Shales on TV Live: SNL's 36th season, Dancing With the Stars, Ken Burns documentaries, more

Tom Shales
Washington Post TV Columnist
Tuesday, September 28, 2010; 12:00 PM

Washington Post Style columnist and Pulitzer Prize winner Tom Shales was online Tuesday, Sept. 28, at Noon ET to discuss television, its cultural impact and his columns.

Column: Tom Shales reviews the opening show of SNL's 36th season

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: Hello, hello. Please, be seated - much easier to type that way. Unless you've got some new-fangled kind of computer I haven't even heard of yet. Hemingway wrote standing up - now what would he do with a word processor? Probably shoot it. Which is my temptation exactly -- see, I have something in common with Hemingway! How about that? OK, enough prefatory babbling. Saturday Night Live as usual is eliciting various opinions, having returned for Season No. 36. Wow.


SNL: Tom, it looks like even you're coming around to the realization that it's time to pull the plug on SNL. It was never all that funny even when we were all stoned in the 70s, and the decent thing to do now would be to give it a decent burial.

Not to mention that they stole from -- were inspired by? -- another sketch show for that stooopid "pubes" bit. If you go to the trouble to steal a joke, and that's the best joke you can find to steal, you're over.

Tom Shales: Who'd they steal it from? Actually I think it would be crazy to "pull the plug." It is NOT on life support -- I mean to play be network rules, it still is overstuffed with advertising and is making a fortune for NBC. You're talking about the quality of the show which I think is still quite high....


Baltimore, Md.: Now that most shows have aired their premieres, have you changed your outlook on what's the most promising (and disappointing) shows? I know that you saw a lot of the premieres early but maybe seeing them a second time (or in light of changes or in comparison to old standbys), you've changed your view?

Tom Shales: I honestly haven't seen everything yet. The days of watching everything are rather over for me because so few shows will survive. I must say "The Event" seemed to me awfully uneventful - but they may survive because that kid on the show, Jason Ritter, John Ritter's son, has a lot of the old pizzazz, or the new pizzazz, or just has made friends with the camera. Now wait - The Event IS Ritter's show, right? I hated the way they made fancy with the flashback upon flashback into flashback over flashback. The story COULD have been told in a straightforward linear way but they souped it up to make it seem hip, I guess. Phooey.


Iowa: I think your column on SNL's season starting may have identified why so many people give up on the show: The strongest sketches aren't where they need to be. Dud sketches come up early and turn people off. I know I tuned in hoping for something but switched the channel as soon as I saw they were rehashing that abysmal "Bronx Beat" shtick. Would better sketch ordering help quiet criticism?

Tom Shales: But you know, it's a tricky business because it's a matter of timing -- They do a dress rehearsal at 8 o'clock or so as you probably know, and that may come in at longer than 90 minutes and then they (Lorne) have to start juggling -- which is to say that sketches are where they are not necessarily because of their quality. It may have nothing to do with that Then again there is the famous story of Wayne's World, which Lorne reputedly hated and put on at 12:50 a.m. and it was a huge hit anyway and of course eventually became SNL's most successful movie.......


Hawaii Five-O: Tom -- have you seen this show yet? It's entertaining, which is all I can ask for. There is chemistry between the two main leads which makes up for everything.

Tom Shales: I found it too jokey and smirky, but I agree with you that the two leads seem compatible (although David Letterman said the other night "I can't believe they gave Jim Belushi another show" -- Belushi called me up once and kept me on the phone for 20 minutes trying to convince me that his LAST series was wonderful and I should watching it -- "According to Jim", was that it? It was OK but it WASN'T wonderful.....) Where was I? Oh Hawaii 5-0. IT's an HD show; if you have a big flat wall-screen or just a TV of 45 inches or more, you'll enjoy the scenery and maybe tolerate the rest.

_______________________ Tom Shales reviews the opening show of SNL's 36th season (Post, Sept. 28)


Heigl on Letterman: Did you see Katherine Heigl's gigantic plug for electronic cigarettes on Letterman last night. It was so obviously a product placement. Reminded me of when Drew Barrymore told the viewers about how she loved a certain brand of peanut butter.

Tom Shales: It would be odd for the Letterman people to sanction a product placement by one of the guests. This would be more likely something that Letterman or one of his on-air flunkies -- Paul the bandleader or that funny red-haired announcer -- might do, but I don't think even THEY do, strictly speaking, product placements -- which is an ad embedded within the context of the show and not distinctly separated from it. Oh you knew that. Frankly, I am sorry I missed it as I always thought I'd look cool smoking but never wanted to do it for real. Now what happens with electronic cigarettes -- you get volts in your lungs?


Nancy Grace's Swift Justice: It is so bad it is almost good -- but not good for goodness sake. The people are Jerry Springer on downers and Nancy is just plain mean. But it is fun to watch while peeling potatoes.

Tom Shales: Is this a new show, a show in addition to her other show, or is it "the other show" that's been on for a while? She is awfully grating but there is something hideously fascinating about the concept AND the execution, I certainly agree with you there. Is this part of the genre of Train-Wreck Television, which is worse than a shark jumping over something (a train, perhaps) -- a show you watch because it's so awful you almost can't believe it......


Maryland: Boardwalk Empire is GREAT. Certainly a frontrunner for best show of 2010. Too bad network TV has sunk so low that BE's only competition is on cable channels (HBO, Showtime, AMC).

Tom Shales: Yes -- but do you get the feeling Boardwalk Empire will win Emmys mainly for costumes, sets, production details like that? I have never seen a show where the actors seemed so aware of their period clothes and the handsome sets. Some of the scenes are just so distractingly gorgeous to look at that you don't notice nothing very dramatic is happening. Steve Buscemi is miscast - he's one of my favorite living actors but he looks out of place as a big-big-big shot and in that fantastic top-coat. I found myself staring at the coat, not the actor, and wondering, "I wonder if the actors get to keep their costumes from this production?" I think they should almost have price tags on the clothes and period furniture.


Baltimore, Md.: Yo Tom! I know you mentioned a while back that Syfy doesn't send you copies of their movies beforehand to review, but by any chance did you watch "Sharktopus" this past Saturday evening? I did and thought it was a good effort on their part, but certainly not their best production. It was definitely more fun to watch than "Mega Shark Versus Giant Octopus." but nowhere near as good as "Mega Piranha," the reigning champion on my list.

Tom Shales: These titles are irresistible! Do the movies really live up to them? I saw one on a Friday night about a giant -- a giant -- well for argument's sake, let's say a giant hamster. And it never really LOOKED like it was part of the shot or the scene or the story or the film. It was just crudely dropped in. So I thought that was a rip-off. Likewise the computer-generated 'snakes." And yet sometimes the monsters come off quite well. Even if the movie is lousy, and you roar with laughter at the lousiness, the monster should be believable, 'cause otherwise you've been tricked by false pretenses... Yo right back to ya......


Let's see more Jay Pharoah: I thought new SNL cast member Jay Pharoah was hilarious as Will Smith! Hope we get to see more of him on the show -- he was better than most of the veteran cast members.

And can they please kill that tired Fred Armisen sketch where he's the talk show producer who's deaf and gives women bad advice? I can't believe they trotted out that one yet AGAIN. It would be funnier if half the lines weren't "Honey, I can't hear you -- you're gonna have to shout!" Reminds me of bad SNL movies where they take one lame gag and run it into the ground so deep that it passes through the center of the earth and comes out the other side. (And still isn't funny, even then.)

Tom Shales: Guess what: I have not seen that tired Fred Armisen sketch where he's the talk-show producer BEFORE! How about that for a loyal SNL viewer? Well you know how it is -- 1 a.m. seems to come sooner and sooner. Like sometimes it comes and 12:20, right after "Weekend Update." That's when I might, might mind you, tippy-toe up the steps and call it a Saturday night (yes it's a pretty exciting life, by cracky)......


Annapolis, Md.: Do I mis-remember or didn't the old SNL skits run a few minutes, get a few laughs (sometimes uproarious laughs) and then wrap it up? Whereas even the medium-current SNL skits, like the one about the washed-up movie stars that actually started off funny, drag on so long that the kernel of komedy (just made that up) is long gone? They seem to grab some idea they think is funny and run forever with it ... and separately, if this stuff is what makes it onto the show, how the heck bad is the stuff Lorne kills? I mean did you really think the little hat skit was a laugher after the first minute? They seem to "jump the shark" in every joke instead of doing what Costanza does and "leave 'em wanting more."

Tom Shales: Hmmm. I think there's quite a variety in sketch-lengths. I mean you have the commercial parodies which are only a minute or so long, and then the full-length sketches, and so on. I think that "cold open" thing is almost ALWAYS too long with too much exposition and detail. But if it has a good "hook," people will tolerate -- you know, if there's a sharp and snappy point or punch line. Gee I LIKED the hat sketch and it did take an unexpected turn or two, didn't it? I mean -- a microscopic hat?!?!?! I guess maybe I am a pushover for the show; I always wish it well, and I'm sort of rooting for it to win the race against itself; you know, it's the only real competition.........


Del Ray, VA.: I admit that SNL sketches can be hit or miss but I do give them credit for the amount of work and ingenuity it takes to reference a lot of current news/event. That can't be easy to put together a 90 min (or whatever) live comedy show every week.

Tom Shales: Good for you, Vandalay -- I mean Del Boca Vista --no wait (these old eyes....), I am teasing: Thank you DEL RAY, Virginia. It indeed does take a lot of "work and ingenuity" to put those sketches together. Say what you will, the writers still try NOT to go for the simplistic or the obvious with their sketches -- which makes it harder, and even makes it easier to fail. Is it better to fail honorably or to get laughs with obvious crud? One might even call it "crude crud." I think perhaps we will close up shop early today so that Uncle Tommy can go out and sell pencils on 15th Street (NW)..............


Most gifted comedienne?: Tina Fey, Amy Poehler or Kristin Wiig?

Tom Shales: I think Kristen Wiig because of her can-do-anything versatility. I love the sexy girl at the office who then proceeds to turn everyone off with her gross bad manners, I even like the little girl who commits mayhem and then says "Sorry," though Will Forte isn't' around any more to play her nemesis .....OW MY LEG HURTS. I have arthritis, and what a bummer it is. Anyway, Kristin or Kristen whichever it is, then Tina, then Amy.......And you? (I don't mean you're on the list, I mean, what order would you put them in?)


The Event: Tom, I like The Event. Actually I enjoy that genre as much (if not more) than any. It brought to mind for a few minutes a show called Nowhere Man, which starred Bruce Greenwood and didn't last nearly as long as it should have. I like shows with aspects that are revealed slowly over time, shows that make me think. My friend loves Lone Star and is afraid it will be canceled. Any word on that?

Tom Shales: I agree with you that The Event is nowhere, man. Heh heh heh. LOL. And all those other initials. Believe me, I think it is too early to write off "The Event," it may turn out to be fascinating and seductive. No word on Lone Star, sorry to report............


Product Placement: I was actually watching Jeopardy for a couple minutes last night, and Trebek followed an "Iron Man" question with a plug for the new DVD. Overtly, in the show! Good thing their audience never hears anything, or there would be an uprising.

Tom Shales: I have noticed that before. Yes, JEOPARDY is an easy one insofar as product placement goes. This is a case of SHAME ON SONY, because Sony owns Jeopardy through Columbia Pictures Television (I do so hope I am right for once) and if "Iron Man" was a Columbia Picture and owned by Sony too, then it is a case of ugly vertical integration. Or maybe horizontal. Or maybe -- curlicue integration? Well whatever, integration is not good in a case like this. Here's a hot one for you: the web will one day be much more heavily stuffed with ads, including surreptitious almost subliminal ads, than TV. I looked up something in the Bing "dictionary" the other day; whatever the word was, the "definition" including an ad for a product with the same name. Like if you were looking up "tree" and there was a "Tree" Tie Company, you'd find an ad for the ties there amongst the definitions of Tree. Say -- Tree Ties, I like the sound of that. Yes, folks, THIS TOO WAS A PRODUCT PLACEMENT! I am trying to get a lifetime supply of Tree Ties by mentioning them. No it's a "joke" (or almost) not serious. Not serious, not real, I was kidding completely.... there are no Tree Ties so far as I know....


Alexandria, Va.: The Event may have promise on the strength of the actors. Laura Innes, Jason Ritter and Blair Underwood all hold my attention. The editing, though, may keep me in the kitchen.

Who in their right mind thought that it was a good idea to cut to the kids meeting in the pool in the middle of a chase scene? It makes me think of the old Carol Burnett skit parodying Kung Fu. I halfway expect to see Harvey Korman having a flash forward.

Tom Shales: EXACTLY. I hate that kind of cutting. And wasn't an airplane "about to crash" for 45 minutes or so, virtually all through the first show? Seems like a way to amortize special-effects costs, ya know? Just make the "effect' last five times as long as it otherwise would by unspooling it via flashbacks. Are you following this? Because I'm not.......


Lorne's eye for talent : It's true that a lot of very talented people have gone through SNL. But it's also true that the best of them (Murray, Belushi, Fey) came out of Second City, while others (such as Phil Hartman) came out of a similar L.A. troupe, The Groundlings. It's much easier to find good talent if you already know where to look.

Tom Shales: Well yes -- it's not American Idol where people are lured in off the street ... I don't think that minimizes the accomplishment really...........


UHF: One of SNL's consistent mistakes is relying on too much on the tried and true (or is that tired and true) instead of experimenting with their new talent. And was it necessary to have Amy Poehler be the host? I guess Alec Baldwin is right around the corner.

Hope you saw Mad Men this week (skipped it again, did you?) - a great episode ending with all the partners arriving at a partner's meeting having just gone through their own secret life crises -- and having the Beatles' Do You Want to Know a Secret over the final credits.

Tom Shales: I want to see the Mad Men where they showed a clip from some actual 50s TV show - was it Dave Garroway or some other 50s icon? I heard about it the other day. Obviously I haven't been able to keep up with Mad Men. And yes, it was disappointing to have Amy Poehler as the first host, but the first show is always kind of weak because everybody's been away for the summer and feeling rusty. At least that is what Lorne Michaels has always said. I think a big hot superstar would have energized folks though, don't you?


SNL Dress Rehearsal: They should do the dress rehearsal in front of a randomly selected people recruited of of incoming flights, instead of a group of people whose comedic sense is so inadequate that they actually requested SNL tickets. Then, after every sketch bombed, they could run an SCTV rerun and get some laughs.

Tom Shales: Hmmmm. Radical -- and yet -- impractical -- but then again provocative -- and yet -- absurd - but then again interesting -- and yet somewhat whacky -- on the other hand, radical -- and yet -- impractical -- but then again....


Mad Men: Now that there's 100 percent more plot in recent episodes, will you go back and see if you like the show more?

Tom Shales: Uhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhh... there is? By gosh yes, i will go back to Mad Men -- but isn't it just ending its "season"? Just when other shows start, cable shows bid "adieu." And I think WE are going to be bidding adieu at any moment now unless you call your relatives and friends (two distinct and separate species) and ask them to join in the chat......


SNL: Used to be good and must-see. The only things I am interested in seeing is their political skits and Weekend Update.

The problem occurred when SNL changed their show design to focus on the guest as the featured person in the skit instead of doing the skit and the guest plays a part.

The best skits were from character development and that has lacked over the years.

Tom Shales: Interesting theory.

_______________________ This concludes today's chat. Thank you for joining.


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