Shales on TV Live

Tom Shales
Washington Post TV Columnist
Tuesday, September 21, 2010; 12:00 PM

Washington Post Style columnist and Pulitzer Prize winner Tom Shales was online Tuesday, Sept. 21, 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.


City Jail: Tom, thanks for another great article about all things TV, this time about cop shows. I thought you would mention "The Shield" as one of the more recent high profile cop shows that show the grit and grime of law enforcement. Of course , we all know about Law and Order and its various offshoots. don't be too critical on the new crop of cop shows. My all time favorites were Police Story and "the District".

Tom Shales: Greetings. I just saw video on the internet of bleachers collapsing at a sports event in Brazil. During the video -- no one was killed fortunately -- up pops a Google ad for a company that makes portable bleachers. Is that just a trifle ghoulish? Imagine being an ad salesman for Google. Anyway in keeping with today's well-hidden column on Cop Shows, how nice to hear from the city jail. The Shield? yes, very unorthodox. I sort of limited myself to network TV and that piece was by no means, by no stretch, comprehensive. But thanks, and keep your chin up.


Saint Paul, Minn.: Hi Tom -- Thanks as always for taking questions today. I love "Dancing with the Stars" as much as the next person, but the shrieking, shrill, and utterly ear-drum piercing crowd reactions to virtually everything that happens (the introductions, the dancing, the judging, you name it) have become almost more than I can bear, so I watched most of last night's season premiere with the mute button on. Has it always been that way, or has it gotten worse?

Or, God forbid, have I just become a cranky old fogie who needs to lighten up?

Tom Shales: Do you REALLY love it as much as "the next person"? Because it just so happens that i AM the next person - and i love it perhaps more than you do, because honestly, tho the crowd noise is ridiculously over-hyped, and the crowd does clap at every little movement (but then each has a meaning all its own -- let's see who gets THAT reference) but you miss the music if you turn the sound down, and don't all dancers look pretty silly when whirling and twirling around in silence? Anyway love the show. It's a godsend. Actually a Beeb-send, 'cause it's from the BBC originally........


Bubba was right: It is the economy stupid. So my TV related question after yesterday's CNBC televised town hall is would Bill Clinton's renowned telegenic empathy skills matter much in this 9% unemployment environment under the same circumstances as Obama now? Sympathy only gets you so far over the long term.

Tom Shales: Oh but haven't you heard - the recession is over! It ended on, what, last Sept. 7th or something? (I know that's not the date being given but what's the difference -whoever is saying it's over is a fool. Or some high-paid economic whiz who's never really suffered the effects of it anyway). I didn't catch Bill's turning-on-the-charm for the 1,000th time, but he still does seem to thrive under TV lights and cameras. To state the painfully obvious.......


Eugene, Ore.: Correct me, but you're not a fan of Showtime's "Dexter," right?

Tom Shales: Dear Eugene, No "correcting" necessary, I am not a fan of Showtime's Dexter right. I am not even a fan of Showtime, though I liked the series with the "Sopranos" star as a nurse. But feel free to extoll Dexter, we have plenty of room and plenty of time. How's life in Eugene?


Victoria, B.C.: New face anchoring Global National

Some north of the border news. There are three networks in Canada. They're CBC, CTV and Global.

Of course all have a nightly newscast and it's just announced that Dawna Friesen, who for past 11 yearswas a foreign correspondent for NBC News in London, England, will taking over the anchor chair making her the first female to do so. CTV also announced earlier this summer that Lisa LaFlamme will be taking over the anchor chair of their nightly newscast after the retirement of the current anchor, Lloyd Robertson, in mid-2011.

So Canadians are expected to get tons of promotion for the new era of female news anchors. Also while Canadians do watch American dramas and sitcoms, we do tend to watch Canadian newscast rather then American ones so who anchors the nightly newscast actually has an effect.

Tom Shales: Thank you. I love Canada. It's so clean. I wish we had access down here to the Canadian newscasts. I thought that the age of satellites would enable us to watch TV from other nations LIVE, just as people in the other nations saw it. But no, at least not yet, although through a complicated and very expensive set-up, it IS possible to watch the BBC at the same time Britons do. It requires a video "sling" whatever the hell that is, and of course a subscription that costs a bundle. If you want to see some authentic British telly, check out the X-Factor clips on YouTube X-Factor is the show that Simon Cowell left American Idol to star in and produce -- that is an American version, the British version is already running. Watch IAN PAYNE, a 16-year-old singer who would be the next Sinatra if the world were interested in a next Sinatra. The kid has an AMAZING voice and phrasing. I know, I drifted off the point but there really was no question -- not that I object to THAT........


UHF: One vote here for Homicide as best cop show ever. I miss it terribly but just as glad that it didn't hang around past its pull date. Best episode: the one where the guy gets wedged between a subway car and the platform - I get chills just thinking about it.

Tom Shales: And another vote from me -- I think. You know, some people prefer the event grittier grittiness of THE WIRE, a cable show, but Homicide is my favorite among cop sagas as well. And what a great cast. I dont think any of them have gone on to projects nearly as superior as Homicide was......


Liked "The Event": Tom, last night I had a heck of a time. I wanted to watch the Nats game (which I did from 7-8, and they were ahead when I left), "How I Met Your Mother" (I've been with that from the beginning), The Event, and as much of Hawaii 5-0 as I could stay up for.

I also wanted to TiVo "Gossip Girl" and "Castle" for later viewing and catch "Dancing with the Stars" online! And of course there was the Saints/Niners game! What's a girl to do?

BTW I really enjoyed The Event, HIMYM, and the first 20 minutes of 5-0. Did NOT like the Nats losing 8-2!

Tom Shales: Oh those gnats! I MEAN NATS. Yeah, it was one of those nights when you could hardly say "there's nothing on" television. It was a real dilemma. I don't think "Dancing with the Stars" is a woman's show; it's a family show. Too bad it has to air opposite Monday Night Football. And the same company obviously owns ABC and ESPN so why couldn't "Dancing" air Tues and Weds nights. But then American Idol comes back and nobody wants to go up against that, at least not with a similar show, so -- Anyway, it was a great TV night. However, I had insomnia and woke up at 3:30 and ZILCH. Nothing. Nada. Zero. Even Turner Classic Movies was showing a bummer......I think the networks should repeat prime time starting at midnight on their cable channels, tho CBS doesn't exactly own one...


Athens, Ga.: Deep thoughts...

As a reviewer of TV, is fact really stranger then fiction?

Tom Shales: Well now let me see........

Let me think very, very hard.......

Are you sure you didn't ask this question last week?

And wasn't my answer, "How the heck should I know?"

I would say, considering the various truths and the various fictions I have been exposed to in my XX years of reviewing, truth IS stranger than fiction - and "reality" as redefined by crummy TV shows is stranger than either of them. But please ask again next week if I am still here. And I miss coming to Athens, Ga. every year to be a judge in the Peabody Awards, but one serves a term of 5 years, I think it is, and then they retire you. So nice to be down there in the spring. Thanks for the terribly profound conundrum.


Boston: Another DWTS fan! What do you think of this year's crop of celebs? I thought the Sitch would be annoying based on his press but I think he has potential. And the Disney kid will take it all!

Plus are you a fan of Glee? Looking forward to the 2nd season premiere? Even if your answer is not really, you have to admit its been a long time since one-liners like Sue Sylvester's have graced our airwaves...

Tom Shales: I think it's great to have a show that everybody in the house may crowd onto the couch to watch. Of course I think Florence Henderson was the "awesome" one last night, even if her Looking Great at 78 routine was something of an anti-climax after Betty White's Dandy Tricks at 86. Oh all right, maybe I have the ages slightly wrong. Oh, Betty is "88 and a half," right? Or was when she hosted SNL, which was repeated Saturday night as a preface to the new season which starts this coming Saturday night. Yes, I love Glee and am looking forward to its return, though I admit to having seen far fewer than ALL the episodes......


Alexandria, Va.: Tom,

You get an advance peek at the Larry Sanders: Complete Series compilation DVD set? Your guest-starring turn figures prominently, no doubt. What a great show!

Any memories/anecdotes, as in, how did Gary Shandling get you to appear?

Tom Shales: I have not seen the new set but have very happy memories of that "guest star" gig. Sally Field was also on that week, but my Big Scene was shot on a day she didn't need to be there. Maybe she was out having her bones checked. Garry was a lot of fun, very wily sense of humor; and I'm a big fan of Rip Torn, though I wish he knew the difference between a bank and his house. He cant be THAT rich that there's a great similarity. How did Garry "Get" me to appear? Try & stop me, as the saying goes. I certainly took NO coaxing. It was just too tempting. And it is a kick I admit to have a dressing room with your name on the door, even though this one was smaller than an airplane bathroom. And they send your flowers and candy. (That's right, I ate the flowers). I am anxious to see the show again after all these years. Thank you so much for asking.......


Fact and fiction: I believe Mark Twain once said, "Why shouldn't truth be stranger than fiction? Fiction, after all, has to make sense."

Tom Shales: Oh that Mark. Great quotation.


News ratings and star contracts: We keep hearing about the network nightly news ratings going down yet the star anchors still seem to command king's pay. When will we see the lower ratings/ad revenue bite into anchor contract levels? Should your mother have encouraged you more to go into TV news anchoring when you were young?

Tom Shales: To answer your last question first, I think mother DID encourage me to go into TV News anchoring -- but that was when I still weighed under 400 pounds. HA HA HA. I mean L-O-L. (well not THAT "L"). Anyway the networks apparently still make a nice bundle off all those denture and vitamin and laxative and ED-cure ads you see on the news, so the salaries are commensurate. Just like Dave Letterman getting $30 million or so; count the commercials on his show some time. Whoa boy. That show brings in a FORTUNE..........


Courtesy of the Google Machine: Lyrics of the opening song for "Car 54 Where are You"?

There's a hold up in the Bronx,

Brooklyn's broken out in fights.

There's a traffic jam in Harlem

That's backed up to Jackson Heights.

There's a scout troup short a child,

Kruschev's due at Idlewild

Car 54, Where Are You?

Tom Shales: Thank you. I wish you had just remembered them yourself. Remember when they tried to remake that show - along with 700 other old sitcoms -- into a movie, and flopped miserably? And I thought Khrushchev was spelled -- well, like I just spelled it. Maybe Google screwed up. Thanks for musical interlude.


Cincinnati, Ohio: I haven't watched the debut of the new Hawaii 5-0 yet but am interested in why you called it "ridiculous" in today's review of cop shows. I loved the original and am not exactly looking forward to this "revised" version but trying to keep an open mind.

Tom Shales: It's "ridiculous" because it is SO formulaic -- the formula they're following is NOT that of the original Hawaii 5-0, by the way -- and because it's just another stupid buddy-cop show with all that infernal "cute" banter between the two heroes. BUT there is fantastic scenery, which will look great in HD (I saw it on a regular DVD). And you know, it's just another empty hour of escapist fluff so it isn't terrible enough to get mad at. Nor good enough to be mad about......


Favorite cops show: Car 54 Where Are You? Nothing better than Toody and Muldoon. Explain to the kiddies in the audience.

Tom Shales: I don't think any explanation here can do it justice. I don't remember who played whom, but one of the two bumbling fumbling cops was played by Fred -- by Fred-- Oh darn. I can't Google and answer questions at the same time. Oh, Fred Gwynne, who later (earlier? no, I think later) had a bigger hit as the Frankenstein figure in "The Munsters." And he had a terrific last hurrah as an actor in "My Cousin Vinny." One of those great character actors who don't get enough attention.....


Studio sound: Speaking of DWTS etc and loud audiences, it seems almost every time I hear a crazed audience response on a show if you look carefully at the actual audience there is nothing happening ... no clapping, hooting etc. Clearly, or is it just me, some creative audio is going on don't you think? Same thing with those "flashbulbs" in large events like the Olympic openings. Have you ever been in a studio for a taping and then watched the broadcast and felt the audience response was much different than what you experienced in person?

Tom Shales: Yes, it's all "sweetened" if it's on tape, and I think now they even have the technology to sweeten things that are live. One year I swore they were sweetening the Oscars because the jokes clearly were getting no VISIBLE laughter from the audience. "Taped before a live audience" is NO guarantee that the audience response wasn't subsequently augmented. This reminds me of a story about a critic, a true story about Richard Coe, the Post's drama (and film!) critic for years. I was at Arena for an opening once, a comedy, and sat directly across from him. He had a huge face so I couldn't help noticing that he didn't change expressions once during the whole show, just sat there stonily. So I chuckled the next morning when he reviewed the show as, you know, "A Laugh riot that will have you rolling in the aisles," or something along those lines. He knew a laff riot when he saw one; he just didn't laff. Or riot.


Oh those gnats!: Why is it that everyone in Washington is always carrying on about the gnats? I see lots of flies, spiders, and ants, but I've never really seen any gnats. Are they really that hard to see? Are they harder to see than mosquitoes? Cause I can't see mosquitoes until they've already bitten me. And it's not like the gnats are infesting anyone's house. But if you get spiders or ants in the house, you'll never get them out. Once my neighbor had ants in her kitchen, and .... what? .... they're not bugs? .... they're BASEBALL PLAYERS?!? ...... never mind.

Tom Shales: Oh those readers!


"The Even"..Yawn.."t": Wow, was that just too predictable after all that build up or what? I really don't care that much what The Event is with these ER, LA Law leftovers.

Tom Shales: I haven't seen The Event either on the air of via preview from the networks. But honestly, a plane that disappears from the sky? That was in The Tommyknockers and even a Twilight Zone and doesnt strike me as a wildly imaginative jumping-off point. All things considered, I think I would just as soon know what's going on as not know -- including when watching a TV series.


Washington DC : Evening news ratings: Yes, the numbers aren't what they were in the days of Huntley/Brinkley and Cronkite, but Brian Williams averages 8.5 million viewers a night, Diane Sawyer about 7.5 and Couric about 5.5. Cumulatively that's a huge audience--for all the crying, bellyaching and job cutting, news still makes money for the networks and the anchors know it.

Tom Shales: Thank you, oh Ghost of Captain Airwaves, for taking us back to the Ratingzzzz Rialto (I hope you remember John Carmody, whom I dubbed Capt Airwaves, and who wrote and invented The TV Column years ago, though it seems more like hours ago).....Lisa de Moraes does a great job now and I say that even tho we seem to disagree about everything on television. And thanks for making the point about the size of the audience etc.


Car 54/Munsters: And don't forget that Grandpa Munster (Al Lewis) played one of the precinct cops on Car 54.

Tom Shales: Ah, good point, good point. Must keep these relationships in perspective. He wasn't in Bilko's platoon on "The Phil Silver Show" was he? (Yes it was also known as "You'll Never Get Rich" and yes that is also the title of a movie with Fred Astaire and the fantabulous Rita Hayworth and ... so on)


Fred Gwynne's First Role: He was one of Lee J Cobb's henchmen in "On the Waterfront."

Tom Shales: Wow. He was so good in comic roles, one tends to forget how intimidating he could be as a bad guy, tho he played plenty of good guys too....


How Palin will do: I'll bet the producers of DWTS are hoping that Bristol Palin remains in the competition for awhile. I was just reading Lisa de Moraes' piece on the first night, and the big majority of comments on her story seem to be devoted to Palin. Many were vicious cheap shots aimed at her appearance, her being a single mother at a young age and the daughter of Sarah Palin, and so on. And many, of course, were coming to her defense and saying that she did a good job under the circumstances. Anyway, it all tells me that viewers have a keen interest in seeing how she will do. Moraes on TV - Jennifer Grey takes top spot in "Dancing with Stars," as Bristol Palin shimmies and Margaret Cho plods along

Tom Shales: I think Bristol was a little uncomfortable being nuzzled and hugged so much by her dance partner during the judging part. Or is that my imagination at work yet again? She didn't look good, no, but you won't read any catty remarks around here. I thought Margaret Cho was hilarious with those gold bat-wings she wore; those knucklheaded old judges have no senses of humor (at least not "Len," the geezer in the middle)....


Anonymous: In response to this earlier post: "One vote here for Homicide as best cop show ever. I miss it terribly but just as glad that it didn't hang around past its pull date. Best episode: the one where the guy gets wedged between a subway car and the platform - I get chills just thinking about it."

Homicide is also my favorite cop show. Did you know the guy who got wedged into the subway was Vincent D'Onofrio - Pvt. Pyle in "Full Metal Jacket" and Goren on "Law & Order Criminal Intent" - a wonderful actor.

Tom Shales: Yes. He played a young Orson Welles in a terrific "little" movie about Edward Wood, the famous/infamous director of some of the worst films of all time. I think the movie was called just "Ed Wood." If you see it, watch for Donofrio, it's a short scene shot at Musso & Frank's old restaurant on Hollywood Boulevard (across from Frederick's of Hollywood -- now how do I know THAT?)


Washington DC: Favorite cop show--Barney Miller. A fantastic ensemble of actors.

Tom Shales: Hated it. But respect you opinion. It ran for years.


Burnt Hills, NY: Fred Gywnne was Herman Munster after he was Francis Muldoon. What a great cast on Car 54--Al "Grandpa" Lewis, Nipsey Russell, Charlotte Rae, and the great Joe E. Ross.

Tom Shales: Nipsey Russell? I don't think I remember the show very vividly. The theme song, yes (at least now that a reader sang it to me)


video "sling": It's a Slingbox, and it's the greatest thing. You hook it up to your cable or satellite at home, and to your Internet connection, and it allows you to watch your home TV on a computer from anywhere--a hotel, an airport lounge, etc. The way to get it to work with, say, the BBC, involves having a friend in England who wouldn't mind physically setting up the Slingbox on THEIR cable or satellite and letting you watch it using their Internet connection.

Tom Shales: BUT I DON'T HAVE A FRIEND IN ENGLAND!!! i barely have any in the United States......


Dancing With The Stars: Tom, can you tell me who The Situation is, and why I should care?

Tom Shales: He's a big lug with fab abs who appeared as himself in the MTV Reality series "Jersey Shore," about a bunch of kids who seem similar to characters in "Saturday Night Fever" only they don't dance, they just sit around and talk -- and stuff. He was actually mildly engaging on the show, though, don't you think? I mean compared to some of his other appearances. He seemed less the lout....


SNL This Saturday Night: You've got to be kidding me... how did I miss this? My DVR schedule is already overloaded... this whole season is insane. I don't know if I can fit anymore series in. Although, now that I think about it... reviving my Sunday morning routine of SNL and pancakes shouldn't be difficult.

Tom Shales: Pancakes? Did you say pancakes? Are you aware of the "Invite a Critic to Breakfast" charity? They do such fine work among the underpaid (there, I said it again, and I'm not sorry).....


Reston: Vincent D'Onofrio was also the bug alien in "Men in Black." Quite versatile.

Tom Shales: Whoa! Sir John Gielgud was busy. Hell he was dead...


Broderick Crawford: In Highway Patrol. He was one scary dude, bad guys didn't stand a chance.

Tom Shales: No and the other actors didn't stand much chance of the old guy remembering his lines. NOT BECAUSE HE WAS OLD, mind you. We would never talk like that around here. Just because he forgot lines.


Alexandria, VA: So based on your reception of the new Hawaii-5-0, can I venture a guess that you're also not a fan of the show "The Good Guys"? (Which I rather enjoyed this summer and hope it does well and comes back...)

Tom Shales: Didn't see the Good Guys - or did I? I hope it wasn't quite as stupid as Hawaii 5-0 but then it probably wasn't as lavishly produced, either.


Movies...Really Old Movies: Do you know the DVD reseller Kino? They just put out an inexpensive set of old silent French crime films from 1913 to 1915, about Fantomas, the master criminal of Paris. They are fantastic, and a thousand times better than the remake of Hawaii 5-0 or whatever (bleep) the networks are trying to ram down our throats. Although "Boardwalk Empire" was pretty good.

Tom Shales: Thanks. If you ever see a documentary (I would THINK they would have it) called "Paris 1900," take a chance on it. Fascinating films of Paris etc. in the "belle epoque" era included a flooded Paris. I don't know why, because I'm not a frequent visitor to France by a long shot, but I love that film. I guess it's the looking-back-in-time thing; the films are mostly not professionally shot. The French were big on moving pictures before almost anyone else...


Homicide Subway episode: trapped man was Vincent D'onofrio, now on one of the Law & Orders.

Riveting. Andre Braugher just brilliant.

Tom Shales: Andre Braugher! A great discovery of "Homicide." Now he has to make silly comedies and horror movies.


NYC: Can we sue AMC to force them to take the C out of their name? Classics? How do they define a classic? How is Death Wish IV a classic? I remember when I used to confuse TMC with AMC. Now it's easy to tell them apart. If you see an orangutan on the screen, you got AMC.

Tom Shales: Plus they censor the bejeebers out of everything. I saw a version of RoboCop one night -- more violence had been done TO the film than was ever done IN the film......


Ann Arbor, Mich.: Have you seen those clips of Roger Ebert and you reviewing feature films from 1999 just after Gene Siskel had died and before they misfortunately picked Richard Roeper to be the other thumb.

There are a couple of clips from your guest spots up on Neat to see.

Tom Shales: Oh really? The weirdest stuff makes it to YouTube. I will take a look. I am not a big fan of Roger's but we always got along. Gene was much nicer and far less pretentious. I think Roger's attempt to revive the show, with himself as a ghostly presence, is a little creepy, but more power to him for keeping interested in life and work after the ordeal he went through. And he was very nice to me when I sat in for Gene; he covered up a goof I made..... (of course they can edit out and/or reshoot any really bad ones)......


Burnt Hills, NY: Hi Tom: I also loved Homicide. As far as the cast's subsequent projects are concerned, I think Melissa Leo's Academy Award nomination and Andre Braugher's Emmy Award for Thief are evidence that there was life after Homicide.

Tom Shales: Thank you. I worry when I haven't heard from Burnt Hills. Much appreciated.......


Baltimore MD: Remembrance of cop shows past: Tom, I appreciated the mentions of Dragnet and, especially, Hill Street Blues in today's column, but I think the original Law & Order also deserved a mention. The show stayed on the air so long that it became sort of a punchline, but at its best it was excellent, principally because it downplayed personal backgrounds of the cops and DAs and concentrated on the minutiae of arresting a perp and building a case. And because Dick Wolf cycled through so many cast members, it always provided good fodder for arguments about which was the best cast. Personally, I go with the Jerry Ohrbach/Jesse Martin years.

Tom Shales: Thanks. Baltimore has had a rough time of it in cop shows -- well I'm thinking of The Wire mainly. By the way, everything in the Post now is supposed to be shorter, shorter, and still shorter -- so there was no hope of covering many of the great cop shows in that column. I also had to review two new ones. But who's complaining? I'm not complaining. And thanks to everyone who had a question or comment. Hasta la vista, babies....


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