Sunday, March 30, 2014

A reflective TV conversation


Jim:  In last week's "Mailbag," the following appeared:

Kim Plunk e-mails to ask if we "could do an article where one of you interviews Ava and C.I.?  They've been doing TV coverage since 2005.  I would really like to see a piece where they were asked about it and that included questions from readers.  Mine would be: What was your personal favorite TV show of all you reviewed?"

That sounds like an interesting feature.  Jim says he'll try it next weekend and if you've got a question you want him to ask, e-mail us to let us know.

Jim (Con't): Thanks to Kim, we're doing this piece and we got a lot of e-mails.  I'll start with one from Jay, "Why do you bother?  Does it even make a difference?  I'll admit, I'm not a fan of your work."

Ava: Just to be clear, actual readers who want to ask real questions were put on hold for that?  Why do we bother?  We didn't want to write about TV.  Everyone else did want to.  Then we were told it was now our beat.  We never sought it out or asked for it.  Why do we bother?  We've had impact on readers, we got a second season for an ABC show -- actually for two.  Wish they had gotten third seasons but we did what we could.  We have made it clear to NBC that they will not get away with sidelining women.  They're all over us not to even raise the topic again because every time we have this season, they get tons of angry e-mails and phone calls. C.I.?

C.I.: We bother because we're asked to each week.  We've never had a week off.  We're the only two in Third who can say that.  We've been told if we need a week off, that Jim will do a cutting, assemble a best-of.  That's actually rather frightening.  So since January 2005, the two of us who didn't want to write about TV, have had to write about TV every week.  Of my online writing, I'm closer to happy with the TV pieces because it's Ava and me bouncing off one another and working together.  I would not have lasted this long without a great partner like Ava.  We manage to laugh and get through it and that includes when we had food poisoning and when we had the flu.

Jim: Elliot writes to ask what show has gone off the air since you started reviewing that you miss the most?

Ava: We're sitcom people.  We've often talked about writing another Will & Grace piece.  We think that was one of the important shows and it's largely vanished today -- and the DVD sets were edited, not full, episodes.  Then, last season, Happy Endings got the axe.  That was a show ABC needed.  It didn't have a lot of smart shows and now it really doesn't.  Both of those sitcoms were amazing.  You could toss in The New Adventures of Old Christine.

Jim: But?

Ava: Well we spent two years telling you CBS was trying to get rid of it before they finally axed it.  We documented it in piece after piece.  So, no, it wasn't surprising.  We do miss it.  More importantly, comedy misses it.  C.I.?

C.I.:  The three Ava noted would be first and foremost.  I miss ER now that it's gone and now that NBC has been unable to do anything with the hour.  As bad as the last season or two was, it was better than anything they're airing now.  I thought Fox was wrong to end Fringe, I thought it had another season to it.  The CW was wrong to kill off Nikita.  That show brought them an audience different from their usual demographics.  They're now moving even more towards action and Nikita would have helped with that.  The demise of The WB meant the demise of Charmed and I felt that show could have gone on forever.  For The WB, it was a ratings blockbuster and the refusal of The CW to pick up that show -- UPN and The WB merged into The CW -- was a big mistake. They tried repeatedly to program for Sunday and had one bomb after another.  Then they gave up.  That's really pathetic.  And goes to how important Charmed was and how Holly Marie Combs, Alyssa Milano and Rose McGowan delivered a loyal audience.

Jim: You were talking earlier about how it's 9 years and you've never had a week off.  Tamra wants to know about that, specifically, "In all that you've written, do you have any regrets."

Ava: I can think of two.  I'll grab an actress and let C.I. grab an actor.  In a piece, and I'm not saying which one, we had insider gossip.  It was actually two pieces, from the same set.  And the show runner figured out who it was and the actress who'd been a repeat guest star lost her part on the show.  She was fine with it and thought the man was an ass anyway -- and after he dumped her, the show only lasted one more season.  But he's an ass.  And we felt very badly about it.

Jim: Has she worked since?

Ava: Yes, she had a regular role on a TV show and she has a film coming out this year -- among other things.  She's the main woman in the film.

Jim: And the actor?

C.I.: I'll be vague here as well but, once I start telling this story, longterm readers will know who he is.  This was a show that just didn't work.  It had some pieces that worked but it flopped overall.  We praised the actor and an actress with the show because they were doing outstanding work but the show itself?  We panned it.  It was awful.  We happened to do that review, days ahead of the network deciding what to keep and what to cancel.  Two or three days after our piece ran, the show was cancelled.  Our friend, who starred in the show, blamed us.  He was furious.  We stand by our opinion.  But that's why we try to avoid weighing in on a show we don't like when we know the suits are making the decision to keep or kill.

Jim: He was furious, I remember this.

C.I.: He was.  He yelled at me on the phone for two days in a row and when I came back home that weekend, he came over to yell some more.  And that's fine.  I'm not slamming him for it.  I dish it out, I can certainly take it.  I have apologized in terms of when we ran the piece but I don't retract what I said about the shows.

Jim: And I'll tell this story on that.  C.I. doesn't retract the opinion she and Ava shared.  She was sincerely sorry.  But here's the thing, they went on to trash two other shows he was in.  I couldn't believe that.

Ava: To his credit, he laughed about those two reviews.

C.I.: In one, he didn't think our review mattered because we did it early and it was a 'buzz' show -- The Water Cooler Set was all over it.  But the problems we pointed to just got worse and the show got the axe.  On the next one, we panned early and some of our complaints were in the process of being addressed but they didn't have time to film those scripts.  He has a movie due out this year and he's good looking and talented -- he was never the problem in any of the three shows we reviewed.  I see him as Patrick Dempsey.  Patrick was very talented but needed some age on him before he really got traction and recognzied.

Jim: Wendell wants to know, "Can shows improve if they start off bad?"

Ava: Sure.  A lot of great shows started off shaky.  Will & Grace?  Karen is nothing in that first episode.  The Mary Tyler Moore Show?  Ted Knight doesn't know who Ted Baxter is in the first episode and, worse, he's off putting, the actor, not the character.  You can add an element -- think Happy Days adding the Fonz -- and make a show better but then there are the fixes that destroy the show.

Jim: Such as?

Ava: I don't think a struggling show has ever been saved by giving the lead character a job change.  Rhoda?  The problem wasn't she was a window designer and then the yucks weren't coming with the ridiculous decision to have her go to work for a costume company.  Stockard Channing had a sitcom on CBS -- two names to it, in the second season they basically revamped everything.  Didn't work.  Jay Mohr's Gary Unmarried was worth watching in season one but then the house painter Gary instantly became a radio sports talk show host.  The new setting didn't work, the new characters didn't work and no one watched.  There are many more examples of this.  It just doesn't work.

Jim: Janie had a similar question.  She wanted to know which returning show this season that you two thought was the most improved?

C.I.: Revenge.  Until the last two episodes of season two, the show was pretty much unwatchable.  That's why you don't let a show runner's hormones dictate changes.  Suddenly, this tale of Emily seeking to avenge her father's false conviction for terrorism and death in prison became the Aiden Who story.  He dominated every episode with his nonsense and his missing sister and Victoria and Emily were little more than extras. It drove away the viewers.  With the show runner fired -- and he was fired -- Revenge has regained its footing and is probably ABC's strongest drama currently in terms of story satisfaction.

Jim: And Scandal?

Ava: Shonda Rhimes has tried very hard to deal with Kerry Washington's pregnancy.  But it has thrown the show for a loop -- not just by making the season shorter but also she's not Olivia.  She's trying really hard but she's not Olivia.  In part that's due to the no-work around for a passionate scene with Fitz.  But the smart thing might have been to have stopped this season at episode eight, let Washington have the baby and take the time she needs and then come back with season four in the fall of 2014.

Jim: Someone will ask, "A pregnant woman can't play the part?"

Ava: Olivia's a special type of character and Kerry's made her that by living in and inhabiting the character.  That includes body language.  When you're basically filming her from the top of the chest up, you're divorcing the actress from her physicality.  Were it me?  If I were Shonda, I would have said, "Find a disease or condition where weight piles on."  And I would have written weight gain into the storyline so that Kerry could use her body.  Kerry is a physical actor and when you take that from her, you're reducing her to a daytime soap opera actress who must remain stationary.  It's not fair to her and it's not fair to the viewers.

Jim: Lorenzo e-mails, "One thing I love about them is that they aren't predictable.  If X does a show, I know The New York Times will praise it just because X is in it.  Take that awful Michael J. Fox show.  It is awful.  The first two episodes were awful and the show only got worse.  But the critics praised it and even now some praise it.  I like that Ava and C.I. are not afraid to be lone voices and that they don't run with the pack."

Ava: Thank you, Lorenzo.  And I agree.  The Michael J. Fox was one of the worst efforts at a sitcom NBC has attempted.  Ever.  Maybe only Paul Reiser's big flop was worse.  We don't do pity reviews.  If Michael J. Fox wants to work on TV, we'll evaluate it honestly.  He and the show were awful.

Jim: Simone notes that "Mission Impossible from the 60s returned in the 80s with the same scripts and do you think that this is something networks should consider doing with other shows?"

C.I.: I believe that took place because there was a writers strike.  To do a reshoot of a script verbatim?  I don't know that would work.  Even as a period piece, you'd have problems if it was an older shows because times have changed so.  If you were to do it, a show like Mission Impossible, where there's no real interactions, just a puzzle each week, would probably be the best way to go.  I think, for example, if you tried to remake something like Hart to Hart which depended so much on the chemistry between the leads -- Stefanie Powers and Robert Wagner -- you'd be risking more of a backlash. And, honestly, I think they'd be best, if they were to do this, to do something like Maverick or Big Valley, remake a western.  I think the audience would be more accepting of such an effort.

Jim: Alice wonders if you ever regretted a review "because after it posted you felt the show was great and that you somehow had missed it?"

Ava: That's never happened, no.  There are shows we've panned that have gotten better as the series went along.  But when we do our review we're watching at least three episode and reading scripts.  Unless it's public affairs, I'm talking about entertainment television.  So we have a sense of the show.  We usually know at least one person connected with the show that we'll call.  Our questions and comments during the call we'll let him or her know where we're standing -- most of the time.  There are times where we only realize the show as we're talking about it and writing it.

Jim: Jason Price writes to use his full name and also states, "I love the work you do.  It's really the highlight of my week.  If the site did go dark, as some people threaten from time to time, is there anyway that you two could just keep posting TV reviews?"

C.I.: Not a chance, sorry.  The only reason we're still doing it -- we're both ready to quit -- is because we hope that it helps a little to get attention to Iraq, that our TV pieces bring in a few more people who otherwise wouldn't hear about Iraq but do as they navigate the site.

Jim: Alright.  On Iraq, Darva e-mailed to say, "I like how, in your body of work, you've managed to address so many serious issues.  You've done TV pieces and worked in war resisters and protests, and Iraq, and autism, and sexism and so much more.  You've really expanded what the review can be and that's before I even mention that you also do fictional reviews where you make yourselves characters on the shows.  I just really want to note your body of work and I know it's not a question but I hope this e-mail gets passed on."

Ava: That's really sweet of you, Darva.  Thank you for being part of the process.

Jim: Fenelli e-mailed, "I appreciate the openess that Ava and C.I. strive for but it's a given that JJ Abrahams is going to get praised and there are times when I feel like their friends get treated better than others."

C.I.: I don't know that we reviewed Alias proper.  But we hated that show.  We noted that in pieces we wrote.  But the show was in season four, I think, when we started.  That's a JJ show and we didn't praise it.  We praised Rosanna Arquette's incredible performance in What About Brian but didn't feel it had much else to offer.  We panned Six Degrees. We panned Undercovers.  We panned Alcatraz.  We were asked not to review Person of Interest because we had panned so many other shows -- thing there is, it's actually a good show, Ava and I got hooked on it around November of last year.  But, no, he doesn't get an automatic pass.

Ava: On Fringe, we had serious problems and we agreed to hold off on our review.  We do that for a lot of people.  We generally know someone on every show we review -- entertainment television -- and if someone says, "Hey, we don't have it together yet or we're reworking something," we will wait.  In the end, we're just one review.  But it's a cop out to imply that it has no impact.  When we addressed Sorkin's sexism, The Water Cooler Set had a fit.  Something like six years later, they can notice it.  My own personal opinion?  I don't think we've had a lot of effect in terms of shows being cancelled.  I do think that shows that deserved a rave and got one?  We helped a number of those.  Now we're not just writing, we're also working friends at the network but I'm sure that's true in the Water Cooler Set, right?

Jim: Matt e-mailed to ask about influences?

Ava: On our writing?

Jim: Yes.

Ava: Pauline Kael.  I read her writing in high school and even did a paper on her senior year.  C.I. knew her and I assume read her.  I know I've read a few of the letters the two exchanged.  They're scattered in various books.  You'll be leafing through one of C.I.'s books and find a Kael letter.

Jim: Really?

C.I.: Yeah.  I organize my letters, they're often with a journal from the same time period.  However, after Pauline retired from The New Yorker for health reasons I think I just gave up on the organization there because I was so expecting her to pass away.  So I'd have her letter out to write a reply and then, after I did, I'd usually put in an open book I was reading.  So the Kael letters from that period are in various books.

Jim: Anyone else?

C.I.: Actually, my biggest influence is Ava.  We're writing partners that means we are each other's biggest influence.

Jim: Related, Marjorie e-mailed, "I think you do try to be fair.  Take Maureen Dowd.  You will hold her accountable on facts but you will also praise her and you don't act like she's the devil.  Bob Somerby acts like she's the devil."

C.I.: Bob Somerby's sexism harms his writing.  At the root of his critique is that Dowd has brought something untoward to the paper, The New York Times.  Dowd's not approaching anything in a strange way for that paper.  No one wants to note it but Dowd is the natural descendant of columnist Russell Baker.  Their cultural references are different but they are similar columnists.  Dowd has immense writing talent.  Sometimes she uses it well, sometimes she uses it poorly.  That's a career, highs and lows, peaks and valleys.  I don't think Dowd's been an influence on me.  I don't mean that in a mean way.  I know her influences -- personally know a few, know one who passed away recently.  So if someone sees some sort of link, that would be why.  But Dowd's a very gifted columnist.  Working with Ava, I'm better than I am solo but I don't presume to be on Dowd's level.   If there's anyone since 1990 that's influenced me, honestly, other than Ava, it's Susan Faludi.  She is a wonderful writer.

Ava: Agreed.

C.I.: And, for me, personally, Backlash is one of the all time great books.  And The Terror Dream is a classic as well.

Jim: Still related, Ava -- not our Ava -- e-mailed to ask "what women writers you have found nourishing?"

Ava: Too many to list.  I'll grab ten quick off the top of my head and then let C.I. note ten more ones.  And that'll give you 21 answers since we've already mentioned Susan Faludi.  Isabel Allende, Arundhati Roy, Anne Sexton, Jane Austen, Sandra Cisneros, Dorothy West, Daina Chaviano, Edna O'Brien, bell hooks and Sue Grafton.

C.I.: Edith Wharton, Blanca Castellon, Anais Nin, Maxine Hong Kingston, Judith N. Shklar, Bebe Moore Campbell, Margaret Atwood, Gish Jen, Kate Chopin, Jean Rhys and Octavia Butler.

Jim: Ava, one more, C.I. gave eleven.

Ava: Okay.  Let's go with Agatha Christie.

Jim: So that's 23 women writers they have found nourishing and I'm sure they could 100 more each off the top of their heads in about five minutes.  But let's move to another e-mail.  This is from Penny, "I'm a big fan and probably one of your younger fans if not youngest.  I'm 14 and I'm having the worst time trying to write a paper that is due April 3rd.  It's about the things that matter to me in this country.  I was hoping you might be able to offer some advice for how to write it because for two weeks I stare at blank paper or write something and toss it.  It's a creative paper not a research paper, my teacher says, like that makes it any easier."

Ava: Well you could try talking it.  Record on your computer or with your cell phone -- just record yourself talking about the topic.  A lot of what we type up is directly from us talking to each other as we write the piece.  You might try talking to a classmate and seeing how they're handling the process, not to copy from them but to get a few tips.

C.I.: Those are good suggestions.  Ann Wilson of Heart had one of the smartest suggestions I've ever heard.  Write down something.  Anything.  It can even end up being the stupidest thing in the world, but don't throw it away or wad it up, continue from there.  Once you've got something started, it's easier to continue because it's less intimidating than a blank page.  Our own Kat, when she writes reviews, she writes a paragraph here, a paragraph there and assembles it in various ways.  So if something grabs you, skip to the part and worry about transitions later.  This is basically a think piece, what you think and feel.  So possibly you can sit down somewhere private and talk out loud?  Pretend Oprah, or whomever you want, is asking you, "What matters to you in the United States?"  But it really does come back to what Ann Wilson was saying.  Get something on paper to get started and you'll find that the next words come much easier.  Ava?

Ava: If you're working yourself up over this and it's frightening you, I do understand.  C.I. and I just focus on the work this week.  If we get ahead of ourselves, it's too much.  It's like someone walking three miles.  You start off one foot, then the next.  Just focus on the work.

Jim: This is going to be the last one.  By the way, the ground rules for this were I had to record the piece and type it up myself.  Ava and C.I. did not want to take notes and they did not want to type this piece.  But Katie e-mailed, "I'm a college freshman and I can't stress enough how much Ava and C.I.'s work has meant to me.  In my junior year of high school, my friend Bonita turned me on to their writing.  It's amazing.  I've read most of the archives by now.  They've given a voice to women that was missing and they've made a lasting impression.  The Progressive tried to copy but didn't have the talent or point of view to pull it off and Sady Doyle's been more successful at imitation over at In These Times."

Ava: Let me grab Sady and leave the rest for C.I.  Thank you, Katie for your kind words and, yeah, I think The Progressive thought they could copy us.  I think that's also why they failed.  Sady is not a copy of us.  Sady's a gifted writer and very talented.  The reason she is succeeding -- and she is, she's laying the groundwork for a long career right now -- is because she's not trying to write like anyone else.  She's using and enlarging her voice.  She's a very important voice.  We're lucky to have her.  C.I.?

C.I.: Also, let me say thank you to Katie and to anyone else that offered kind words.  I'm not good with thank you because with receiving praise, I can dispense it, I just struggle with accepting it.  What we do was missing?  I don't know that that's true.  And the reason I say that is that both historically and presently women's work gets very little attention.  Shonda Rhimes, for example, is a show runner and people know her name but she's probably less covered and less noted than many men whose shows have never found the following that her shows have.  So I would be hesitant to say that no one was doing what we do with TV.  That said, a lot of feminist TV coverage before we came along was insipid.  It wasn't critical coverage, it was p.r.  It was pet favorites getting noted but not analyzed.  That wasn't true of music.  In the 70s especially, you had feminists weighing in on music in columns and reviews.  That wasn't true of movies where you had a feminist critique as early as the late 60s and that has continued to this day.  But for whatever reason, people did not take TV seriously enough for a feminist critique, not a weekly one.  I was surprised by that and pointing out how many women watched TV and how, as feminists, we weren't reaching them.  And then Backlash came out and Susan didn't avoid any topic.

Jim: Can I interrupt?

C.I.: Sure, didn't you just now, and I was getting to a point.

Jim: Sorry.  But TV's important, blah blah blah, but when we wanted to cover TV here you and Ava were both against it.

C.I.: And I stated why that first Sunday.  I had too many friends and I wasn't sure I could be objective.  That was reason one but the main reason was I was on the road speaking out against the Iraq War, I didn't have time to watch TV going hotel to hotel.  To do this, I've had to make the time, so has Ava.  Ava?

Ava: We watch so much more than we ever write about.  Bonnie Erbe had a great special of To The Contrary on religion and we thought that was worth noting but didn't have the time or space.  She and her panelists, on another recent show, discussed women politicians and missed the entire point and we wanted to write about that, but didn't.  There are three ABC shows we spent this week watching and reading scripts.  None of them is either interesting enough or awful enough for us to waste our time on. There is so much work that has to be done each week before we can even arrive at, "So, what are we going to cover?"

C.I.: Exactly.  Now, if I can try to pick up where I was?  'Yea, girls!'  We don't write that.  It is the nonsense that passed for a feminist critique at many print outlets before Ava and I started.  We are not the feminist voice, we are a feminist voice.  People are not copying us but I do believe we took a path and widened it.  We didn't make it but we made it wider and said, "Yeah, this is worth taking seriously and that will mean holding people accountable -- even holding women accountable."  We hear all the time, "Oh, you're not being supportive to the movement."  I mentioned that to Nora Ephron once and she referred me to a piece she wrote about movement books and she also pointed out that the role of the critic is not to cheer through the game because a movement last forever.  She said, "If you're expected to cheer everything, you're going to be doing nothing but cheering until you stop writing.  Your pom poms will drop to your feet because your arms will fall off from all the use"  And that's correct.  And, again, we do a feminist voice, not the feminist voice.  And what we do was already done in music, movie and book coverage but no one wanted to take TV seriously from a feminist viewpoint.  They just wanted to applaud.

Ava: And that's so stupid.  I've got a mind, I can use it, that's much more about feminism than blindly cheering.  As C.I. pointed out, we are a feminist voice.  Not 'the.'  And we wish we were being copied non-stop in that we wish every site was offering a feminist critique.  If you're reading this and don't have a website yet, think about getting one.  If that's not your style, take a feminist critique of TV to your own circle of friends.  And --

Jim: What if they're not interested in TV?

Ava: I guess it wouldn't be equal if Jim didn't cut me off in the middle of a sentence as well.  "What if they're not interested in TV?"  I can't image that they would make it this far into the article if they weren't interested in TV.  But the point I'm making is -- woman or man -- be a feminist voice in your own world.  Don't be afraid to disagree and don't be embarrassed to have an opinion.  Find your voice and use it.

Jim: If I weren't the one stuck with typing this, we'd continue forever.  Kim Plunk, thank you again for your e-mail.  This feature happened because of your e-mail.  Thank you to everyone who wrote in with questions.  I tried to include as many as possible.  This is a rush transcript.  Our e-mail address is

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