What to Watch: TV chat with Hank Stuever

Aug 17, 2017

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," "The Americans," "The Amazing Race" and "Shameless" Lately he's been digging "Snowfall," "The Sinner," "GLOW" and "Insecure."

Hi gang, I just slid into my desk chair in the nick of time to start a chat that is already delayed by one hour. I had no idea I would be at the eye doctor as long as that and lemme tell you, my eyes are dilated bigger than those thrift-store painting of spooky children. I'll be wearing my Ray-Bans for the rest of the day. So let's get right to your questions -- hang in there while I answer them.

Have those programmers reconsidered going ahead with this second-worst idea of 2017?

The show's working title is "Confederate" (not "Confederacy") and we haven't heard a peep about it since HBO's day at the press tour last month. I would be surprised if they weren't looking at/rethinking it very closely in light of recent events and initial blowback. It may be more trouble than it's worth. Or maybe they are supremely confident in its premise and will forge ahead and see what the scripts are like, maybe even take it as far as a pilot. One thing about HBO -- they don't send out any show for general viewing by the public until they are absolutely sure that it works on its own merits and also meets the network's high standards. They have spent MILLIONS developing shows that never saw the light of day.

I too am "digging" this show, and I can't believe what a horrible person Cora's mother is. It was good to see Kathryn Erbe from L&O: CI again. But I'm not sure what the purpose of Bill Pullman and the dominatrix is. My husband told me to turn it off during the sex(?) scene with them. I think it's a little gratuitous myself.

Sometimes writers choose S&M as a way to explain complicated characters. This was done very well in "Billions," for one example, but if it happens a lot, it risks becoming a trope.

Has Stephen King ever written about a malevolent eye doctor?

I would think he'd be more interested in dentists, but for all I know, King has written about both. He's quite prolific.

Any chance you could do a once a year review of some awful Christmas show? Surely with your experience, you could spot a real turkey by the publicity information. (The one you guided us to last week was very funny.)

Maybe. I don't want to turn it into a fish-in-a-barrel type thing. They are way too easy to make fun of, although my predecessor certainly added to his fan base by picking on Kathie Lee Gifford every year, back when she did Christmas specials. I think the last one I took my Santa claws to was that Bill Murray special for Netflix a couple years back.

I always take a peek at what's on offer for Christmas -- maybe I'll do something this year.

I know PBS stations vary their programming times, but when will the Ken Burns series become available?

It begins on Sunday, Sept. 17 and for many nights after that -- staggered a bit so that it's not every night. You won't have trouble finding it -- I'm pretty sure most if not all PBS stations will start airing that day, but one should always check one's local listings where public TV is involved.

What did you think of the series finale of Broadchurch?

I think I still need to watch it -- sorry. I meant to watch more than just the first episode and it just didn't happen.

Are you going to review the new Ken Burns/Lynn Novick program on Vietnam that PBS is showing next month? When you watch a long film like theirs, I think this one is about 17 hours, are you able to watch all of it before your review? I know you liked Burns's Roosevelt series and I think your review covered the whole film. That's an impressive commitment of time! I'm curious how the Vietnam film will be received. The war is still very real and controversial in lots of people's minds. I'm also curious how you will receive it, as I assume you were quite young when the war ended, although you will be reviewing the film and not the war. Thanks for your comments.

I have all the episodes and I am planning a big review. And yes, I will watch every single minute of it, taking notes along the way. I have blocked out a significant part of next week to do that. My plan is to shoot for three to four hours per day. That's manageable.

Here's the thing: If I decide to write a full review of a show I watch as much as the network will send. With a lot of streaming shows, that maybe be all 10 or 13 episodes, so that means I've got to block out the time. There is no fast-forwarding or skipping ahead or deciding that watching two or three episodes will suffice. I have to watch as much as they'll give me. Burns and Novick and PBS are always very good about providing screeners for the entirety of their latest project.

As for how I will receive it, I was born in 1968 and only really became aware of the war and its effects when a Vietnamese girl showed up in our 2nd-grade classroom on the first day of school not speaking a word of English and we all took it upon ourselves to make her feel welcome and teaching her our language. (I'm sure we overwhelmed her, but I also remember how fast she learned and became one of our top students.) We had a large Vietnamese community where I grew up. I was also very interested in the '60s, especially the music, growing up. Imagine a 12-year-old in his room with headphones on singing the "Hair" soundtrack at the top of his lungs. (Including the naughty parts.) Also I'm fairly well educated, so I have had the chance to read about and study the Vietnam War.

Not a Marine, sorry, but a Twin Peaks viewer. Missed the new time announcement, so just watched 14 last night. Gawd, that Sarah Palmer incident will haunt my dreams for awhile. And looks like they're finally tracking down Good Coop. Hey, don't the FBI watch TV in Las Vegas? Wasn't Dougie on the nightly news for the Ike the Spike attack? I don't want this to be over.

I don't want it to be over except that yes, of course I want it to be over. I hope it's left itself enough time to wrap things up. I think I said that last week. Enough dawdling now -- it's been fun and trippy, but enough's enough. Let's get 'er done.

Do those millions then become tax write-offs?

Perhaps? We need an online chat with a showbiz accountant.

Did you or any of the WaPo reviewers see the Netflix series, Gypsy? I watched two hour-long episodes, but while the overall premise was okay, the writing was mediocre and the plot was unfolding at a snail's pace. Took your oft-delivered advice and decided there are too many other shows worth watching to continue any further. Seeing recent news that the show will not be renewed also sealed my decision.

Hold on, there are other "WaPo reviewers?" For TV?

Answer: I watched "Gypsy" long enough to know that I didn't need to trouble any of you with a full review of it, and I was right, it stunk, and Netflix canceled it, and we kept moving forward at breakneck speed with 100 other new shows.

This weekend I discovered a new original Netflix series. I haven't loved many of the new ones, so I decided to watch one episode and delete it off my list if I didn't like it. I have too much to watch! I was immediately hooked. The show is about a high school student with autism, but it isn't only focused on his life and teeny bopper things. It explores the life of his parents, his therapist and his sister in depth and touchingly. I found myself crying more than once. Have you seen the show?

I did watch it and I found myself dozing off more than once and also not entirely sure what they were trying to do here, whether it was broad comedy or authentic dramedy or a general Hollywood act of do-gooderism. There was a very interesting review (on Salon I think?) written by a guy who has autism and he did not like it all and made a persuasive (I thought) case that the show too easily for the "high-functioning Aspie" trope, which is a very narrow experience of autism.

In better news, I thought Jennifer Jason Leigh is very interesting in it, and still a great actress, and maybe she can find something a little better to star in.

Sorry that I can't better affirm your enjoyment of the series, which should not take away from your enjoyment of it.

Will we see/hear Steve Bannon? Mickey Day has hit the jackpot portraying DJT Jr and Bannon. Beck Bennett losing out because Putin on the back burner these days. Will miss Bobby Moynihan as Kim Jong Un, who also has been relegated to the sidelines for the moment.

It sounds to me like you're pre-gaming it a little too hard. They're showfolk, they'll think of something to do for 22 minutes of television. The world has certainly provided them more fodder this week than they can possibly address.

My cable company (which I keep for TCM) often gives me access to HBO for free, no doubt in an attempt to lure me in as a subscriber when something big is on. Right now, I have free access and, of course, Game of Thrones has begun a new season. GOT has never caught on with me, a staid, white, middle-class woman, although I have come to love Insecure. But I won't be getting HBO. I don't understand why anyone would. It seems to be multiple channels of very occasional original programming and constant weird, dated filler (like many showings of My Big Fat Greek Wedding). Seriously, what's the point?

For me "the point" would include:

HBO's extraordinary documentary films department, which has continuously raised the bar in that genre. HBO's documentaries have been some of the best things I've watched as a critic and also as a civilian.

Although I've been critical of the "Vice" shows, they really knocked it out of the park with their coverage of Charlottesville. Go back and watch it.

"Real Time with Bill Maher." He's an ass, sure, but I think of him as an essential voice in this madness and I enjoy his guests and roundtable discussions.

"Last Week with John Oliver." Not my preferred way to wind down on a Sunday night and get the sort of rest I need for a Monday morning, but I can always enjoy it later.

The movies -- especially when they premiere on a Saturday night. You see schedule filler. I see many of the movies I never have time to see in theaters. And I can watch them on-demand.

"Sesame Street."

I think that's quite a bit, and I'm sure I'm forgetting something.

I think it's fascinating to think about hat if the Confederacy had won the civil war and there were two different countries (maybe 3?) occupying what is currently the USA. But like many others I really don't want to see slavery depicted in today's world. A more interesting angle is that the Confederacy won, and then several years later slaves lead a revolt and the country is now governed by African Americans, along with some white folks. No slavery but still a different country from the U.S. Perhaps California is another country and makes up much of the west. Set that in today's world and it might be interesting.

Well, all sorts of What-Ifs are interesting, which is why they figure so prominently in our popular culture. And the scenarios you're describing may well indeed be part of the story that "Confederate's" producers are pitching. The thing is we just don't know. People are reacting to the story as presented in an HBO press release and their reaction was: SRSLY? NO THANKS.

I finally watched this and am now obsessed. We binged through 3 seasons in no time. I have no idea where I've been the last couple of years.

That show is a real treat no matter when you discover it. How lucky for you that you had the pleasure of 18 episodes, where the rest of us have subsisted on six at a time. Now you join us in waiting for more!

Due in part to your positive reports, my wife and I watched the first episode of Insecure. We were both underwhelmed. It felt like it was trying way too hard, and we were both off-put by how strongly the two lead characters seemed to define themselves by the success/failure of their love lives. Maybe we're too old to be part of its target audience. Did you think that the show improved after additional episodes, or was it more like love at first viewing for you?

I loved it from season 1, episode 1, and am loving it still.

As with all my rave reviews, your own mileage may vary.

When I had cable, every night I watched Hardball and Rachel Maddow. Now, I have Hulu, Netlix and Amazon. Hulu shows clips of the shows the next night, although it is very maddening. They don't post them on the site in any order, or show the date. (I have commented on this to them, and was told they'd look into it, but I'm still waiting). My question...is there anywhere that streams the whole show? I have looked but cannot find anything. I would like to get it through my Roku, I do not want to watch it on my computer monitor. I have even asked MSNBC, but they don't seem to want to support streaming. Thanks.

Is it on YouTube? In chunks? Is it on MSNBC's web site? Is it podcasted?

Those are ideas off the top of my head. You've probably already tried them. I'm mostly out of the business of helping people find the cable show they want without having cable -- mostly because I can't be very helpful.

What you said. Plus some very good series besides Game of Thrones (Leftovers, Young Pope, etc), and reruns of Fraggle Rock.

"The Young Pope" is still one of my favorite shows of 2017, even now, in August.

I'm about as big of a GoT fanboy/nerd out there. However, I'm a bit ambivalent about this season. On the one hand, the characters converging are very satisfying. On the other hand, the plot has densified and moved at an unevenly fast pace. Also, the geography of Westeros, an essential character in this universe, has been thrown out of the window.

The way people get around Westeros now reminds me of when Southwest Airlines really took hold in Oklahoma and Texas, during the '70s oil boom. Some of my pals had dads who would leave in the morning and have meetings in Dallas, Midland, Houston all in one day and still get home in time to have a fight with Mom. It was briefly like living in a "Dallas" episode. Or so we thought. Unfortunately, as far as I can tell, Dany is still the only one in Westeros with reliable air travel. (How does she not freeze to death? I guess a dragon is a pretty warm seat.)

As to the show itself, the answer has been quite plain since they ran out of book pages. They are trying to wrestle this thing to the ground and wrap it up. Perhaps too efficiently.

Obviously you are called upon to watch a wide variety of television offerings in your job as a television critic. But when you're on your own, are there occasions when you pass on a show or film because you find the director or stars hold personal views you find repugnant? Or do you try to be scrupulous in judging the work on its own merits and not the baggage of the participants?

I do not pass on new TV shows/projects because I disagree with the views of those making it. (Is this like a back door attempt at a "Last Man Standing" question?)

More often than not, I pass on something because I don't have anything to add to a conversation about it. Sometimes the most negative review I can give is no review, it's true, but a lot of factors come into it. It really depends on the show. I'm open to all of it, but could never watch/write about it all.

What's going to be on HBO once the Dragons are put away?

"The Deuce," premiering Sept. 10, which is David Simon and George Pelecanos's drama about the sex trade and the rise of the porn industry, set in and around Times Square in the 1970s, '80s. A grittier and more consciousness-raising "Boogie Nights," if you will.

Even though they've killed most of the cast, they still have a lot of story to finish. How many episodes will there be in final season next year? Will they be expanded?

I can't remember if there's an accurate answer to this question or not. Is it seven more episodes? Less? And, yes, some of them might be longer, especially the finale? Honestly, I've heard so many different things in the last couple of years, that I don't remember but I'm sure one of our chatters knows the very latest. I also think we should brace ourselves for another long-ish wait. Like maybe a little more than a year? Or maybe I'm mis-remembering that as well.

My advice is to always just enjoy what you have in front of you right now and, if things get desperate, go back and rewatch your favorite seasons.

It was quite a week for them - TURN, Orphan Black, Broadchurch. None of them blew me away but all did a decent job of wrapping up their stories and setting the characters on their respectives paths.

The last few minutes of "Turn" (which I refused to render in all-caps because the letters don't stand for anything) were actually quite touching.

I also have enjoyed the return of Twin Peaks and am dismayed by the number of viewers it has. I suppose if one wants to find something positive about that, there is this -- if it had been a hit there may have been a danger of Showtime wanting to extend it beyond what, as I understand it, is supposed to be an ending to the story. (The great Grace Zabriskie really sunk her teeth into her scene this week).

My editor, David, and I are both very avid viewers of "Twin Peaks," and have taken the sort of solace in the low numbers that only fans of '90s indie-label rock and other obscure works of genius could. There's something sort of nice about the cultural elbow room when you know you're one of the last few fans still watching. I'm sure they feel a little differently about this in the exec offices of Showtime, even though I hope they are proud of what Lynch and Frost delivered, because it's been truly amazing.

Yet it occurred on Tuesday, when reporter John Yang and substitute anchor Hari Sreenivasan on the usually staid "PBS NewsHour" were contrasting the claims re Charlottesville in Trump's NYC presser with video clips of the Friday night demonstrators shouting anti-Semitic chants. It's arguably the most honest news coverage I've ever seen, yet I fear that the two men will get into trouble for it. Have you heard of any feedback or blowback on this?

No, I haven't, but good for them.

You don't even know what a write off is.

/SARCASM ON/ I can't imagine why anyone would watch Turner Classic Movies. Everything on it is old, much of it is in black and white and not even wide screen! It is so full of weird filler with a few hosted shows. /SARCASM OFF/ Note that I enjoy both TCM and HBO, as well as many other stations, and find it odd when people need to attack channels like they did some personal to them.

Maybe the cost of some channels is what fuels that -- i.e., WHY AM I PAYING SO MUCH FOR THIS, etc.

Just looked and it is on Youtube. Never thought to look there. Thanks !

Whaddya know! I feel so helpful now.

Wasn't able to watch it when it first came on, but have now caught up on all episodes. Terrific programming! Another reason to take the extra channels if you can.

Well, to each his/her own. I did finish the series (after my review in June, Showtime sent the rest of it) and I was drawn in to some of the characters. No matter what, Melissa Leo is always 100%. There was some good stuff there and a lot of stuff that didn't work.

Haven't heard yet about a renewal from Showtime. Seems a little iffy.

I thought THIS was the end of Game of Thrones? You mean we have a whole more year plus of speculation etc? Argh! Signed -Not a GOT fan.

Haha. Yes, it ends on the next season, which will air in 2018, unless it airs in 2019.

Not a trick question. Was curious as to what you did on your own time when making your personal viewing choices--would you avoid a Tom Cruise film because of Scientology or a Woody Allen film because of the various abuse charges over the years? I find that I avoid some films simply for these reasons.

No, I'm not like that.

FEWER! Didn't Stannis teach you anything?!?!

I was all about the less/fewer rule, or I was, until the AP Stylebook abandoned us and said it's okay to write "less."

Whenever we watched the Academy Awards, I always wondered how they judge movies for Best Film Editing. How do they know what is on the cutting room floor of a good editor? My snarky spouse replied that good editing stops 2 hour movies from transforming into 15 hour Ken Burns marathons. You can't define it but you know it when you see it.

I don't think you can really compare scripted material (like a drama or comedy film) to a Ken Burns project.

If you want to know more about film editing and really boost your movie-watching experience, may I recommend my colleague Ann Hornaday's new book, "Talking Pictures: How to Watch Movies"? Your snarky spouse might enjoy it too.

Did you watch all of Turn? I watched the first season, thought it had been canceled, and only realized it was still on when I saw a promo for the finale last week. Worth a binge?

If you liked it, yes, you should keep watching it.

My own opinion is that it was constricted by history -- which I totally understand why it would be -- but as far as prestige cable dramas, it really struggled. In hindsight, it might have been the domestically-produced original show that PBS was looking for (instead of "Mercy Street").

"Turn" has many, many fans. My hunch is that you should watch season 2 and take it from there.

Do you watch younger? It is probably one of my favorite shows on tv, and I feel like I am not its demographic, like I'm not a 20 year old girl. I think it has great commentary on sexism and ageism in society and I love Sutton Foster.

I loved it in season 1 and for a bit of season 2 and then I just got tired of the story and the characters. I'm sure it's progressed into new territory, but I had to let it go. I like Sutton Foster a lot, too -- and I agree with you that show's underlying themes and subtext really enhance it. Maybe someday I'll circle back around to it.

I enjoyed all the episodes, watched them all over two night. I thought Marc Maron was especially great. (Although I never think he is acting, he's just being himself. But maybe that's how good he is). Was that a limited series, or will there be another "season"?

It has been renewed for a second season, which you can probably expect next summer.

All right, gang, I think I made up for some lost time at the beginning.

We'll go back to our usual time (noon) on Thursday, Aug. 24 and then let's skip Aug. 31, shall we?

Thanks for your patience today and all the excellent questions/comments. See you next week!

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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