What to Watch: TV chat with Hank Stuever

Oct 15, 2015

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 "The Affair," "You're the Worst," "Fargo," "Casual" and "Supergirl."

Welcome Back, Chatter(s)

I'm starting to feel what passes for a peaceful lull in the neverending parade of new/returning TV shows, but who am I kidding? I've spent the past two days just trying to catch up with the schedule between now and Dec. 31 and I see just as much on my plate as usual. I guess we're all just doomed to be forever behind on catching up on our shows. My DVR is again whining like a dog that needs to be let out into the back yard. Yesterday I felt actual despair when I made of a list of What Needs to Be Watched Right Now and What Can Wait.

And what did I wind up watching last night? Old episodes of "One Day at a Time" on AntennaTV.

So w-up on yo' feet (up on your feet!) / come where there's TV chatting ...

Some recent things of note:

-- New season of "Fargo" is looking mighty fine. I'm four episodes in -- you can read my review here. It's a bit too busy in the first two episodes, but confidently so.

-- Try "Casual" on Hulu if you like dour, vibey, dysfunctional adults having sexy problems with inappropriate bouts of sexy sex. I think it's the first Hulu original show that really feels like Hulu is in the game. (Don't even bring up "Difficult People." I'm severely allergic to Billy Eichner.)

* "The Affair" -- not watching? Fool. You're missing a good one.

* "Homeland" and "The Leftovers" -- two cars that will pretty much always be going back to the shop.

Also, if you care, I've updated the grades on a couple of fall shows that I stamped "pending" because of a lack of pilots. One of those is NBC's new sitcom "Truth Be Told." I gave it a D. You can check out that review and 27 others in the FALL TV PREVIEW.

Now, onto your thoughts, musings, rants and raves -- and questions!

I have no problem with Kermit and Piggy's breakup -- to me, it feels a lot like a story arc that will resolve, during this season, with their reunion -- or with any of the so-called adult humor, because it's very consistent with their previous incarnations. But it's not funny -- at least, not the premiere. None of the jokes give rise to actual laughter, and there were none of the so-corny-it's-funny jokes that have always been their stock in trade. Does it get funnier?

It seems to have gotten a little funnier after that first episode -- but I've yet to see anything that was as funny as the 10 minutes of material that they showed to critics this summer. (Parts of that wound up, mostly reshot, in the pilot.) It seemed to me, and I'd have to go back and do a side-by-side viewing and really think about this, but it seemed that they had reined it in somehow, just a tad. I thought episodes 2, 3 were better. I feel it can still work out fine and I agree with your general reactions.

While I don't like violent programs per se, I do like good storytelling, which made me a fan of shows like Breaking Bad and American Horror Story. If the first episode of the season is any indication, the violence to me was purely gratuitous and the storytelling so weak that I have no incentive to watch another - unless you know something I don't and it gets better ....... Do you know if it does?

A "Hotel" screener arrived too late for me to give it the full Stuever treatment. I started watching the first episode yesterday and to me it just seemed long and overdone.

But one thing I will say about "American Horror Story" is that it tends to follow a wave pattern -- starting off strong, then descending, then rising. Or starting off weak, then ascending to something really cool and scary and fun, and then petering out again. Therefore, "Hotel" may yet get interesting. The strongest example of this process, I think, was the "Coven" season -- it was terrible, it was great, then it was slow, then it picked up...

Chatters? Fans? Your thoughts?

Hi Hank -- thanks for taking questions today and it's great to have you back to chat. I gave the premiere of the new season of AHS a try last week but I found myself checking out (as it were) about halfway through, and I felt no inclination to return last night. It seems to me like it pretty much just lurched from one shocking scene of sex and gore to the next, without much in between. To me the only saving graces were Kathy Bates (always), Denis O'Hare, and Mare Winningham (one of my favorite actresses) too brief as a creepy hotel maid. And while Lady Gaga looks fabulous, to paraphrase a famous political zinger, I know Jessica Lange (well, sort of), and I'm sorry, she's no Jessica Lange. Am I giving up too easily? Your thoughts on the show?

I know for most people, the mere presence of Lady Gaga is reason enough to tune in, but maybe that's why I was underwhelmed with the first episode. I just don't know that I care that much about WHO is in it as WHAT is in it. I'm reserving judgment.

Hi Hank. Help! I'm soooooo lost. I dont know WHAT'S going on on the Leftovers. I'm starting to think I'm not intellectual enough for this show. Can that be the case? You can be honest with me. I won't be mad! I felt the exact same way at the end of last season, but my sis is so enamored with the show, and we usually agree on so much, that I thought I'd give it another try. What do you think? Should I just give up?

Whenever people ask me if it's okay to stop watching "The Leftovers," I always say OF COURSE IT IS. See?

However, in the interest of preserving sibling harmony with Sis, have you considered reading any of the numerous "Leftovers" recaps that are out there? I'd link to a good one, but it's at the New York Times, so you go find it yourself. There's absolutely no shame in leaning on a well-thought, well-argued, well-analyzed recap of a show that leaves you in the dark. (Which "The Leftovers" is doing on purpose, by the way. Remember, the showrunner is Damon Lindelof, who wrought "Lost" upon us and lead us down many, many rabbit holes trying to figure that one out.)

I remain a fan of Top Chef, although no season has come close to the Voltaggio brothers showdown. I know that at one point Bravo was indicating the new season would start in October, but now the website does not note a premiere date. Any idea what's going on?

I don't have an idea, but that's because I generally don't do cooking shows. (Sorry, we all have to draw some lines. To preserve my sanity, I steer clear of cooking, professional sports and most imports, unless imported to us via PBS, Sundance, etc.)

So I turn to the chatters: Hey, "Top Chef" fans -- when's the new season coming?

What do you see as the biggest surprises of the new TV season...good and bad? Thanks -- love your articles.

Hmm, interesting question. Off the top of my head:

1. "Supergirl" is better than I ever thought it could be.

2. I was surprised by all the people who were scandalized by the new Muppet show.

3. Jon Batiste is just not happening as a bandleader for Colbert.

4. Trevor Noah seems to have it more under control on "The Daily Show" than he does as a stage performer.

5. "The Affair" has gone all the way up to No. 1 on my favorites list.

6. "The Leftovers" is aggravating.

7. I need to commit to one (just one) of the many shows on currently that make use of medieval peasants, and I think it's going to be BBC America's "The Last Kingdom."

8. I'm surprised the first couple of "Good Wife" episodes this season feel like a whole stack of dry pancakes without any syrup. (Jeffrey Dean Morgan notwithstanding.) Do I have to keep eating them?

That's just off the top of my head ... I'm sure I'm overlooking something.

Outstanding. Am I the only one who was not aware of Ann Cusack? Seeing her, I kept on asking "is that Joan in makeup? Can't be..."

As Yoda said: There is another.

Another season and another set of people who question Rick! I now feel for Morgan because he's sounding like a Moral Compass, who always become biter bait on the show. And where is this sustainable community in Arlington?

Not Arlington, "Alexandria." (With its piney woods and mountain roads and canyons of strip mines full of zombies, etc.)

I thought Sunday's episode was dreariness defined. I felt like it was four hours long. The black-and-white stuff was just inane, unnecessary artsy-fartsiness. I hope it gets better, but it wouldn't be the first time that a "Walking Dead" season just wandered around.

Is Back! I LOOOOVED the first season! Did they give you any previous for season 2? Is Clive Owen going to let the Hero In? ;-)

I do have some new episodes. And I haven't had time to watch them, but I will.

...but what is your favorite commercial (currently playing)? Or do you burn through them all on your DVR?

I love commercials. I love to hate commercials, too. I talk back to them. The one I love right now is unforgivably but sincerely dorky: It's for some kind of vitamin, called Alive? With the people just singing their heads off about how happy this vitamin makes them? It feels old-school, but it's new-school.

And the one I hate is the Ford commercial ("This is my fight song...") with the young woman driving her new Ford SUV or crossover through the city and telling herself (and us) that there are such-and-such-many million people living in this city and just one of her. She says: "I'll take those odds."

To which I always reply: Piss off, you little brat. I would love to see the next scene, where a car rear-ends her from behind and causes her to rear-end the car in front of her and she breaks out in tears, locks the doors, and calls her parents, who immediately book a flight out to the big bad city to go help her and buy her another new car.

Any insight into why there is no Star Trek on TV? Seems like the only sci-fi franchise without something on the small screen.

The original series is on MeTV or AntennaTV -- look around for it. My partner and I have watched a few episodes recently.

Is it only because Tyra Banks found another program for her huge....ego?

I never, ever, ever, ever, ever, ever watched it. What did I miss?

After two weeks of crappy new network shows, they finally had a funny one in "Crazy Ex-Girlfriend" I loved the musical numbers! With its ratings, does it have a chance because its on the CW?

Not sure of ratings, but yes, the CW has a history of being a little more tolerant while a show finds its audience. I liked it too -- but I worry how long the premise can hold. Is she going to be hung up on this guy forever?

Into the Badlands seems to be getting a little buzz in advance of its premiere next month. The trailer looks a little more violent than I typically watch. But the cast is very attractive. When do you get to see it?

The screener and fancy press kit is here and I look forward to watching it. (Today's obvious theme: Hank is too busy as a TV critic to watch any TV!) I'll be giving it a full review when it premieres Nov. 15. Check back.

Am loving "Home Fires" on PBS (Francesca Annis can chew scenery with the best of them!), more so than "Indian Summer" which occupies the more prestigious 9 PM Sunday time-slot.

Fully agree. In the Fall TV Preview, I gave "Indian Summers" at middling C+ -- everyone says it gets better after episode 5, which is exactly as far as I got -- and I really liked "Home Fires," which I gave a B+. If you want to read either of those reviews and nod your head in violent agreement, there's a link in the intro above.

Which one is Fox going to cancel first?

My vote is "Minority Report." They already cut the episode order down to 10.

John Kelly had a fun column the other morning on all the future-D.C. details in the show. Read it here.

Sorry, should have been more specific - why no new Star Trek series of any kind?

You mean like a brand-new one?

The thought of it makes me a little (more) tired.

Are they blaming bad writing or all of the Star Cameos?

"Empire's" definition of "down" would be another show's "hallelujah," though, right? (How "down" are we talking? I haven't read the ratings this morning.)

You're right that Fred Savage is the best thing on that show, but the use of music isn't far behind. Maybe it's the fact that I'm precisely the target market for this thing (same age as Fred Savage, therefore I grew from The Princess Bride and The Wonder Years through Law and Order and thence to The West Wing having been too young to really be plugged in to Rob Lowe's first career before his miraculous Austin Powers rebirth), but I find the self-awareness of the dramatic incidental music hilarious.

It's a keeper, though it probably would help in the next few episodes if they broadened Lowe's character a bit. It seems to be redundant already.

I agree with you that Tuesday's was better than the previous ones. First, they had Fozzie hit one of the old hecklers with a T-Shirt Cannon, then they showed the crew after work in a bar. The Swedish Chef can rap! But why did they make the IT guy so grotesque?

Of all the new shows I DVRed (Grinder, Scream Queens, Quantico, Life in Pieces) I've only stuck with one, The Grinder. I find the new TV season overall very disappointing. My kids LOVE the muppets and call Tuesday Nights MUPPET NIGHT, but beyond that, I find myself sticking with old stand bys.

People have had a "ptooey" response to "Life in Pieces." I thought it would get a warmer reception, but all kinds of viewers are telling me they don't like it. I need to watch a couple more episodes to see if I agree.

BBC America runs "The Next Generation". See Patrick Stewart before he started kissing men.

There's that, but I think the original chatter was asking why there isn't a brand-new Trek series in the offing.

Other than "Supergirl" is there any show we're waiting for this fall?

Including cable and streaming, I am still looking forward to Aziz Ansari's "Master of None" (Nov. 6 on Netflix) and Amazon's drama "The Man in the High Castle" (Nov. 20). There are some returning shows I'm eager to see later this fall too, such as HBO's final season of "Getting On." And season 2 of "Transparent" (Amazon) on Dec. 4.

On the other hand, that might be enough to get me to renew my cable subscription!

You and many others, I suspect. It would also be a terrific boost to one of the streaming providers, if they could lay their mitts on it.

And why? (This was prompted by your hilarious response to the commercial question, BTW)

I wouldn't even know where to begin. This might be a good question for the eventual day that I file my last piece as TV critic.

I was watching it on Antenna TV last night as well. How do you think it holds up?

Well, you know, Bonnie Franklin always laid it on so thick with her ACTING, THANK YOU. But she was great and so was everyone else on that show. The episode I watched the other night was later -- when Barbara met the dentist (Mark?) and I'd totally forgotten that they had Cousin Olivered the show with that creepy Alex kid.

I was fascinated. I even set the DVR to record some more episodes -- not ALL of them, just a few more to enjoy. I liked that show very much as a kid, around 5th grade or so.

In its previous life, I used to enjoy watching it, but now it puts me to sleep. Do you think that the writing was that much better then, or has everyone's taste in humor changed?

I don't think comparisons to the original variety-show-within-a-show are really all that helpful. Of course taste in humor has changed. We should be alarmed if it hadn't.

I have never seen one episode, but I have read that it is highly rated. About a week ago the Blu-ray was on sale for 1/3 suggested price, so I bought it. 69 and one half hours. In your opinion, will I like it? I like your opinions on most shows (and your take on commercials).

In the opinion of everyone who loved that show, you will tear through those 69 hours like it's a breeze. There was even a Portlandia sketch about binge TV mania that, if memory serves, all started because a couple binged all of Battlestar Galactica. (We are talking about the update one, right? From this century, not the '70s?)

I heard "Jessica Jones" will have a sex scene in it. Will this be a first?

Superman and Lois had sex in "Superman II." I remember. I was in 7th grade. It was on a silvery-foil bed in Superman's iceberg fortress. But he had to sacrifice his powers in order to do so. It was a real lesson -- keep it in your pants, kids.

I love Ruth Wilson and John Doman and Maura Tierney, so I am happy to hear that "The Affair" keeps getting better. But now I have a problem. I don't have Showtime, and I usually catch up on these things on DVD. Season 1 is out, but I'm wondering whether I should wait until many seasons are available. What would you advise?

I don't know and I kind of steer clear of these questions (which are all essentially "how do I get around paying for [this or the other thing]?" I think Showtime is now allied with Hulu somehow, which might provide an avenue.

This is where other chatters are extremely helpful. Remember, I pay for everything, so I have everything, and what I don't have, the networks often send me for free, so I'm the worst person to ask about option B, C, D, etc. when it comes to premium content.

But the chatters can help. Take it away, gang ...

My wife and I have found it entertaining. Partly because over the years we could relate to some of the things that happen (not the really crazy). The other reason is with it broken into 4 parts you don't get overly annoyed if one of the stories just doesn't work. 5-6 minutes later you have something else. Some of the characters are stronger than others, but overall we look forward to it. I am getting more laughs from it than Big Band Theory this year which is just not doing it for me.

Thanks for chiming in.

"Alive? With the people just singing their heads off about how happy this vitamin makes them..." Oh my god - I haven't seen this, but I must google it. Please tell me it's placed during the Walking Dead? If not, what are their media planners doing?

Good idea!

I was thinking about ditching cable the other day and tried to get a signal via antenna. No luck... nothing (yes, I have a digital TV with what is rumored to be a half-decent digital antenna). Has anyone else been able to get on-air TV in the DMV?

I know several who do ...

Everyone else? Are you sure? Did you forget Glenn Scarpelli? He was a poor man's Adrian Zmed.

I noted that problem in the same reply.

Glenn Scarpelli. Everyone now Googling ...

What do you find aggravating about the show? I don't understand why shows always have to explain EVERYTHING. I find it refreshing that the show is bold enough to tell the viewers that you're never going to get a full explanation for what happened to these people. The show is about the people left behind, not the actual event. My current favorite show on TV.

Obviously I have no problem with shows that don't explain EVERYTHING or I wouldn't be so caught up in "The Affair," which will most assuredly never fully explain what really happened to its characters.

What I find aggravating about "The Leftovers": The seriousness. Dreadful, dour portent in every single second. Unhappiness for unhappiness's sake. Boring.

If I recall correctly, he had sex with her before he gave up his powers. He gave up his powers so they could be in a relationship. That's the real lesson here. He should have just hit it and quit it.

Lois Lane just happened to bring a 70s style nightgown with her to Superman's ice fortress.

I guess you're the opposite of a restaurant critic, who needs to be anonymous. Do they ever refuse to send you something in advance because they know you won't like it?

I don't think they withhold stuff from me, personally, but there are cases where they don't provide advance episodes to critics at all -- sometimes because they know it's bad and sometimes because it's not ready. The same thing happens with movies with some frequency -- at which point the critic has to decide whether or not to file a review later. That's an easier decision for a TV critic, because a movie is only ever going to be 2 hours long. A series evolves, but if it was bad enough to withhold screeners, it's probably on its way to being cancelled.

I refuse to watch The Affair because I have zero sympathy for either of the leads. Both of them had marriages and he had children. They were wrong to allow anything to start. What happened to "till death do you part?"

As Fiona Apple suggests in the theme song, they are flawed, flawed, flawed people.

How's it go? "I have only one thing to do and that's / Be the way that I am and then / Sink back into the ocean."

And with that, I'm going under.

See you here next week!


Interesting that the head of FX has come out and said there are too many tv shows right now. I tend to agree, although I'm also doing better at giving up shows that just aren't doing it for me anymore (Modern Family, I'm looking at you!). Is there an end in sight or will we continue to be bombarded with hundreds of shows for a while longer? I'm grateful for people like you who help sort through what's worth trying and what isn't!

OOPS -- I answered this and forgot to post it. Posting it now:

I was in the audience when John Landgraf (head of FX) brought that up at the TV critics press tour and I thought to myself, ooh, that's a really smart thing for him to do. (He's a smart guy.) It helps him explain why some of FX's shows (especially the good ones) don't do as well as the network (and fans) might've hoped and it was also a way to get in a very subtle dig at all the new players in the field who are putting out dramas that are, frankly, pretty much always a C+ or B-, but nevertheless a costly endeavor. It also acknowledges, in a sympathetic way, the fatigue that TV viewers are feeling with all these choices, regardless of how they receive the content. It also played well with overworked TV critics, especially because Landgraf brought the data: There are, by FX's count, something like 400 shows (scripted dramas and comedies) expected to be in production in 2016, when you add up cable, broadcast, streaming. Fifteen years ago, we were faced with 75 or so shows in production. (I think that's right -- I don't have the chart handy.)

Landgraf chose his words carefully, but since then it's been nothing but articles and mentions of "peak TV," attributed to him -- and I essentially agree with him. We may have reached a bubble where all these shows can't be sustained. But, as others have noted, it's kind of unfair that if it starts to shrink and takes with it some hard-won victories in terms of diversity -- whether on the screen or behind the camera.

So, to answer your question, I don't know if there's an end in sight yet, but some of these players don't have bottomless pockets to keep aiming for high-caliber shows and reaping mere blips in terms of ratings or buzz.

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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