Sunday, December 26, 2010

TV: Water Cooler Set Confesses and Kills

Tis the season for giving but who expected David Bianculli to remember us this Christmas? There he was, last week on Fresh Air (NPR), justifying everything we've ever said about today's predominately useless TV critics.


He'd included AMC's stale and sexist Mad Men on his list of 'greats' and was explaining why, how it really didn't have an audience, "But what it is that it's in the conversation, wherever you turn. If you turn to the Internet and you're reading Huffington Post, it's on there. If you're reading national magazines, it's there. If you're doing -- if you're on network television and the morning shows, it's on there."

We told you, kids, for years now, they're not covering what's good, what's entertaining, they're writing about the 'buzz.'

That's not a TV critic's role. A TV critic is not supposed to be enthralled with the buzz, a TV critic is supposed to puncture it, penetrate it. But such is our ineffectual Water Cooler Set that not only do they attempt to find an easy ('hot') topic to write about, they foolishly cop to it public, not realizing how much they're damning their own work.

David was on to look at TV and, still in a snit fit over our past criticism of how he refused to include women, Daves wanted to note The Good Wife and 30 Rock. He had 12 best ofs for 2010 (13 after Terry whined) and only those two shows could be described as female led. When listing his top 12, 30 Rock should come first if he says he's going by alphabetical order (and he did say he was going alphabetically) because the title is "30 Rock" and not "Thirty Rock" but, like a dee jay in the sixties afraid to play more than one 45 an hour by a woman, he buried it deep in the mix.

We listened bored as he listed all the Water Cooler Conventions and marveled over his bitchiness. Like many in the Water Cooler Set, David saw himself in 2009 as Conan O'Brien's wife (The Bad Wife) and he still feels the need to play that role and attack Jay Leno even if his statements contain no logic at all, "So am I happy that Leno is back on Tonight and more successful, you know, than CBS, which had Letterman, who was gaining on Conan when he was at The Tonight Show? No, because people had liked Leno and settled for Leno before, so they were settling for Leno again."

Okay, Conan replaces Leno and loses a portion of the audience. Leno returns and not only brings that portion back but brings in new viewers and, according to David Bianculli, the audience is "settling for Leno"? Uh, no, it would appear the viewers actually prefer Jay.

You may not like it (we personally don't care), but the verdict is in: Most viewers prefer Jay Leno. Those are facts. Established ones. Another fact is that Jon Stewart is a comedian. He is not a journalist. But David couldn't get that right either as he insisted that, because Jon interviews people, he's a journalist. Yeah, right up there with Merv Griffin and Arlene Dahl.

Then there was this, "It's not only one of the best family dramas on television now, it's one of the best family dramas that's ever been on television." Really? Is he dropping back to Gilmore Girls? What, do tell, is the best family drama ever on television? We're sure it's a representative show, right?

Of course not. He's talking about Friday Night Lights.

A show about high school football. That's universal in David's mind because he always wished he could have played football in high school and been a "normal" boy. Because of boys whose names were never called, we're all stuck with a bad, moralizing and, yes, sexist TV show presented as groundbreaking and "the best family drama ever on television." As David babbled on and on, listeners would be forgiven for thinking that women had no regular roles on TV since he never named even one actress on a TV series. Michael J. Fox, Dennis Leary and others may be well known; however, they are not three time Emmy winner, five time Academy Award nominee Glenn Close.

Close, for those who don't know, stars in Damages. Bianculli noted the show, if not the actress, "Yeah, Rescue Me and another FX program, which didn't make my top 12 or 13 or 10, or whatever this is was Damages - I mean, just really good shows that are not getting the attention that they deserve. Rescue Me with Denis Leary has done some really strong stories, some spectacular acting, and Michael J. Fox was one of the guest stars this year, and a great performance." Time and again, when an actress could have been mentioned, she wasn't. And then he whines that Damages is "not getting the attention" but he can't even be bothered noting Glenn or co-star Rose Byrne?

Terry wasn't just sitting there silent, as we noted. The woman who wouldn't have a career were it not for the then-emerging National Public Radio's efforts at gender equity, saw an omission on the list, didn't notice that she presented another year-in-review of TV hour which failed to mention one TV series actress by name. No, she had another 'concern.'

GROSS: I don't mean to sound critical, David.

BIANCULLI: It's okay.

GROSS: You stretched the 10 best to a 12 best, and yet...

BIANCULLI: And yet what did I not put in?

GROSS: "The Colbert Report."

BIANCULLI: Again, again, I know, and I should have remembered that last year you slapped me around for "The Colbert Report." I know. I know. But I sort of figure Jon Stewart is sort of like grandfathering a little bit the spirit of Colbert.

GROSS: That's not fair to Colbert. I'm sorry.

Her big concern was the same as it is every year: a man. A man being overlooked. Ten of Bianculli's 12 shows are dominated by males but The Good Wife and 30 Rock were two-too-many women for Terry. She needed another man in there and quickly. (As she books, so she thinks.)

If, like Terry and David, you think women do nothing on TV week after week, it may have been a semi-satisfying discussion. Especially if you didn't know facts. Facts would make you question David's claim that Friday Night Lights suffered because NBC didn't have hits to pair it with or promote (the same fall 2006 that Friday Night Lights debuted, so did Heroes and Heroes was an immediate hit).

Unlike David, we don't see it as a bad thing and worthy of whining about that people stream online. No technophobes we, online streaming is actually liberating. We also think 2010 was one of the better years since we started covering TV here.

The fall saw the debut of Raising Hope (a great cast headed by Martha Plimpton who is amazing), ABC has added Better with You to their solid Wednesday night comedy line up and The Event has only improved with each episode.

This when network TV already boasts the enticing Fringe, the amazing Cougar Town, Patricia Heaton's should-be-career-defining performance in The Middle, a rejuvenated Chuck, a refocused Brothers & Sisters, The Good Wife, Parks And Recreations -- the latter of which returns to NBC next month -- and a strong final season from Medium that found Patricia Arquette and company still refusing to coast.

That's eleven shows right there. Those aren't the only strong shows on network TV. We also think there are many non-network shows that are strong including Damages (which will now air on Direct TV's satellite channel The 101 Network), there's Eddie Falco's strong work in Nurse Jackie (Showtime), Toni Collette's Emmy award winning performance in The United States of Tara (Showtime), Archer (the best animated program, FX) and, most of all FX's Justified (returns February 9th) which should net Timothy Olyphant an Emmy.

TV has an impact. It's foolish to pretend otherwise. Whether you personally watch it or never turn it on, it still has an impact. It is where, even today, society gathers around the campfire to pass on ideas, dreams, fears, mores and more. Which is why Terry Gross and David Bianculli's are so damaging. You can't talk about 2010 without noting the year saw the loss of the decade's funniest sitcom.

Unlike Will & Grace or Friends, The New Adventures of Old Christine is a creation of the '00s. It began and finished its run this decade. When the laugh out loud sitcom got the axe last May, Kari Lizer (creator of the show) explained what had just taken place, "As far as what happened at CBS, we've suffered from a serious lack of support from them since the beginning. I hate to say it, but I'm afraid they don't care much for the female-of-a-certain-age point of view over there. How else do you explain them squandering the talents of Julia [Louis-Dreyfus] and Wanda [Sykes]?" Kari is correct. She'd be even more correct if she'd point out that the lack of interest was also to be found in the Water Cooler Set. For example, Entertainment Weekly is nothing but critics and their TV pages post updates multiple times daily; however, Ken Tucker couldn't note the show in all of 2010 until right before it got the axe.

To his credit, he did at least note it. Putting him far ahead of his peers. But this is why it matters what Terry discusses. She's listened to and her show could have impact. She chooses to ignore that and she chooses to serve up ten critics and only one of them a woman (she covers books and, no, Terry doesn't devote an hour to year-in-books). The masculine-identified Terry Gross is a huge part of the problem. This year, she saw an omission: Bianculli left a man off the list!

Women don't just disappear, they are disappeared. For an hour, Terry and David chewed the fat over TV and never once did they mention by name a single actress in a TV series.

It matters a great deal. In the spring of 2009, NBC had to pick what shows to keep and which ones to kill -- more pruning than usual was required due to the fact that in the fall of 2009, NBC would be turning over the last hour of prime time Monday through Friday to Jay Leno's talk show. Monday nights offered three hour long shows: Chuck, Heroes and Medium. Of the three, the one netting the biggest audience was Medium. Heroes was cratering and the creator was unable to accept the feedback for why the show was failing. (It would become an outright failure the following season.) Chuck was in flux. Which show did NBC cancel?

Medium. (CBS picked it up.) NBC was clear why the gave it the axe: Yeah, it had an audience, but it didn't have a "buzz." The Water Cooler Set just didn't care about it.

Nothing would give it "buzz" with the Water Cooler Set. Not astounding production values, not amazing acting, nothing. The series could -- and did -- feature notable guest stars and even that didn't mean a thing. David Morse, Kelly Preston, Neve Campbell, Molly Ringwald, Eric Stoltz, Jeffrey Tambor, Laura San Giacomo, Thomas Jane and Rosanna Arquette were among those doing outstanding work and Anjelica Huston gave an amazing performance as Cynthia in season four and season five. But even that wasn't enough for the Water Cooler Set.

You want to know a dirty secret that the Water Cooler Set doesn't? Network execs are in a panic more than ever before. Two decades ago, you axed a show and that was that. Today? You face an outcry online. So? So, if you cut a popular show and your new shows aren't performing, you really don't need the stockholders being reminded of what got the axe to make way for the new flops. A devoted following (no matter the size of it) have extended a show's life.

So it does matter when Terry Gross and her all male posse decide that women don't matter, it does matter when the Water Cooler Set ignores and dismisses women. And they contribute to the network suits inability to drive forward since they're always studying the rear view mirror instead.

For example, four new shows have been pitched to the big three network (one of which also was pitched to Fox). All four share a horror premise. The best of the four is best termed erotic horror and reads like an interesting gamble. But women are prominent in the story and it has no teensies. ABC's The Gates had teensies and they're sappy angst ensured that the show sank. The Vampire Diaries has yet to overcome its reputation of never-ending-foreplay (leading it to be dubbed in the industry "Thursday Tease"). By contrast, True Blood (Showtime) has found an audience via an adult take on horror. Whether or not it could be another True Blood, it surely could match the best in horror turned out by Hammer Films and yet the reservations over the project, the hesitation, stems from the fact that women are front and center. That's what it's come to, the Water Cooler Set and their built-in sexism mean that a project that all three big networks agree is "interesting" and "promising" can't get a greenlight out of fear that it just won't attract the 'buzz.'
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