.

Tom Shales: Yes yes, my Philadelphian friend. By the way, at the moment I am in New Hope, about 45 minutes North of you. Lovely day ain't it? Frankly I am thrilled to see some nice soggy gray clouds - and the last time I was outside, the temperature was 72 degrees. Whoopee! By "Jay Leno Show" you mean Jay Leno's "Tonight Show," right, and not his prime-time flop? I think either way, Leno is kaput. Don't know if he's enough to prevent this from being a Golden age; so many other factors contribute to that unhappy impression....


Wha??: Really Silver Spring? You 'know reality TV isn't scripted'? Tom - either this person is putting one over on us or lives on Mars.

Tom Shales: Oh maybe they're kidding. Or just a little prankish naivete. Around here we NEVER criticize fellow chatters. And after all, the networks and producers forever cling to the fakery and claim the shows are unscripted, unrehearsed, un-everything (also many are un-tertaining, ha ha ha ).


Emmy Snubs: I think the worst snub was not nominating John Noble for Best Supporting Actor for Fringe. And I think this year S. Epatha Merkerson deserved a nod for her performance as the cancer-stricken Lt. Van Buren on Law and Order.

Tom Shales: Yes, I thought in fact that the producer of Law and Order, Dick Wolf, was setting up S. Epatha for an Emmy, almost handing her one, by making her role this year meatier, more substantial, with more latitude for actual acting. It was like, "Here's the script, go out there and win your Emmy, kid," though she's not exactly a kid. She deserves one and AT LEAST deserves a nomination. So thanks, that is a snub that's genuinely irritating.....


Ads: I was horrified recently to see Montel Williams shilling for some credit-lending scheme or another. Okay, he's probably up there with Maury Povich, but I thought Montel was a little more principled; he did some good work with cancer awareness and all that. Guess I'm just naive.

Tom Shales: Montel tried a modified version of the high road and it didn't pay off. You can't blame him for wanting to make a living wage. I think he'll have a job as soon as somebody in Hollywood decides to film "The Lou Gossett Story." Junior. I mean "The Lou Gossett Jr. Story."


Arlington, Va.: This is the first time I've read this chat, so I might be failing to pick up on sarcasm or missing some inside joke -- but did you just praise Rachel Maddow as "a truly conscientious anchor"?

Yikes. She's more insufferable and biased than Keith Olbermann, and that's really saying something.

Tom Shales: We do like to sling sarcasm around here, but I meant that about Rachel. How can you compare her with Olbermann when she gives no evidence of having an ego as big as the Cow Palace (does that still exist?). Maddow seems seriously interested in convincing an audience of her views, not in bludgeoning people into grudging agreement, or ridiculing them 'til their almost in tears, ya know? She's certainly a better camera subject that Herr Olbermann. Yes yes, I know she's a -- she's a--- she's an L-word sort of person. I'd say she'd make a great captain of the team. Certainly a top-flight Good Will Ambassador. Having said that, I now hope and pray I won't get buried under angry comments. Why can't we all just get along????


re: Credit Card Ads: I saw a pretty amazing ad the other evening. I forget on which network it aired, but it featured a Native American touting loans from a company that operates on a reservation and is run by Native Americans (this isn't me making some race-based observation -- it was the main thrust of the commercial).

The interest rate for the loan: 139 percent.

No, that is not a typo. He did mention that "it isn't cheap." No kidding!

Tom Shales: What?! I can imagine it being 139 per cent, but I canNOT imagine them admitting that in a TV commercial. Can this be one of the stipulations of the new Congressionally-mandated minimal "reform" in the credit biz? I have noticed on my credit card bills that they now point out to we poor pitiful and embattled consumers that if we simply make the minimum payment monthly on the credit card bill, we won't pay it off until 2732 and we will have by then paid $2.6 billion in interest.... Or numbers to that effect.....


Emmys: I don't care about the Emmys as such but I do care, at a deep needing therapy level, about the drama that would be Conan winning the Emmy for a canceled show on the network that asked him to take said show away. Who are the Emmy voters and will they take a check?

Tom Shales: I suppose NBC will mountain one heck of a campaign to discourage the kind of voting that would produce the FABULOUSLY SATISFYING result of which you spoke. Oh but it would make for a honey of an Emmy night, wouldn't it? Or an Emmy of a honey night, or what ever. I'd predict high drama but Conan will play it for laughs. He is, lest we forget, a genuinely amazing, full-of-surprises artiste commique. (As the French say)


New Bern, N.C.: "Mad Men" pilot was set in 1960.

I think it helps us remember how like the 1950s the early 1960s still where.

Tom Brokaw called Barack Obama "a kid of the 1960s" once on TV and I've heard his mother called a hippie. But really, we forget that he was born in 1961 and it was a big scandal for his family. His mother's parents didn't even tell many of their relatives back in Kansas and I read an interview with his grandmother's brother about how his parents never discussed their great-grandson with him once and he had to learn about him from his other siblings. He could tell they were ashamed of the whole thing.

President Obama's River Bend connection (Sun Journal, Feb. 14)

Tom Shales: The 50s and 60s do get blurred together. I think that the Post-War Period - meaning post W W 2 of course -- didn't really end until 1963, with the death of President Kennedy and an end to innocence. Confronting a sickening new reality, that we were no longer blissfully safe from attack within our own borders, and that two big oceans don't mean squat in an age of satellites and missiles and atomic bombs and terrorism etc,

Now, STOP PRESS -- Ms Yahr has put her staff of lackeys to work and found no evidence of much hard-core sci-fi next season BUT she is happy to report that "Syfy is producing a movie next year called "'Mega Python vs. Gatoroid,'". Does that sound kick-butt scrumptious, or what? No not "Gatorade," Gator- OID, That's OID, OID, OID. As in hemhorr.


Arlington, Va.: Anyone who thinks that the 80s were the Golden Age of Television should remember that Hill Street Blues, which does not hold up well upon repeated viewing, was considered groundbreaking. Now, hmmm, The Wire, Lost, Mad Men, 30 Rock, The Simpsons...

Tom Shales: Yes but don't dismiss Hill Street for blazing the trail, breaking through an old wall, smashing up a set of creaky old rules and regulations. It doesn't hold up well, I agree -- partly because it looks so darn grubby! today even the crummiest shows at least LOOK good. Hill Street would have to have been spruced up for HDTV, although I've noticed that even shows looking shabby pre-HD look better when they are HD'fied. Whoa, I'm on shaky water now. I mean shallow ground. Regardless and whatever!


Burnt Hills, N.Y.: How can the Emmy broadcast be satisfying when its saddled with Jimmy Fallon (who I can't tell from Chris Kattan). I have no idea why either one of them is famous. All I know is neither one of them are funny.

Tom Shales: Awww, Mr Fallon doesn't make you laugh? I don't know, I think he has a genuine ingenuousness. Chris Kattan is more of a character-comic, not a joke-telling son of a gun. Talk show hosting calls for a peculiar set of skills -- checks and balances. One thing I find sort of charming about Fallon is the way he'll collapse in laughter over something a guest has said - as opposed to Letterman's painfully superior "Professional Comedian" pose of "I've heard everything; you'd better surprise me." Every guest is defied. Jeez Louise but it's hot in here.........


Scifi N-N-N-Nostalgia: I thought M-M-M-Max Headroom was one of the m-m-m-most creative shows on television, th-th-then and now. Does it ev-v-v-er show up on re-re-re-re-runs or in syndic-c-c-ation?

Tom Shales: Y-y-y-y-yes it do. On Bravo or one of those supposedly artsy cable channels like that. Max was clever all right, but he seemed to get stuck in a pot hole rather quickly and to play the same tricks and jokes over and over - even by the third or fourth week of the show.


Anonymous: I don't mind that you didn't enjoy "Mad Men" after having watched.

Tom Shales: Thank you. Does that mean you agree (having watched) or that while loving the show yourself, you can understand someone cranky and grumpy and GROSSLY UNDERPAID not liking it very much ............ ?


New Jersey Housewives: Is there a new drug coming out that can help one avoid watching these Housewives shows? It seems like no matter how stupid you think they are and how stupid you feel watching it you can't stop watching. I even got my mom laughing and liking New York housewife Bethenny Frankel on the show Bethenny Getting Married when she visited me last week. My mom had never heard of the Housewives or Bethenny but she enjoyed the show so I may have passed on the illness to her. Make it stop!

Tom Shales: Come on -- the term & concept "Guilty Pleasure" would have to be invented now for the "Real Housewives" shows if it didn't exist already. And your asking for a "Drug" to protect you from making a decision is pretty evocative of the shows themselves!!!


Athens, Ga.: Speaking of Rachel Maddow...

Her high school yearbook photo has been making the rounds of the Internet this weekend.

Rachel Maddow high school yearbook

Here she is discussing how she doesn't want to discuss it. Hand-off - Keith and Rachel Talk Yearbook Photos (YouTube)

Tom Shales: Wow, something new on ye olde chatte show -- guest stars. I hope this is truly and really Rachel's yearbook. I will check it out in my limousine on my way home from the show (It's a JOKE, sadly enough). And thanks to Mrs. J.L.W. of Toluca lake, Ca., for the lovely fruit basket and the generous cash gift........ No, Mrs. J.L.W. of Toluca Lake, to answer your question, there is nothing in the Journalists' Book of Ethics that requires a critic to refuse generous cash gifts. No livestock, however.....


Anonymous: "Mad Men" grew on me, but I agree on the creepiness of the main characters.

Tom Shales: Thanks. Maybe it will grow on me, too. There's sure plenty of room,

ha ha ha !!! (a certain giddiness prevails this week, wouldn't you say?


Burnt Hills, N.Y.: You've convinced me to give Jimmy Fallon a chance. I'm easily swayed by an intelligent argument.

BTW -- while you're in dry-dock, are you going to have your barnacles scraped?

Tom Shales: Well! I never! At least, less frequently than previously! I detect a hint, just a tiny sliver, a wee little strain of sarcasm in your comment. Just a hunch on my part, but I think I have a lead on precisely who it was that BURNED THE BURNT HILLS IN THE FIRST PLACE !!!! Is that a cold case, or still a hottie? Well, that's this week's cliffhanger because we are out of time - all of us, not just me. Seriously, thank you a thousand times over to everyone who came through with comments and questions. Please drop by again if you get the chance. And good night from --- from me and my slack Mac.......


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