What to Watch: TV chat with Hank Stuever

Jan 28, 2016

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 "The Walking Dead." Lately he's been digging "Billions," "Shameless," "Outsiders" and "American Crime Story."

Hello, TV friends. I'm back at last -- after a very busy TV press tour in Pasadena, I stopped in the Midwest to visit my mother for three nights and, thanks to the blizzard, that turned out to be a week-long stay. So I'm still catching up -- on television and everything else.

On the flight home, I was thinking about how many shows recently (and in previews at the tour) have caught me by surprise and how I wound up liking them a lot more than an initially expected to. Lately that's included:

Showtime's "Billions" (my review): Topically, I was in no mood for a Wall Street/hedge-fund drama. But wow -- it's very good, very well-written and performed. Even the soundtrack score (by Eskmo) is thoughtful and inspired.

USA's "Colony" (my review): Going in, I was mostly of the "not more near-future dystopia/alien invaders, please," but was won over by one key aspect of this series: sadness.

WGN America's "Outsiders" (my review): It looks like a ridiculous, "Sons of Anarchy"-esque ripoff of hillbilly stereotypes, but it too was far more thoughtful and well-written and intriguing than I expected.

There have been others. FX's "Baskets" is far from brilliant, but it got me with Louie Anderson playing Zach Galifianakis's mom. Even the Jennifer Lopez thing (NBC's "Shades of Blue") is pretty good. And at press tour, I was very impressed with HBO's "Vinyl" and AMC's "Preacher" -- both of which I met with pre-fatigue regarding their premises.

It's not that I'm becoming a softy. But I did want to put it out there for today's chat: What are some shows you never thought you would like that you wound up liking a lot?

Frankly, I'm relieved that this can still happen for me, given the number of years I've been reviewing television (going on seven years) and the amount of new material I have to deal with these days. It reminds me of the most important aspect of this job: keeping an open mind.

You guys have the luxury of deciding what to watch based on your preferences for genre, actor, etc. So I'm curious -- what shows broke through despite your preferences or initial distaste for the premise/ad campaign/etc?

That and whatever else you want to talk about. Let's go.


I've read restaurant reviewers talk about setting aside their personal preferences in order to review a restaurant. How do you feel like setting aside your preferences in television plays a role in your reviews?

Thank you for the question -- as you can see from the intro above, this has been on mind.

I think my recent reviews sort of prove (to my relief) how much I set my preferences aside. In fact, when it comes to TV, I'm not even sure what my real, true preferences are anymore.

My work is very much like the restaurant critic's -- a number of factors come together to make for a strong review. In the end, all critics should be guided by this one principle: Is this piece of work [TV show, movie, play, concert, album, restaurant] succeeding at what it set out to do?"

Just as it's unfair to review a taco stand for not being a four-star restaurant, I also have to be mindful that not every drama on TV is trying to be "The Wire."

Superstore and Telenovela! Find myself laughing consistently for 60 minutes. Of course, I'm a student of snark, so that helps.

I agree about Telenovela (here's Bethonie Butler's review from December), but I found "Superstore" to be really flat -- I was actually hoping for a better sense of making fun of consumer culture.

But I'm glad to hear you were pleasantly surprised!

I noticed that most of your initial reviews are based on the first few episodes of a series. (Sometimes, only the pilot, in the case of Supergirl.) Have you noticed any shows that got much better or worse since those first impressions?

I would say that in general, the trip from a strong start and glowing review usually travels downhill.

That's why it's even more delightful (and challenging) to me when a show improves a lot since its premiere -- sometimes to such a degree that I'm forced to reconsider my first review and write a mea-culpa review. That hasn't happened in a while (unless I'm forgetting something).

Thanks for recommending this quirky HBO show that I had previously overlooked. It reminded how funny Laurie Metcalff is (and how great she was on Roseanne).

It's so good -- and it's an easy binge to keep in mind the next time we get walloped with a snowstorm. Only 18, half-hour episodes in all. And such a beautiful walk-off by Metcalf's character in the very last line.

Binge-watched the entire season during the Blizzard. What a great series! Good cast and sets! A good story with a lot of twists, although I'm growing weary of Juliana trying to have <SPOILERS> both Boyfriend Frank and Nazi Joe. I'm wondering if that one character landed in our reality, or a third reality that was in the book. What did you think?

My review. I loved the premise and the start and got pretty bored halfway through. The big problems, I thought -- too much running around/between coasts and Colorado and really boring/undynamic actors in the leads.

Same opinion, but reversed. I like Superstore more than Telenovela, but in either case, I have to turn off my Higher Brain Functions.

I just binge-watched the past 3 episodes. There's definitely some twists and turns in the investigation of the crime, and some very good performances. Is anyone else watching this?

I feel like the buzz is stronger this time around.

My glowing review from Jan. 6, in case you missed it. I really think "American Crime" is one of the best shows on right now. It's now caught up (four episodes) to the point where I wrote my review, so I'm eager to see what's ahead.

Any love out there for The Magicians? The SFY series is based on one of my favorite trilogies and seems well done and true to the books after the first two episodes. And thank you so much for your weekly chat! Upon your recommendation I binged on Wolf Hall during the snow storm and just finished Season 2 of The Americans. Loved them both.

I'm sorry, I haven't had time to look at "The Magicians." I fear many more shows are going to slip through my fingers as our choices keep on expanding and expanding. But I'm glad you've been enjoying "Wolf Hall" and "The Americans."

I enjoy the zany theater parody that is Galavant. It is light and funny with surprisingly good tunes but I fear that it is just too much for network TV. Do you like it and what do you think are its chances for having a season 3?

I loved season 1 of Galavant (and I'm still unabashedly in love with the headline I wrote for that review: "Gladdest knight and the quips.") I grew slightly weary as I watched season 2 but it's still a lot of fun. Enjoy it while it lasts -- I haven't heard about a season 3, but I've been a little out of the loop for several days. I wouldn't be surprised if they renewed it; one thing we're learning at these TV press tours is that network executives are much more attuned to the fact that if just enough people like/love a show (and especially create buzz about it), that's sometimes enough to convince the business side.

(assuming it or something similar still exists) What current shows will make the grade to be reshown?

That's a very interesting question. Right now, it seems like networks and production studios are completely rethinking syndication. If we continue to break down the TV model and convert to streaming networks, I think content producers will want to keep a tight grip on their libraries (reruns) and who they sell them to.

Also, by 2036, I think we'll be accustomed to constant access of all shows, anytime, anywhere, regardless of when they were on. It's possible there might not be anything special about "showing" them on a certain "channel." You'll just get a strange need to see "Modern Family" again and dial it up and watch it for a small fee. (Or some monthly/annual fee that you pay to get access to the entire universe of television.)

Before You Me and Apocalypse is over, please tell me Timothy Olyphant shows up as the Pope and gives Earth the last rites

Your wish is my command.

I think you weren't a fan of Mercy Street. I thought the second episode had promise to make the characters a bit more nuanced. Or did you preview multiple episodes and still not like it?

I watched the entire thing (it's only six episodes) and found it wanting. Here's my review.

Think they'll be scrutinizing their choices a lot more carefully this year after all the bad reactions about the #OscarsSoWhite?

Probably, but I also don't think they have as big as problems as the Oscars do. (I think TV is miles ahead of big-studio film-making in this regard, too.) Another benefit for the Emmys is that it has lots and lots and lots of categories, which creates more room for diverse nominees.

I know this show has been on quite awhile now but I only recently caught on episode. Seems like just another gimmcky crime-fighting program, which CBS already had and cancelled in The Mentalist, which I really liked and miss. Should I give Limitless another try?

I think your enjoyment of "Limitless" would rest entirely on what you think of Jake McDorman. Consider him like a slightly younger crowd's version of Simon Baker.

Hot or not?

If the answer is hot, keep watching.

That may seem like a shallow answer, but sometimes (especially with procedurals) it's the best answer. It's not like there's something better and deeper and mindblowing waiting for us in "Limitless." It's not a long-arc kind of show; from what I can tell, it's not supposed to be.

To the person who recommended Offspring for people who loved Parenthood...thank you!! My mom and I were sad when Parenthood ended and never never never never thought we'd like a show just as much (or more).

People helping people.

Who is supposed to be the good guy. Yes, a bad guy can be a good guy but who do you empathize with on this show? Its interesting - I just want to care about one of the characters and its hard to do. I read that the show has already been renewed for another season so maybe its just me...... Thanks.

I'm not as hung up on that as your are, but I get where you're coming from because that has bothered me on other shows that didn't handle moral ambiguity as well as "Billions" handles it. That said, why not root for Wendy Rhoades? I think she's got the hardest job in the show and she seems to be the most upfront with everyone involved. Plus she's a very effective dominatrix!

I didn't care for the first few episodes of the first season of "Vicious," and only watched because of the presences of Ian McKellen and Derek Jacobi. Must say that either the show has grown on me or else the second season was slightly milder (your call?). Will there be a third season?

Oh, that's an interesting tale of acclimation (accommodation? acceptance?) ... I have to confess I gave it the one thumbs-down review and never looked back. I don't know of its status -- the British press might know, if you try Googling around for any news.

I'm very shallow. I watch Downton Abbey for the clothes, the house, the snark, and the tea sets. Mercy Street was marketed to those us of looking for a Downton replacement. In what world does war, sweat, and gangrenous flesh equate to a dinner party with footmen and decorous intrigue below stairs? How's it doing?

That's what I kind of thought would happen -- we'd go from full tea service to amputations and something would be ... lost for viewers.

PBS was crowing pretty loudly about (the relatively okay) "Mercy Street" premiere ratings when I left the press tour on Jan. 18, but I haven't heard a peep from them since.

Orphan Black has a premise that I found (and still kinda find) silly but the first few episodes and strong lead performance completely drew me in. Same, in a lot of ways, to Mr. Robot, which I ended up liking.

They're very similar that way, aren't they? That's a good comparison.

I'm enjoying the show but I'm watching it on DVR with the remote in hand. Whenever Supergirl is out of costume -- especially when Callista Flockhart is in the scene -- I hit the fast forward button. Without these scenes, Supergirl is a decent action show. I learned this techniques fast forwarding through the flashback scenes on Arrow

For some reason I'm getting an image of a lot of vegetables left on your plate. (If you don't like it, eat around it.)

I started The Wire recently and have watched one season. I'm loving it while I wait for the newest season of The Americans to come to Amazon Prime. I've heard great things about it and like it more than I thought I would. Should I brace myself for disappointment or does it continue to do well?

Um, I'm not sure the question is about the new season of "The Americans" or the subsequent seasons of "The Wire," but it seems like you're asking if you should stick with "The Wire." I'm pretty sure the world is in solid agreement that "The Wire" is worth watching all the way through.

Hoo boy, it's been a long time since we had one of these. My first few years as TV critic, I would go to parties and people (usually older Posties or ex-Posties who seemed to pride themselves on not watching very much television) would take me by the arm and insist that I watch this show they'd recently starting watching on DVD, about drug dealers in Baltimore.

I'd say, "You mean 'The Wire?' Yes, it's very, very good."

"You should write something about it," the person would say.

"Um, you know it's over, right? It concluded. We wrote quite a bit about it."

"You should watch it, it's very good."

Seriously, this happened more than once. More than twice. People were informing me -- and everyone they knew -- about "The Wire." As if we had never heard of it, that they had discovered it specially.

Nowadays, these are the people who pull me aside to suggest that we are living in a golden age of television.


I missed it coming back, and then I realized I didn't miss it all that much. Are you feeling the same thing?

I'm letting episodes stack up, if that's what you mean.

This goes all the way back to the beginning of the chat (28 minutes ago) when I said that my surest way to judge a show is to ask if it's good at what it's trying to be. I still think "Supergirl" is very good at what it's trying to be -- a cross between a young-woman-in-the-city show and a comic-book show that might appeal to more than just comic-book fans.

The heck with the game. I want to see more of Amy Schumer and Seth Rogen. They look like real people who might actually be drinking a beer.

Or partaking in something stronger.

Since Andre Brauger was nominated there have 70 Emmy nominations for Lead Actor in a Drama Series, the darkest complexion held being a Healthy Tan.

All right, all right. What about women?

I thought I had no interest in a violent drama about inner city police. I binge watched the whole think in about a week and wished there were more.

There aren't.

Have you watched "Treme?" Or "Show Me a Hero?"

that I really enjoy now is Mike and Molly. I had the idea that they were making fun of heavy people, but although it has its share of fat jokes, it really strikes my funny bone. Not many shows can get me to laugh out loud, and it does frequently.

It is a sweet, solid show, I will say that. And it's very good at doing exactly what it set out to do. It's had a good run and wrapping up this season, correct?

I don't think I've ever heard you mention this show. It won the Golden Globe, and many tv critics have said it is their favorite show. I started watching it during the blizzard and I find it, bizzare. Thoughts?

I gave "Mr. Robot" a B+ in last year's Summer TV Preview, but never found time to revisit it for a longer review. I'll probably write a lot more about it when season 2 approaches. It is bizarre, which is why so many people like it. It rewards the part of their minds that likes to be teased, puzzled and is comfortable (or deightfully uncomfortable, as the case my be) with unreliable narration in terms of reality vs. hallucination. I think it's a very interesting show to talk about, but only for those who are digging it. My interest in it primarily has to do with Rami Malek's unerringly good performance. (I realize Christian Slater won the Golden Globe for his performance, and he certainly was a proud peacock at the TV tour, but I'm still sort of in a state of bafflement that Slater actually finally got a part in something that wasn't immediately cancelled.)

I'd list 30 Rock as a a show that I'm surprised I ended up loving but that's less about the premise of the show and more about the fact that it got off to a really rocky start. It certainly improved as it went along and I grew to love it but I think that's more about the show growing into itself than anything else.

"30 Rock" is still a textbook example of how much a show can change from its pilot episode. If you've never gone back and watched the early "30 Rock" episodes and compared them to where the show ended up, it's really remarkable.

Good answer. I wound up loving "30 Rock" long after it premiered. (To my credit, I was not a TV critic when it debuted in 2006. I do remember that fall that all the stories about the TV season were about the strange competition between TWO shows that were kinda-sorta about life backstage at "Saturday Night Live." The other was Aaron Sorkin's one-hour drama "Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip." Welp, we know how that turned out.)

I've never been to a ballet or dance recital and don't really watch reality tv but I love So You Think You Can Dance. I stumbled upon the Season 1 finale and was so impressed by the talent that, to my surprise, I have not missed an episode since, cheesy hosts and all.

Things are taking kind of a confessional turn now.

For the commenter who asked about The Wire: the second season isn't as good as the others, so stick with it and you'll be rewarded.

Ah, actual advice instead of a snarky lecture.

I like it!

After watching PBS/BBC's Sherlock, I didn't think I would enjoy another modern take on Sherlock Holmes, but I have really liked watching Johnny Lee Miller and Lucy Liu (who I previously hated). The show surprised me with how good it is.

Yes, another solid one.

It seems like everyone chose to binge-watch a new show during the blizzard. Perhaps we should have them more often (just without the snow).

I don't have scientific data, but I think plenty of perfectly nice weekends are being given over to the binge craze.

This commercial was just on, and I love it. I can see myself as the clueless mother, and I can see my husband going after the squirrels because "it's personal!" On a completely different angle, I also love State Farm's Never, as the guy says he'll never marry, have a child, move to the suburbs, etc, but ends up with his sleeping wife and two daughters on the sofa with him saying he'll never let go. I just love it--so sweet. I also like Disney's fairy concierge complete with wand and wings.

The Geico ad with the mom and the spy is pretty funny. (Oh, fine, I'll Google it for you.)

But I have to say the other ad you're talking about ("Never") disturbs me. It's momentarily sweet, but here we have a man who has managed to contradict every proclamation or promise he's ever made. When he says he's "never" going to something (get married, have children, move to the suburbs, drive a minivan), he proves to us that these are vain, empty principles on which he's making his statement. I feel like the next frame should be the scene where he and his wife are in the mediator's office working out custody agreements and then the next frame is wife no. 2. Sorry, but I'm a realist. 

I actually came into the Pilot late, but I saw all of the 2nd Episode aka "Where's William?" Did they say there could be another 6-ep season in 2017?

They did not say specifically, but everyone seems game if Fox likes the ratings.

In that same time period, 1 award and 2 nominations out of 78 for Outstanding Lead Actress in a Drama Series.

Thanks for the data. Then why does the Emmys seem more diverse? What about comedy? (I'll keep you tabulating all day if I have to.)

and there will probably be an increase in the number of October babies born this year.

Netflix and chill.

Hey now. The Mentalist was basically a one-trick pony: The character was weird/wacky. Limitless has more story arcs going, more intrigue, plus the show itself is fun, with video bits, body doubles, clip art, flashbacks, and comedy.

I'm not disputing that. I certainly like "Limitless" better than "The Mentalist." It's like a CBS show for millennials who are ready to grow old. (Young fogies, as my former editor, the brilliant Henry Allen, used to call them.)

OK. So before it used to be getting to 100 episodes so they could sell it for syndication. Now it getting 6 or 10 or 22 eps and keeping it in studios streaming service like Amazon or Hulu. Is this going to get to the point where advertisers won't buy commercials at today's prices and the market on network and cable collapses?

That is but one scenario, yes. Pretty much all the scenarios shift the cost of television onto the viewer, who can ameliorate the monthly fee burden somewhat, by agreeing to be peppered with demographically-customized ads.

Never wanted to watch it - largely because of my opposition to Patricia Heaton's politics, and because I feared it would simply be a show about how blue collar, Midwestern folk are better than East Coast liberals and everyone else who is blamed for destroying society. Watched it and laughed. It doesn't paint the parents as right about everything and it lacks the anger and moralizing that dragged down the comedy on Roseanne.

It has a lot of fans, many for the reasons you articulate here.

I binge-watched a show, too, but not a new one. I watched the original The X-Files on Netflix. It holds up amazingly well. Put me in the right frame of mind for the new version.

Mr. Robot is actually a show I never thought I would like and then I ended up loving it. On the surface I shouldn't like it since it's a show that really Has Ideas About The World (the showrunner seems like the "WAKE UP, SHEEPLE" type) and it takes a lot of cheap shots. But you're right about Rami Malek (and the supporting cast) being so good and he became the reason I wanted to keep watching. Usually good acting can't elevate a show for me if I don't love the writing, but I always wanted to see what the actors were going to do next. (The great soundtrack doesn't hurt)

Good summary. Thanks.

I kind of liked the first episode, but is this going to get boring the way Arrow and The Flash did?

What a loaded question/fish-in-barrel for the critic who's already pretty tired of comic-book TV.

...vs. old hipsters? Who wins?

I don't think there's a real battle there -- both are totally capable of ignoring one another.

The way I see it is that he , and to an extent his wife, grew up!

Nah, I think he leaves her in a few more years.

We're out of time.

Thanks again for the many questions and comments.

We'll gather next week -- maybe you'll have some reactions to "The People V. O.J. Simpson." I sense, from having seen it, that you might!

See you Thursday, Feb. 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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