What to Watch: TV chat with Hank Stuever

Dec 10, 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."

Hi everyone -- thanks for indulging my two-week staycation, which was restful and personally productive (errands, dentist, cooking -- all the things a TV critic never has time to do). Now it's time to get back into the chat! Some highlights since we last chatted, in random order, that might get your chat juices flowin' ...

Golden Globe nominations are out this morning and Emily Yahr and Stephanie Merry are right on it (here's their list) with instant reactions that I pretty much agree with. Happy to talk here about the TV nominations, but please take the movie stuff somewhere else.

My list of the Best TV Shows of 2015 is up online and will be in this Sunday's Arts & Style section. My No. 1 show is "The Affair." You can click the link to read the rest of the list and some also-rans. I'm curious what your list looks like!

While I was away, my 3,000-word profile of Kennedy Center honoree George Lucas ran. I went to Skywalker Ranch earlier this fall to interview him, which last more than two hours. He had some interesting things to say about what it's like to let go of "Star Wars." I kept my inner fanboy totally in check the whole time I was there.

Recent reviews:

NBC's "Coat of Many Colors" tonight, or "Who can make a faith-based all-white Christmas special seem fine ’n’ dandy? Dolly Parton, of course."

Also from NBC, the very blah sitcom "Superstore," which got a two-episode sneak-preview on Nov. 30.

And I'm wondering if anyone has watched "A Very Murray Christmas" on Netflix yet? I got what they were going for, but I still remain unconvinced that the old-fashioned Christmas special (or even an ironic nod to one) plays very well in a streaming, on-demand world.

Bethonie Butler has had some recent reviews too, including a real rip on "Real Rob" and some interesting thoughts about NBC's "Telenovela." Bethonie was also on duty for "The Wiz Live!", which she and seemingly everyone else on Twitter enjoyed very much. (I also thought it was pretty dazzling The dialogue/acting didn't match the pep of the music/choreography/set design, but ultimately this production was a major, hyoooooge improvement over last year's "Peter Pan" and that dreadful "Sound of Music" in 2013.) Bethonie also has a piece up just now that evaluates FX's "You're the Worst's" swerve to afflict one of its characters with clinical depression. (To sum up, Bethonie is cranking out the copy nonstop!)

I think that's enough to get us started. What're you watching?


OK, so the FHPA obviously loves nominating flashy stars to boost ratings at their award show. But Rob Lowe? Lady Gaga? Come on. Not one actor for Game of Thrones? And I'd love to hear the justification for nominating "Empire" for best drama--a bad soap opera at best-- but snubbing "The Americans" and "Show Me a Hero."

Well, the quick answer is that it's the Golden Globes, which has at the center of its being a kind of showbiz mental illness that will always prevent it from being a straight-up legit awards show.

From there, I will (still!) defend "Empire" as a chaotic artistic commentary on culture and society, if and only if we stipulate that is comically melodramatic and always will be.

As for snubs, you should read my "Best of 2015" list, linked above, to find the vindication you seek. Because my word is GOLDEN.

Thanks for your top 10 list. It reminded me that I need to find Wolf Hall and Send Me a Hero. I thought The Wiz was great fun. I'm not super familiar with the musical, but the kiddo and I had fun watching it, especially after we figured out how to turn the visual descriptions off. (Although that did give us a good in-joke. "Now Leslie rises from the couch and enters the kitchen. Taking a glass from the cabinet, she opens the refrigerator and pours herself a glass of lemonade.")

Yes, people were really panicking over that narration glitch. Apparently cable customers (Xfinity, mostly?) never knew their "visually imparied" narration switch was set to on, or that "The Wiz" had swapped off and on. I counseled a few people on Twitter who seemed to find the switch on their remote menu by the time Dorothy and the Scarecrow were easing on down the road.

When will it return?

Monday, Feb. 15. (And no, I haven't seen any episodes yet.)

I probably won't watch, but I have to confess I can't have the holiday season without "Hard Candy Christmas" For some reason, it makes me think of the sticky ribbon candy bowl my mid-western grandma always had.

Oh, watch it.

Gawd how much longer will Channels 22 and 26 keep running their awful pledge month or season programming? Its the same old stuff over and over. Now if these networks picked up the American Rifleman and Guns and Ammo Tv along with some hunting shows I might make a donation. But not for Suzie and Dr Ben and his scary colleagues.

I can't speak to why our local PBS affiliate schedules the way it schedules, but I can urge you to look beyond and let technology (fairly simple technology) help you stream in some other choices. Such as, if you're looking for documentaries, you could watch a squillion of them -- some of the best documentaries ever made, on every subject imaginable --  with an HBO Go subscription. If it's British/Australian/Kiwi/German detective or crunchy-gravel  dramas you're after, you should start streaming Acorn TV. You have so many options -- think of the subscription fees like making a dollar pledge.

We watched it. We turned it off. It was painfully bad. Watching were a 19 year old, a fifty year old and a sixty year old so we covered many groups.

Had I not been reviewing it, I don't think I would have hung in there for the full hour, either.

All these shows taking extended breaks from December till February or so have me thinking. Doesn't that translate to the actors, producers, grips, editors, etc. taking those breaks from October through December -- and therefore resuming work over the holidays? Does that make sense?

I'm sure they've worked it out in such a way that the talent doesn't have to schlepp in on Dec. 24, but who knows? I'm sure the showrunner and writers work like crazy no matter what cycle they're in.

It also depends on what kind of show we're talking about. There were always breaks at the end of the year, we just didn't give them names like "winter finale" and all that highfalutin' nonsense.

Bob Odenkirk got a Nomination, but it was shut out of the Best Drama Nomination and how could they forget about Jonathan Banks in that episode "Five-O". SNUB!

Any thoughts on the new season?

I watched a couple of episodes right before I went on break just to see if I needed to strongly consider it for my top-ten list (it was on the list last year) and I decided that it seemed ship-shape and very good but not enough to edge out the competition on the list I'd already pretty much decided upon. But still a very good show and I will watch it all, probably a good chunk of it today, and decide what else I need to say about in The Post.

Kelly Ripa keeps going on about the show. What is it about? Is it worth watching?

Drama about mixed-martial arts competitors (I think; I can't tell) in Venice, Calif., and unseemly events in and amongst a criminally-inclined family that includes a Jonas Brother. Let me put it this way: If you watch "Ray Donovan" and keep thinking, boy, I wish it had more of the brothers' boxing gym in it, then maybe "Kingdom" is for you.

I was rightly taken to task a few weeks back when I mentioned what happened in "Fargo" the day after the segment aired, so, I'll just say, if someone has missed the Dec 7th episode, watch it NOW. I don't see how the final episode can top what just occurred, but it probably will. After the 1st year, I thought there would be a fall off, instead, "Fargo Season 2" is even better. I'll no doubt be in the minority, but I rate "Fargo" right at the top of TV dramas (comedic dramas?) for the last two years.

It's rare to see such creative confidence from a show that everyone held in fairly low expectation (how could it be better than the Coens movie? etc.) and, frankly, I'm still hearing from too many people who haven't made time to watch it and now feel like they don't want to do the work of watching seasons 1 and 2. People who haven't watched "Fargo" are really, really missing something special.

Meanwhile (next question) ...

What's with the UFO on Fargo? It is a great story, not really plausible but entertaining when the creature from the sky intervenes in the penultimate shoot-out. Yes, I will watch the finale but the spaceship ruined my satisfaction.

I think the occasional appearance of the UFO is a very oblique pop-cultural reference that anyone who was alive and sentient in the late 1970s will get right away. After "Star Wars" and "Close Encounters of the Third Kind," you have no idea how prevalent the UFO (or space alien) motif became. To me it seems like Noah Hawley ("Fargo" showrunner) put them there just to complete the subtle but very effective '70s feeling that this season has achieved. The details really have been perfect -- less like a '70s costume party and more authentic, down to the split-screen edits and impeccable playlist of songs.

My first complaint about Fargo (Loplop): No police officer... but especially by-the-book Lou Solverson... would leave Peggy & Ed's house unattended after finding what was in the basement.

There's one in every crowd who can't ignore the plausibility alarms clanging away in their heads. I took it as part of the general chaos that's been building, not to mention intra-agency staffing issues (not enough officers, questions about jurisdiction) ...

Last week I had my first Nielsen ratings call. They asked what I was watching at the time (PBS news), and what I would be watching that night (Big Bang re-runs). I also aggressively pushed Fargo as my favorite TV show. I felt a (probably over-inflated) sense of pride that I may have helped promote the show in ratings...

I didn't know they did it this way, with random phone surveys. It all sounds very 1991 to me. Did they call you on your land line?

Okay, not really. But what has happened to this form? Is this just a down moment in the cycle (yes, I remember similar funeral notices in the early 1980s)? Is there too much comedy, and is it too narrowly focused? Or is there something about networks that has made it impossible to birth shows that are both popular and excellent? And does it matter that there are no "killer app" shows -- that is, shows like "Orange Is The New Black" that basically compel you to have Netflix -- that are comedies?

Sounds like you've locked into your own theory and have boldly proclaimed your conclusions in your heading, so I'll leave you to it, though I think you've overlooked quite a number of shows/trends/tones/formats that exist not merely to supplant the sitcom (which is still chugging along, in both single- and mutli-cam) but to build off it. The only other thing I would add is that you seem to have missed "Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt?"

Thank you so much for the George Lucas story. It was beautiful and I had to read many parts a second time to let the lovely writing sink in.

Oh, what a nice thing to hear. Thanks. I very much enjoyed getting to go out to Skywalker Ranch and appreciated his honesty on a lot of subjects. It also made me miss feature writing a little bit -- the whole experience of it, from getting the assignment to booking a plane there and back, renting a car, not knowing how it would turn out, filling a notebook with physical and scenic detail. I spend a lot of my time inert, I've realized, scrutinizing TV on screen and typing on another.

I see it got a GG Nomination. Well Deserved! When is it coming back and I heard they're placing it in a high school.

Agreed! (You'll see it was No. 10 on my top 10 list, in a very competitive year.)

It returns very soon -- Wednesday, Jan. 6. It's set in Indianapolis this time, yes, in the context of high school athletics. I'm eager to watch it.

Well, since the secret's out now... remember the mylar balloon was found alongside the gun outside the diner? That was an out for us all to say "oh... it was just a shiny balloon." Then, they hit us with a full-on, no-doubt-about-it spaceship. Hilarious!

to be running "lost her powers, we think temporarily but maybe not" episodes? It just seems that this is a strategy for when the using the superpowers or hiding that you have them stories are getting old.


I've been a panelist several times and have only recieved a phone call once and it was in addition to the paper diary I received.

I once filled out an Arbitron Survey diary over a sweeps week in 1993. They gave me a Dollar for the trouble.

So weird.

We got Arbitron diaries at my house in the 1980s, when the family was down to just my mother and me, and we tried for a couple of days to fill it out (I of course treated it like we'd been asked to write a new book of the Bible), but we got really bored with it and gave it up. No dollar for us -- and we could have used it!

After a really intriguing, action-packed premiere, I wondered why your review was lukewarm. Now I get it. I'm enjoying this show, but want it to be better. The costuming is gorgeous and the stage fighting is spectacular. I enjoy the characterization and performances from actors playing Baron Quinn and the Widow, and Sunny (mostly). The big hole for me is MK. When a character like his is the crux of the show, you really need a standout - someone of Kiernan Shipka's chops - and so I think that's going to hold the show back.

It's boring.

I also enjoyed reading it. It seems that he took the criticism of episodes 1-3 very personally...

Yes, he did, and probably in a way that only he could describe. There's a whole lot more there to unpack. I hope (and I told him so) that he writes a memoir, but he said he didn't think he ever would.

The script and music was great, but I forgot that the actual animation was kind of clunky. Nowadays, wouldn't Charlie Brown sue the entire gang under anti-bullying laws?

The Charlie Brown Christmas special is absolute perfection and part of that perfection is the fact that it was slapped together on a very close deadline that they almost didn't make, which is what gives a sort of amateur, funky feeling that it is impossible to replicate. It's also best if you get the full-length original on DVD without commercial interruption.

They just ousted a girl I thought for sure they would bring to the finals because no one would vote for her. This may be the best season ever.

I'll take your word for it.

Was a triumph. Left every other recent attempt at live musical theatre in the dust. From design, to choreography, to performances... I was thrilled.

Yes -- noticed has now been served to Fox, which has a live "Grease" airing next month.

Rachel Bloom was nominated for a GG! But thee show's a bit too warped. Maybe she and Neil Patrick Harris can get together for a variety show?

That's not a bad idea. Although I don't get the impression that NPH likes sharing the stage.

After 12 or so episodes, will it be renewed?

First comes what's reported to be a makeover when the show resumes in the spring with a new showrunner. Then we'll see what happens.

Thoroughly enjoyed The Wiz (and saw it on stage many many times when I worked at a theatre) but my issue with these live shows is that they need live audiences for the musicals to work. There's an energy that can't be replaced when there's an audience, although The Wiz came awfully close. When it's not Pledge Month on PBS, they'll often show the Hugh Jackman London production of Oklahoma. Filmed but not with an audience and it just falls flat. The other problem with the other two live musicals is the casting. They get all these great Broadway actors but then put Alison Williams and whoever-the-blond-Maria was in the starring roles. Ugh.

Carrie Underwood is the name you're grasping for. (Blonde Maria.)

I agree an audience would help, but the soundstages are so big (and so many -- the actors run from one set to the next), that I'm not sure where the audience would sit and still be able to get any experience of the show or have their laughter/reactions register to the viewer at home.

He was nominated for the last time for "Mad Men" Has he ever won a GG yet?

Hmmm, I wonder if there's some kind of machine with a keyboard and a screen that could tell us...

Three Words: Big Bang Theory. 16 million viewers last week. More than Empire, even!

I was going to say that, too, but I kind of wanted the OP to get there on his or her own...

The animation in Charlie Brown is part of the charm and why I don't want to see the new one, despite the great reviews. And casting children as the children, which was novel at the time. I heard on NPR that the little girl doing Sally couldn't read yet, mostly memorized the lines and her mother sat in the recording booth with her to help. That's why there's the occasional hesitation in her voice: Mom telling her what was next. Just. The. Best.

1000 percent agree.

One theory that I'm sure you've heard is that Lucas was so revered and (unwittingly or not) was surrounded by a group of yes-men (and women) who not dared question any of his ideas during the making of Phantom Menace. Do you think there's anything to this?

Yes, that's often the prevailing theory -- it was, after all, the largest independent film ever made. So really not even the studio could have stepped in and said, eh, we don't like the story; get a new writer.

They brought Whitney Cummings in last week. Lots of in-jokes with her former co-star. How were the ratings?

It got beat by everything else (Last Man Standing, Amazing Race, MasterChef Jr.) except for Reign, which did a little worse.

Finale this week! When will it be back in the spring?


Thanks for the shout-out on Looking and American Ninja Warrior. Both excellent shows, for very different reasons. HBO execs: if you are reading this, you'd best do us right by the Looking movie wrap-up.

I watched The Sound of Music , Peter Pan, and The Wiz, and enjoyed them all. Yes, The Wiz was the best one (also the most modern, which helps). But I would love to see an integrated version of The Wiz. I think it's time.

I'm pretty sure the high-school drama departments of the world have already granted your wish.

The way I see it, the DVD of "Charlie Brown Christmas" won't be complete without a couple of commercials for Dolley Madison snack cakes.

I'm genuinely surprised that it didn't pick up any Golden Globes nominations, especially given its Emmy noms. Do you think the March release hurt it? It was long enough ago that it might have fallen out of voters' heads...

Maybe. Or they just didn't like it as much as you did. There are seriously hundreds of shows to choose from...

Download the PBS video app. Tons and tons of their stuff is available there for FREE. Then you can just send your local station check and watch what you want guilt free. Who watches linear TV anymore, anyway? It's a lot cheaper than HBO Go (then again, it doesn't have Game of Thrones)

enjoyed the holiday episode this week. I don't know how they manage to convey so many emotions with these puppets, but at the end, Kermit and his confusing feelings for Piggy were really clear. I don't want them to change it, although I know they are going to.

I'm with you. I thought they came up with something that was both in-line with Muppetology and fresh and funny. I hate to see them muck with it in order to appease the people who confuse Muppets with Sesame Street and Muppet Babies.

Don't you think most of these shows are already produced or are just continuing to produce as they need to complete their full season order (assuming they're ongoing series)? I don't see any reason why the production would take a big break just because the TV network wants to break it up that way in their schedule. It's probably much cheaper to just keep everyone on set and the production up and going straight through. Plus, you don't risk people having to try to schedule other work in little in-between times. My guess is that a number of the shows that are breaking and showing their back 8 (or whatever they have left) are already done and in the can, or are just in the editing/finishing phase.

That's often the case, yes, exactly as you describe.

Also, we have to be clear about what kind of show we're talking about. A procedural can take a break a whole lot easier than a drama that follows a 13-episode arc over an entire season.

I find it too be a pretty compelling show. Yes, it is a sexy, dark look at the world of ballet but I find it good.

Yeah, I enjoyed watching it just to see where it was going to end up.

The poor kid who's excited to work for GE and everyone's confused on what he does. How does this sell refrigerators?

It is indeed baffling. It doesn't make GE look good and it doesn't make millennials look so hot either. Basically it's an ad that says "Hi, we're having a real identity crisis and thought we'd share it not just with stockholders but with all of you at home."

You know who I think this ad strategy might work for, however? Sears. A whole bunch of down-in-the-mouth commercials about millennials wandering into Sears for the first time.

I'm there, if only for nostalgia reasons. Used to enjoy the Christmas specials she did long ago. Great voice, fun personality.

Well, don't expect THAT. Dolly appears at the beginning and the end, telling you what you're about to watch and then checking back to wish you a Merry Christmas. In between is basically a better-than-average Hallmark movie with 378 commercials.

Let's not forget the awesome Vince Guaraldi music which became classic. Thank God there was a little piano player in the group.

Nobody forgot it -- probably because there's not a stereo speaker in all the land this time of year that will let us forget it. At some point a few years ago, I was sorry to discover that my ear was tired of hearing it.

Seriously, of all the shows on television right now, the one thing you think "it's time" to integrate is The Wiz? Wow.

Such as this lilly-white Dolly Parton movie on tonight. I'm pretty sure there's not a single minority in it, though I may have missed one or two in fleeting crowd scenes.

Any new info on when the next season will start?

No official date yet. April is a good bet.

With the amount of TV out there, it's hard to keep up with all the (mostly) good shows. I only have basic cable (basically free because of internet bundle), but I never watch network shows anymore. If it's not streaming on Netflix, HBO, or Amazon, I don't see it. Maybe you can do a "Top Ten" in each category: Network, Streaming Only, and Prestige?

Forget it.

So, are you still watching? I thought this season was kind of blah - too many new characters that I didn't care about and it took too much attention away from Rick and his group.

Yes, it's been another meandering season where not enough happens, at least not in an interesting way. But who can't relate to the feeling of being lost and wandering around in Northern Virginia?

Maybe the back half of the season will improve -- like it did a couple of years ago when the prison burned and all the characters were scattered in different directions, where they managed to give their finest performances to date.

(Spoilers) Glen's Alive! But the poor actor couldn't step outside his room for about a month. Was this an important lesson for the showrunners?

I think they're probably pretty pleased with all the hype and concern they generated.

Hank - you totally missed a chance to delegate there. "That sounds like a great idea! Why don't you do that and share it with the group?"

Nice to see her back on the Boob Tube (ha)

Oof. That's what I call chat-killer.

Which is handy, because it's already after 1.

See you here next week, gang -- thanks for coming back and for all the questions and comments.

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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