We chat with journalist and author Masha Gessen, whose newest book explores the complicated family history behind bombings at the 2013 Boston Marathon.
Network television shows are wrapping up their current seasons, and new lineups for network and cable channels are rolling out for the fall. It’s the perfect time to talk with Washington Post TV critic Hank Stuever about how, what and why we watch television.
- Hank Stuever TV critic, The Washington Post; author, ‘Off Ramp: Adventures and Heartache in the American Elsewhere’ (2005) and ‘Tinsel: A Search for America's Christmas Present’ (2010)
MR. KOJO NNAMDIFrom WAMU 88.5 at American University in Washington, welcome to "The Kojo Nnamdi Show," connecting your neighborhood with the world. If you're like most Americans, odds are good you watched some TV last night. Maybe you tuned in to see the season finale of "American Idol" live or perhaps you got caught up on "Modern Family," thanks to your DVR. It may have been "The Wire" on DVD for the first or third time.
MR. KOJO NNAMDIWhatever it was, we spend almost five hours a day watching. And whether our eyes are glued to the TV or it's on for background noise, that's a lot of time. So how can you invest your time wisely when the TV landscape is changing fast and some shows get cancelled almost as soon as they start? Well, with the help of a good guide so you don't get lost in the weeds, we can, I guess, provide some assistance.
MR. KOJO NNAMDIHank Stuever is here. He is the TV critic for The Washington Post and author of the books "Off Ramp: Adventures and Heartache in the American Elsewhere" and "Tinsel: A Search for America's Christmas Present." Hank Stuever, thank you so much for joining us.
MR. HANK STUEVERThank you. It's great to be here.
NNAMDIEugene Polley, inventor of the wireless remote control, passed away this week. TV technology has come a long way since that first breakthrough. How has it changed the way you watch television and how you do your job? I remember when we first started using remotes, a friend of mine was having a conversation with me and he said, I never watch commercials anymore. For him, that was the biggest deal. Hit the remote -- he was able to switch from place to place in a hurry. How does it affect how you watch TV?
STUEVERYou know, I was thinking about the remote control guy. At one point when I was in high school, a burglar came into our house. And one of the few things he stole was the remote control. The TV was far too big to take. It was back when TVs were like furniture.
NNAMDIYeah, yeah, yeah.
STUEVERBut the remote control disappeared and it was traumatic.
STUEVERTraumatic because we easily converted to the idea that we -- yeah. You know, TV -- I watch it on everything I've got. I have two TVs at home, DVRs. I have a TV at the office. I have a laptop. There's an iPad in the house. I have watched TV in the palm of my hand. You know, like everybody, what is TV anymore? You know, we're all trying to figure that out at once.
NNAMDIYours is a job a lot of people might envy. You get paid to watch television. But having talked to some food critics on this show, I get the sense that while great the jobs we envy most aren't always all they're cracked up to be. I wonder often what social life for you might be like. When you go to a function someplace, what do people want to talk to you about?
NNAMDIThat must drive you crazy.
STUEVERWell, I'm sure you've run into the same issue. You know, what's funny is people will say, what should I be watching on TV? And, you know, I'll try to ask them -- turn the question back. I'm like, well, what do you like? What do you watch? And, you know, a lot of times the answer is -- and I think this is a peculiar kind of Washington thing, oh, I don't really watch TV. You know, there's a snooty, I don't really watch TV. I'm like, well then, where's this conversation going? You're asking me what you should be watching, but just telling me you don't watch TV.
STUEVERI think everybody watches TV. I think Washington is actually really good at watching TV because there's so many Type A busy people here working 'til 9:00 at night that -- I know when I stand on my balcony and look across New York Avenue into all these new condos, every single one of them is lit up still by what appears to be an actual television, you know, hooked up to cable, watching TV.
NNAMDIWe just don't admit it in public.
STUEVERWe don't. We don't.
NNAMDI800-433-8850 is the number to call. Do you still watch appointment TV live or have you taken more control over when and how you watch? Give us a call, 800-433-8850. Or simply go to our website, kojoshow.org, and join the conversation there. Everyone tuning in at the same time to a show to find out after waiting all summer who shot JR, that used to be a given. Have all the options we have now changed with what used to be the shared cultural experience of watching television?
STUEVERIt has drastically changed it, not just in television, but in radio, in newspapers, magazines, books, the music industry, the idea that a new album is out and everybody went out and got it and there was a top 40 and there was a song that everybody loved in a certain summer. All of these fixed destinations that we used to have in our culture are kind of coming apart. We're going through a renaissance.
STUEVERYou know, I like to paraphrase Clay Shirky, who writes about a lot of these issues about sort of the new way of everything. We have to remember not to take a renaissance personally. We may be in a cycle that lasts decades, a hundred years when we figure out what a movie is and what a TV show is and what a piece of journalism is. It's all coming apart and it's all going to be put back together. And we have absolutely no control over it anymore, you know. We have entrepreneurial ambition around it but we don't really have any control over it.
STUEVERSo the idea that did you watch such and such show last night, most people will say, don't tell me. I'm going to...
NNAMDII'm DVRing it.
STUEVER...I'm going to get the whole season on Netflix. Don't -- you know, they put their fingers in their ears, la, la, la.
NNAMDIHow about is there any one television event that still brings a family together around the television set? Super Bowl maybe, huh?
STUEVERSuper Bowl, Oscars, for some people. You know, entire football seasons. You know, the highest rated shows on television now, most of it is football. And I still think the idea of coming over and sharing that -- and that's about food mostly and...
NNAMDIIt's usually about snacks, yeah.
STUEVER...yeah, snacks and spirit. And, you know, people are still hungry to connect to one another and be together. Our devices aren't cooperating quite that way. A lot of media consumption is now done privately and in a very niche way. You know, but when movies were invented, there were two kinds of schools of thought. There were the French who had the idea of tacking a bed sheet up on a wall and showing a movie in a dark room and we'd all quietly share it together and be changed by it.
STUEVERThomas Edison was more about put your face inside this viewer and you will privately watch it. You know, put a nickel in and privately watch it. And it seems like after the first hundred years we've kind of gone more to Thomas Edison's idea that we would all have these personalized experiences with media. But then, all of a sudden, we realized I'd like to share this with somebody. So what you have now are people Tweeting their way through a TV show with a whole lot of other people. And that counts as a shared experience.
STUEVERBut, you know, I think still being on the couch together eating food hopefully that's not too bad for us...
NNAMDIIt's the only opportunity these days we get to eat food that's too bad for us.
STUEVERAnd, you know, Super Bowl's the last thing where everybody actually wants to see the commercials.
NNAMDIYeah, that's true.
STUEVERBut they've kind of -- even that has come undone because all the commercials come out days beforehand now.
NNAMDIYeah, so we know them in advance. Hank Stuever. He's the TV critic for The Washington Post. He's the author of the books "Off Ramp: Adventures and Heartache in the American Elsewhere" and "Tinsel: A Search for America's Christmas Present," if you have questions or comments for him. How do you decide what to watch on TV, 800-433--8850? Which shows are you excited about right now? Send us a Tweet at kojoshow or go to our website kojoshow.org.
NNAMDIFor a long time, Hank, television was where a screen actor went when their star started to fade. Does TV now get more respect than it used to?
STUEVERWell, a lot more respect and there's a lot more TV to be respected or disrespected. There's a lot more employment opportunity for actors and celebrities who find themselves just in a different spot than their first...
NNAMDIYou see Dustin Hoffman showing up on HBO, yeah.
STUEVERYeah, and, you know, that was a really good part for him. At first, I -- you know, you have to watch -- we're talking about "Luck," the HBO show about horse racing. That show took forever to get to the point where you understood why Dustin Hoffman would even take that part, that it turned out kind of wonderful. But then, of course, it got cancelled because it was bad for horses.
NNAMDIYes. That was a disappointment to many viewers, but I guess for animal lovers, it was a victory. Networks and advertisers are trying to keep up with viewers. How has the way we watch TV now changed the ratings game and the way programming is scheduled and rolled out?
STUEVERIn every way possible and this is sort of the area that my extremely brilliant colleague, Lisa de Moraes, handles in her daily TV column. She covers the industry of television. But, you know, it seems as though there is still a strong mutual delusion among people who watch TV, people who write about TV, people who work in TV and advertisers. You know, there's something like $10 billion sort of potentially up for grabs in this new fall season.
STUEVERThey just had the upfront presentation to advertisers in New York a couple of weeks ago. They unveiled the new fall schedules. That ancient ritual, you know, it's sort of like still being Catholic, you know. You go to Mass and you receive the sacraments and nothing has changed. But then outside of those walls, it's all changed and there's no guarantee.
STUEVERI'm one of the people who wonders if advertising ever really worked. You know, people always got up during commercials. They didn't have the ability to fast forward through them. But they sure knew how big of a sandwich they could make in the duration of one. You know, they've always known -- they've always detected when the sell was on, you know, and they were being sold shaving cream...
NNAMDIYou're now getting to the essence of the question that's plaguing the online environment.
STUEVERExactly. Exactly, because online can't sell a group of people to an advertiser the way that the old media could. The old media could say...
NNAMDIAnd you're now questioning whether that ever even worked in old media.
STUEVERRight. I think people always sort of glazed over advertising in print. You know, I mean, I do believe that Don Draper was good at what he did, but, you know, I do think people have always been sort of inured to advertising. And now there's just sort of more evidence of that and so it makes it difficult for an advertiser to invest their money in old fashioned advertising. So again...
NNAMDIHow has it affected ratings, the way we watch television? I mean, the old assumption was that when the show airs for the first time, everybody in the family will see it and therefore we can put out the ratings for that -- put out the overnights for that night and that's it.
STUEVERNow you really want the numbers on how many people watched it on DVR, even if they watched it five minutes behind its live airing. 'Cause a lot of people do that trick where you can just fast forward through the commercials and never quite catch up so that you can sort of watch it live, but with -- on just a slight delay.
STUEVEREverybody's interested in secondary viewing kind of numbers. Who watches something -- you know, how successful is a TV show based on the number of people who wound up watching it years after it aired? You know, and there's still -- you know, there's certainly syndication potential there but there's also like, you know -- I don't know, ratings are, you know -- at some point as a critic I sort of turn away from ratings because I -- you know, I'm interested in whether it's good or not.
NNAMDIWell, stay with it for a second here, darn it. It's my understanding that they're looking at it now more and more over a three-day period, correct?
NNAMDIBut there are those who feel that they should be looking at it over a week-long period.
STUEVERSure. I mean, do you DVR TV shows?
NNAMDINot a lot, no.
NNAMDINo, no, not a lot.
STUEVERYou have -- but you have...
NNAMDIBut 43 percent of Americans are DVRing.
STUEVER...yeah, you have the device. I mean, I think it depends on who you're trying to sell. I think if you're -- and of course, you're trying to sell young people. I think there's still a real mystery over how quickly they watch and regurgitate through social media what's on and how effective that is at reaching their dollars. I don't know. I don't have the answer to...
NNAMDIWell, in that case, let's go to...
STUEVER...three days sounds good to me.
NNAMDI...let's go to the phones. Here's George in Clinton, Md. George, you make me want to say George Clinton. George in Clinton, Md., you're on the air. Go ahead, please. George, are you there? Well, George in Clinton, Md. seemed to have stepped away for a while. So we go to George in -- to John in Fairfax, Va. John, your turn.
JOHNOkay, thanks. It's been a wait. I read The Post every day, a TV column, and I'm retired, living in a senior subsidized area in Fairfax and I can't afford cable TV right now. I used to have satellite and a DVR, but I'd like to bring up some great shows that people can watch with an antenna that The Post doesn't even mention. And that's "The Keiser Report" and "The Tom Hartmann Show" and "The (unintelligible) Show" and (unintelligible) are all very informative.
NNAMDIWhere do you watch those shows, John?
NNAMDINo, I didn't ask why. Where?
JOHNWhere? Off 30 point -- RT is 30.4 over the airways and The Washington Post just ignores them. And they're great shows, they're very informative.
NNAMDINow, wait a minute, allow me to ask a few questions here. Aren't those shows available for people who have cable, who have DIRECTV, who have satellite dishes, are those shows available for those people?
STUEVERNow, I think...
NNAMDIWait a minute, Hank Stuever seems to understand this better than I do.
STUEVERI think he's talking about channels that come through the digital airways. When you buy digital antenna adapter, there are these channels that are layered within channels sort of like WAMU's additional spectrums now.
NNAMDIWell, I've seen those, all of the local channels have them.
STUEVERYes, and my quick answer, there's just too much. You know, I'm sure we'll get more calls about things that I don't ever get around to writing about or reviewing and there are a variety of reasons why I don't review something.
NNAMDIAll of the local channels have them. I know exactly what you're talking about now. Our resident analyst, Tom Sherwood, follows stories on NBC4 but then you see him doing other things on the other channels. John, thank you very much for your call. We're going to have to take a short break. If you have calls, stay on the line. If the lines are busy, you can shoot us an email to firstname.lastname@example.org or send us a tweet at kojoshow or simply go to our website, kojoshow.org and join the conversation there. If you use a DVR, how do you avoid spoilers? I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
NNAMDIHank Stuever is our guest. He is the television critic for "The Washington Post." He's also the author of the books, "Off Ramp: Adventures and Heartache in the American Elsewhere" and "Tinsel: A Search for America's Christmas Present." A lot of you have calls so the lines are all busy. If you'd like to join the conversation, you can go to our website, kojoshow.org. You can ask a question or make a comment there or you can send us a tweet at kojoshow or send email to email@example.com.
NNAMDILike so many things we turn to for information or entertainment, as we've been discussing earlier, TV is driven by advertising. As more and more of us try to get away from ads and do it successfully, how is the industry responding?
STUEVERIn some really crafty ways. You know, what tickles me is people say -- people are quite triumphant when they let cable or satellite go. First of all, it's very expensive. I think that to wire yourself in your home these days is increasing prohibitive to working people.
NNAMDIEspecially for people like me who grew up with free television.
STUEVERExactly. I mean, Fran Lebowitz had a wonderful quote one time about when television first started. You could plug it in, in any room in the house and turn it on and have antenna and it came and it was television and it was a miracle. And then cable came and severely limited the places in your house where you could put your TV and charged you for it and this was considered progress. And we've had so much more progress since then that now I'm paying $250 a month for triple play.
STUEVERSo, you know, I think that people do feel victorious when they cut the cable -- is what they say or lose the dish. And they say, I watch it all online for free. And they usually follow up with, and I never have to watch commercials. And I'm like, well, okay. How much are you paying for Hulu Plus? How much are you paying for Netflix and you're never seeing a commercial?
STUEVERI have not had that experience yet. I'm never online where an ad is not insinuating itself into my emails or my Facebook page or any online experience you're having. Reading The Washington Post, if you click on a slideshow, we'll show you a 30 second ad. You can't get out of that ad. I think that people wind up watching a lot more advertising than they think they do.
NNAMDIHere is George in Clinton, Md. again. George, you're on the air, go ahead please.
GEORGEHey Kojo. Man, I'm sorry about that. I'm already paying $120 in cable. I had a cop behind me while I was on the phone. I didn't need another $100 ticket.
NNAMDIBut go ahead.
GEORGEThis is exactly what I'm talking about man. I'm paying all this money for TV and I'm old-school so I'm used to seeing it for free. And I only watch a certain amount of programs. I really -- I'm not home that much and the shows I like are the shows and stuff I see on HBO and I watch a couple of cable shows, you know. But I got all these channels I'm not watching and I'm paying for them, man. What is the solution and why did our government allow the cable companies and the dish companies to set it up this way?
GEORGEWhy am I not allowed to pick what I want to choose and pay for it instead of, like al carte, instead of having these bundles? And the other thing is, I mean, I thought when you buy something, you buy one thing you pay less for it, but it's the opposite in the cable world. If I just want cable, it costs more to just get one thing than it does to get three things, like the Internet, your TV and your phone. It just doesn't make any sense to me. It doesn't even sound American. And I got to tell you, man, I want to cut the cable so bad. I already cut the dish. I had Comcast. Comcast service is so awful, it's terrible and they treat you like we work for them or something. I'm with another (unintelligible) ...
NNAMDIGeorge, George, this is the rant we've been anticipating.
STUEVERAnd, you know, preach it brother. Yes, I agree with a lot of what he's saying and we all of course remember the heroic woman who had the freak out at Comcast and wound up bashing her cable box with a hammer or something like that. Maybe the legend has grown in my mind.
NNAMDIWasn't John McCain pushing for al carte for a while?
STUEVERYes, about 10 years ago and I think the industry may have made a miscalculated move there in not giving some thought to al carte. And that would tell us a lot more about ratings, wouldn't it, if people had choice about what channels they get. I certainly, well, you know, for my job, I would have to still get every channel. But as a consumer, I would've loved the idea of al carte. And I think people just went to an al carte system on their own.
STUEVERAs soon as you have a Blue Ray player and a Wi-Fi signal, you know, and cough up $8 a month or $14 a month for some of these services you can just get anything you want within, of course, as soon as you get all that wired up you do start discovering the limits of what you can get. And what you do step out of is the current conversation about what's on TV now. And I think that's why most people still keep some sort of cable into their flat screen whether it's coming from a Dish signal or whether it's coming from the cable company. They still want to be part of the conversation, the current conversation.
NNAMDIGeorge, thank you very much for your call and your rant and good luck to you. Here is Terrance in Germantown, Md. Terrance, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
TERRANCEYes, a few disclaimers. I am over the air antenna only. I do have a DVD recorder and your earlier caller was asking about the MHZ channel.
TERRANCEMy question is more generally -- free TV is, well, frankly, almost dead. And it seems to me that when I read reviews like Hank's, I get the impression that almost all of the great shows seem to be on cable, not because they need to use adult material, but because people, I guess, maybe the cable companies figured they could make more money producing their own shows on a limited -- for a limited number of people. So people like me, except for sports and maybe a few cartoons, don't really watch anything on free TV anymore.
NNAMDIYes, free TV.
STUEVERPart of that is the business model of network programming is still built around the idea of syndication. Once, you have 100 episodes of anything you can repackage and resell it as reruns. Whereas a cable approach is a long story arch, a complicated story arch, shows that not only have more language and sex in them than you might encounter on an old-school network. But they also have a deeper level of verisimilitude that the networks seem challenged by.
STUEVERSo it's just a fact and it's a fact that I don't like. I resisted for years as a civilian before I was a TV critic. I thought it was terrible that everything critically great was going to cost me an arm and a leg. But, you know, the good stuff on the broadcast networks, the really good stuff, the meaty stuff that we're all going to remember and talk about, it's just not on MBC, ABC, CBS as often as it could and should be. But I think the first thing they'd have to let go of is this idea of episodic television and procedural television and wrapping up every show into one episode so that it can be seen as a rerun at any point and any time in the future.
NNAMDITerrance, thank you very much for your call. And yes, there are great shows and nuance shows and well-written shows. They all, however, seem to end up on the same night. One upside to having more ways to watch for viewers is that you're less likely to have to make an all or nothing choice between "Game of Thrones" and "Army Wives" or "Mad Men" and "Veep," but how do all these must-see shows end up on the same night?
STUEVERIt all started with "The Sopranos." You know, everybody loved "The Sopranos" and started watching on Sunday night. Sunday night, you know, for some of us, for people who have watched TV for many years, you know, Sunday night has always been, you know, there's always been something that we like. If you look at the old TV grids, my Sunday night starts with "60 Minutes" and I don't seem to get up until midnight.
STUEVERAnd the DVR, you know, I started getting warnings, you know, warning this is trying to tape over this and this is trying to tape over this and you realize that you're going to have to watch a lot of it on demand. You're also going to have to avoid Twitter and Facebook for 24 hours while you catch up because people are already talking about what Dawn and Megan did last night and yet you decided to watch "Game of Thrones" instead or "Veep." It's a weird, tragic traffic jam, but the reason they're doing it is because it works.
NNAMDISunday night, if one can pick a night, is still America's kind of traditional television viewing night because, well, we got to work the next day.
STUEVERSunday night, I think, starting when we're very little kids, we've realized that the jig is up on Sunday night. Like, you know, we're going to have to be in school Monday morning...
NNAMDIGot to get it together.
STUEVER...which becomes where, you know, I had many horrible Sunday nights as a child. I remember the sound of "60 Minutes" and comedies coming from the TV room and I was in my bedroom trying to make a map of Denmark out of Play-Doh because it was due Monday morning. You know, I just think there's some flavor -- there's a flavor to every day of the week culturally, in our culture. A day you can tell sort of the mood is in the air. Today is a Thursday, but, you know, Sunday night, I think that's when we really most want to escape from what is coming in a few short hours.
NNAMDIWe're talking with Hank Stuever. He's the television critic for The Washington Post and taking your calls at 800-433-8850. What is your favorite show? Here's Robert in Washington D.C. Robert, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
ROBERTHello, first of all just a comment. I don't watch any reality TV. I've tried and I think I'm on another planet. I've tried to watch shows like "American Idol," "Dancing with the Stars," "Glee," and so on, even the latest one on MBC, it's "Glee" for adults. However, what I wanted to ask you. My favorite shows in the last few years was on HBO Entertainment. My favorite three shows that are now on the air are "Homeland," "Nurse Jackie" and "The Borgias" because I'm a sucker for anything in costumes. I'm curious, what are your three favorite shows now currently on TV, network or cable, Mr. Stuever?
STUEVERI will answer this completely, honestly because it changes all the time. But I cannot wait for "Breaking Bad" to come back July 17th. I think its July 15th, 17th, mid-July. So the "Breaking Bad" has a permanent place. I'm loving "Veep," the Julie Louis-Dreyfus comedy on HBO and I'm going to throw a wild card in there. I have -- I am a new addict to "American Ninja Warrior" on G4. That is a reality show. It's an athletic competition.
STUEVERIf you've seen the show "Wipeout" on ABC, which is an obstacle course in which people get knocked in the water all the time. this the super-athletic version of that and, you know, it's men and women competing equally, although the women, you know, there's an interesting gender-study going there because the women can't finish the course. In fact, most people cannot finish the final course, Mount whatever it's called. It's a Japanese invention.
NNAMDII just saw a little bit of it when I was out of the country. It seems so masochistic, but...
STUEVERWell, I don't know. I think it's, you know, we've had so many shows about getting in shape and being fat and working out and losing weight and here's one that is purely about peak condition fitness among everyday people. And they just started a new season and I'm in. I'm going to watch it much to my partner's dismay, I'm afraid. I think he's already bored with it, but I...
ROBERTDo you watch "Homeland?" I'm curious.
STUEVERI love "Homeland." I thought "Homeland" was almost perfect from beginning to end. It is coming back. I thought they did a terrific job with it. You know, I don't know if you recall, but last fall there was all this buzz about women, shows about women by women and, you know, there was "The Playboy Club" and "PanAm" and "Zooey Deschanel" and there were -- "Whitney" and there were all -- and everybody sort of overlooked that the strongest character, woman character, in the season and in a long time was Claire Danes in "Homeland."
ROBERTI couldn't agree with you more. Yes, absolutely, absolutely. Well, thank you. I really enjoy your column. I've actually written you a couple of times to say how much I enjoyed your column.
STUEVERThank you for calling. I hope I wrote back.
ROBERTNo, you didn't. You must get so many compliments that you didn't have time to acknowledge them.
STUEVERI try. I try to write everybody back, including the opposite of fan mail.
NNAMDIRobert, you got him here. So he is apparently appreciated.
NNAMDIThank you very much for your call, Robert. "American Idol" ended its 11th season last night and it seems that every week brings the premiere of a new Bravo reality show. How are hard or how easy it is to critique reality television?
STUEVERWell, on the one hand, it's like shooting fish in a barrel. So, you know...
NNAMDIThere's no actors. There's no scripts. So reviewing it in a traditional sense, I guess, is not the right...
STUEVERI encounter a lot of people who do put reality TV altogether and I actually like to unpack that a little bit.
STUEVERThere are competition shows, "American Idol," and there are, you know, social dynamic competition shows like "Survivor." And I kind of put those all in a group. And one of the good things about my job is that my colleague, Lisa de Moraes and Emily Yahr are both obsessively watching most of the competition shows and writing about them for The Washington Post website and the blog. So I'm not a fan of singing competition shows and dancing competition shows and I'm really lucky that I don't have to watch too much of it. I watch sort of recaps.
NNAMDII've always liked singing and dancing competition shows. I just don't like the judges, but that's another story.
STUEVERI just got tired of it and, you know, ratings for "American Idol" are way down. So I think some people -- I'm not alone in being a little tired of it. Then are reality shows that are troubling and take most of the brunt of the social criticism about reality TV, "The Kardashians," "The Real Housewives," as shows about people with medical extremity. You know, there's just a whole lot of junk there. Then there's some reality TV that I think is actually quite good and verges on journalism. "Intervention" on A&E, I found that I'm always able to watch an episode of "Intervention."
STUEVERThere are some reality shows that I like for, again, what they reveal to us about who we are and how we live. "Storage Wars," I always stay tuned to watch that garage door open and watch those people bid on junk that they can't go through and then in the end you get to see that all the way in the back was, you know, a shrunken head or, you know.
STUEVERSo I do distinguish among the genre's. Now there's a lot of -- I'm pretty much at the end of the my rope with any reality show starring a celebrity whose star has faded.
STUEVERAnd we've had plenty of them. And I think I hit a wall...
NNAMDIIt's become a destination, yes.
STUEVERI hit a wall that summer when Hasselhoff had another one and Ryan and Tatum O'Neal had one, and Sarah Ferguson had one, and, you know, that's always the same show. That's just following people around while they do contrived things. I also think Bravo really dropped the ball. I think, at one point not so long ago, I think Bravo was showing us these "Real Housewives" and these other (word?) people as a sort of guide to how not to live, and then something turned, and it just became treacherously abusive.
STUEVERI just think that those shows encourage men and women to not like women, especially the "Real Housewives" genre. So I struggle with it. I look at all of it. It all comes in, I pop it in, I look at it and then I move on, or I get my gander up and I go whole-hog and write a scathing review, and then sometimes I'm actually quite charmed. You know, there was a reality show earlier this year called "Bering Sea Gold" on Discovery, and it came out of the same sort of -- from the brilliant minds who brought you "Deadliest Catch" and those kinds of shows.
STUEVERAnd, you know, when you watch a reality show is in its first season, which is the golden moment before everyone on it gets the bug, you know, the celebrity bug.
STUEVERAnd that's when the show -- then the second season, the show is just not as interesting because they're used to being on TV. But there is sort of a nice Heisenberg moment where they are themselves, and the situation does feel quote/unquote "real."
NNAMDIHank Stuever. We're gonna take a short break. When we come back, we're gonna talk about what's likely to be the next big thing, so to speak, on television. If you've called stay on the line, we'll try to get to your calls, or you can send us an email to firstname.lastname@example.org. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
NNAMDIWelcome back. We're talking with Washington Post television critic, Hank Stuever. He is also author of the books "Off Ramp: Adventures and Heartache in the American Elsewhere," and "Tinsel: A Search for America's Christmas Present," and a lot of you would like to join the conversation, so allow me to get a question or two in quickly before you do. Sitcoms used to be a big thing, Hank. Then we entered the golden age of dramas, now reality TV. The reigning ratings champ is starting to fade. What's next?
STUEVERA lot of comedies are coming back this fall. The upfronts were full of, you know, comedies. Some of them old-fashioned sitcoms with the studio audience and the laughter, although I wrote a piece today about one that...
NNAMDI"Men at Work"?
STUEVER"Men at Work" on TBS. You know, I think I've joined a lot of younger viewers in that format seems really a stale now. It's almost offensive to watch that kind of sitcom because people became, you know, such fans of "Parks and Recreation," and…
NNAMDII like that.
STUEVER..."Modern Family," and "Community," and "Scrubs." But there are some, you know, of those, studio audience, three-camera sitcoms coming back this fall. Of course there'll be some more that are in the newer sort of mock-documentary style. You know, and there are a few that I'm interested in topically. There's a series about a gay couple -- a sitcom about a gay couple who are trying to have a child through a surrogate, which should be interesting.
NNAMDISo this is gonna be a big year for sitcoms -- a big season for sitcoms?
STUEVERWell, you know, big -- this is an average year. There was an average number of cancellations and there'll be an average number of new series, some of them in the fall, some of them in the mid-season. A lot of dramas. We're gonna go around one more time with the sort of paranormal dramas. There's one called "666 Park Avenue" in which people live in a demonic expensive piece of real estate in New York.
STUEVERJJ Abrams is coming back with a drama called "Revolution" about people living in a world without any energy, any electricity or -- I don't know exactly how they get to this point, but now they're camping and trying to cobble together a new society without power.
STUEVEROr Internet, or phones.
NNAMDIGood luck with that.
NNAMDIYours was one of the first reviews I read of "Girls," and while you addressed the silver spoon nature of the show, you didn't have the visceral reaction that so many others did. As a matter of fact, when I read your review, I got very, very excited about watching the show, and then I ran into Francie Latour who writes I think in the Boston Globe, the column "The Hyphenated Life," and she says, much of "Girls" is actually set in Brooklyn, a borough where just one-third of the population is white. Yet as Dunham's character -- that's the creator of it, Lena Dunham. Yet, at Dunham's character, 24-year unemployed writer Hannah Horvath and her friends fumble through life with cutting wit and low self-esteem, they do it in a virtually all-white bubble. And then I read where you said, only heartbreak awaits people who are looking for themselves on TV.
STUEVERYes. And people get their hearts broken all the time, you know, even people who aren't in minority groups say that's not how I am, that's not how my generation is, that's not how my friends and I talk. I thought "Girls" did hit something very real and something very white, and, you know, I didn't write about the race aspect of it because it did not -- there's something about "Girls" that comes from such an honest and real place that you get distracted by what it's lacking, but I also think that Lena Dunham's answer to that criticism, which she got from all parts, was that she did not know enough about the black experience to write confidently. She kind of admitted that she just doesn't know any black people.
STUEVERWhich is not a great answer, but it's an honest answer.
NNAMDIIt's an honest answer.
STUEVERYeah. And so when you're writing about hipster trustafarian kids in Brooklyn, guess what, the rich are not a diverse crowd.
NNAMDIThis is true. Here is Stacy in Dumfries, Va. Stacy, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
STACYHi. I'm a first-time caller, and I am a very big of the ABC drama "Scandal."
STACYAnd Kerry Washington is the first Africa-American female lead in 30 years, and I wanted to get your impressions on diversity on network sitcoms and dramas.
NNAMDIOnly heartbreak awaits people who are looking for themselves on TV. Here's Hank Stuever.
STUEVERThat is my overriding response to that question always is that whether you are -- belong to a racial minority or an ethnic minority or a sexual minority, you will often find that TV shows fail to live up to or down to what your hopes and dreams were for them. I happen to like "Scandal" too, just because it's so wonderfully -- I'm gonna use a word that I mean as a compliment, it's wonderfully dumb. It is pure escapism, especially for Washingtonians because they don't even really bother to make the sort of Washington horizons look quite right.
STUEVERThere's a lot of CGI Washington Monument going on and Tidal Basin stuff that I noticed in there that was very funny, and the reliable source column wrote a little bit about that, you know, TV shows about Washington are never set in Washington. So only heartbreak awaits Washingtonians waiting for the true show...
NNAMDIAre there any shows that get Washington right at all?
STUEVERI think "Veep" is doing some good work there except that it was filmed in Baltimore, but all its interstitials were shot here at least, all the motorcades back and forth. I loved it when she went to U Street to the mom and pop yogurt shop and wound up having some gastric distress on a very hot summer day with some melted yogurt. But...
NNAMDIStacy, what do you like about "Scandal"?
STACYOh, I just -- well, I'm, you know, I used to live in D.C. so I love, even though it's fake D.C., that at least D.C. is on television. But it's the drama in that they keep the secrets that they've been able to reveal...
STACY...little by little throughout the season was excellent.
STUEVERYes. Props to "Scandal" for building some long arcs into...
STUEVER...it's procedural element. And for people who don't know, the show is about a crisis expert who gets, you know, murder suspects in her office and people who are affected by scandal and sort of makes it go away for them. She's a fixer. But behind the scenes, and more deliciously, she has been having an affair with the president and, you know, so, yeah. There's some great long arcs about relationships in there. Sort of a little bit like a far less classier version of "The Good Wife," which has done really well with blending procedural court stuff with the internecine life of a law firm.
NNAMDIStacy, thank you very much for your call.
NNAMDIBrett writes to say, "Hank, do you" -- Brett -- well, I was going to read something else, but I jumped on Brett, so I'll stay with Brett. "Hank, do you know of any interesting beer centric shows? Discovery cancelled the shows with Dogfish Beer Sam Calagione, much to my despair.
STUEVERI'm afraid I don't. I've seen a new sandwich show or something. I have not, you know, there was a spate of shows that were about drinking and bars and bartenders and competitions and there were some beer shows. Boy, that's a blank spot for me at the moment.
NNAMDIKevin tweets to ask, "When did Hank Stuever learn from -- what did Hank Stuever learn from his predecessor Tom Shales? Is he still in touch with him?"
STUEVERI'm not in touch with Tom very much, but he did the job -- Tom Shales was our TV critic for more than three decades.
STUEVERI think something like 35 years. What you can -- what anyone can learn from going back and reading Tom is how to write a lot, how to write fast, how to write funny, and how to boy, just take the wind out of a show. I mean, I'm not sure anyone has been more -- written some more withering stuff.
NNAMDIWell, you're getting there.
NNAMDITom in Takoma Park emails to say, "I watch 'NCIS' every chance I get. 'Bones,' too. Both are very well written even if formula plots are similar. Will there be more spinoffs of these shows other than 'NCIS Los Angeles,' which I don't watch, which is difficult, because they come right after one another usually?
STUEVERYeah. I mean, you really have to make a conscious decision to walk away. I'm sorry The question is, will there be more shows spun off of which one?
NNAMDII guess of "NCIS" outside of "NCIS Los Angeles."
STUEVERI don't know. You know, they just scaled back "CSI." They let go of one of the "CSIs." CBS has a nice solid tight schedule with not too many openings. They lost "A Gifted Man." They cancelled "Unforgettable" about the woman with the super autobiographical memory.
NNAMDIAny spinoffs of "Bones" expected? That's one of those he asked about.
STUEVERWasn't "The Finder" a spinoff of "Bones," which just got canceled? I...
NNAMDII don't know.
STUEVERYeah. You know, I'm gonna admit a weakness here. When I see a new procedural and it's spun off of a show, I will watch it, but I often don't have -- most of those shows are sort of critic proof in that they're not -- unless there's a really strong character that I want to write about or a situation that I want to write about, the shows themselves don't offer up a lot of material to write about. You notice that -- well, as soon as I say it, I'm sure somebody will send me links to people who are, but I don't notice a lot of people doing live recaps of procedural shows, or oh, my God, did you see "NCIS"? Can you believe da da da, you know.
STUEVERIt's just -- people obsessively track to "Law and Order," but mostly it was just census taking. It was like here's what the case was, here's who played the victim, you know. It wasn't really like deep analysis of -- through the entire lifespan of the show there was...
NNAMDIAnd I'm now reliably informed that you are indeed correct, "The Finder" was a "Bones" spinoff that has been cancelled. Here now is Ken in King George, Va. Ken, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
KENOh, I have a comment and a question. I have a -- actually the comment is about sociological effects of TV, and I know that's not part of the conversations, but...
NNAMDIYes, it is.
STUEVEROh, it's always part of the -- absolutely part of the conversation.
KENOkay. I have a DVR and I watch almost no commercials, and as a result, I find that I'm becoming culturally ignorant. Friends make illusions to commercials and I have no clue as to what they're talking about. My other point...
NNAMDIDoes this bother you, Ken?
KENYeah. Sometimes I -- yes. Anytime anybody feels ignorant, they have to feel a little bit bad.
KENAnd at any rate, the other thing is your show mentioned a lot of programs that I've never even heard of, and I'm wondering if our society -- there's so many programs, and our society is kind of maybe fragmenting into groups of people that go off and watch these different shows. And it's almost like we're not breaking up into different states, but we're breaking up into different groups of people that just watch totally different things. And I'm wondering if we're ever, you know, if that will make it difficult for us to communicate with each other in the future because of our -- how these different shows have...
KEN...they're just so different from each other.
STUEVERI think you're spot on, and I think part -- your comment at first goes with what you wound up talking about in terms of the shows too. I think that everybody is so splintered off into niche viewing and niche media consumption that we are losing the common conversation, whether it's about commercials or content. You know, we're headed somewhere everybody is not having the same conversation about the same few things. Everybody's having a lot of conversations about many, many, many things.
STUEVERAnd I can tell you that no matter how much TV you watch and how many commercials you watch, you will still feel out of it. You know, one of my fears about coming on today was that people would call in and start talking about shows that I haven't seen, and you would think, well, you should have seen everything, and I'm here to tell you it's not possible anymore to have seen everything.
NNAMDISome TV shows peter out after a promising start, while others start strong and then fizzle. Why is it important to revisit and note the evolution of shows?
STUEVERUnlike some of my colleagues who get a chance to review a movie or record album -- although, you know, from album to album, an artist can evolve so that would be revisited, but -- or book, you know, some things are just self-contained. Whereas a TV show can start out being one thing and turn out to be completely another, and part of the job hazard for me is that very often I only see the pilot and maybe one or two more episodes and I have to go with what I'm seeing there and be the people's tribune, and write whether or not you should watch it.
NNAMDISo it's important to come back at a later point and look at that.
STUEVERIt's important to keep watching, and that is where the job almost becomes unmanageable, is to keep watching things that are already on even though you've moved on and you're watching the new stuff that they're sending you. You do have to keep in mind that you could have been wrong. I'm wrong about a lot, and I go back and revisit show from time to time.
NNAMDIHopefully you will revisit this show from time to time.
STUEVERI would very much like that.
NNAMDIHank Stuever. He's the TV critic for the Washington Post and author of the books "Off Ramp: Adventures and Heartache in the American Elsewhere," and "Tinsel: A Search for America's Christmas Present." Thank you for joining us.
NNAMDIAnd thank you all for listening. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
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