What to Watch: TV chat with Hank Stuever

Sep 21, 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 "The Vietnam War," "The Deuce," "Loudermilk," "Transparent" and "Better Things."

Welcome back, chatters. There's plenty to talk about, isn't there? Emmy night (including Sean Spicer's controversial appearance), Jimmy Kimmel's stand for health insurance access for all. Also some of you are fully absorbed in Ken Burns and Lynn Novick's "The Vietnam War" and have some things to say; and there's still all these new fall shows to talk about. Let's go!

 

Spoiler Alert: So, with the series finale of The Strain wrapping it all up, what did you think? I found it satisfying, but maybe not exactly great. It hit the notes, finished the story lines, left a little (but not too much) to the imagination.

I was satisfied with the end, which was very "Strain"-like, in that it was direct, efficient and purely narrative. I have said before that I've enjoyed the show all the way through, in a "just enough" way. I thought it was an interesting twist of the vampire myth and end-of-the-world/social breakdown scenarios. Was it groundbreaking? No. Was it enjoyable television that didn't require a weekly dissertation on its themes and meanings? Absolutely. All viewers should have a drama like that in the back pocket of their viewing -- just easy to watch, and not essential to watch it every week. You could let episodes stack up and enjoy them a few at a time. Or, at least I could.

That said, I would have preferred a more satisfying wrap-up for Zach Goodweather, television's most irritating teenager (played by someone who might be television's worst child actor). Satisfying as in more painful, please. As for the rest of the cast, there were a lot of great, committed performances in that show, especially David Bradley and Richard Sammel. I'm glad FX kept it on long enough to give the story space to adequately conclude.

What's your favorite popcorn TV show? By that, I mean a show where you sit there and eat a bowl of popcorn, while enjoying a show without thinking too hard about what you're watching. Personally, I'm excited for the return of Gotham. It's much closer to watching a comic book than any of the other superhero series out there. Great TV? Hardly, but I'm entertained and generally find myself surprised at how quickly the end of the episode seems to arrive.

I think I just answered that, above, with "The Strain."

Not sure I have one at the moment that requires zero thinking. I like to think.

I watched the first episode expecting it to be awful. Instead, the most I could muster was "meh." I didn't enjoy it enough to want to watch another episode, but I also didn't find it bad enough to disparage. I'm surprised you seemed to have such a visceral reaction to an otherwise forgettable show.

My reaction may have struck you as visceral, but I also had  genuine critical questions: What is this show trying to be? An honest space drama with light humor? A spoof? An homage? It's all over the place and that's problem No. 1. You can tell that even the Fox marketing team is confused. Ratings were big for the premiere, however, so maybe it doesn't matter. I think people will catch on that there's not much there to enjoy. "Meh" isn't exactly an endorsement.

I just finished the EW preview of new shows. The only shows I'm looking forward to are Law&Order Melenez, Inhumans, and Tin Star

Well, you got one right.

Loved the books, have you had a chance to watch any episodes of the new Stephen King adaptation? Not sure about where or how to get this AT&T Audience network

I did not have time to watch Mr. Mercedes when they were releasing it and may or may not go back.

I can answer your other question, though: AT&T Audience Network is part of DirecTV, a result of the AT&T and DirecTV merger. Which means if you don't have DirecTV as a satellite provider, you might be able to watch some of these shows if you have an AT&T phone plan? And maybe through U-Verse, if that's still around? I think? Maybe? Someone who knows for sure can weigh in and tell us. Insert my standard disclaimer that this is NOT a chat for answers to your audio-visual technical woes.

My go to for this is always Curb Your Enthusiasm, Seinfeld, Parks and Rec, the Office and 30 Rock. Perfect for an easy laugh and relaxation.

What about something new? I enjoy a repeat now and then, but I can't live off 'em. My brain is always saying: You've seen this one already. Go read a book.

Great start to the new season. They've quickly completed "Good Place v. 2.0" with the storyline that looks through the eyes of all four characters and are moving on to v. 3.0. One thing that I though about in the off-season: Did they name Ted Danson's "Michael" after the Archangel who weighs good deeds against bad sins in the afterlife?

I don't for sure if Michael is named after the archangel or not. It's an interesting show. I don't love it quite as much as some other critics do -- and I really don't give much truck to the idea that it's deftly exploring any of the big philosophical area about the afterlife, but it's enjoyable. It definitely got better from its premiere point last fall.

Was there any Award that went to some actor/actress which surprised you? I also thought using Sean Spicer was funny, but now no one will take him seriously ever again. PERIOD.

Well, will you please tell that to everyone who freaked out about his appearance somehow having a "normalizing" effect on his insidiousness? I think you're right -- he's bouncing around, using some traditional avenues (late-night shows, events) to self-efface and perhaps repair his image, but who really buys it? No one.

Did you see last night's season premiere of The Good Place? If so, how did you find the new focus/perspective?

SPOILER IN THIS ANSWER: I did and I'm still sort of "whatever" about the entire premise. I guess I'm just not that wrapped up in it? I also want to know how the overlord/Satan figure doesn't just know that Michael already reset v. 2?

Great point. I don't think there is anything new that fits the bill while being quality tv. I'd say the Good Place, but I think that actually takes some thinking. Wonderful new show... but I don't think it fits into mindless.

No, it doesn't. But, I'll say again, I don't think it's thinking part is all that deep either.

There are new seasons of "Dancing with the Stars" and "The Big Bang Theory" this fall.

Now that it won the Big Emmy, are there any plans to put it on HBO or DVD so the rest of the world without a good internet connection can watch it?

Put it on HBO? Yeah, right. Buddy, these are networks in competition for your eyeballs. They don't share.

You ask a good question, though. Hulu's "11/22/63" is available on DVD (I just checked on Google Shopping), so I would think maybe "Handmaid's" will go that route too.

Did she ever win an Award for "Gilmore Girls" or is this the first time for her with Handmaid's Tale?

I don't know, but I'll bet Google knows. Pro tip: It's spelled BLEDEL.

I was pleasantly surprised by the diversity of the winners...and I don't mean the racial diversity. I mean that, other than Veep, the winners were all new to winning Emmys, their shows tended to be new or nearly so, and often the shows were adventurous (shout out to Black Mirror).

Yes, I agree, aside from the Julia Louis-Dreyfus time-space loop problem, it was a good year for the NEW, which is what all discerning television viewers and critics cheer for -- the new, the new, the new. And, as I'm sure you realize, diversity plays a huge part in that. What could be more new than writers, directors and actors who previously couldn't get in the door?

I mean, it IS a comedy. Not a philosophy class at Notre Dame.

It's comedy, begorrah!

I'm catching up with The Good Place on Netflix, almost done with Season 1, just 2 episodes left. Is it worth following for Season 2?

Are you enjoying it? That should be your key measure.

I have to reluctantly agree with your conclusion on this show. It's somewhat bizarre. It almost seems like it's trying to be earnest, but then maybe also funny, but not quite a parody, and a little kitschy, too. Unfortunately, it doesn't really succeed at any one thing. The whole effort falls flat.

Other critics have pointed this out, but maybe it might have worked better as a half-hour show? Which would make them cut through the writing? And perhaps amp up the comedy?

Or maybe it just sucks.

That was extremely painful to watch. Something about the awkwardness of it, the forced smiles, etc. It must have been doubly painful for Mogie himself to see it. I do not see this ending well for him (no spoilers, please). I did let out a little bark of a laugh when his sister said something like "I hate my teacher and I hate school. Oh, and Merry Christmas." It was an odd feeling of sadness and laughter at the same time.

That tape was such an interesting find, and maybe one of the reasons Novick and Burns decided to zero in on Mogie and his family as one of the few narratives that they track throughout the entire 18 hours. I won't spoil it for you.

I didn't know that those kind of "season's greetings" tapes, in which families of overseas military personnel get to record messages that are then (presumably?) sent to the front so the recipients can watch them. I remember the local stations doing that during the buildup to the first Gulf War in December 1990. I guess that's the first real war effort that I would remember, in any event.

Have you seen any episodes? It's one of few shows that have yet to disappoint me after such a long run. I really don't want this season to be like Arrested Development's last season on Netflix.

HBO has not yet shared any new "Curb" episodes with me, so I don't have much to say about it. I don't know if they intend to let critics see it in advance or not, but time is getting short.

I have to second your comment that "The Vietnam War" is required viewing. Remarkable work. Your colleague Alyssa Rosenberg raised the interesting question of why only Ken Burns is famous given his extensive work in partnership with Lynn Novick. Fair question, and I'm curious what your answer is.

A few reasons, off the top of my head: When "The Civil War" came out in 1990, it was subtitled "A Film by Ken Burns" (even though Geoffrey Ward and many others helped make it), and it put Burns on the map, and he is very, very good at personal promotion efforts and getting himself and his name out there. As the work deepened and the films evolved, Burns started sharing credit with his co-filmmakers, but make no mistake, when it came time for PBS to promote the hell out of these things, they kept Ken Burns front and center. He moves those PBS tote bags (i.e. fundraising) like none other. Now, I must say, any time I've been in a room with Ken Burns while he's promoting his latest work, he is always, always conscientious of bringing in his colleagues. And I think people have finally caught (both viewers and media), that Ken does not work alone, sometimes with Novick, sometimes with others. There's been a lot of interest in Lynn Novick this time around -- and you can see in the media that critics and writers are being far conscientious about crediting her by name. (It makes for longer headlines, but so what.)  But after all this, the fact remains, Ken Burns is the name brand here. Sort of like Calvin Klein, in a way?

How do you watch the shows you preview or review? Do you have one of the Post's rare private offices with a door you can close? Do you watch on a television screen or a computer monitor? Do you usually watch things alone or you sometimes invite other staffers to join you?

I do have an office at the Post and I am often in it, weekdays for sure, but also many late nights and some weekends. I remember a few months ago I was watching an HBO documentary about prisoners in solitary confinement thinking it would be the worst way to live and then they gave the dimension of their cells, and it was almost exactly the same as my office. (I know it's not the same, still -- it makes you think.)

I prefer to screen new shows here at the office, so that I will sit upright, pen in hand (or hands above keyboard) and take notes while I watch. If a show has hit a nice groove and I'm in episode 4 out of 10 episodes that I have to watch, I might put my feet up on the desk or on a spare chair that I conscript into ottoman duty, but I keep taking notes throughout.

There are NO televisions at the new(-ish) Washington Post building. Our TV service comes through the internet, so there are big screen monitors all over the newsroom, usually tuned to cable news stations. We can all access that service (a lot like very basic cable) from our desk computers. I have two monitors at mine. The one on the left is sharper and wider, so it's the one I usually watch screeners on. Network and streaming screeners for the press/critics almost always come via highly encrypted links. I rarely get DVDs anymore, but I still find them to be a handy option, especially if a screener site is glitchy/buffering. When my DVD file drawer gets filled to the brim (about twice a year now) I take time to destroy the DVDs with scissor cuts and toss them out.

I watch everything alone, with headphones on. It's a job, not leisure time. I don't have speakers connected to my computer, so there's no point in inviting someone in here to watch something.

 

No love for Feud? Ugh, so disappointing. Was happy to see Sterling K. Brown win his award though.

I was disappointed about "Feud," too, which remains one of my top shows for 2017. Can't win 'em all (or any), especially in categories packed with greatness.

Hi Hank. I haven't seen anything about Devious Maids in a bit. Is it still being produced? Whenever I can find it, it makes for GREAT popcorn-turn your brain off just enough but not entirely-television. Thanks.

"Devious Maids" was cancelled by Lifetime a year ago (September 2016) and no other network picked it up. Sorry to deliver that bad news to you (and your brain).

SPOILER IN THIS COMMENT: Crazy Ex-Girlfriend. After the Season 2 reveal that she's a serial arsonist with at least one court order against her, i.e., that she's not just quirky and cute and victim of a sexist term, I'm hoping the production team can still give us things to like about her. Of course, considering the show was pitched as a variation on Breaking Bad, it would surprise me if she ended up driving to Atlanta in a diaper to shoot Greg's new girlfriend.... But still. I'm looking forward to Season 3!

The diaper would be a nice touch.

I think Colbert said in the opening that there were 450 original, scripted shows on TV. So why on earth would they waste one of the few, precious nominations on "Modern Family"???

Um, because voters still enjoy watching it and everyone in Hollywood loves the sort of success story that provides jillions in syndication revenue?

We have elected three presidents who avoided serving in Vietnam. We have not elected men who did serve (McCain, Gore, Kerry). Does the Ken Burns series cover the long-term attitudes of the public on the war and what our consistent refusal to elect veterans of the war means? Do we still not want to look this war in the eye for what it says about our country?

The good thing about this film and the rest of Ken Burns' work is that it truly does leave lines of questioning like that to the viewers for further discussion. Yet it doesn't cop out, either. Much of what you mention is present in the documentary as it relates to history: McCain's POW imprisonment and return home; Kerry's emergence as a veteran opposed to the war, testifying before Congress.

Ken Burns and Lynn Novick have given us 18 hours of researched facts, synthesized into the epic history of the Vietnam War. But, no, it's a film that interested in doing all the extrapolating for you. So for some viewers, it will fail in its determination to not get political or preachy. But that does not mean that is emotionless. This film can shake you to the core, if you're open to it.

This one shows the period where the U.S. went from being "advisors" to sending actual troops. During the scene where Johnson and others are discussing whether to send in ground troops or not I wanted to shout at the TV -don't do it! Even though I know they will and did. Also it struck me that if France hadn't been determined to reclaim their empire after WWII, the war might not have happened at all.

Yep.

There should be a song and Dance number to go with that!

With sound-effects.

Who knew that Dolly Parton would like a vibrator?

Dolly is game!

When will we get the good President Kiefer back on our screens?

Selfishly, I'm going to link to the part of my Fall TV Preview that will answer that question for you and just about every other fall returning show you might think of, too.

I thought the story began and ended with the Movie..and at least four characters died in it. Are they going to go the Prequel route? Or will this be an "Alternate Alternate Universe"?

Well, Damon Lindelof is making it, which tires me out already, but I would think he can go his own way, as Fleetwood Mac might put it.

That was one of the best Series EVER!!! Too bad it didn't win the Emmy!

Speaking of Lindelof. He botched the first season and turned the second season into very precious, niche, critic-pleasing fare, which is not necessarily the path to Emmy.

Look, "The Leftovers" was fascinating. Beautiful. Duh-pressssssing as hell. Ultimately affecting and meaningful. But could the barrier to entry have been any higher? I'm speaking on behalf of people who like to watch TV and would have watched this, if Lindelof and company cared about that sort of thing.

When I read your list of shows not to miss, and shows to skip, one thing struck me about all of the ones you were lauding. They seemed like a depressing slog, every last one of them. Is there something in there that's more "Mr. Robot, Season 1" and less "Mr. Robot, Season 2"? Please? I'm not asking for airhead television, just something that won't make me feel like the cynics have won.

The Hallmark Christmas movies are coming any day now.

It really can accommodate all points of view, whether you think it was a huge mistake or on the "we could have won if we just hung in" side. I've lost count of the times where I thought "Hmm, I didn't know that" while watching. It hasn't my overall opinion of the war, but it has has made me understand a lot more.

Exactly.

I've read and seen plenty about Vietnam in my lifetime, but having it all laid out like this, factually and with maps and footage, has been an incredible learning experience.

I am so very excited for this show to come back. It's one of those rare shows that is funny, quirky, not necessarily polite and has heart. And John Ross Bowie is a revelation. Especially since I only knew him from The Big Bang Theory.

I'd had high hopes for a couple of the 5 new shows you indicated aren't worth watching. It makes me sad when shows fail (movies, plays, books, all art forms, really). While some shows are based on hopelessly flawed premises, why do you think some other shows don't live up to their potential?

When a cake or pie comes out of the oven and it's a failure, you can go back and try to figure it out. (Old baking powder? A missing ingredient? Measurement error? Bad oven thermostat?) Sometimes that's what I do with TV shows -- several problems are usually evident. But sometimes, whether it's a pie or a TV show, it just doesn't come out well and sometimes there's no reason at all, except, well, blecch.

I find it a little worrying that you personally feel sad when a TV show fails. Unless you're the creator, star or the network executive, you really should not be taking any of this too personally.

Have you seen the Good Doctor yet? If so, what is the verdict? Does it treat the main character, who has autism, realistically and sensitively, or is it exploitative?

I have seen it, yes. As far as the autism angle goes, television seems to prefer a narrow representation of the spectrum ("Atypical" on Netflix being a recent example; also, perhaps, "Young Sheldon"), which focuses on a male protagonist with very high-functioning and/or savant forms of the disability. On the one hand I understand why no one has yet made a drama or dramedy featuring a profoundly autistic person (so many pitfalls and sensitivity areas, starting with how an actor should play it), but on the other hand, I'm not sure where we get by portraying like a super power.

But you asked: Is "The Good Doctor" any good? I guess, a little. I think Freddie Highmore is a good actor (he's just coming off playing Norman Bates in "Bates Motel"). I would say the show pretty much hews to the well-meaning but rather mediocre format of network dramas. If I had still done my Fall TV Preview like I usually do it (where every new show got a grade), this would have been the ultimate example of a C.

Is this still happening?

"Confederate."

And, yes, as far as we know. Although maybe right now it's back to the drawing board? It's not like it was in production or filming when the brohaha started. It was all still an idea, which HBO decided was worth announcing to the world.

Does it have more "in" jokes about Hip-hop culture, or does it get into the tasks of governing? But the real question is: Is it actually funny?

Another one I would give a flat C. The pilot seemed really weak and not at all making good on the premise. But pilots are often not very good. Why, we should do away with them and just start with episode 2. What a smart idea!

Apologies if this has already been addressed, but why didn't you do one this year? I don't always agree with your grades, but more often than not I find them helpful - and I always find them interesting. Just too much out there coming out all year long? That said, I enjoyed the 10/5 list too.

Go back and read the intro on the 10/5. After you do that, maybe I can raise your grade from a D to a B-minus.

Do you have a prediction on the First Network show to get the Cancellation Ax?

Fingers crossed for "9JKL" on CBS.

The CW wants a spin-off to Riverdale. Why use her instead of "Josie and the Pussycats"? Will this be more like "Buffy the Vampire Slayer" 20 years later?

Who knows, but I am 100 percent down for the pillaging and ravishing of the entire Archieverse. I love what they've done.

3 eps in. I'm struck by how far the US was willing to go in its (ultimately pointless) campaign against the Communist boogeyman. (I just finished a book about WWI which included the impact of anti-Communist feeling in Europe/USA, and also one about Alabama that outlined how anti-Communism was a distinct factor in the eventual rise of George Wallace and Bull Connor.) How much of US history in the last 100 years originated with America's obsession with Communism? Certainly, with Korea and Vietnam, the cost in lives was steep.

Ask Ethel Rosenberg. (Oh, wait, you can't.)

. Since I don't have cable, I watch over the air or streaming. I'm actually looking forward to the new season in New Orleans. Have you seen anything on them?

Besides flies?

Any buzz about Ghosted? The cast and premise intrigue me, but it's hard to get too excited about any sitcom on Fox.

I pooh-poohed "Ghosted" in the Fall TV preview. Don't bother with it.

I'm hooked on it, and have you to thank (or blame). I can't look away. I am young enough that I didn't know anything about the Vietnam War until Nixon pulled the troops out, but as I watch the episodes march through the 60s I juxtapose what my childhood was like (very happy, carefree) with what was happening over there. I especially find interesting the Vietnamese perspectives the series provides. Only one minor quibble, moving back and forth between the French experience and U.S. soldiers in the 1st episode took me out of it a bit, would have preferred if they had just told it straight.

I hear you -- and as for the back-and-forth in Episode 1, I think they were worried about losing people if they didn't keep flashing forward to the meat of it, i.e., Americans want to see the American part.

They are promoting the heck out of this on my Facebook feed. I don't know what I ever did to make a computer algorithm think I would enjoy seeing many many photos of Mark Feuerstein on my screen, but whatever it is I wish I could undo it.

Props to him for his passion and honesty in confronting Cassidy, and following up the next night. Yes, it is personal with him, but really, what health care issue isn't personal?

AHS: Cult, though I wouldn't want to eat while watching or call it enjoyable.

I prefer Fear the Walking Dead over Walking Dead classic. It's a bit slower at times, but I like the people better and it has a serious Star Wars vibe lately. Strand as Han Solo to be sure! Also, still loving AHS Cult. It's delicious this time! Let's forget Roanoke ever happened.

'Meh' exactly describes my reaction too. I watched the second episode. I felt like the writers plodded along and then all the sudden said OMG we have to finish up in two minutes - just leave out large chunks of plot and cue the happy music.

Bonus round -- posted all of the above just to get your comments out in the open here...

Everybody has to have their mission!

Have you seen any preview of this? Is it any good? Is there the Mike Post theme song?

The L&O sound (the dung-dung, the chung-chung, the dun-dun -- spellings vary) is there, but I didn't pay attention to the music. I've seen two episodes and will have a review next week. NBC waited a bit to let critics have at it.

I'm a first generation Vietnamese-American who immigrated here when I was a child. While I got bits and pieces from my parents regarding their experiences during the war (a lot of it came from their friends), I feel like this documentary has given me a bridge to talk to them about it. I talked to my parents yesterday and they are enthusiastically watching it. One problem that often arise is that as far as I'm concern, I approach the war as a somewhat neutral observer. However, having lived through the suffering and humiliation of the defeat, my parents (and other family members) obviously have biases and resentments. But after briefly talking to my mom, she felt the documentary has been very well done.

I would bet that Ken Burns and Lynn Novick would be extremely pleased to hear this. It's a huge endorsement of the film -- and I'm eager to hear more from people like you and your parents about their experience of watching it. Thank you for sharing.

 

From the brief descriptions online of all of the episodes, it appears there will be little or no stories about fragging, the large amount of addiction by soldiers, the large number of orphans, the inequity of the draft, etc. WWII soldiers had longer tours but didn't seem to have fragging, drug addiction, etc. IF the social side isn't addressed, the series is of little interest as one battle scene looks like another. I lived through the period. Don't need a rerun.

Well, this is what happens when you only read synopses of what's in a documentary instead of actually watching it. All that is in there. But I guess you won't see it.

Will you be chatting with us next week?

YES.

And with that, goodbye for now.

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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