Tim Goodman is one of America's leading television critics, and is currently a columnist with the San Francisco Chronicle. The Chronicle website hosts an archive of Tim's columns dating back to 1997.
You know all that talk
about taking a bullet for you? That thing about watching TV so you don't
have to? It's right here right now. And it hurts.
- from Tim's review of "That Was Then"
can't complain. It's unacceptable in polite society as well as in this
country. As a TV critic you are not curing cancer. You are watching television.
On the couch. For a living. Hell, even movie critics have to leave their
house to see a screening.
- on life as a TV critic
# IN DEFENCE OF TELEVISION
I don't believe in
those "Kill Your Television" bumperstickers. Not watching TV because you
think it's all trash is not only blindly fanatic but also wrong. What,
a shuttle blows up, the president gives the State of the Union Address
at the same time the O.J. civil verdict comes in, the Gulf War redefines
combat TV or there's a documentary on race relations on PBS and you're
too good to watch?
- from "What's not to like about TV?"
In one of the dumbest
ideas in history and one that reeks of spitefulness and fear, some organization
too insignificant to have its name mentioned here suggests that we all
turn our televisions off this week.. In the words of Sean Penn's character
from "The Thin Red Line": "What difference do you think you can make, one
man in all this madness?"
Turn off the TV? What kind of sick cult promotes that idea? Every year this happens, and there's only one act of defiance that works: Keep the TV on 24 hours a day, all week -- power crisis be damned. First off, it's a great night light. Secondly, you'll never be lonely. Burglars will stay away. And -- here's the beautiful part -- you'll probably find 10, 20, maybe 50 shows that bring a fullness and joy to your life that was absent previously. You know, when you were blowing all those hours at the opera or some art gallery.
To turn your TV off for a week is to miss out on superb children's programming, informative news and information series, arts coverage and fine dramas and sitcoms that make people laugh and forget their miserable lot in life.
- from "Turn off the TV? Madness!"
This is the sad fate
of the b*stard machine: to be blamed for everything. "Oh, my television
casts such a spell over me that I'm unable to do anything about it. I'm
a helpless victim! For God's sake, will someone come to my house and unplug
it?" Where's the responsibility here? Why can't people own up to their
faults, their shortcomings? It's the smoking-gave-me-cancer or McDonald's-made-me-fat
Television -- it stopped my family from eating at the same table! It forced me to put a clone of it in my kid's bedroom! Because I'm such a simpleton, I couldn't change the channel when objectionable material appeared before my eyes! And, most damaging of all, it was sent to me with a remote control that had no off button! Isn't there a nonprofit group in Washington, D. C., that can help save me from these life-sapping blue rays?
wanting people to read more is a good thing. We're for that. Wanting them to have a life is also good. Taking walks and smelling flowers: excellent ideas. But the notion that you have to ban television for a week to accomplish this goes against our belief in free will. And personal responsibility. And sanity.
So look, if the b*stard machine is holding you hostage, if the TV in the den has joined forces with the one in the bedroom and all the windows are nailed shut and your copy of "Infinite Jest" has been duct taped shut by the universal remote, then yes, you need saving. Television has wronged you. Let's blame it. That's the American way.
- from "Conscientious objector in the war on TV"
Everybody likes to think that the bulk of television is lousy. And guess what? It is. But the rest of it more than you could ever watch, more than completely necessary to live a half-cultured life, is better than most movies, as densely creative and smartly crafted as fine literature.
People who dismiss television are ignoring a social phenomenon. It gives us something that we obviously crave. Escapism, perhaps. Relationship. Continuity. Education in the best moments, mindless entertainment in the worst. Common ground. A blue light that fills some kind of void that a decade of $100 therapy sessions couldn't patch up. It's an electronic security blanket, to be sure.
# REALITY TV
We have watched so
many people forced to eat bugs or cow intestines or degrade themselves
in some fashion to win $50,000, that nonfiction humiliation had become
our entertainment, replacing stupid (but safe and unreal) sitcom inanities...
A frequently asked question from readers is whether we've hit bottom yet
with this reality boom. Answer: We haven't even hit the middle.
- from "Get Real"
Reality TV is doing genetic damage to the population. Each new generation shows less and less resistance to going on television and doing something stupid. In three years it'll be "Who Wants to Light Me on Fire?"
They sent a lawyer
onto an island with 15 other people in a game of survival? That's just
plain cruel... Be nice. Don't make enemies. At least not in public. Just
survive - by any means necessary. Ah, a game show that Darwin could love.
- Tim takes a look at "Survivor"
Imagine if aliens -
you know, like the ones from "Taken," which we don't think has ended yet
- plopped down on a couch somewhere in the Haight and watched "Survivor"
and found Brian acting like he was the world's most savvy and intelligent
strategist? We can imagine them drunk on Mickey's Big Mouth, depressed
that they delayed their plans for invasion for so long. "This is all they've
got? This Brian guy?"
- Tim is concerned for humanity
It's easy to pontificate
about reality programming and how it denigrates television and reflects
poorly on the world as a whole. But it's even easier, and perhaps more
accurate, to say: It's your fault. Granted, that statement won't make me
a lot of friends. But that's where we'll start today. You. Your fault.
OK, if not you, then your neighbor. Or, at the very least, your cousin
Lenny in Omaha.
At some point, American viewers will have to retreat from this genre simply because it will go the way of all previous red-hot genres - milked like a cow, then killed for the meat. It's a question of when, not if. Somebody, somewhere, is concocting something you'll want to watch but probably shouldn't. And until you don't, it won't stop.
- from "Viewers share the blame for reality blights"
"Let's not tweak our
necks bemoaning the fall of the Republic just because a bunch of little
people are marrying each other or the surgeon's scalpel is turning an ugly
duckling into a swan in prime time... We will not fall and divide as a
people just because our televisions are temporarily overwhelmed with dreck."
- from "These Reality Shows Don't Mean the Sky is Falling"
The only thing missing
from the current portion of the 'Death March With Cocktails' is a reality
series about the 'Death March With Cocktails'. Why not? Everybody else
has a reality show. And during the four-day portion of the Television Critics
Association press tour devoted to cable, pretty much all we're seeing are
reality offerings. Or, in other words, cable channels are rolling out their
lack of ideas... Most reality shows look fairly entertaining. That's the
thing. From the very first car wreck known to man up to whatever freeway
rollover happens next, people rubberneck. They can't NOT look. It's the
same with reality shows. Executives can't turn down any half-stupid idea.
Viewers can't stop watching them, if only temporarily before skipping on
to something else.
- from Tim's annual trip to the Television Critics Association press tour
The real annoyance is the idea, perpetuated by "American Idol," that you have a contest of some sort on one night, then come back the next night for the "results" show. How about, instead, a bunch of "stars" actually do a real TV show, you know, with acting? There will be writing, a plot, various performances, etc. Then the next night they can all come back out and America can vote on how they did. "I thought the addition of Ana Lucia to 'Lost' was particularly heinous. She sucks." Or, "I'm not sure the dream sequence finale on 'Curb Your Enthusiasm' was up to par. How about a do-over and don't take 16 months to get it on the air this time."
# REVIEWS: THE GOOD
A brilliant sitcom
is a freak accident. The magic in a hit is in the casting.
- commenting as "Seinfeld" ends
There are more laughs
in the tossed-off, catch-the-subtle-joke-if-you-can lines of Malcolm's
geeky school friends, who aren't even main characters, than an entire season
of "3rd Rock From the Sun."
- Tim praises "Malcolm in the Middle"
If for some reason
ESPN went off the air -- hey, maybe even for a couple of hours -- I might
physically break down and cry. Day in and day out, show after show, what
we get served to us as viewers is nothing short of brilliant.
- Tim likes ESPN
There is a mood in
"Wonderfalls" that evokes the best of multilayered television series, from
"Northern Exposure" to the good years of "Ally McBeal, " straight through,
naturally, to "Malcolm in the Middle." But despite being peopled with well-drawn
characters and smart, audaciously careening scripts that induce bursts
of laughter, "Wonderfalls" gives us television's - at least network television's
- coolest female. Jaye is likable - lovable, even, helped in no small degree
by Caroline Dhavernas being beautiful without being stunning, a woman whose
smirk is as sexy as someone else's curves.
- Tim's review of "Wonderfalls"
You'd think that finally
getting an Emmy for a sitcom would unleash the hounds of hype. But instead,
it's as if "Arrested Development" has been banished to some dank promotional
hole, as if it had slaughtered the cast of "North Shore" and Fox is protecting
it from extradition.
- from "Too Smart To Make It"
If you can't be great,
there's no shame in being good.
- from his review of by the numbers "Numbers"
Popularity isn't always
good for creativity. Audiences loved these series to death. But most people
don't watch TV critically. They watch to be entertained, to be transported
out of their awful work environments and their numb interpersonal odysseys.
There is a clock on creativity and even television's finest writers can't
sustain prolonged levels of brilliance.
- as "NYPD Blue" and "Everybody Loves Raymond" come to a close
Is "Deadwood" the best
show on television? "Deadwood" despite that nagging, beautifully corrupt
sense of Shakespeare is utterly original, like nothing else on TV. This
is a television series playing in its own stratosphere, defined by genius
all around it.
- writing in the summer of 2005
Shakespeare in the
- Tim's one line description of Deadwood
In Deadwood they use 20 words when five would be fine. And if those 20 don't get the point across, they say "c**ksucker".
If everybody loved "The Office" and "Arrested Development," then who among us could still be smugly assured of our own impeccable taste? Exactly. That's why the networks created family sitcoms. See, the beauty of a family sitcom is that if it's halfway decent, then it has achieved near-miracle status. It's incredibly hard to make an educated, discerning adult laugh out loud while also trying to keep Muffy and young Billy from leaving the living room.
That "The West Wing" is a hit is so stupendously illogical as to knock reason on its fat backside. A show about politics and the presidency in such a jaded world is one thing, but that's not even the head-slapper of why millions watch. This is: There's way too much talking. "The West Wing" is like AM radio on "seek." Yak yak yak. And yet, there is a reason to watch people walk and talk at a frantic pace through the corridors of power. The writing is great. Actually, for television, it's brilliant. For years, "NYPD Blue" and "ER" dominated not because guns went off or gurneys were loaded with screaming, bleeding patients. It was the interpersonal relationships, as conveyed most often in quiet, intimate moments or emotionally raw exchanges.
It's folly for a critic to get all mopey about brilliant series that never got out of the teens, much less hit the century mark. If every show were "The Sopranos" or "Seinfeld," well, where would the joy be in that? Those shows only feel welcome, like the sinewy arms of a rescuing angel, if you've had to endure loads and loads of idiocy and the torment of hacks and the brutality of the sitcom's standardized lameness. Keep in mind that there's no shame in a series keeping it short and sweet.
The significance of "The Sopranos" can't be underestimated. Though many people have never seen even one episode a pay cable channel like HBO is often a luxury the series has changed the whole of television. First, it made HBO. Secondly, it further legitimized all of cable television as worthy and with the introduction of subsequent great dramas on HBO, Showtime, FX, etc., it helped change how and what Americans watch. More people began to see cable as having higher quality fare. Expectations rose and more than coincidentally dramas on the broadcast channels also got better and significantly more adult. They became smarter and grittier and aesthetically competitive.
# REVIEWS: THE BAD & THE UGLY
There's a lot of bad
television that I fall for. The trick is knowing that it's bad, reveling
in its obvious lameness and then laughing about it. It's only TV.
- from Tim's inaugural column for the "San Francisco Examiner"
If I'm going to completely
suspend my critical faculties for a series, it's going to feature Jennifer
Garner running around in miniskirts blowing stuff up.
- from his review of "Alias"
It's pretty hard to
go wrong with a sitcom starring Heather Graham. After all, if the jokes
fall flat, she's still standing there.
- from his review of "Emily's Reasons Why Not"
What other dramatic
television series - one that takes itself seriously, anyway - has so many
holes in it? Plausibility is that thing you're supposed to forget about
while watching the relentless action on "24." Holes in the plot? Holes
in the logic? Holes big enough to drive the Plausibility Train through?
Yep, that's "24." And it's back this Sunday with a two-hour blast of adrenaline,
pretty much the only reason left to watch.
- from his review of "24"
There's a misguided
belief that somehow critics find it easier to write negative rather than
positive reviews. That the sheer weight of their disgust and disappointment,
fury and bitterness will somehow produce words that float out effortlessly.
Those people haven't had to sit through three UPN sitcoms.
- Tim is "Running out of synonyms for 'bad'"
"Titans" was an Aaron
Spelling soap on NBC that was so incredibly bad, 200 TV critics sat in
a room laughing hysterically at the trailer, which wasn't supposed to be
funny. Thinking quickly, the cast said it was a spoof. Well, you know what?
- reviewing "Titans"
Earthquake epic "10.5"
presents a choice: Either run screaming or pass the beer and savor a camp
classic... it is so phenomenally bad it borders on spoofed genius.
- reviewing miniseries "10.5"
This series manages
to find every hot actress and actor not currently employed in Hollywood
and dress them in, well, almost nothing. A whole lot of effort seems to
have gone into unearthing every possible cliche needed for a series set
in Hawaii, revolving around people with a maximum of 4 percent body fat.
There must be bad acting, lots of tans, fast cars, mind-bendingly dumb
dialogue, bathing suits in every frame, a whole lot of surfing and, just
in general, vapid people smiling and flirting and punching and satisfying
other vapid people.
Look, "North Shore" is uncommonly ridiculous. But that's probably the point. Any series that introduces a hot babe, only to trump her two seconds later by introducing another hot babe, only to ratchet up the hotness two seconds later - well, you get the point. Its the kind of series where the first really great looking person you see is likely to end up as the frump or the dork by the end of the episode.
- from his review of summer season show "North Shore"
Fearing the Federal
Communications Commission would censor the pilot episode of this pointlessly
racy and incredibly dumb drama, the WB... cut two girls kissing in a bar
and one girl unbuttoning her pants for a little personal exploration. That
may have made it better for the FCC, but unless the WB censors cut all
the acting and, in particular, all the writing, then this series still
qualifies as obscenely awful. The sexy material is less sexy than it is
transparently manipulative. Had the creators put as much time into the
writing as they did in the cheap and easy provocation of young body parts,
this might have been just another in a long line of overly earnest WB coming-of-age
dramas. As it stands now, censored or not, "The Bedford Diaries" is just
- reviewing "The Bedford Diaries"
"Clubhouse" lifts people's
spirits and watches dreams come true and lets the pimply teen boy get the
hot girl who looks, honestly, as if she's graduating from college next
semester. And "Wife Swap" turns the great United States into Britain without
the soccer hooligans and dole lovers... "Wife Swap" is educational in the
same way getting caught with a hooker is educational
- from a combined review of both shows entitled "Sugary Good versus Smarmy Evil"
Even a 14-year-old
maybe especially a 14-year-old knows lameness when he sees it.
- Tim, reviewing "The Winner"
The waste bin of TV history is jammed with shows that got exactly one element right. That's the byproduct of a writer conceiving a character (and not much else) backed by a network wowed by one-sentence story pitches (and not much else).
6.1 million people watched "National Bingo Night." In an effort to cull the herd, government forces backed by Nielsen research are now raiding those homes and locking away the inhabitants. Democracy has a price, people.
There are all kinds of sadness in "Women's Murder Club," the new ABC series set in San Francisco that starts tonight. For instance, there's a kind of choking-back-the-tears sadness after watching the pilot, that hour being tragically lost forever... Most shows on Friday nights are aimed at women. And, yes, if you're a woman, that should make you sad.
And then it happened.
That... that vision. Angela Lansbury as Jessica Fletcher in "Murder She
Wrote." Surely you heard the scream? That self-righteous prune. Haunting
me in a foreign country. My nemesis. Never mind the fact that she needs
to be held accountable for the blood bath that was Cabot Cove, I loathed
- Tim makes the mistake of watching TV on his Honeymoon in Italy
Angela Lansbury will
return in an updated "Murder, She Wrote." This time her bloodbath reign
of terror is exposed and she's electrocuted in Texas during sweeps.
- from Tim's column on April 1 1998
Angela Lansbury is a murdering demon. How many times must we say that one day, in a just world, she will pay for the bloodbath that is Cabot Cove?
There's really no good
way to put this, so here goes: Anybody else think that Tara Lipinski is
an agent of Satan? It may go against prevailing sentiment, but Lipinski
certainly seems like a replicant, not a human. And that little girl has
the touch of evil, people. You know it.
- from a column about the Winter Olympics
Right now in Hollywood,
the big Emmy push is on. In the trade magazines there are desperate, For-your-consideration"
ads everywhere. A favorite: "For your consideration: Jesse." A full seven
minutes later, we were off the floor, wiping away the tears, but that sharp
pain still lingers in the side.
Just when we thought it was safe, the horror strikes us out of nowhere: "For your consideration: Tony Danza, Outstanding Guest Actor in a Drama Series." We only wish that were a joke.
Like you couldn't see this coming: Bring me the head of Tony Danza.
- The Emmy's loom in June 1999
Apparently all the desperate pleas and wails of agony went unanswered by the Lords of Hollywood. Against the wishes of billions and the better judgment of the Taste Police, Tony Danza has a new show. "The Tony Danza Show" is frighteningly bad. Not offensive like "Dellaventura" or even despicable like "Hitz," but scary bad. That's because it has all the elements to survive until syndication - single, loveable family man, mirthless humor, annoying laugh track, sugary and sassy kids, safe plotlines, anesthetic overall tone. It is a family show with a paper-thin premise. Danza is separated from his wife - so the smartest person isn't even in the cast.
You don't make a lot
of friends as a critic. That's not the point of your job in the first place,
as any good critic will tell you, but every so often you're reminded that
people loathe you... we have always had an honest exchange of opinion,
though it sometimes felt that if he could kill me and get away with it,
he might consider it. In this, Jeff Zucker (of NBC) was no different from
other network executives.
- Tim attempts "Making Nice With People Who Hate You"
# WHAT TIM WANTS
The ability to actually
"judge" Amy Brenneman, of "Judging Amy," any way we see fit. Even if that
involves fine, frilly, girly underwear.
- Tim makes a Christmas Wish List
To cute little Jonathan Lipnicki, whose show "Meego" was canceled: A cute little elf's hat. Now make me some toys, elf boy!
Sometimes, several pints of Guinness into the dark night, we get this vision: Jerry Springer in a wrestling ring with Judge Judy.
Because tonight is
New Year's Eve, you might think that this will be a column about our resolutions.
How we might better ourselves in the coming Collective 12. You know, like
being nicer to Katie Couric or remembering to take our Xanax or dropping
our fascination with ALF and Martha Stewart or our relentless pursuit of
justice in the cases of Tony Danza and Angela Lansbury. You'd be wrong...
To the writers of "24." There are a lot of episodes left. Can we stop having Kiefer Sutherland say, "You've got to trust me on this one." People are creating drinking games around this and passing out before the first half hour.
- from "What TV should do for 2002"
CBS News President Andrew Heyward never backed down from a good argument, got off a lot of sharp shots even when backpedaling and would say, when the argument reached a standoff, "Reasonable people can disagree." Most interpersonal debating these days whether face-to-face, through e-mail or in the press is coarse and childish. Reasonable never plays much part in it.
We're going where the reruns are brilliant and there are no commercials.
This post brought to
you by Diet Coke. Which I'm living on, essentially.
- Tim, halfway through a "Deathmarch with Cocktails"
Ah, reality. Strangely
enough, I missed you.
- Tim, returning home after a "Deathmarch with Cocktails"
I'd rather be at the
pool knocking back an Anchor Steam than sitting in front of my TV yelling
at Jack Bauer.
- Tim, on why he's given up on 24
Our long crush on Lauren
Graham can still be found burning in the embers. And the music was mostly
great. It's hard to keep a great thing going. Yet another truism of television.
So the lights go out in Stars Hollow.
- Tim, on the cancellation of the Gilmore Girls
# TELEVISION IN AMERICA
The television business is just that -- a business. If shows don't get ratings, they die. If shows skew older than the network wants, they die. If shows cost more than they're worth, they die. If a network wants to go in a different direction -- wink, wink, watch me blink -- then it will go in a different direction and your show will die, outraged Internet bloggers be damned. It hurts a lot to think about it because viewers invest so much in shows and characters.
You really want to
know what's going on in the world of television in the foreseeable future?
This is a joke, right? If not, here's an interesting crib-notes take on
what to expect: January: bad midseason shows. February: lousy sweeps period
that interrupts bad midseason shows. March: the return of original bad
midseason shows. April: the cancellation of bad midseason shows, to be
replaced by even worse midseason shows. May: an even worse sweeps period
that conveniently lets us forget the very worst midseason shows just as
our beloved series close out the season with annoying cliffhangers and
- Tim sums up the American TV cycle
Though networks understand,
in theory, that patience sometimes pays off ("Hill Street Blues," "Seinfeld"
and "Everybody Loves Raymond" among the most famous examples), in practice,
they see a show tank in 15-minute increments. As viewers flee, it hurts
the show following it. A couple of weeks of that and a whole night could
be irrevocably lost, so instead of trying to fix the problem, they patch
it with something they know will work.
- Tim, on why networks are ruthless with ratings
When the networks unveil
fall lineups, its the opening hand in a nerve-racking game of high-stakes
- Tim, explaining how networks program their schedule
People only have so
many hours they can devote to television in a given week. Sacrifices need
to be made. A perfect recent example of that can be found in "Joan of Arcadia."
From hit to miss in two seasons, "Joan" was canceled by CBS, which stunned
its die-hard fans, who are upset about it to this day. But the trouble
that harms a series is never caused by the die-hards; it rests with viewers
who have picked that show as their fourth or fifth favorite. Once they
decide the party is over, it's really over.
- On how promising shows get cancelled
They are stacking up
the dead in TV Land. It's that time of year. All the promise of September
turns blood red in November... Consider that most seasons are failures
if the cancellation rate for new shows is roughly 80 percent. Our
long national nightmare, also known as the fall launch, is finally over.
We are running through the city like English soccer hooligans... we now
return to our regularly scheduled nude Guinness hooligan sprint.
- from "It's culling time"
It's season finale
time on television, and that can only mean one thing: A whole bunch of
people are going to die. Come May, TV fans don't like kisses. They don't
like subtlety. They like cliff-hangers nay, they demand cliff-hangers.
But mostly they want to be stunned into disbelief. They want to eagerly
await September's return of the story line. Never mind the idea of diminishing
returns and predictability you can't kill someone every season! the
audience demands action.
- from "As the season ends, bodies everywhere"
Every year there's
some persistent, horrible cliche that pops up and festers as television
executives, actors, writers, directors and producers talk about their craft
and this business. It's like they got debriefed prior to meeting TV critics,
arrived, then spewed. Whether it's "organic" or "at the end of the day"
or something equally heinous and vague, it gets said. This year, like a
plague, it's "going forward."
- from "Going forward fearlessly into UPN, the WB"
It was a sad, fruitless
year in Hollywood. The networks had tried pretty much everything. Not even
that old standby Tony Danza could win over the viewers. There were
police shows, there were multicultural comedies, there were fantasies and
the "Love Boat' was relaunched. The networks were beside themselves. They
let Tom Arnold have a TV show again. And that historic crutch of the
truly uncreative - the cute kid was tried and failed... Viewers were
tuning out in droves some even read books out of desperation.
- Tim assesses the 1997-98 season
Where are the Irish
on TV these days? Remember the glory decades of all the offensive stereotypes?
The drunk. The priest. The pregnant daughter. The family of cops. The drunk.
The cross-bearing mother. The brawling drunk. The sprawling multigenerational
family, everyone blue collar but the star, who went on to become a doctor
and moved out of Hell's Kitchen and left the cursed clan behind - to drink?
Ah, those were the years.
- from a column on Saint Patrick's Day
In this era of political
correctness that has virtually paralyzed television, let's not forget that
the two most abused ethnicities are the Italians and the Irish. Always
have been. Because TV thinks they're fair game and, well, neither puts
up much of a fight about it.
- reviewing "Costello"
A 10th anniversary
study by the Gay & Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation has found that
fewer than 2 percent of all "series regulars" on the schedule this fall
are gay. The gay sidekick definitely seems to have peaked. Our trend spotting
of the new series points to a new option: the hot Latina friend.
- previewing the 2005 fall season
This isn't politics
anymore, Al. It's television. And it's a lot harder to win the popular
vote in this medium. That's almost as impressive as inventing the Internet.
And listen, about that Internet thing conservatives, Republicans and
right-wingers, or all three species turned that smear into pop-culture
- after Al Gore buys a cable news channel
Not as fun as "Survivor"
but essential to the Republic.
- reviewing the 2004 Presidential Debates
Has anyone told the Fox News anchors that "Mad Men" was not a documentary of how America should be?
As 24-hour cable channels
documented the fall of New Orleans from a major American city to what looked
like, from helicopters and roaming cameras, a Third World country, all
viewers out of the area could do was stare in near disbelief. The slow
dissolve into chaos became television's most depressing soap opera. From
Monday's reporters-in-the-rain faux machismo to the dawn of the disaster
on Tuesday and Wednesday, it was a televised transformation like none other.
What could become this country's biggest natural disaster unfurled in slower
and slower increments on CNN, MSNBC, Fox and elsewhere. Monday's rote coverage
of Katrina became Tuesday's stunning flood scenes and Wednesday's widespread
- commenting on the Hurricane Katrina disaster in 2005
What's easier to explain:
chaos theory, black holes, our current tax code or the tangled web that
is poor PBS?
- commenting as Congress plans to cut funding to PBS
Television has entered
Bizarro World: and not because it will air a series about swapping wives
in the fall... It's your standard aeronautical pigs and "snow day" in Hades
- the 2004 fall season surprises Tim
Saturday night is for
romance, either real or imagined.
- on the scheduling of romcom "Cupid"
It's a total teen takeover.
The fall season will make you think that "Logan's Run" wasn't just a movie
about killing people who'd turned 30 - it's actually taking place in Hollywood...
Even when a show isn't built around teens, the actors look like teens.
The beauty of this, of course, is that no teens on television ever act
like teens. They are always preposterously cool and magnificently well-spoken.
In fact, they are much more mature than their twentysomething "Felicity"
counterparts. To be a teen on television is to act 35, be masterful at
emotional situations and glorious one-line put-downs, dress resplendently,
look gorgeous and be surrounded by dumb parents who just don't get it,
and Homer Simpson-like teachers.
- August 1999 is a "Teenage Wasteland"
The WB is the only
network previously operating on the "Logan's Run" principle, and now, staggered
by the fleeting allegiances of youth, it wants to make amends. It's sorry
that it treated old people -- you know, 35 -- as if they were embarrassed
to be in the same room.
- from "The WB Wants to Grow Up"
The WB pretty much came out and said that ratings took a hit when "Felicity" star Keri Russell cut her curly, signature locks. We knew fans were fickle, but when you start dealing with teen viewers it gets pretty cutthroat. God forbid Dawson get a pimple or his "Dawson's Creek" pals may drown him.
MTV isn't even ashamed anymore that it doesn't play videos. Uh, that 'M' means music. A couple of videos would be great. Oh, that would be giving in to us. Forget it.
Television dominates our lives, our culture. Many of us were raised on it. The British may have created the Teletubbies, but we are the Teletubbies.
American television doesn't do the British thing very well. We mess up a lot of their good shows as we Americanize them (read: dumbing them down with the force of a club on a baby seal).
We've been raised on
so many fine British dramas that anything remotely resembling high historical
art must be done by the Brits, no?
- from a review of Anglo-American production "Rome"
The Brits have a love
affair with detectives who are dedicated to the detriment of the characters'
livers and psyches to the job ("Prime Suspect's" Helen Mirren being,
well, a prime example). Jericho is no different.
- reviewing "Jericho"
When it comes to our
cousins the British, we Americans always have had some difficulty with
the humor thing. Their approach to hilarity is generally sillier or darker
or drier or more subtle. They've never really gone in for that fat husband/hot
wife thing that seems to drive the middle of this country into fits of
- reviewing "Little Britain"
What the Brits do especially
well, which we haven't quite managed, is to calculate the exact number
of episodes it will take to maximize the combined genius of writers, actors
and directors. Apparently, they've settled on six. On these shores, we
know that very few series can pull off 22 consecutively remarkable episodes
despite networks that will die trying. And so, factoring in differences
in culture and the relative sizes of our entertainment industries, let's
say the ideal American length should be 12, like on HBO. Anyway, the point
is, we supersize everything, including our entertainment. And mostly that's
a mistake. The Brits, on the other hand, know how to get in and out in
six episodes without any wasted steps, padded episodes or creative lulls.
- reviewing BBC show "Rocket Man"
If you're wondering
why so many serials are invading the schedule, it's more complicated than
the copycat nature of the industry. Though serial dramas repeat poorly
in comparison to something like "Law & Order," they do sell well as
DVD sets. But one reason not talked about much is that the networks are
trying to take your TiVo out of the equation. If networks create "appointment
television" where new developments are hotly anticipated and talked over
around the theoretical water cooler, viewers will be less likely to record
an episode than watch it live. That helps loyalty and, if you're a Nielsen
family, it helps ratings. But the gamble the broadcast networks are taking
is that you have the time and the devotion to spare. History suggests otherwise.
- Tim, on the rise of shows like Lost and 24
# JOHN CARMAN
John Carman was a TV Critic at the Chronicle from 1986 to 2002. Here are some of the best quotes from his 3,500 columns:
Carman's First Law of Television: The third-rated network always has the best shows, because in its desperation it begins to take chances.
The spectrum had become
crowded. The audience was dispersed, and possibly confused. From now on,
the TV critic's slickest parlor trick wouldn't be to rip the reprehensible;
it would be to discover buried treasure... If an avalanche of programming
has increased the value of a TV critic, is full respectability sure to
- on the effect of quality cable TV shows on the role of TV critics
With the close of the
1998-99 season Wednesday night, the TV broadcast networks have passed two
more milestones in their long descent. In the '60s, it seemed as if the
entire nation was glued to big ticket network shows like "Gunsmoke"...
This season, for the first time, no TV series averaged a 30 percent share
of the viewing audience. ER, the top-rated series, finished the season
with a 29 share. Last season, ER averaged a 34 share. In the heyday of
network TV, through the 1970s, a 30 share was considered a benchmark. A
series that could not command a 30 share was marked, unofficially, for
early cancellation. As recently as the mid-1980s, the phenomenally popular
"Cosby Show" regularly rattled off weekly shares between 50 and 60. The
fragmentation of the television audience, thanks to the spread of cable
availability and proliferation of cable channels, has diluted network ratings
- on the decline of the traditional networks
You've got to love
NBC. Two seasons ago, when its Nielsen ratings were lagging, NBC unilaterally
declared that the TV season didn't end in April and would continue for
- on the 1995 TV season
The V-chip provision passed by the House last week, and earlier by the Senate, essentially imposes on us a nonexistent television technology, which is to perform a task that may be both impossible and unconstitutional, by an as-yet undetermined means... creating job openings for national television commissioners willing to watch and rate 3,700 hours of TV programming a day. The legislation doesn't require you to activate your V-chip. But enough people will to scare the bejesus out of advertisers and guarantee the world's blandest television.
"Sabrina The Teenage Witch" makes TV's past 30 years vanish. Shazam, it's the 1960s again. American life may have been flying out of control and at warp speed, but TV seemed dulled by Novocain. History gave us Vietnam, political assassinations and every imaginable stripe of domestic conflict. TV replied with "Bewitched", "I Dream of Jeannie", "Gilligan's Island", "F Troop" and "Hogan's Heroes". Sabrina is just as hermetically sealed from reality. It exists only according to its own benign, timeless logic.
I figure it'll happen
this way. A few centuries from now, intelligent life forms out in space
will intercept a Henny Youngman joke that's been riding the cosmos on a
faint TV signal. They decode it and find it grossly primitive. But it might
be a standard greeting, like "Hey, there!" So they duplicate the message
and beam it back toward Earth.
Excited scientists on Earth pluck the joke from space after a few more centuries. They ponder it, debate it, then finally shrug and decide that whoever or whatever sent such gibberish -- "Take my wife, please..."? -- has nothing of value to offer. Another failure to communicate.
- reviewing "Deep Space"
A 2 1/2-hour PBS documentary
tonight shows that the people of ancient Athens lived large.
They built a fleet and an empire. They made war. They wept rivers at the theater and cheered lustily at athletic events. They invented democracy and loved debating politics. They were adept at astronomy, architecture, mathematics, sculpture and philosophy.
I'm guessing they could throw a pretty good party, too. "The Greeks: Crucible of Civilization" does a fine job of recapturing all this. Well, not so much on the parties.
- reviewing "The Greeks: Crucible of Civilization"
The right kind of English
tourist is unbeatable. He is knowledgeable, flexible, respectful of all
cultures and unfailingly polite. The wrong sort of English tourist is apt
to start a soccer riot or, in years past, plant a Union Jack and claim
some exotic land in the name of the queen, to the confusion and consternation
of the natives. Michael Wood is the right sort. His repertoire includes
a willingness to eat anything and sleep anywhere... Wood is a tourist of
history. You might have seen him last retracing the footsteps of Alexander
the Great, with almost too much enthusiasm. Now the BBC star is back on
PBS, for "Conquistadors."
- reviewing "Conquistadors"
It's a tribute to the
documentary's sense of drama as the battle unfolds in archival footage
that, against the surety of history, you'll probably still find yourself
hoping the Allies will regroup and repulse the German offensive.
- reviewing "Battlefield: Battle for France"
"America 1900" isn't
ostensibly about America in 2000, or 1998, yet ultimately it's exactly
about that. The viewer can't help comparing the century's bookend years,
knowing that the years between constituted the American century. Democracy
has a broader reach today. Workers are safer and more empowered, technology
more advanced. But wouldn't it be glorious to feel that full innocent flush
of faith in the future, without the countervailing poison of cynicism?
- reviewing "America 1900"
You can't make a commercial
movie out of slow suffering and death among men who were blistered by the
Georgia sun, pelted by rain and deprived of vegetable nutrients. Nor does
it help that the characters in the miniseries speak to each other and emote
to us in the voices and sensibilities of our own century. They never seem
to belong in the 1860s.
- reviewing Civil War prison drama "Andersonville"
"The years since 1944
intrude too heavily on the attitude and even the language of "When Trumpets
Fade," an otherwise impressive World War II movie debuting at 9 p.m. tomorrow
on HBO. Maybe the first hint that something is chronologically amiss is
the use of "Over There," a popular World War I song, in the opening credits.
Then comes the film itself, with an emotional center of gravity that seems
to lie somewhere between Korea and Vietnam.
- reviewing "When Trumpets Fade"
Anyone who has a feel
for English history, and many who nurse feelings of being born too late,
should lap up the period details in "The Cazalets." It's a BBC production,
which means careful attention has been paid to those details. For one thing,
in BBC period dramas, all the characters actually seem to have lived in
their costume department clothes.
- reviewing 1930s drama "The Cazalets"
On "The Simpsons" perennial
villain Sideshow Bob escaped from prison and threatened to nuke Springfield
unless the city banished television... Dramatic high point of the CBS miniseries
"Nothing Lasts Forever"? A squirming Brooke Shields tied to bedposts with
silk scarves... "Melrose Place" promised, and delivered, an episode incorporating
all seven deadly sins.
- reviewing the November 1995 sweeps
It happened in the
November sweeps... On "Family Feud", five Playboy Playmates took on five
World Wrestling Federation wrestlers in a special "Beauty and the Beasts"
battle of the brains. Not even close: WWF 427, Playboy 77... Brawling dwarfs
on "Jerry Springer"... Niles Crane examining the Thanksgiving turkey on
"Frasier": "If you're wondering, this bird appears to have died of a massive
- reviewing the November 1999 sweeps
John Schneider, Tom
Wopat and Catherine Bach star in a "Dukes of Hazzard" reunion movie called
"Hazzard in Hollywood". Why? For art's sake, probably.
- previewing the May 2000 sweeps
Jesus Christ was crucified.
Someone tried to shoot President Bartlet on "The West Wing". Donna married
David in the series finale of "Beverly Hills, 90210". An alien terrorized
Deck 12 on "Star Trek: Voyager". Cannibals invaded PBS. Just another
Wednesday night on TV... Fox determined that 11-year-old Michael Vezierny
of Boca Raton, Fla., is "the Smartest Kid in America" because he knew that
France used to be called Gaul. On "Frasier," Niles told Daphne that he
loves her. Took him seven years and 21 sweeps months.
- reviewing the May 2000 sweeps
It Must Be TV, because
nothing else could be this bad. NBC's new approach to big sweeps programming
was a promotional blitz to convince the public that a sow's ear of a miniseries,
"Pandora's Clock", was actually something special. And it was, in a sense:
especially awful. Meanwhile, the leading network's movies-of-the-week were
more exploitative than ever. Typically, Tiffani-Amber Thiessen was on the
run from a psychopathic killer. Smart viewers were pulling for the killers.
- reviewing the 1996 TV season
CBS must hold "Journey
to Mars" in the highest regard, because the movie will be on tonight when
everyone in the country is watching TV. Everyone will be watching the Oscars
on ABC, except for three or four Martian-movie aficionados...
- previewing the 1996 Oscars
It's not a condition
of citizenship that you watch the Super Bowl, though there probably are
ultrasecret government files on so-called Americans who don't.
- previewing the 1998 Superbowl
While network audiences
continue to decline, the list of things the big networks don't want to
do keeps expanding. To date, the roster would seem to include cultural
programs, educational programs for children, big miniseries, political
convention coverage and minority programming.
- reviewing the launch of WEB and UPN networks
Every time "Who Wants
to Be a Millionaire" airs on ABC, a fairy dies. Or a sitcom writer misses
a payday, or some poor actor goes back to flipping burgers. How they hate
that show. It's the devil. It sucks jobs from Hollywood. It devours the
flesh of weak competing shows on CBS, NBC and Fox.
- on the success of then quiz show (January 2000)
It was a reasonable
decision. NBC put its best surviving comedy, "Frasier", into the planet's
best TV time slot, 9 p.m. Thursday. Since then, life has been one rocky
gravel pit. Tuesdays imploded without Frasier, and then everyone seemed
to notice that Frasier wasn't the deft farce it used to be.
- writing in January 1999
"Right now you could
be reading a magazine. Listening to a symphony. Visiting a museum. Or even
exercising. But you're not. You're watching TV. Thanks."
- An ABC ad from 1997 prompts John to declare "ABC stands for Attack Brain Cells"
Stop me if you've seen
A widowed doctor moves his family from New York City to a small town in Colorado.
A husband and wife team up as private eyes.
Doctors fight to save lives in a big-city teaching hospital.
A 14-year-old girl discovers she's endowed with paranormal powers.
And of course undercover cops, by the boatload, fight crime.
These, according to the trade magazine Electronic Media, are new network series in development. They could just as easily be old network shows long in the dustbin.
- previewing the 2002 TV season
The Democratic candidate
for president is the governor of a mid-American state. He's an idealist.
One ideal, it seems, is to sleep with every woman he meets, except his
- reviewing "Running Mates"
If anyone is left unoffended
by "The Second Civil War", it's surely an oversight... Set in the near
future, the broad satiric comedy is about a nation overrun by immigrants.
Newly arrived Mexicans trash the Alamo. Chinese immigrants run Rhode Island.
The mayor of Los Angeles can't, or won't, speak English, and is attacked
by black snipers intent on preventing a Hispanic takeover. Members of Congress
shout at each other through translators, though a Sikh congressman from
Louisiana sports a redneck accent.
- reviewing "The Second Civil War"
Start to finish, there's
plenty to watch, including a couple of pitched battles. But the spectacle
never penetrates deeper than your eye sockets.
- reviewing "Jason and the Argonauts"
I'll admit to a certain
weakness for this sort of nonsense... "Creature" has just the elements
for me: Caribbean island, salty sea spray, ramshackle boats, a deadly monster,
a touch of voodoo, and several actresses in halter tops. It just doesn't
get any better than that, unless of course the halter tops become too confining.
For the first two hours, it hums along entertainingly. People start getting
- reviewing "Peter Benchley's Creature"
The movie begins with
a nighttime beach party, where drums are pounding and an attractive blond
reveler says to her attractive brunet friend, "C'mon, let's take a walk."
In marine monster movie language, that translates into, "C'mon, let's go
play in the waves until some scaly thing grabs us and pulls us to our horrible
- reviewing "Gargantua"
The worst actor in
the movie is Vancouver, the Canadian city that helplessly underplays the
role of San Francisco. Vancouver has failed in the same role more than
- reviewing "Dr Who: The Movie"
I've got it, we'll
televise a beauty pageant and let the contestants pick their own winner,
Darwin style. One contestant from each state. They're all locked in a dormitory,
see, and they do talent shows, and swimsuit competitions, and world peace
platitude contests, and are tempted with chocolates, and form nasty alliances.
Every week, five of them get booted out. The eventual winner gets a million
dollars, a crown, a sash, a ton of endorsement deals and probably more
notoriety than Miss America. Unsavory? Maybe, but it's practically "Masterpiece
Theatre" compared with "Chains of Love", the reality show NBC is pursuing.
- from "Networks Have A Bizarre Grip On Reality"
It's a bit like watching
a "Columbo" episode from the viewpoint of the killer -- experiencing his
cycles of tension and relief as the hunt goes hot and cold.
- reviewing "A Slight Case of Murder"
Jessica Fletcher of
"Murder, She Wrote" never ran out of nieces, nephews and dear old friends
to visit. She may as well have arrived at their doorsteps wearing a black
hooded robe and carrying a scythe. Someone was about to be quite dead.
By actual calculation, the MSW body count hit 286 over 264 episodes in
12 years. There were 64 murders in the tiny town of Cabot Cove alone, limiting
growth and surely playing havoc with the highway sign listing the village's
- reviewing the finale of "Murder, She Wrote"
The premiere of "Buffy the Vampire Slayer" tonight on the WB network has me wondering. If Buffy the vampire slayer chanced to meet Sabrina the teenage witch, would she drive a stake through her heart?
I believe the preferred manner of doing business is to induce members of the audience to laugh until they cry. "Titans" works it backward. You can only weep for so long about how awful this show is, and then you give it up to the giggles... With Titans, Spelling's apparent objective is to dumb down "Dynasty". Sort of like adding caffeine tablets to espresso.
You're either very smart or extremely dorky if you're going to spend New Year's Eve at home in front of the TV. Smart because you can't wear only boxer shorts at most New Year's Eve parties, and in some circles it's considered gauche to strap a fridge to your back as you make the party rounds. So staying home makes some sense... As for dorky, your social skills may need exploratory surgery if you're actually looking forward to New Year's Eve with Dick Clark.
They are unmarried and often unhappy. They have media jobs and live in apartment buildings in big cities east of the Mississippi and north of the Mason- Dixon Line. If the U.S. Census Bureau provided a composite of the foot soldiers of the 1995-96 television season, that would be the picture. The characters populating TV's 42 new prime-time series also tend to get by with a little help from their friends. Nearly everyone this fall is single or divorced, and on the hunt for love.
[These quotes were reported by John at TV Press Tours over the years]
"First of all, it's
very important to me that I eventually own my own jet."
- film director Barry Sonnenfeld on wanting a hit TV series
"I've been working
for 10 years, and there's a need to be considerably more famous than I
- actor Adam Goldberg, on why he accepted a role on "The Street"
"The job of president
of PBS is a lion tamer without a whip."
- Bill Moyers
"At the least, a TV
show should leave viewers feeling that they wanted to go on living."
- Brandon Tartikoff, NBC executive, explaining the cancellation of downbeat shows
"The Miller Lite commercial
with Ken Stabler is really the highlight of my career because they said
if you do this in one or two takes, we'll be out of here. Stabler figured
out if we do it in 10 or 12 takes, we'll have a nice buzz going."
- Dan Fouts, at the 2000 TV Press Tour
"It's not often that
the prey is happy to see the vultures."
- William Collins, ex-Big Brother contestant, greeting reporters
"If the Irish are so
widely spread throughout society, why did you choose to have a priest,
a cop, a drunk and a union organizer?"
- question to John Wells, producer of Irish-American TV drama "Trinity", about an Irish family.
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