Shales on TV Live: More trash TV from NBC. This time it's Tony Robbins.

Tom Shales
Washington Post TV Columnist
Tuesday, July 27, 2010; 12:00 PM

Washington Post Style columnist and Pulitzer Prize winner Tom Shales was online Tuesday, July 27, at Noon ET to discuss television, its cultural impact and his columns.

Today's column: Sorry, Tony Robbins. Your 'Breakthrough' has a much bigger problem to fix.

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.


Tom Shales: Good day, hello, call the neighbors and tell them to come a-runnin'. Actually they can stay where they are and they probably shouldn't run in the house. The heat-induced doldrums have affected our turn-out, I am sad to say, but maybe as we get rolling, things will perk up. Maybe even I will perk up though my track record on perking is not so hot, speaking of hot. And speaking of television. I have a lady in the balcony -- that is -- it's a line from an old radio show -- Never mind. Let's go to the videotape......


Washington, D.C.: Any thoughts on some of the new shows this summer -- like The Glades? I know it isn't top drama but it seemed pretty good summer fun. Any others out there like that?

Tom Shales: I think the finale of the Bachelorette oughta be fun, one of those dopey big-deals that, if you don't watch, you risk being locked out of conversations the next day. ABC gave a big hour-long plug to it in prime time last night disguised as an edition of 20/20, I think... but it WAS kind of amusing.......


Rocklin, Calif.: Jason Alexander had a short-lived sitcom based on a Tony Robbins-like character, and earlier this year Alexander had (still has?) an 80-minute show in Las Vegas in which he, satirically, played a Tony Robbins-like character (but a different one than he played in the sitcom).

Tom Shales: I think I DO remember that Jason Alexander show -- a very short-lived sitcom. Right. You have a great TV-M. I would have said TVQ but that is actually a real thing in the TV business devised by a company that measures the "likability" of TV personalities, especially I think news types in local markets. I don't think people care about the problems of self-help gurus UNLESS they have some terrible scandal and fall from grace. That big galoot Dr Phil sort of fizzled out, didn't he? Couldn't STAND him....Why do people take advice, even pay for it, from such folks?


Peoria, Ill.: I'm hoping you can help me, sir. I became a HUGE fan of "Men of a Certain Age" earlier this year, and I'm loving the show even more this month after watching TNT's recent re-airing of episodes. (I'd previously thought I was utterly incapable of ever stomaching anything involving Ray Romano.)

But season 2 isn't supposed to return until later this year, and I'm stuck without a show to watch in the meantime. What do you recommend?

Tom Shales: Oy. Ya got me. It IS summer you know and despite all the promos for "new" shows, the picking's are still fairly lean. As usual, I recommend old movies but that doesn't help much for people who like the rhythmic regularity of a weekly episodic show. So I appeal to those who are on-line here with us - What are you watching this summer that you didn't watch, say, last spring? Honestly it is hard to keep track of whether something like "Damages" is on its way in or on its way out. At least when "The new season" was limited to fall (and midseason in winter), you knew when most shows would come and when they would go.....


Burnt Hills, N.Y.: Hi Tom: Have you had a chance to see any of this season's episodes of Doctor Who? Last Saturday's finale was great fun, and I finally appreciated Matt Smith, whom I've now forgiven for not being David Tennant.

Tom Shales: In a word NO. But something came over the transom recently that may also interest you -- the entire series, all however many episodes, of MAX HEADROOM. Remember the ABC series that was at the very least ahead of its time, starring some sort of animatronic cybernetic psychedelic whatchamawhoozits??? Oh you never heard of it? Maybe you'll find it fresh somehow. "Max Headroom" got his name from the sign you see in parking garages and such - the abbreviation for Maximum Headroom - like 7 feet or whatever. Wait -- that's a pretty big head. "Max Headroom" introduced a new actor named Matt something who I found extremely irritating in every other role except this one - but then, that's just me. Or just him.


Harrisburg, Pa.: Hi, Tom. Have read your column for most of your 30 years at the Post. enjoy all immensely... The 1976 movie "Network" gave us -- what seemed at the time as a satirical look at "tube tainment." How surprising or not, more than 30 years later, that this has become reality. Where do you see television entertainment 30 plus years from now?

Tom Shales: Thank you very much. Where I see TV entertainment 30 years from now is -- well unfortunately I will NOT see it. Unless science solves a certain teeny-weeny problem that I will not mention because it is too depressing. Anyway, I think the concept of "shows" and "series" and "stories" -- all that may end. Not to rip off Andy Warhol, but I imagine things will materialize on something LIKE the web for a day or two then vanish, then some new fad or phenom, then out, then something else -- there will be no more prime time, not that THAT"s a very earth-shaking prediction, but TV will be like Vegas - it'll always be going and lit-up and you won't be able to tell what time it is based on what's on.... Hmmm -- I wonder if DVD's will be replaced not just by some other disc but by some other conveyance or software thingee altogether. This all presupposes the planet does not blow up in 2012.


Mississippi Gulf Coast: I hate that touch screen where CNNers (and a few others) move their fingers closer and farther apart to move and zoom screens. Dorky, distracting and so often they're fighting the technology that I immediately change the channel. Sorry, it just had to be said.

Tom Shales: And when it has to be said - this is the place to say it! Thank you. People on TV have enjoyed playing with the toys ever since the toy of television itself was invented. I remember Jerry Lewis dragging cameras around - and even breaking one or two. I remember Dave Garraway pretending to chop in half the coaxial cable that carried TV shows from network to affiliates, probably because it was replaced by over-the-air transmission. Or - satellites? It's all a muddle, sorry.


Burnt Hills, N.Y.: I used to watch Max Headroom, and kind of liked Matt Frewer in Doctor, Doctor. It didn't last long.

For summer fun, how can you beat Psych?

Tom Shales: How can one beat it? How about -- oh, we're limiting this to TV entertainment. Right. There is so much out there, it's a matter of finding it. I think the "TV Critic" idea of reviewing shows is dying (movie critic is dying too, and that's sad, since the new version is some doofus with a blog who goes to movies to count the bloody bodies and explosions - 'the art of cinema' is becoming kaput) and that TV critics ought to have some sort of master-control deal that helps them help viewers find programs they'd like. I know that's what we've been doing, supposedly, or partly, but one or two shows at a time. Doesn't suffice any more. All these little cable channels just throw stuff on the air, they don't even notify critics so we can notify viewers. The system is creaky, I fear (I know, I know, I'm creaky, too, you don't have to say it)....... Well not THAT creaky....... Fat doesn't creak, you know.


St. Paul, Minn.: Hi Tom -- Thanks for taking questions today. President Obama is set to appear on "The View" this week. Good move or not? He's a smart guy, but I'm convinced that he's going to say something off-key that's going to wipe the Afghan war leak story off the front page (or at least be a distraction, which this president does not need). I think he should skip it. What say you?

Tom Shales: I am scared, frankly. But this is a guy who handles himself very well. Remember we just aren't accustomed to a president who speaks with genuine candor -- maybe Obama doesn't quite do that - maybe no president and commander-in-chief can, because repercussions can be so unpredictable and costly -- and Obama may be setting standards that all future presidents will try to follow. I am talking in terms of style so don't write in and call me a "liberal." I don't mean his POLICIES in this case, I mean his sense of style and of 'what works' when trying to communicate on a mass medium. Lord knows it can't be easy, since so many people, some of them presidents, have failed at it. Of course I will be watching as will you ... so good for Auntie Barbara (Walters) and her coven. I mean flock. Or, group........


For Peoria: There are three summer shows I absolutely love -- Leverage (on TNT), White Collar (on USA), and Drop Dead Diva (on Lifetime). I also watch The Next Food Network Star, but it's half over now, so I wouldn't suggest getting into that one.

Tom Shales: Thanks. I like the dating shows on MTV. Make me feel young and stupid again...


Don't Blame Cable: ...but "another daytime-caliber show that somehow crashed the prime-time schedule" is a brilliant assessment of 90 percent of what's on.

If anything, the presence of 500 channels has raised the bar for what can be considered "good," even while it's offered an open invitation to the crap merchants.

Tom Shales: I agree but why do you say "don't blame cable"? That's what the 500-channel universe is. It's cable and satellites and all that wondrous junk that we couldn't live without now that we are accustomed to it. I do miss the concept of Prime Time as just what it sounds like, a special zone where you see the cream of the crop and the programs most likely to appeal to a broad audience. If we're going to have "narrow-casting" in prime time EVEN ON general-interest networks, then there won't be anything prime about prime-time much longer (speaking of which, I wonder who coined the term or was first to use it ... probably dates back to radio).......and thank you, Don't Blame Cable....


Burnt Hills, N.Y.: What I like about your column is that you're reviewing shows I otherwise would miss. For instance, if you had said something positive about the Tony Robbins Show, I would have had you committed...err...put it on my "maybe" list when channel surfing. You saved me the effort.

Tom Shales: Thank you and how burnt are the hills? Do you know there is a street in Bucks County PA called something like Burnt House Street? WHO'D WANT TO LIVE ON THAT?! Oh, I wandered off the track again. Yes, the Tony Robbins show is strictly medicinal TV - medicinal as in Snake Oil that grifters used to sell from the backs of covered wagons, if old Westerns are accurate. It's patent medicine designed for an alleged ailment. If you don't think you have the ailment, why would you watch? I don't think this applies to the GENUINE medical shows on Discovery and other networks. These absolutely mesmerize me. Have you seen the one about parasites - "Monsters Inside Me" or something like that? MUCH SCARIER THAN ANY HORROR MOVIE. Lordy Lord! If I wake up at 4 a.m. and watch one of those in rerun, I have a very hard time getting back to sleep.


A lady in the balcony --: I remember Matt Frewer as Max Headroom. You reminded me that Matt showed up as a resident of Eureka until the latest season. And THAT reminds me that the Syfy show Eureka seemed to have taken a year-long hiatus before the newest season. By the time new episodes appeared, I had forgotten why I'd watched it. Tom, are there shows that you think lost their audiences due to delays? Love your chats, by that way: you always cheer me up.

Tom Shales: Thank you! You have cheered me up. I thought I was certainly the blind leading the blind when it came to cheering ANYbody up. And I agree with you -- wait, I "share your pain" - when it comes to shows going away for such long spells. I guess The Sopranos, great as it was, established a horrid precedent, David Chase wandering off into the wilderness to meditate instead of just staying constantly in production and giving us new episodes when we were aching to see some. Do you think that's partly to blame? And these little cable networks that have to do a ton of research before they decide whether to bring a show back in the first place. It creates anxiety in viewers - will they ever receive closure to a cliffhanger, or will it just hang there on the cliff forever?!


Not that far from Peoria: For summer viewing now, please remind him/her in Peoria that Mad Men is back with Season 4! (sorry, can't resist sending this, and no, I'm not one of their publicists). Loved the first episode that ran Sunday.

Tom Shales: Consider it done. And while we are on the subject of Mad Men..........(hang on to your keyboards now).....


Pittsburgh, Pa.: Tom, I have to ask about Mad Men!

A central plot point finds the major players at Sterling Cooper ad agency running off and starting a new, competing firm. Did large firms really not have "non-compete" clauses in the 60s?

I recently worked as a prep assistant in a bakery and THEY made me sign a non-compete clause, for goodness sakes. (I guess they were afraid of me starting a major flour-sifting company.) It boggles my mind that the cutthroat businessmen portrayed in Mad Men wouldn't have thought to put non-compete clauses in people's contracts so they couldn't run off and start a new ham-hogging firm.

Tom Shales: Here's Pittsburgh with an intrguing Mad Men question. The answer could be that the writers haven't done enough research (personally I don't care that much how true-to-life fiction is, as long as it's plausible, otherwise why have 'fiction'?). I think it is possible that an operative naivete in the '50s would preclude the kind of contractually enforced exclusivity you speak of (ugh, what a sentence! - I mean mine, not yours). In other words, and please let there be other words -- well in other words they just might not have had those non-compete clauses on Madison Avenue. I've always suspected there's really a lot of collusion there anyway. In the same sense that if Dave Letterman goes to commercial, it's likely Jay Leno is in commercial too, so you can't watch both shows - not really -- by bouncing back and forth during commercial breaks. I know that's obviously not what you mean, Pittsburgh, but your question reminded me of it. Sorry. I suppose it would be better if I actually ANSWERED the questions - instead of thinking up new ones of my own!!! Hey, what a concept!


Richmond, Va.: Hi Tom. I was watching CBS's Sunday morning show and they showed an old clip of when Sinatra reunited Martin and Lewis on one of Jerry's telethons. I see we have another telethon this Labor Day. Has Jerry Lewis ever said why he became interested in helping the Muscular Dystrophy association so many years ago (when the telethon was only shown on a local channel in NY?)

Tom Shales: I am sure he did say, I just don't remember if it was a personal thing in his life or the life of someone he knew, or if people just came to him and said "Here are the discouraging facts and figures, please help us." I do fear for Jerry's health these days - although it seems he ballooned one year (from steroids, he said, I think, for maybe arthritis is something) and then deflated back to a more normal size again. I know I will choke up when he sings "You'll Never Walk Alone." I'm sorry, but at least I admit it! Of course. ED is no longer with us. But we struggle on just the same.


Alexandria, Va.: Tom,

You're not creaky... you're cranky. One of the big issues I have with all television/movie critics (not just you) is that there seems to be too much focus on the art side and not enough on the entertainment side. Also, there is too much comparison to a movie or show a generation or two ago. While I consider myself to be pretty open-minded and intellectual, sometimes I want something that is simply mindless and entertaining, not artistic and thought provoking. Why can critics not understand that?

Tom Shales: Hey on this one, I am really not guilty, Babe. OH SORRY, I didn't mean to call you Babe after all we have never even met plus it might be sexist although if you are a guy then it might be - uhh - personally offensive to you - and then again -- oh, the question. Most of the stuff I reviewed over 30-plus years WAS entertainment and I think I reviewed it for its entertainment value - did it entertain you without making you hate yourself for enjoying it? I mean "FEAR FACTOR" was, I suppose, entertaining in the broadest possible sense, but people slow down to look at carnage on the highway, too. You have to have standards and that's I think where critics come in. I assure you, if I had been looking for artistic value in even one-eighth of the shows I review(ed), I would have gone mad six months into the job. Come to think of it, maybe I did....... No seriously, the critic has to know what can reasonably be expected of the medium - but he also oughta push push push for it to be better. Don't you think? A critic serves 2 masters, the reader/audience and the medium itself.


Cape Coral, Fla.: We have both Burnt Store Road and Old Burnt Store Road. One has actual history, and the other is a fairly major thoroughfare.

Tom Shales: Thanks! Which reminds me for some reason, I wanted to watch "MacKenna's Gold" on TCM last night but it was just too darn late. But I got through the credits and realize THAT"S where Dave Letterman heard the song "Old Turkey Buzzard" that he used to have someone play on his show every night for weeks and weeks - as usual him finding it hilarious, no one else finding it hilarious, but many of us finding it hilarious THAT he found it hilarious while no one else found it hilarious. Is there a name for that kind of comedy?????


Burnt Hills, N.Y.: Burnt Hills is a comatose, leafy green hamlet halfway between Saratoga Springs and the thriving metropolis of Schenectady (which is Native American for "boy, are we lost."

Schenectady's claim to fame is being the birthplace of TV.

Tom Shales: Nooo. Get out. Shut up. (Said with respect - it's permissible now I hear). I'm kidding - it might as well be Schenectady as anywhere else, I guess (just not Arizona, nothing good comes from Arizona). Was Schenectady home for dear old Philo T. Farnsworth, who sort-of invented TV until RCA barged in and claimed IT had invented TV, and meanwhile the Russians said, as they used to always say, that THEY invented TV - specifically a comrade named Vladimir Zworykin. It may have been Alexander instead of Vladimir. You don't want to sit there waiting around while I look this stuff up, do you? Besides, that would be cheating. Boy am I lost.......


Tony Robbins: Well, Tom, I'm late to the chat and completely unprepared, not having read your column. But that won't stop me from asking: What rock did Tony Robbins climb out from under? I that that crook was finished.

Tom Shales: Yes, I that that crook was finished too. Sorry, I am not picking on you, I commit more typos than any mortal should. Which is one thing that AMAZES me about the computer age, that it requires everybody to learn how to do something as seemingly retro as TYPE. Who'd a thunk it? Anyway, as far as Tony Robbins goes, well, the farther away the better. Do you ever watch all-night TV? The channels are clogged with these guys (women included of course) telling us how to get rich, how to get thin, how to get well, and how to poop more often.


Arlington, Va.: I want to put in a plug for The Good Wife, the Julianna Marguiles drama that CBS is running and rerunning with three episodes in the past week. It is one of those shows that bears rewatching to see how they tied it all together with a lot of interesting secondary characters, a smarmy States Attorney, a possibly bisexual female investigator, and Alan Cumming as a political consultant named Eli Gold who is a riff on Rahm Emanuel while Entourage has a riff on Rahm's brother.

Tom Shales: Sounds good! Thanks......


Baltimore, Md.: Good afternoon Tom, this question might be better suited for Lisa de Moraes or Emily Yahr, but I heard a wonderful little rumor last week that Starz was in the process of acquiring FlashForward to continue on with a second season. Is this true!? And if they are, any odds of them succeeding? Thanks!

Tom Shales: We are searching for Emily now. She has many important cases to investigate. Lisa is on the West Coast, I believe. She writes such a great column. We almost never see each other, which is my loss, her good fortune........


Baltimore, Md.: Mad Men non-compete clause: I am doing this from memory, but I think that the British firm that bought Sterling Cooper, by selling it to another company, had invalidated the non-compete clause they had the executives sign. At least that's what I remember from last season --there was a plausible out clause and it gave the British exec who was running Sterling Cooper for bosses who looked down on him great pleasure in springing the trap. (The actor who plays that part is the son of the late, great Richard Harris, by the way.)

Tom Shales: Wow. Awesome. No really, this sounds entirely credible. Once again, we have brought together two individuals who in the heat of the day .... this is really a match-up column, you know.


Summer shows: I enjoy Lie to Me but half the time I have to rewind and put the closed captioning on since he mumbles with his British accent. Interesting show though.

Tom Shales: Thanks. I watch more and more TV with the captions on. I am glad they're there - selfishly for myself but of course it's great for those who completely rely on them. "Stereo" sound mixing seems to have brought a curse with it (doesn't EVERY advance in technology?) which is that the dialogue gets mixed into a big mush with the background music. I've had as many complaints about this aspect of TV-watching over the years as I've had about Kathie Lee Gifford or those stupid Capital One ads......


Burnt Hills, N.Y.: WRGB in Schenectady claims to be the oldest TV station in the country. Schenectady is also where General Electric was founded, so when GE was experimenting with broadcast TV, it came from here. And that was the last time it was interesting.

Tom Shales: Ah. Very good. But the actual invention -- I don't know. It goes WAY back, you know. They showed TV at the 1939 Worlds Fair. And if not for World War II, TV would have come of age sooner -- which you may consider something to be said on behalf of World War II. Wait - this just in - LEONARDO INVENTED TELEVISION, but it was an all-paper version.....


Non-Compete Clauses: Their contracts were voided when Lane Pryce fired them at the end of last season. Firing means the non-compete is invalid. Quitting would have kept it in place.

I need a smoke and a glass of scotch. It's 12:30, for crying out loud.

Tom Shales: Yeah jeez where the heck is my second martini? (come to think of it .. oh you know....)


Woodbridge, Va.: The only thing I know about Tony Robbins is that I've seen him wear those fingerless gloves while on stage.

Tom Shales: creepy


Al Gore...: said he invented TV.

Tom Shales: no no, the internet, the internet!


Slow down: Hey man - I like your chats but you tend to go off on tangents, like stream of consciousness writing. Stick to the Q's at hand. Thanks.

Tom Shales: What?! Me go off on tangents? That's absurd. I had an uncle who went off on tangents once. He went off on a tangent while driving his 1957 Mercury down Route I-95, back in the days before that "South of the Border" place (meaning the border between North and South Carolina) had put up those goofy billboards every five miles or so from approximately Philadelphia southward. You know, when I drive to or from Bucks County, Pa. Philadelphia itself is ALWAYS a bottleneck. A bottlejam. A neck-brace. Whatever the term. Why can't they get traffic to MOVE in that town? Brotherly love, hah - they need a little brotherly - AND SISTERLY - driving instruction. Now - what was the question again?


Arlington, Va.: Best new summer series -- actually best new drama series -- in the last two decades, Memphis Beat. Very well-written and probably the best acting on television since Lassie and the Ranger.

Tom Shales: Thank you! Do you mean Lassie's own acting or that of all the people on the show? You probably don't remember Jan Clayton who FIRST played the mother (to Tommy Rettig as the son, best of all the Lassie kids by the way). Jan Clayton was so beautiful and such a great actress. She starred in the original Broadway production of Carousel. Seriously, Lassie was never quite as good as that FIRST cast - Clayton, Rettig, George Cleveland AND OF COURSE, LASSIE. GOD BLESS YOU AND GOOD BYE.


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