All the TV-watching I’ve done during the last few weeks got me to thinking about television criticism. Not the usual Joe Sixpack bleat that “there’s nuthin’ on TV” -- but reasoned, learned, passionate analysis of the medium itself. Those who appreciate thoughtful criticism are blessed with a wide spectrum of talent these days, but for my money, one stands head and shoulders above the rest: Tim Goodman, writing for the San Francisco Chronicle. Tim covers all aspects of the Television Industry relevant to those who bask in the pale glow of the Cathode Ray Gun -- the viewers. He also writes a blog on the Chronicle’s website, but according to Tim (no relation to the justly-doomed sit-com of a remarkably similar name), his tight-fisted Chronicle taskmasters do not (and will not) kick anything more into the pot for his trouble. Which means he writes the blog for free. This tells you something about the man’s passion for his work, a passion that spills from every column and post like blood dripping off the page. He’s as smart as they come, and cares more about television -- good television -- than can possibly be healthy. He's also an absolutely terrific writer. When sensing rot in the floorboards of a show, he bores in without mercy (but with considerable humor), examining and explaining exactly why that particular show sucks The Big One. Indeed, he bills himself a specialist in “failure analysis,” and that’s no lie – watching him methodically deconstruct a poorly conceived or sloppily executed show is like witnessing one of those controlled-explosive demolitions of an abandoned building. Having been inside a couple of those imploded shows, I can attest to the accuracy and power of his attack. But unlike some keyboard assassins-for-hire, Goodman does not seek-and-destroy out of malice, but rather out of love, albeit an exceedingly tough brand of love. He has an abiding respect – almost a reverence – for truly good television. When he finds a neglected gem of a show, no writer, producer, or actor could hope to find a more passionate advocate. But if you’re a hack just trying to make a quick buck shoveling a dumb show down the open maw of an unsuspecting public, look out: you will find yourself on the sharp end of Tim Goodman's lethal pen.
That said, I came rather late to the party. Long a fan of Tim’s predecessor at the Chron, John Carman – who eviscerated lame television with the deft precision of a world-class fencer -- I was very disappointed to read Carman’s final column on March 11, 2002, announcing that he’d accepted the Chronicle’s offer of early retirement. After merging with The Examiner (San Francisco’s other daily paper), Chronicle management cut costs by offering early retirement to anyone over a certain age and pay grade. And after twenty-five years of beating television about the head and neck (sixteen of those years in the service of the Chron), John Carman was interested.
As a follower of the “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” school of philosophy, I considered this a terrible mistake, yet more evidence that the world was going to hell in the proverbial hand basket. I remained sullen for a long time, begrudgingly reading the columns of the brash young kid who took Carman’s place, but unwilling to cut him (or his patented “cranky pants”) any slack. Like water working on stone, however, time has a way of wearing down the stiffest resistance. Slowly – and in spite of myself -- I began to come around. At this point, my own long and winding road through the labyrinth of Hollywood had led me into the world of television, finally working on actual TV shows after twenty years of doing commercials, music videos, and the occasional feature film. Reading about television now took on a new relevance. Then came the column that finally won me all the way over, a piece describing the kick-off of the 2003 Television Critics Association press tour in Los Angeles, wherein the nation’s snarkiest critics collide head-on with the producers and actors of shows scheduled to debut on the new Fall season. This affair, it seems, is a three week, booze-soaked bacchanal, a non-stop, expense-account driven rolling party dubbed by one sharp critic the “Death March with Cocktails.” Many have written about it, but nobody quite like Tim Goodman.
Here is that seminal column:
The TV Tour: three weeks, 200 critics, countless series from network and cable channels. It's like a Death March with Cocktails.
Tuesday, July 8, 2003
If Lorna is your new stage name and you're heading west from Missouri on Highway 66 in a tightly packed U-Haul, floating unaware on your starlet dreams and Show Me State idealism, you may have missed the memo: Hollywood is a stinking pit. It's littered with hookers and drug dealers and cheap T-shirt shops and fat, pasty tourists. In front of Mann's Chinese Theatre, there's a guy who dresses up like Yoda, and you can get a picture with him for $1. His sweatshirt is dirty. Next to him is Superman, but he doesn't look too super in his blue cotton sweats.
This is a bleak town.
And yet, in a span of three weeks, every TV network or cable channel that matters will be launching dreams from here, little trial balloons sent through a thicket of 200 television critics from the United States and Canada, in hopes that critical buzz will turn a newbie TV show in September into a monster, ratings-dominant, advertising-laden hit by the end of May.
Never mind that history says the public -- that would be you -- has a hard time deciphering what to make of 39 new series presented almost simultaneously and that such confusion results in a failure rate of roughly 84 percent for new shows. And that's not even counting cable.
But television executives and the gigantic media corporations they work for haven't learned much from their own failure analysis, so they turn instead to the very people who, in effect, help ratchet up that 84 percent figure: television critics.
And so here were are, on the biennial Television Critics Association press tour, offering guidance. Having forsaken a chunk of sunny summer to stay indoors and watch Whoopi Goldberg and a horde of others mug for laughs or yet another cop race down an alley trying to clean up Philadelphia or whatever city it will be this season, we are in a position to offer help.
We have seen the shows poised at the September starting gate. Now it's time to talk to the executives, the stars, the producers, the writers, one another, maybe even Yoda, and make some sense of it. Along the way we will be spun in ways the Maytag repair people couldn't fathom. For 20 days we will sit in rooms with the air conditioner cranked up so we don't fall asleep (remember, we've seen Whoopi's show). There will be wining. And dining. And whining.
But this event, this Death March With Cocktails, as Tom Jicha, the Fort Lauderdale Sun-Sentinel critic is credited with calling it, is not a "junket," that derisive soft-ball-centric sort of affair generally associated with the movie industry. The Television Critics Association is a professional group with bylaws and an ethics policy. The core members are by and large print journalists with a healthy dose of jadedness who feel no hesitancy to flay stars or executives. Many times things turn aggressive and ugly. Sadly, every now and then there are moments of embarrassment for the doings of the less professional or credible in the ranks.
And there will be, predictably, some dismissive flatulence from the likes of the Los Angeles Times, which doesn't like getting its entertainment head handed to it from out-of-towners. There will be one or two old-guard emperors who don't come out for the event but manage to disparage its usefulness, forgetting in the process that they have outlived their sell-by dates as effective TV critics and are now essentially pulling it out of their backsides and/or mailing it in.
Here's the bottom line: The press tour is what you make it. There are news and information to be had here like nowhere else. No other industry makes its leaders answer for their failures in a public setting two times each year. Maybe if Detroit had such a thing, we'd have better cars. But then again, after all of this, do you, as the viewer, have better television shows?
Well, it's easier to make a car than it is to make a hit comedy, let's leave it at that.
In the next three weeks, our goal is to give you some information, some insight, criticism and rambling analysis about the fall season -- even a sense of how television gets made: what goes on behind the scenes, from critical decisions to drunken revelations.
Television is the most powerful medium on the planet -- that can't be said enough. Even people who say they don't watch, watch. Television is the shared experience of our country, a free (or mostly free) technology that bonds us together, the blue light flickering in living rooms and bedrooms from coast to coast.
And so the 2003-04 television season is about to be presented in this city where staid New Englanders bump heads, literally, with crack hos looking to get a glimpse of Johnny Carson's star in the sidewalk. Against that backdrop, maybe anything is possible. Maybe you'll get 10 first-rate comedies and a dozen can't-miss dramas. Perhaps a symbolic flower of hope will rise from the for-effect fake cracks in the formulaic sidewalk. Step on the red carpet -- let's dream together.
Yeah, and maybe that dirty, unconvincing Yoda will get to work the next kids' party at George Lucas' place.
No, no and no. What the next three weeks amounts to is a professional assassin (hello) taking out the hope the networks raised in May when they presented their fall goods to the advertising community in New York. If that moment was all about optimism -- every premise looking great on paper, every scheduling decision reeking of brilliance -- the television critics press tour is about reality.
Lorna, turn around and get out of this town. It's not big enough for you and all the networks and cable channels and critics. Somebody's bound to get hurt, and things are likely to go sideways.
Nice, huh? You’re welcome.
As a champion of quality television, Goodman has excellent sources deep within The Machine -- he hears much of what goes on upstairs in the executive suites -- and when relevant to a particular column, will share the inside dope with his readers. His opinion packs a punch, too: there’s reason to believe his unflagging and extremely vocal support for “Arrested Development” helped that wonderfully quirky single-camera comedy survive on Fox for three very unlikely and highly enjoyable seasons.
Although there’s no shortage of quality television criticism in the media these days, there aren’t very many important television critics anywhere. Tim Goodman is one of those few. You can find his latest column (and tap into his archives) at: http://www.sfgate.com/cgi-bin/search/columnists.cgi?waisdbname=/chronicle/&byline=Tim+Goodman
All are worth reading, but some are truly great – and you can’t go wrong with any of the columns appearing under the recurring subtitle “Everything we know we learned from television.”
“The Bastard Machine,” his Chronicle blog, can be reached here (http://www.sfgate.com/cgi-bin/blogs/sfgate/indexn?blogid=24), or through the link under my list of “Recommended Reading” over on the right. There, he riffs on whatever’s going on in the television world at the moment – always with the viewer in mind – and maintains a growing compendium of podcast interviews with television luminaries such as Stephen Colbert and Ken Burns (among many others), along with links to past posts and his Chronicle archives. If nothing else, do yourself a favor on some slow, rainy day, and take a long stroll through those archives – and keep your eyes peeled for any columns concerning the Death March with Cocktails. You won't be sorry.
Tim’s personal blog (http://timgoodman.blogspot.com/) features deconstructions of favorite shows such as the current season’s “The Wire,” among others. Warning: this can be dangerous if you haven’t seen those shows yet -- the working assumption is that you’re there because you’ve seen and want to read about/discuss the show in question. Consider this a spoiler alert.
If the prospect of reading about television doesn’t interest you – or if for some reason, you didn’t like the sample column above – all I can say is de gustibus non est disputandum. There really is no accounting for taste. In that case, no harm, no foul – go ahead, turn on the TV and watch Jerry Springer and Maury Povich perform their own special brand of magic in the dying light of the afternoon.
All I can do is try to share the wealth. Here’s the water. Now drink...