What to Watch: TV chat with Hank Stuever

Jul 31, 2014

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," "House Hunters," "The Amazing Race," "The Suze Orman Show." And he once gave "Here Comes Honey Boo Boo" a good review. Lately he's been digging "The Leftovers," "Fargo" and "Silicon Valley."

We're back, it's summer, and life is once more blown to bits by a Sharknado.

I didn't review-review "Sharknado 2: The Second One" (since it's whole point of existence is to be review-proof) but I did have some things to say about it. (That Susan Sontag, I gotta say -- she never lets us down when it comes to matters of taste and camp.) Did you watch it?

What else is new? "Manhattan," if the '40s and the A-bomb are your kinda thing. Any thoughts about the show? Here are mine.

The lines are open to talk about anything else TV-related. (Or even not-so-TV-related, if the tangent attracts us.) I got back safe and sound from the 16-day TV press tour, with LOTS of thoughts about the months ahead, including the fall season. One immediate thought: The new shows aren't so bad this year. They aren't going to blow you away, either, but on the whole, a definite improvement from last fall.

Let's do this.


Of course, I had to watch it 3 times to figure out what was going on. But it's interesting to get in the heads of the people who built the bomb.

Yes, and the second episode is better than the first -- the story finds a little bit more of a groove. Dramas are often hard to decipher from just the first episode. I agree the subject is mildly fascinating, though well-trod.

The characters are fictional. If you really want to get "in the heads" of the people who built the bomb, you're going to have to read a very good book: Richard Rhodes's Pulitzer-winning "The Making of the Atomic Bomb."

I liked the first episode of "Manhattan" -- it didn't seem slow to me, especially considering it had to set everything up. I am a bit of a WWII junkie, though, so I'm an easy sell.

Yes, people who dig military history and WWII/Cold War stuff will probably like "Manhattan." Unless, of course, they are quibblers and persnickety about facts, which is often the case ...

Was your tweet about Patti Smith being in the new season of THE KILLING a joke of some sort or is she really in it? I'm trying to make that work in my head.

She's in it! She plays a doctor in the first episode of this new season (six episodes), which launches Friday on Netflix. Apparently, she's a big fan of the show (must be all that morose rain) and they gave her a part. For realz!

Alas, I won't have time to write a full review of "The Killing," but what I've seen so far is not bad. There's a new case to solve. Linden is haunted by what she did at the end of last season. (No spoilers for those who haven't seen season 3. I mean, did anyone finish season 3?)

Given all all the NBC - Weather channel synergy in it, you know who should have been in it as a cameo--Benson and Stabler from Law and Order SVU. You can't get more New York than that. Maybe getting eaten by a shark will become the new celeb thing, like saying Sock it to me in the old Laugh In.

I think we're already to that point. If only people shouted "Sock it to me" just as the jaws clamped down!

I have been wanting to go back and re-watch some of the quality shows that appeared on network TV before the cable explosion just to see how well they hold up. I'm thinking about HOMICIDE, HILL STREET BLUES, ER, and NYPD BLUE just as examples. I suspect that they now look very cheap and lacking in the production values we are used to, but in the context of their time they are still high quality shows. Have you had occasion to look back at any shows like that? When I have gone WAY BACK to the shows of my youth (KOLCHAK, SIX MILLION DOLLAR MAN, etc.) they are simply wretched. But I blame that on being a kid.

You mentioned all 1990s shows, except for "Hill Street Blues." By and large, I think you're right -- old one-hour dramas from the '70s and '80s look cheaper and clunkier (and move much slower), but once you appreciate their context and settle into them, you can see why they found an audience back then. I watch some of them from a real place of forgiveness and nostalgia. Earlier this year I received the long-awaited DVDs of "LA Law" seasons 1 and 2, which I'm sure are not nearly as great as some of us remember them being, but that I will nevertheless enjoy the next time I get the flu.

Maybe last year was an exercise in lowering our expectations so we'd be excited no matter what came out this year?


Yes, yes I did finish Season 3 so I'm actually excited for this final go. And I'm happy it is just 6 episodes, I hope that focuses them more.

Yes, they won't have many roads to go down.

When will we see it again??

Late January.

I didn't watch the film, but I did follow along on Twitter. The film could not have been funnier than the tweets about it.

Oh yeah, the tweets are far and away more funny. Same with awards shows.

Season 5 trailer! #thatisall

I'm in.

But I have to say, I thought the show was never better than the second half of last season, when the cast was scattered hither and yon. It brought out their best work and the best character stories to date. Now that most of them are reunited and locked away in that boxcar waiting to be grilled and eaten, I'm less excited. It's just one more horrible dystopia to escape. Anyone agree?

Is this the TV writer example of damning with faint praise?

No, but I'm not going to oversell it either.

I've been watching several shows on basic cable which seem to be pretty good. I like The Lottery so far and The Divide, which is quite thought provoking. Murder in the First is coming to its conclusion, and it has kept me watching. The two I have not been happy with are Suits (putting Mike and Harvey on opposite sides) and Dance Moms (Abby is worse than ever, if that's possible). Quest sounds intriguing.

I definitely need to go back and watch "The Divide," which slipped through the cracks during a very busy month. It sounds like you've done a good job of finding shows you'll like -- which sounds like the easiest thing in the world, but it's not. I hear from readers all the time who just can't seem to find one show that mildly entertains them. So, congrats on making-do with the summer's offerings.

There's exactly one new show this summer that I can truly say has me hooked: FX's "The Strain." I've watched six or seven episodes and I just like it's simple momentum. I like the variation on vampirism that it's come up with.

Your three strongest impressions from the marathon slog?

1. I thought "Gotham" was good (Fox's Batman prequel series) and you know how tired I am of superheroes.

2. I want to see more of Showtime's "The Affair" (premieres in October, starring Dominic West); they've only shown critics one episode so far, but I'm very intrigued by it.

3. I don't dare go anywhere near FXX's new "Simpsons" app -- not if I intend to make any deadline for the rest of my career.

I've started watching The X-Files for the first time and I'm fascinated how it's both very of its time (the pacing and format, but also the dialogue) and an anamoly (that both network television and America would embrace a sci-fi show for 9 seasons AND a movie seems like something would never happen.)

Did "Lost" not fit that bill? Maybe because I watch everything, I feel like all the niche genres (sci-fi, horror, fantasy) have been hugged quite close by Americans far and wide. (Mostly wide.)

I don't think I've seen an episode of "The X-Files" since the heyday. I keep delaying '90s nostalgia.

So if the new season starts in late Jan, when will Season 2 be free on Amazon Prime (hoping to catch up before Season 3 airs!)?

Is this not it?

Does anyone watch The Strain. I'm so intrigued by the new take on vampires. I'm a vampire freak, but often feel that the storyline is about the same. I love "vampire as virus" scenario they're working on The Strain. Thoughts?

I think the show is just right. It's not stupendously great, but it is not bogged down by metaphors and love stories and vamp-camp (like "True Blood," which, my gosh, is just as dreadful as it can possibly be this season). I'm enjoying it -- like I said, I'm a few episodes ahead at this point. Waiting eagerly for the rest, which is always a sure sign that I like something.

Yes, the serious books on the history are the best way to learn about the project. But read Richard Feynman's books for some insight into the scientists!

I was very intrigued by the premise of The Bridge. But I kept missing episodes until nothing made sense. I thought when the new season started, there would be a marathon of the past season so I could catch up, but it didn't happen or I didn't hear mention of it and the new season was total gibberish to me. Is there any place it can be watched on line?

I don't think it can be watched online for free, unless FX has made that possible in a bid to get more people to tune in to the new season. Your best bet is to stream the episodes you need to see from iTunes or Amazon.

I gotta say, when I plugged in the first episode of this new season to review it, I had to make sure I didn't accidentally pop in episode 2 or 3 -- it seemed like they were already several steps ahead of where I recalled leaving it off. (And my recall was faulty.) Bottom line: Strong performances, gritty vibe and too much going on.

Haven't watched the Strain because I was so turned off by the eyeball poster. I can handle pretty much anything else. Does the show feature close ups of mutilated eyeballs??

Oh, you're like me with shows in which people shoot up heroin (or administer any medicine with a needle to the arm). As a contact lens wearer from all the way back in the hard-lenses days, I have no problems with eyeball stuff. Touch it all you want, stick whatever you want in there -- I've been there and done that in the bathroom mirror.

THAT said, no, it's not all eyeballs all the time. Those worms get in just about everywhere. I only recall one eyeball thing. You have hands, right? (Just checking.) If so, bring them up to your eyes and don't look when it gets ooky.

I realize this is probably more of a Lisa de Moraes type of question, but how are the contract negotiations going with the five original stars of "The Big Bang Theory"? I understand that production on the next season has already been delayed. More importantly, is the show so profitable that (like "Friends" in its later seasons) it's able to pay the actors $1 million apiece per episode, and are they worth it? (I say "Yes").

At press tour, CBS gave every assurance that everyone would be happy with their deals and production would get going on time. I haven't paid attention to things since then -- the premiere date is a little strange anyhow; it goes back to Mondays for a bit, then comes back to Thursdays in October. (It's a "Thursday Night Football" thing.)

I can't with this season of True Blood

And you shouldn't.

Did you see that new show? I am going to check it out since it has both Kelsey Grammer and Martin Lawrence. That should be an interesting duo.

Let me know. The screener is sitting here on my desk (premieres Monday) but I haven't been moved to watch it.

Like an earlier poster, I'm also enjoying Murder in the First. Sounds like you're not watching it, but something's been bothering me since the very beginning. The supremely arrogant young entrepreneur/suspect created a company called Applson (or close spelling). In any event, it's very clearly pronounced Apple-son and it seems bizarre that any fictional show or book would use a name so similar to "Apple." It's just bugging me -- keep wondering why Apple hasn't, apparently, objected.

They haven't objected because the show didn't call it "Apple." The lawyers have much bigger fish to fry than that.

If I could opt for only ESPN, AMC, HBO, and Showtime, I would be golden. But don't see Comcast offering a la carte anytime soon. BTW, the new season of Masters of Sex and Ray Donovan are very good.

If people could opt out of ESPN (like I would), that would radically change the ESPN empire. You have no idea how many quiet millions there are of us out there who wouldn't pay a dime for sports.

Help me like The Leftovers Hank. I've watched every episode to date and am so lost. I don't know what I'm supposed to be feeling from this show. Am I not intellectual enough to "get" the show? If that's the case, my feelings will not be hurt! What are your thoughts? Have you been able to see it through to the end yet, or are you stuck on the same episode schedule as I?

When I reviewed it, I had seen four episodes; now I'm at the point everyone else is. I knew then that it would be very difficult going for lots of viewers -- not because of the subject matter, but because of the tone and pace. It's so morose and deliberately obfuscatory with what its characters are doing and feeling. Also, at least in the Tom Perrotta novel (which I think is much better than the TV show), there was never any explanation or reason for the Sudden Departure. I'm not sure viewers understand that yet -- they may be watching to find out what the Sudden Departure was and if it will happen again.

Of course, the TV show is certainly different enough from the book that it may yet be in the cards to tell us more about this strange event and what it all means, but it sure doesn't seem like it's going to do that.

I've been busier than a priest in Lent offering people absolution from watching "The Leftovers." They want to like it, for good reasons (it's HBO, some of the performances are quite intense) but they just can't go on like this.

I really wanted to like this show because I love Judy Greer. But Nat Faxon is soooo not funny. He ruined that show Ben & Kate also, in my little humble opinion. Jenny slate is pretty hilarious though.

I'm not a big Nat fan either. (That's Nat, not Nats, although big whooper-do for the baseball team, too.)

Goes both ways. You'd be shocked how many of us could not care less about Lifetime (The channel where all men beat women) or HGTV

This is the best reason against a-la carte cable. Everyone would lose something they love.

Allison Williams as Peter Pan and Christopher Walken as Captain Hook. Am I the only one who finds this casting a tad odd? (Rebel Wilson as Tinkerbelle?)

The press releases should be headlined SHARPEN YOUR KNIVES!

I love Ray Donovan, but am truly on the verge of quitting because of that whiny wife of his. I'm so over the rich wife that lives off the spoils, but wants the husband to not be who he is. How does that work. I'm talking about you Mrs. Ari.

Geez, I left because of Jon Voight's character.

I don't mind paying for sports but ESPN means nothing to me since they no longer broadcast ice hockey games. I wouldn't be upset if it suddenly went away.

Dumbest premise ever! #thatisall

I know Sullivan Stapleton held up production on the filming, because he was injured. But when is this show coming back?

Early next year, I heard, and reportedly the last season. Had Sullivan not fallen off a rickshaw in Thailand (apparently a vacation mishap, not a "Strike Back" stunt), it would have been back next week. But Cinemax has Clive Owen in the Steven Soderbergh-directed 10-part series "The Knick," which is a whole other kind of show, about a drug-addicted surgeon in the 1890s, but it's worth checking out.

Do you get this Britcom on the DC PBS station. I think it is incredibly funny, even though each episode is the same as the one before it

We do get it here and we pretty much deplored it.

I am not really feeling this show's vision of the future. Have you been watching?

I quit after two episodes. Ratings haven't been too hot.

So having seen both the Divide and Manhattan now I am kind of surprised that other premium networks passed on them (specifically AMC) they are both more than servicable shows and much better than some of the networks recent offferings (Low Winter Sun, The Turn, Ray Donovan etc) Any idea why (or even better do you think these shows could have found a place on ABC,NBC, CBS etc.?)

1. Sometimes the show that was pitched winds up looking and being a whole lot better than it sounded to the first customer; likewise, some shows sound terrific and then don't deliver. I think all shows pretty much find the right home and trying to figure out why they aren't airing someplace else is a waste of analysis. (Same with books and publishers, by the way, about which I have more personal experience, including having a book project travel from one publisher to another, based on the editor, who acts as a sort of network executive in this analogy.)

2. I think "Divide" would definitely have worked on a broadcast network, but I think "Manhattan" would have (everyone now!) bombed.

Yes, that's it, but I'm hoping for FREE instant streaming as an Amazon Prime member - right now I still have to pay for Season 2 episodes :)

Then I dunno.

Guilty pleasure, but I'm slowly but surely falling off. How far can this storyline go. It's getting into silly territory at this point. I'm going to take a wild guess and say that it's not your cup of tea either.

Nope, I've been a naysayer all along. I tried to play along for a while, but it was all so stupid.

I'm going to keep chatting for another 15-20 minutes, so keep the questions coming. I'll be off next week, so I wanted to make sure I got to more questions and comments today...

I wanted to really like this show because I like Halle Berry but its too weird (not in the good way).

I like the weirdo aspect to it, but it was also kind of borrring.

I was pleasantly surprised at how well HILL STREET was on a recent viewing. It is jarring to look back, even into the early 90s, and realize how shabby the sets and lighting were. I generally find the X-FILES holds up, too, both in form and content.

Is there enough lithium available for all the depressing shows right now? I'm just not getting the point of THE LEFTOVERS. And, MAN, was last Sunday's MASTERS OF SEX not the saddest episode around? With the "old" shows, TRUE BLOOD is going out with a whimper, PROJECT RUNWAY looks a little encouraging.

I was going to make this the year of rediscovering "Project Runway," but I still have yet to watch a single episode so far this season. I got distracted (belatedly) by "Naked and Afraid" after a binge during some press tour downtime. And, of course, I've been all about "American Ninja Warrior" this year. (Hooray for the women!)

Will be definitely NOT be picked up for a second season. I couldn't even bring myself to watch one episode.

I'm not one of the quiet viewers who wouldn't pay a dime for sports...but I am a sports fan who would not pay a dime for ESPN, given a choice to bundle channels, because its coverage of the sports that I like is so horrendous. I would, however, pay for channels that covered them more consistently.

I am excited to hear Strike Back is coming back - I thought it had been cancelled. Although I prefer it as a summer show since there is so much to watch after the fall. btw - I look forward to your fall preview each year!

Yeah, it will seem a little odd to watch "Strike Back" in February or whatever. Let me also add that I've not seen anything official from Cinemax on it -- what I've told you here is what I've read in other outlets.

FALL PREVIEW: It's far enough away that I still feel nothing but bright optimism about it. Look for it in your Washington Post on Sunday, Sept. 21.

Why pick a Peter Pan that's as tall as Captain Hook? And was there no BOY to play the part? Surely some unemployed boybander could've been enlisted. Or they could catch Justin Bieber in between outrages.

Justin Bieber. Just imagine that.

Uhhhhh hellooooo! Don't you know you me my life on Thursdays!

Vacation, all I ever wanted...

I watched tons of soccer with the husband, but really, we could do without the rest of the year, or, the rest of the every four years.

Don't know if I want to watch Viola Davis every week but I'm interested in seeing where this show goes.

Well, it looked great at the press tour -- and the cast and writer/creator had some very smart things to say about TV and life in Shondaland.

As a Judy Greer fan, I watched Married and stuck around for the show that follows it. I found both of these shows to be self-involved, whiny, and all the characters (even you, Judy, sorry) to be tedious, especially the husband in Married. My response was perhaps amplified by the fact a plane load of people had just been shot out of the sky and real suffering was in the forefront .It was all just so small and petty. Guess I'm just here to report that I didn't enjoy them and won't be watching again. Of course, I'm one of the few people who doesn't like "Louie" because I find it extremely contrived (I think it gets most of its storylines from Tumblr), so I'm probably not the best judge.

Valid criticisms, I think.

I thought "You're The Worst" was a smidge more enjoyable than "Married," but both have their problems. "Married" improves somewhat by episode 5 and its best attribute by far is Judy Greer. (I wrote about both shows in one review if you want to compare notes.)

My bugaboo with "Married" (which TV blogger Ed Bark raised during the "Married" panel at the summer press tour) is its depiction of the married couple's relationship to money. We are made to understand that they're "broke" -- their surf shop closed and he now works as a freelance graphic designer and she really, really needs to go out and get a job but doesn't want to. Their poverty is treated as "cute," in the way that only writers in LA could envision it -- particularly when he asks his drinking buddy for a loan to pay a veterinary bill. It feels very much like rich, white-person notions of poverty. How do they keep a roof over their heads? Raise three kids? It's like money doesn't really exist. There's something subliminally offensive about it, without launching a tedious discussion about class warfare. It just seems that the showfolk didn't think about it enough. You see a lot of it on TV shows, particularly comedies -- people marginally employed with lots of free time to be funny in their comfy surroundings.

I've been watching Tyrant just to see how much awfulness it could achieve. The first couple of episodes were so bad they were funny. The rest have just been terrible. It's like they took the worst actors, gave them an unbelievable script full of stereotypes and cliches, and told them to overact as much as possible. Have you seen it? Is anyone else watching this?

One of the not-so-great points of the TV press tour was when FX brought out a panel of Muslim-American experts to talk about the show's (unapparent) values. Which went over like a lead balloon with the critics.

The Friends cast did this, too, figuring their bargaining power as a group was greater than individually. Somehow I liked them better for it--am I a snob for pretty, funny people as opposed to just pretty funny people? (commas are critical)

Yes, you're a terrible person, trying to keep average-looking nerdy people from the riches they deserve!

I totally watched Season 3 through to the end.....AND LOVED IT!! I can't wait until Friday. Will surely binge the entire 6 episodes right then and there. What don't you like about the show?

The tedium, I guess. (Also? The unforgivable swindle of season 1, even though I remained a proponent when the show returned -- Google it and see for yourself.)

I sure love the performances from Mireille Enos and Joel Kinnaman. That keeps me watching.

I was inspired to go watch the Mary Martin one last night (it is on YouTube in its entirety!!!!), which I watched until I wore out the VHS when I was a kid. I still loved it, and only mostly in a nostalgic way. The seams show for sure, but it's still pretty magical. But how are they going to handle camp pirates and Native American stereotypes nowadays?

Goooood question. We'll see. It airs Dec. 4 and I'm sure they'll start covering their bases on the Native American references in advance of that.

I love films like Sharknado, and I am a devotee of SyFy's seemingly endless supply of schlocky monster films. It returns me to my childhood when my sister, brother, and I, along with our baby sitter, would make popcorn and spend Saturday nights watching the "Creature Feature" on what was then Channel 5 (one of the 5 channels that we got). Oh, my misspent youth and all the B sci-fi films I watched during it!

That's nice. I don't ever get the warm, gooey, late-night Count Gregor feeling from Syfy's modern-day B-movie attempts, but if you do, then enjoy it.

Saw the outstanding series on PBS ("Masterpiece Theatre, IIRC) in the mid-70s about the Manhattan Project, with Sam Waterston playing Dr. J. Robert Oppenheimer. Is that available on DVD? It deserves to be.

Gosh, I didn't know this existed.

If only there was some kind of way to look it up on the computer...

A little nepotism at NBC?

NBCUniversalComcast is one big steamy room of framily business right now. Nepotism abounds! The crossover-ing is beyond unseemly. And everyone coming to Uncle Lorne for a handout. It's gross.

No one asked me, of course, but I'd have cast Ian McKellen as Captain Hook and Kristen Chenoweth as Peter.

Do you watch TV much while on vacation? Or do you avoid it entirely? If so, what do you do instead (that's G-rated, of course!)? Read? Listen to music? Rusticate in the wilderness?

I generally don't watch much TV on vacation -- and am quite happy about it. My ideal vacations are when I can read at least two books, sometimes three or four. We'll be in a (slightly) different country, so I might be interested in local news and that kind of thing.

Am I the only TV viewer who regards "schlock" as sufficient reason NOT to watch a TV program? I'd rather use my precious eyesight for TV excellence.

Isn't it always a woman? Mary Martin and Cathy Rigby owned that role.

Yes. Which is weeeeeird.

Okay, then, till next time: Thursday, Aug. 14 at noon.

Ciao 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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