Sunday, August 01, 2010

The invasion of the TV critics

For the most part I’ve gotten along with TV critics. Okay, Tom Shales once blamed me personally for the downfall of television but he may have been right. Plus, in my capacity as blog wise-ass, I’ve done my own share of TV critiquing. So I have empathy for them. When some stink burger crosses my screen I can turn it off. They have to watch it…along with four additional episodes that are even worse. Hell, just the TEN COMMANDMENTS mini-series would kill me.

Currently the nation’s TV critics have gathered in Beverly Hills (adjacent) for the bi-annual spin fest called the TCA Convention. Here networks, show runners, and stars ply them with shrimp and Bloody Marys hoping to get good reviews and favorable press. On the surface it sounds like a good deal. Free trip to LA, comped room at Merv Griffin's Beverly-Hilton (right next door to an abandoned department store). But then you realize what’s expected of them. Sitting in a conference room eight hours a day for two weeks hearing one dog and pony show after another. Imagine being trapped in a room while the producer of WIPE OUT talked for an hour about how groundbreaking and important to society his show was. If networks gave out an ice pick as swag you’d jam it in your skull.

On the other hand, this TCA dance is no fun for producers either. Three times I have had the pleasure of sitting on stage touting my shows. I looked out at a room of 100 bored restless people who dared me to say anything they hadn’t heard fifteen times already… that day.

For one of our sessions we followed a producer who insulted all of the critics, made fun of one member’s accent, and listed every euphemism for vagina he could think of. He had some that weren't even on CBS' list. By the time we got up to speak there was almost a mutiny.

Another time we confronted them after our studio’s crack PR department gave them swag so cheap and insulting that we became the laughing stock of the convention. We got questions like, “Will your show be in color?”

Only once did we have a good session, and that’s thanks to actor, Kevin Kilner. It was the first year of ALMOST PERFECT. Along with fellow co-creators David Isaacs and Robin Schiff, the show’s stars, Nancy Travis and Kevin Kilner joined us on the panel. For the first half hour it was the usual -- they asked rote questions and typed our rote answers even before we gave them. Finally, one reporter asked Kevin Kilner what his background was. He said that before he became an actor he was an accountant for a chicken farm. And then he said, “Do any of you guys know how they slaughter chickens?” I thought, “Oh Christ, we’re so dead.” But the critics all woke up. Suddenly a topic they hadn’t heard. So Kevin described in graphic neck-snapping detail how chickens are killed and for the next fifteen minutes we held them in rapt attention. And ALMOST PERFECT got the best reviews in our career.

So the lesson here is if you’re a producer scheduled to meet the press later this week, talk about anything other than your show. I think the topic of what goes into hotdogs is still open.

And if you’re one of the critics, the conference room now has Wifi. Go to pogo.com. There are hundreds of free online games.

And we’ll see you again in January and do it all over again. With fifty great NEW shows, much better than the 50 great new shows that are premiering now.

Saturday night was their TCA Awards. I don't know what the statue is -- maybe a golden replica of a free buffet ticket -- but congratulations to these winners: GLEE, MODERN FAMILY, BREAKING BAD, Julianna Margulies, Jane Lynch, LOST, THE PACIFIC, James Garner, YO GABBA GABBA, and LIFE. And special congratulations to Gene Reynolds and Burt Metcalfe, winners of the Heritage Award for MASH. I would have been there myself but Tom Shales won't allow me in the room.

11 comments:

Joel said...

Ken, just an FYI... critics' hotel rooms aren't comped (though the group rate for TCA members is pretty low). And publications have to pay for the flight out themselves. But you have the rest of it well-pegged.

Baylink said...

Alan Sepinwall, our favorite TV critic in the US, confirms both points -- though I assume that the organization for which critics work may be chipping in in some cases, at least.

popprot: what Justin Bieber has done to music.

Joel said...

Baylink, I'm in the TCA, which I should have mentioned. So what I was saying came from a knowledgeable place. Oh, and we are one cranky bunch, usually as soon as we get off the plane.

YEKIMI said...

Maybe the reason TV Critics are so cranky is because they failed at writing any TV shows so the only thing they can do is be critics. Either that or they were born miserable bastards. I bet they all flocked to see "Despicable Me" thinking "Finally! Someone made a movie that's all about ME!"

Tom Quigley said...

"Those who can, do... Those who can't become TV critics"...

Think I had a bunch of them for teachers in high school...

Wavedeform said...

Tim Goodman, critic for the S.F. Chronicle, always blogs about this event using the delightful title "Death March With Cocktails."

Joel said...

YEKIMI, it's more the latter, as I don't think many of my fellow critics ever had the creative energy to write a TV show. We're more TV lovers who can put a few words together.

Anyway, what really makes us cranky is what Ken described in his post. It's the long hours, the repetition, the BS-slinging. But when we get home, we're raring to go to another one. Which means that, as we're living it it makes us cranky, but when we get home, we realized what a good time it was and how much good material we got from it.

Tod Hunter said...

FWIW, Merv Griffin sold off the Beverly Hilton in 2003.

You don't want to know what the people on my show used to call it when we had to do Emmy judging there. It's not pretty.

--t
droide: Le side-kiqes mechanique en le cinematique oeuvre "La guerre des ├ętoiles"

sephim said...

Was YO GABBA GABBA in the same category as BREAKING BAD?

Hmmm, now I'm thinking 'crossover'...

Matt Patton said...

By the way, Polish television has already MADE the Ten Commandments mini-series -- it was called THE DECALOGUE, was written and directed by a fellow named Krzysztof Kieslowski, and was set in a public housing estate in Warsaw. Never shown on American TV -- the TCA pitch for THAT one -- actually it might have been interesting, providing that any one in the room spoke Polish or French . . .

Alyson said...

Hi Ken, a Friday question for you, since you posted about the press tour.
I've been following the coverage. Two of my favorite shows, The Office and How I Met Your Mother, did not have the best season. I've read interviews with showrunners from both shows, and there is a marked difference. The How I Met Your Mother guys basically acknowledged it was not their strongest year, said they were trying to do something different, and that it didn't work. They've promised to go back to their roots for upcoming season.
Conversely, The Office showrunner defended the past season, said he liked what they did and considered it a successful year.
My question is: Obviously shows have off years. That's to be expected after a show goes several seasons. But what's the best way to handle it? Do you try and save face and defend it, or admit to taking missteps? Have you or any show you've worked on had to do this, and if so, how was it handled?
As a fan of a show, I think I'd rather the creators admit when they've had an off year creatively, rather than try and save face. However, I can see how that might be considered bad form.