Sunday, July 20, 2008

TV critics

In a recent post I mentioned that uber TV critic Tom Shales had hated the BIG WAVE DAVE’S pilot and Tom then filed the actual review in the comments section. I don’t completely agree (I mean, Jesus, it’s not THAT bad. You can judge for yourself here.), but bad reviews are part of the bargain if you want to be a television writer. When you write for a mass audience you put yourself out there. And sometimes that means you relive the final scene of BONNIE & CLYDE.

But you can’t take it too seriously, just as you can’t start believing you’re a genius just because the TV critic from MERCENARY LIFE loves your new comedy.

Yes, it stings when you get a bad review. You take comfort in knowing it’s only in the paper for one day (although in the case of Shales’ slam of BIG WAVE DAVE’S the LA Times chose to print it in their weekly TV guide so it was around for everyone to enjoy for seven lovely days). But if you can force yourself to read the review objectively sometimes those sons of bitches make good points.

What kills me though, is when you agree with their criticism but had to do it that way because of pressure from the network, studio, actors, etc. You’re the one thrown under the bus. My partner and I did a pilot one time and I wanted to change the name of our production company to “It’s Not Our Fault Productions”.

I sure wouldn’t want to be a TV critic though. Certainly not today, with newspapers all in the shitter and cutbacks occurring almost hourly. And then there’s the little matter of having to watch television. How many VIVA LAUGHLIN and K-VILLE pilots can one screen before blowing their brains out? One? Two maybe?

The truth is TV critics can’t kill a show but they can help save one. No matter how excoriating the reviews for CAVEMAN, had the show gotten ratings it would still be on and its stars (in full make up) would be hosting next year’s Rose Parade. But being a critical darling can protect yourself from cancellation. Do you think the exceptional MAD MEN would be going into its second season and collecting all those Emmy noms were it not for its glowing reviews? The Scott Baio reality show kicked its ass in the ratings. That’s like Beyonce losing a beauty contest to Phyllis Diller. ARRESTED DEVELOPMENT is another show that had a longer life thanks to critical bouquets.

Like everything else, there are better critics than others. Some are thoughtful and perceptive while others are just plain imbeciles. The morons you ignore and make fun of mercilessly in the writers room , but there are a few critics worth checking out. Some of my favorites are Maureen Ryan in the Chicago Tribune, Alan Sepinwall in the New Jersey Star-Ledger (he watches fifteen hours of television a day, he’ll be dead soon), Aaron Barnhart from the Kansas City Star, and yes, even Tom Shales of the Washington Post. There’s also the former Seattle P.I. TV critic who is hilarious and now has her own blog. Melanie McFarland.

And my last thought is that TV critics exist because there is such a great general interest in television. There are very few insurance salesman syndicated critics. It’s nice to be in a field where people even have opinions about what you do. Even if you don’t always share them. I still say BIG WAVE DAVE’S had some laughs.


Hmmm...? said...

I don't know, Ken, "I still think Big Wave Dave's had some laughs." What does that mean exactly? Were they in the places where people were supposed to laugh? I mean even My Mother the Car had some laughs, right? And that was one of the worst TV shows ever.

"It had some laughs" ain't much of a defense.

not Tom Shales said...

Ken, Tom Shales didn't post his review in the comment section for your previous blog entry, I did -- not that I want to say who I am now for fear of Tom Shales accusing me of identity theft!

Hmmm...maybe that would make an interesting premise for a sitcom...

Anyway, is it true that you named the show "Big Wave Dave's" after Seattle Mariners play-by-play announcer Dave Niehaus (who will be inducted into the Hall of Fame this week)? I remember you telling Niehaus that on the air back in 1993, but was never sure if you were serious or just using it as an excuse to plug your show on the M's broadcasts. the plug worked on me -- I watched all six episodes!

rob! said...

that clip of the Caveman looks like he was on Meet The Press.

ChrisO said...

Ken, I've always wondered if it's a problem for both writers and actors to ignore criticism they don't agree with. In other words, if a couple of critics say a character seems to be too mean, do you find yourself subconsciously softening the character a little, even though you may have been happy with him all along? I've thought it would be especially hard for actors who read very specific criticisms of their performances.

And by the way, not tom shales, using someone's real name when it's not at all obvious is an asshole move. Why would you think the real Tom Shales would never comment here?

Jerad said...

Ok, I may be the worst critic ever, but I liked Big Wave Dave's enough to try and find the other episodes on youtube. (I failed)

But then I also liked Cavenem, especially towards the end when they become more focused on the social commentary.

Maybe I should become the anti-critic?

Anonymous Production Assistant said...

Has any critic ever made a criticism that you agreed with, and it was your fault?

KEN LEVINE said...

Yes, too often to count. And when you've got a new series on the air, sometimes that can be incredibly helpful.

Like I said, they do make great points from time to time.

Verlinda said...

First of all, let me say that I recently found your blog and I'm really enjoying it.

Now, back to TV critics: what show(s) do you think have been most under-rated and over-rated by critics?

Seattle Doug said...


Thanks for posting fresh, interesting material so frequently, and for the link to Melanie McFarland's blog. Between her and John Levesque, the Seattle P-I has hosted and lost some great TV commentary over the years. (Although Levesque did hang around for a while in the sports page.)

Joshua said...

Don't forget Tim Goodman from the SF Chronicle.

Michael Taylor said...

Great post. I want to second Joshua's nod to Tim Goodman, who writes some of the most trenchant, scathing, and incisive television criticism you'll ever read. He blasted -- and doubtless helped sink -- two shows I used to work on, but I don't care: Goodman is one of the very best.

You can read one of his old (but still great)columns here:

The guy is terrific. Anybody who cares at all about the present and future of television should be reading his work.

D. McEwan said...

Once, 35 years ago, I was brought in by a director to tweak a script for a stage show. It was a modernization of LYSISTRATA, and Aristophanies' 2500 year old topical jokes needed freshening. Also the show, called THE SURPRISIING UPRISING, was pretty bad overall.

I went through the script and write a lot of joke lines to insert here and there. At the performance I attended, not only did all of my jokes land laughs, they were the only laughs in the show.

The Los Angeles Times reviewed the show, the critic seeing the same performance I did. He gave it a deserved panning, but his closing line was: "Additional dialogue is credited to Douglas McEwan, probably the weakest link."

EXCUSE ME? And by what magical power did he divine which lines I wrote? I will take a deserved bad review, and have, too many times, but for the critic to GUESS which lines were my work and which weren't, and then decide, on the basis of NOTHING, that I wrote the klunkers, pissed me the hell off.

But maddening as that is, there's is nothing worse than getting reamed by a critic, and knowing he or she is right.

Dan Coyle said...

"Tom Shales gave this show a good review... And I'M! THE ONE! IN PRISON!" --Sideshow Bob

jbryant said...

None of my few produced works has been reviewed, but a "friend" of mine thought it would be funny to credit me with causing a show to "Jump the Shark" on the site of the same name. Never mind that my episode was just an average, run-of-the-mill installment that no one would consider a shark-jumper (unless I'm completely delusional, of course), or that I was a gun for hire, writing to the show-runners' specifications (or that my story editor, Kevin Murphy, went on to great success with Reefer Madness and Desperate Housewives, among other things). Eh, whaddaya gonna do? Besides make friends who aren't a-holes?