What to Watch: TV chat with Hank Stuever

Aug 28, 2014

Post TV critic Hank Stuever talked about what's bad, good and so bad it's good on TV.

Here's what Hank would watch if he wasn't paid to watch TV: "Game of Thrones," "House Hunters," "The Amazing Race," "The Suze Orman Show." And he once gave "Here Comes Honey Boo Boo" a good review. Lately he's been digging "Masters of Sex," "The Strain" and "American Ninja Warrior."

Hi Hank -- thanks for taking questions today. Once again it's time to critique all thats wrong with the Emmy awards, and while I don't want to pile on, this business of people and shows winning five years running has got to stop. Certainly Julia L-D, Bryan Cranston, and Jim Parsons are deserving, but enough already. Create some new categories or something, anything to shake things up a little bit. Something's wrong when the only big surprise of the night was Kathy Bates winning over Julia Roberts. I'll get off my soapbox now.

I was pretty much on the same soapbox with my review Monday night and a follow-up blog post Tuesday morning in which I was less concerned with the repeat-performance winners and more concerned with the redundant nominees/wins for shows. I proposed getting rid of genre categories (drama and comedy) and just Outstanding New Series and Outstanding Returning Series. There are lots of ideas about "fixing" Emmys every year, but I think the technology and way we watch TV has changed enough that the Academy should get busy (or busier) on an Emmy overhaul.

Welcome, everyone. The subject isn't only the Emmys, even though The Post filed quite a bit on it. (The VMA's too.) Please jump in with whatever you want to talk about -- what you've been watching lately, what's ahead for fall, etc. You know the drill.

Hi Mr. Stuever - love the chats and columns. Why wasn't Broadchurch nominated for an Emmy? I thought it was fantastic. One might say because it originally aired in England, but then that would be the same for Downton Abbey, right? Also, is the BBC doing a second series of it or have they just shifted their attention to the new American version Gracepoint or whatever? Thanks!

Can't say definitively why "Broadchurch" didn't get more (any?) Emmy nominations, other than it's a crowded field. Regardless of how "Gracepoint" does on Fox, there is a second season of ITV's "Broadchurch" coming -- next year.

I was a big fan of Williams throughout his career and the circumstances surrounding his death were very sad. I thought Billy Crystal did a nice job in his tribute. However, something doesn't feel right when photos of Syd Ceasar and Micky Rooney were flashed overhead only moments before. Sure, they both lived long lives, but both were giants in their respective careers. I know it isn't a contest, but perhaps a bit more time should be spent on actors of that stature? By the way, I like your ideas regarding new categories for the awards. The current categories are very provincial and do marginalize excellent shows on cable, netflicks, and other sources.

Well, also, what about James Garner? (And personally, I would have given Ann B. Davis a full tribute too; maybe some words from Eve Plumb.) The point is, the list gets longer every year. Television is seven decades along now and its legends keep shuffling off the mortal coil.

Did Comcast change their policy of how many shows it makes available to watch or do the shows or networks decide? I thought the most they saved to view via On Demand was the last four, but I'm currently binge watching Orphan Black because both seasons are available. Am also planning to gorge on past HBO shows like The Wire, Treme, and The Leftovers. So when can I get Parks and Rec Season 6?

I don't know -- you'd have to ask someone at Comcast. I think the availability has to do with the licensing, but I also think networks decide how long they want to push prior seasons out there to attract new viewers. Despite the customer-first ethos of "on demand," these are all lucrative properties under license. Their availability to you is carefully calibrated to maximize profits -- syndication, sales, etc.

I watch and love nerd TV. I geek out over several shows to an unhealthy degree. I would like a representative for my people other than Chris Hardwick. Is that too much to ask?

I am right there with you. In a review last week of BBC America's "Intruders" (you have to scroll all the way down for it, past "BoJack Horseman") I made passing mention of the new season of "Doctor Who," which, as I'm sure you're aware, has been supplied with its own Chris Hardwick after-show, just like they do over on AMC with "The Walking Dead." I'm not a big Hardwick fan to begin with, but his ubiquity is unseemly.

There must be some kind of law that Hardwick is deemed the only telegenic person to conduct on-air geekouts over TV shows. On the networks' part, it shows a lack of imagination. On Hardwick's part, it makes him look like a greedy little piggy who wants to be King of the Nerds. As many of us know, there are plenty of funny, articulate and even passably pretty people out there in nerdworld to host these kinds of shows. To keep using the same guy over and over sort of undermines this whole, heavily-promoted idea that nerd culture has taken over the popular culture. If that's true, shouldn't we be able to deconstruct what happened on a TV show with more than one person to do all the hosting?

 

HBO is doing a new doc once a week. I have caught the Pam Smart and priest sex case. Both were very well done.

That's not new. HBO does weekly documentaries all summer -- and has been doing fantastic documentaries for three-plus decades. Some of my favorite things I've ever reviewed have been HBO docs, but I'm also quite critical of them when I think they're flawed. Showtime and Netflix have been stepping up their game with documentaries too. And, never to be outdone, a lot of incredible docs come my way from public television -- P.O.V., Independent Lens, American Masters, American Experience. I have to be careful to not spend all my time watching and writing about documentaries.

Why do people (except for those who have to write about it) give a tinker's dam about what goes on at any awards show?

Because we know it irritates you.

According to Emily Yahr, "Diane Sawyer, the sole female evening-news anchor on television, said goodbye to the 'ABC World News' desk Wednesday night . . . ." Um, the Post does realize that there's a network called PBS, that it offers something called the PBS Newshour, and that the Newshour is anchored by what appears to be two "females," right?

I guess we mean commercial, broadcast network television with its half-hour nightly newscasts, not member-supported/underwritten public network television with its deeper, longer one-hour newscast.

I don't care how many awards Breaking Bad wins. I still believe The Sopranos was a richer, more robust series Seven years after it ended, we're still arguing about what happened to Tony when the screen went black.

"The Sopranos" was a great show, but I think "Breaking Bad" was a far better story overall. And I can't believe we're arguing all over again about the last shot of "The Sopranos." I don't find it all that wonderful or amazing that the ambiguity remains. To me, it's less a testament to the show's greatness and speaks more to viewers' lingering disatisfaction with it.

Not sure if this has been discussed before here, but one solution to the Emmy madness might be having each show or performer in a role win ONCE. To me, the current system seems like having "The Phantom of the Opera" win the Tony for Best Musical 26 years in a row. When someone asked me if I were going to watch the broadcast this year, I responded ""Breaking Bad, Modern Family, Jim Parsons, Bryan Cranston, why bother?" There are too many viewing options, and too much excellence, to justify the current system.

Is this a new series I can wallow in? (after so many bad boys, is she a bad girl who is watch-worthy?)

I really need to see another episode before I can answer this, but, unfortunately, with fall TV deadlines fast approaching, I may have to weigh in on just the pilot. It's a half-hour comedy, so I'm not sure what you mean by comparing her character to "so many bad boys" (Do you mean the "difficult men" of one-hour dramas?).

Will there ever be another Arch Campbell? Or is that era over?

And by era you mean ... A guy in a hat reviewing movies locally on the news? Or someone having essentially the same job for decades?

Is there a particular week when the majority of new shows and new episodes of returning shows will be back? And have you seen any new shows that look promising?

Generally speaking, the most premieres of new shows are happening the week of Sept. 21-27, but there's a lot coming along in October too. I think ABC has a fairly  good slate of new comedies ("Black-ish" and "Cristela" among them) and two new dramas (Shonda Rhimes's "How to Get Away With Murder," and "Forever," even though I think that one also has a whiff of ratings doom about it). I was surprised how much I liked the pilot episode of Fox's "Gotham" (a Batman prequel). Many more thoughts to come in our FALL TV PREVIEW issue in the Sunday, Sept. 21 newspaper. (It will all go up online a couple of days before that.)

Oh, Hank. That was Lisa level snark. Just wonderful. Congratulations. In other news, I agree with you that Tyrant is terrible, but is a sort of train wreck, I'm embarrassed but I'm still looking kind of way. Thank goodness it is over for the season (forever?). That is 45 minutes of my life back.

I still have to watch the last episode of "Tyrant" to see what happened. And, yes, hopefully to wave goodbye to it.

Thinking of Charlie Sheen or the twits on Dads.

Oh, well, yeah, she's better than that.

After watching Episode 1 of INTRUDERS I have to say it seems you nailed it with your review. It has the feel and atmosphere of THE X-FILES but lacks the story. Does that change any further on? On a related note, what percentage of shows that are atmospheric are set in the Pacific Northwest? I'd say about 75%. It does rain other places you know...

Have the expanding platforms for new TV made your job easier or more difficult? How can you keep up with new shows on Netflix and now Amazon? I just saw a trailer for Transparent on Amazon and it looks great--have you seen it?

Expanding platforms have been part of the gig since I came to it in 2009, but it really took off in 2013 or so. The short answer is I can't keep up with all of it, so I mainly rely on instinct about what to review and what to skip -- regardless of platform. "Transparent," for example, is definitely worth reviewing and will be included in the fall TV preview (coming Sept. 21) alongside the other new fall shows. I've seen the one pilot episode and and hoping the rest of the episode screeners arrive in time for me to consider them in my review. The series streams on Amazon on Sept. 26.

I didn't have much hope for it, but I became a fan last year. What (if anything) does FOX moving it to Sunday nights say about their plans for the show?

Hmm, I would guess that they hope it will find a bigger audience there among some hit cartoons. It might be a less vulnerable spot.

I can skip Bojack Horseman, right? It can't possibly be in the same league as Bob's Burgers, Futurama, etc.

I kinda liked it! I'm glad I kept watching past the first and second episodes.

I just checked when the shows are coming back and realized I only watch two shows on the main networks - The New Girl and Grey's Anatomy. All of my other shows are on AMC, FX, HBO, BBC America, etc. Wow.

And the two shows you do watch on the networks are two shows I can barely stand. Double wow.

And what I mean by that: No two viewers have a chance anymore of being very much alike.

I don't know if you saw it but Andy Greenwalds column on the Leftovers really summed up my feelings on that show. I can't remember the last time I have been so clueless as to whether I like a show as I have with this one. The acting seems fantastic, the grief is overwhelming, the writing can be both horrible and brilliant. Yet, I continue to go back to it every week.

I was really glad this last episode went back to the lead-up to the Departure. We needed some backfill. I haven't read the piece you're talking about, but I agree. It's hard to sort out our feelings about why we keep watching. (Those of us who are watching. The ratings aren't terrific.)

Do you think it will fizzle quickly?

I don't know. I never know. I think the pilot is very good and I need to see more.

Yay or nay?

Yay-ish.

They may take home a big awards haul but not many performers could (semi-) improvise entertaining business as well as Julia L-D and Brian Cranston. And on a totally unrelated note, who thought Weird Al was a good idea??

I think "Weird Al" was a wonderful idea. He's had a great, buzzy summer and people adore him. (Smart people, that is!)

What's the first network show to get canceled this year?

"Forever." Or maybe "Manhattan Love Story." (Maybe "Selfie.") (And if wishes were horses: "Stalker.")

How's that for definitive?

And as a counter-point to the person who watches mostly cable, I cut the cord on that last year and had a lot of fun rediscovering network shows. While there are really great shows on cable/HBO, I think it's become a reflex to assume network shows are awful. I was pleasantly surprised by how much I didn't miss cable and still felt entertained.

This is an excellent point. If the idea of watching television is an hour or two of diversion (as opposed to obsessive fandom, meta-criticism, speculative theories and buzzy talk), then plain old network TV has more than enough to offer and some of it is really good, really fine-tuned.

I'm sure you didn't watch it! And you didn't miss a thing!

I did too watch it! I though Erik and Pam deserved a better epilogue.

Can you share what it is you find promising about the new ABC comedies Black-ish and Cristela? Just from commercials they appear to be over-acted, one-note comedies. The Black-ish line from the commercial about "somebody needs to tell my hair and my ass" just looks fake, and the Cristela line about "even the Pope thinks you go too far" seems to be more a line from a standup routine (in delivery) than a scripted TV show. I can't say I have high hopes for either, but obviously you've seen more of them than I have. What givers you hope?

Get a paper on Sept. 21!

So will Jon Hamm manage to finally snare an Emmy before MAD MEN ends its run?

I predict no, unless those final seven episodes are incredible.

How important do you think the actual show content of commercials are for new TV series -- as opposed to factual comments. As in, do you think it's more important to show the basic plot for a drama? Provide a few top laughs for a sitcom? Or get across who's starring in it and who the creator is?

I'm not sure, but I'm surprised that the networks haven't figured out how much one's animus for a certain show builds after the, oh, thousandth commercial they've aired for it.

It's just that it stars some people who I really really like. It would be great if it turned out to not be the horrific mess it looks like it will be.

I feel ya, especially about John Cho. It's a "Pygmalion" update. In the pilot they make every social-network joke you can imagine. It feels outdated the minute they open their mouths, but, yes, the performers are so likeable. It's tragic when that happens. I will tell you that "Selfie" is not horrible but its exceedingly mediocre. (See "Super Fun Night" for the exact same feeling.)

Okay, so you've said what you think are the best and worst of the upcoming season ... what about a new potential "guilty pleasure"?

The obvious candidate is "How to Get Away with Murder."

Just found out this is the last season of Parenthood. I'm sad.. Have you seen any episodes? How does this season look?

No screeners have arrived yet.

Jim Parsons. Seriously? He may actually be a fine actor, but the scripts of BBT hardly require talent - unless sophomoric comedy and stereotypical caricatures are considered an acting challenge. yes, I think that show sucks. I have tried to watch it since it gets raves, but it's too stupid.

Wasn't he kinda trying to tell us that in his acceptance speech this time?

OTOH, I don't watch ANY of those things -- mostly PBS, news, sports, plus "Elementary" and "The Good Wife" (don't have cable).

There are some shows that have great pilots, but it almost seems like they use up all the good ideas in the first episode and then it fizzles completely. Some start good and stay good. And some pilots are iffy, but once the writers see what the actors are doing with the characters, it all seems to fit together better. And obviously some bad shows stay bad. Is there anyway to figure out which shows will end up in these four categories?

Pilots are all terribly flawed because they're pilots. I wrote about this at the start of the 2012 season.

I think TV shows should just "start," by which I mean they should begin with what would essentially be episode 2. Viewers don't need to be spoon-fed anymore. We don't need the main character to tell us everything in voice-over narration. (Just about every ABC pilot this pilot begins with voice-over narration.) If you start a story midstream and the characters and the chemistry catch on, then you could air the "pilot" (which, let's face it, was mostly made with network executives and advertisers in mind) or post it online as a sort of prequel episode, an extra treat that fans will enjoy.

Jim Parsons has given some truly memorable bravura performances over the years on "Big Bang Theory," demonstrating a range of talents from Tom Lehrer's song about the Periodic Table of Elements, to explaining "Rock Paper Scissors Lizard Spock," to a tremendous amount of physical comedy. He's also had the unenviable task of making an inherently unlikable character slightly likable.

Would it ever be possible for the Emmy organization (ditto Oscars etc) to look a little deeper into how the votes are distributed as a precursor to fixing the same-old-faces every year problem? For example, William H. Macy and Don Cheadle might, hypothetically, have split votes among voters looking for something edgier, with the result that Jim Parsons moves to the front of the pack. Especially as categories more frequently include a combination of edgy versus traditional, or as the lines get blurred between categories, the nominees that more cleanly fit the category might be benefiting from lack of agreement elsewhere in the category.

"Selfie" is a Pygmalion update? This I did not know. I think that makes me like it even less, if that was possible.

Hank, completely agree with your response.

Thank you.

And when we're in violent agreement, that means it's time to call it a chat for the day and move on. Thanks all, for your questions. I'll see you next Thursday, Sept. 4 at noon.

In This Chat
Hank Stuever
Hank Stuever, The Washington Post's TV critic since 2009, joined the paper in 1999 as a writer for the Style section, where he has covered an array of popular (and unpopular) culture across the nation. Stuever was born and raised in Oklahoma and previously worked at newspapers in Albuquerque and Austin. He lives in Washington, D.C.
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