From July 8th – 22nd, I attended the Television Critics Association press tour in Los Angeles, CA. You may recall that I made my debut at the event last July, and although it was a thoroughly fascinating and entertaining experience, it was also decidedly intimidating for someone like me who doesn’t even get to mingle with his fellow writers regularly, let alone with actors, producers, directors, and so forth. When I arrived for the 2008 tour, however, it felt…different. It wasn’t like I could even begin to think of myself as an old hand, but this time I was going in with at least some experience, and that was enough to keep me from falling into despair about whether I was handling things like I was supposed to be. I’m still not quite as forward as I ought to be, I realize, but I’ve come a long way, baby. Of course, it’s still hard to convince people just how hard I work when I’m out at the press tour, mostly because I spend my time being wined, dined, and buried in free stuff, but when I arrived home on July 23rd, I was ready to drop! Finally, however, I’ve managed to pull together a piece which tackles the highlights and lowlights of the entire experience. Also, be sure to check out the Brief Encounters from the TCA Press Tour piece for a look at some of the conversations I had with the talent on hand.
Most enjoyable panel by a cable network: “Attack of the Show,” G4. Despite being a self-proclaimed geek, I’ve never really watched this series, but hosts Kevin Pereira and Olivia Munn kept the crowd in stitches. Munn also got a few gasps during the proceedings, most notably when someone kiddingly asked when the romantic tension on the show would result in consummation. “Well, he already put it in my ass, which is technically not doing it yet,” Munn replied. Suffice it to say that we’re pursuing an interview with the pair, so look for that on Bullz-Eye in the very near future.
Most enjoyable panel by a broadcast network: “Scrubs,” ABC. Bill Lawrence is one of the funniest sons of bitches on the planet, and when he’s set on stage with Zach Braff, Neil Flynn, Sarah Chalke, and Donald Faison, you’re guaranteed laughs a plenty. The only real mystery was why John C. McGinley was so damned quiet, but he was laughing and grinning his way through the proceedings nonetheless.
Most disappointing panel by a broadcast network: “Saturday Night Live,” NBC. As usual, Lorne Michaels livened things up with humorous responses, but aside from the ever-enthusiastic Seth Meyers, the cast seemed stuck between boredom and indifference, their answers little more than platitudes. When asked how much he was chomping at the bit to get back to his Obama impersonation, given the way things have unfolded this summer, Fred Armisen replied, “I'm definitely excited to get back to everything, as every year. We're always happy to start the season.” Yawn.
Panelist who wasn’t nearly as funny as she thought she was: Selma Blair, “Kath and Kim,” NBC. She might be hot, but she’s not necessarily hilarious. Blair kept throwing out random one-liners that were more surreal than funny, culminating in a moment at the end of the panel where, in the midst of a discussion about her wigs and the shape of her forehead, she declared, “People are either rats or monkeys. I'm a monkey. I know. Look at your friends. You're all either a rat or a monkey.” She went down the line of the panel, identifying which of the two each person was, finally asking, “Do you know what I mean, though?” Molly Shannon spoke for the whole crowd with her response: “Not really.”
Panelist who seemed inexplicably mystified by one of my questions: Eric Stoltz, “Caprica,” Sci-Fi Channel. I asked him if he was glad to return to television, since he hadn’t done a regular TV role in awhile, and he gave me a blank look and said, “I don't think I ever have, really.” Maybe it’s all how one defines “regular,” but those 22 episodes of “Chicago Hope” he did between 1998 and 1999 sure seemed like a steady gig to me.
Most promising new program that I didn’t know anything about before going into the tour: NOVA’s “Parallel Worlds, Parallel Lives,” PBS. The late physicist Hugh Everett III came up with the theory that became the Many Worlds interpretation of quantum mechanics, which predicts that every time we make a decision, a parallel universe splits off from our everyday reality. His son, Mark Oliver Everett, is the frontman for the Eels and knows precious little about his father’s work. Now, in “Parallel Worlds, Parallel Lives,” he learns about it…and so does the viewer. Fascinating stuff.
Least promising new series that I knew quite a lot about before going into the tour: “Do Not Disturb,” Fox. At first, I thought maybe I’d just been spoiled by single-camera sitcoms, but, no, other people agreed with me that this was the worst comedy pilot they’d seen in quite some time. It was almost bad enough to make me wish Fox hadn’t sent it out in advance, as it left me wanting to ask the cast members, “So, uh, what do you have planned beyond this series?”
Most intimidating person to talk to:
- Male: Elvis Costello. There was never any competition for this category, given that I’d waited more than 15 years to get a second chance at talking to the man and avoid making a fool of myself. Thankfully, not only did I succeed in redeeming myself in conversation, but I also managed to snap a photo for posterity that turned out way better than I ever could’ve hoped.
- Female: Edyta Sliwinska, one of the pros on “Dancing with the Stars.” I don’t even watch the show, but I did get to see her perform live at one of the ABC parties – dancing to Kirsty MacColl’s “In These Shoes,” no less – and it was one of the sexiest things I’ve ever witnessed. Afterwards, I went up to her and barely managed to ask her about the choice of song. Unfortunately, MacColl’s name only resulted in a blank stare, and I later learned that she only knew it as a track from a collection of dance mixes that she and her husband / partner, Alex Mazo, use regularly. Still, I feel like I did pretty well by managing to say anything other than “homina homina homina.”
Least intimidating person to talk to (because he didn’t do any post-panel interviews): Sir George Martin, whose hearing is such that he didn’t feel comfortable doing one-on-one interviews. I couldn’t blame him, of course. Besides, just being in the same room as the guy made this Beatlemaniac feel all warm and fuzzy.
Coolest person I never actually got to meet: Shirley Maclaine. I wasn’t terribly enthralled by what I saw of “Coco Chanel,” the biopic project that brought her to the TCA tour, but I was held rapt by her snappy and forthright responses to the questions that crossed her path during her panel. Her line about Chanel’s reported lesbianism, “Just because you play the whole field doesn't mean you're a lesbian,” was arguably the funniest thing said by anyone during the entire tour.
Cheapest thrill of the tour: Riding in an elevator with Summer Glau, from “Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles.”
Coolest moment of the tour for me: Meeting Matt Groening, creator of “The Simpsons,” while clutching a Krusty the Klown under my arm. Remind me to show you the picture sometime.
Coolest moment of the tour for my wife: Talking to Tom Hanks after the TCA Awards. The organizers of the event somehow managed to quietly sneak him to his table without letting it slip that he was in attendance, but rather than play the Hollywood big shot card and vanish the second the ceremony ended, Tom was cool enough to stick around for a bit and chat. We’d had a close encounter with him in Richmond at the premiere of “John Adams,” but although I’d shaken his hand at that time, my wife had hovered behind me. This time, however, she wasn’t going to miss her opportunity. She came up to him afterwards, and when she gently touched his arm to get his attention, she explained about how she’d been there in Richmond but had been too in awe to say anything, and that she couldn’t let this chance pass without at least being able to say “hello.” At this, Tom smiled at her, put his hand on hers, and said in the sweetest manner possible, “Well, hello.” They talked for a few minutes about that evening in Richmond (he recalled the “fun” of the power outage that had occurred immediately before the program was to begin) before Tom was called away, but he left my wife with a memory that she’ll have forever.
Best party by a cable network: Fuse. How can you resist a shindig that offers a live acoustic performance by Natasha Bedingfield, especially when you end up viewing the show five feet away from the stage?
Best party by a broadcast network: Although I enjoyed the soiree thrown by the conglomeration of CBS, The CW, and Showtime, who teamed up for one big function at Hollywood’s Boulevard3, the kid in me has to give the award to PBS, who bussed us out to the Jim Henson Studios and, in addition to providing a sneak preview of their new digital puppetry technology, gave us tours of the famous Creature Shop. I even got a little misty when I came across a corner that had a portrait of Jim Henson sitting directly above a stuffed Kermit the Frog.
Worst party by a broadcast network for writers who actually want to work: Fox, which once again rented out the Santa Monica Pier for their function. I’ll say the same thing this year that I said last year: “all-star parties” are supposedly designed to give the critics a more casual setting in which to chat with the cast members of the various series, and the Santa Monica Pier just isn’t very conducive to that. Yes, it’s a hell of a lot of fun for the stars, but because of the sheer volume of the music and the rides (if you’ve never tried to hold a conversation with a rollercoaster whizzing within a few dozen feet of you, I don’t recommend it), I got fewer usable interviews with Fox celebs than from any other network.
Most obnoxious moment of any party: When I met Hayden Panettiere last year, I was underwhelmed by the experience because she seemed to want to be anywhere other than talking to me, barely paying attention to what I was asking and wandering away after a question or two in favor of talking to one of her fellow cast members. I was assured by my peers, however, that this was the price of trying to talk to a teenager, so I decided to let bygones be bygones and approach her again this year. When I walked up, Panettiere was in mid-conversation, so I quietly and politely hovered in the vicinity, waiting for her to finish talking. After about five minutes of this, she and her publicist, both of whom could clearly see that I was waiting for an opportunity to speak, turned and started to walk in the opposite direction, with Panettiere approaching someone else and beginning to talk to them instead. I took a step in the same direction, a little annoyed that I’d just been unabashedly ignored, at which point the publicist turned and abruptly announced, “She’s not doing any interviews right now,” then turned back to her client. After waiting that long, I couldn’t help letting slip with an annoyed, “Real nice.” The publicist turned back to me and in a harried tone assured me, “She’s trying to get to the ladies’ room, and she’ll be coming right back after that.” It was later confirmed by another writer that Panettiere did indeed visit the facilities…and, yes, that writer was a woman, so there was no major undercover operation in effect…but you will be unsurprised to learn that our Claire-Bear did not, in fact, come back to the party. The next time I have an opportunity to pick a “Heroes” cast member for an interview, I’m making a beeline to Masi Oka, a.k.a. Hiro. He might not be as hot as Panettiere, but at least he’s polite.
Two worst trends of the tour:
- The decision by most of the broadcast networks to not provide critics with screeners of their shows beforehand. It’s little consolation that some of the networks offered their pilot episodes via the in-house television feed, since the majority of the journalists had to file stories as soon as they got back to their rooms and couldn’t necessarily kick back and watch TV on a pre-set schedule. (Indeed, that’s why I’m only just now getting the opportunity to view the pilot for Fox’s “Fringe.”) In particular, NBC’s panels suffered greatly because of our inability to see even so much as a highlights reel for their shows until the introduction for the individual shows’ panels.
- The tendency for actors to bring their personal publicists to the network parties as their +1…and I’m not just saying this because of the Panettiere debacle. Granted, most of these publicists were nice folks who were just doing their job, and you can’t blame them for that. The issue is simply that it destroys the casual feel of the events, making it feel like there’s a barrier between you and the actors when there shouldn’t be.
Most awesome visit to the set of a network show: “Dollhouse,” Fox. Not only did the sets themselves look awesome, but we were given a guided tour of them by Joss Whedon and Eliza Dushku. Man, I can’t wait for this series to premiere.
Most awesome visit to the set of a cable show: “Mad Men,” AMC. All told, it must be said that this was actually even cooler than the “Dollhouse” visit. You just can’t believe how intricately they’ve recreated the 1960s on the sets for this series. Creator Matthew Weiner took us all around the offices of Sterling Cooper, allowed us to stroll through Don Draper’s digs, and gave us a look at the costume department that works so hard to make everyone look perfect for the era in which they’re playing. The most awesome part, however, was having Jon Hamm, January Jones, and John Slattery stroll onto the Sterling Cooper set in full character attire. Wow. Just…wow.
Best piece of swag: Technically, this award goes to the Sci-Fi Channel, since everybody who attended their panels received their very own “Battlestar Galactica” toaster…you know, the one that puts the face of a Cylon on every piece of toast? Clearly, that’s the most awesome thing ever…but the catch was that we didn’t actually get it during the tour. It was mailed to us a few weeks later. So what was the coolest thing I got while I was actually at the tour? The Panthers helmet I scored from the “Friday Night Lights” panel was nice, but as a music geek, I was probably most excited about the gift from the USA Network: in the midst of a big bag of “Burn Notice” swag, they quietly slipped in an iPod speaker that looks like a little red boom box. It’s awesome…but if I’m to be honest, I should admit that, for the first 12 hours or so after receiving the thing, Ross Ruediger and I were like the fucking Neanderthals in “2001: A Space Odyssey,” trying to figure out what the hell it was, testing each outlet on our respective computers. Hey, we’re writers, people, not computer geniuses.
Most genuine celebrity: First off, let’s give a shout-out to last year’s winner, Pauley Perrette (“NCIS”), who, upon seeing me this year, not only remembered meeting in 2007 but even remembered that she’d held out my camera and took a picture of us together. Is she still as genuine in 2008? You decide: she showed up at the CBS party wearing a t-shirt which read, “I love my job,” and she did so because it was a gift from some of her fans, and since she knew the paparazzi would take pictures of her, they’d be able to see her wearing it. In short, Pauley rocks. Rather than give the award to the same person twice in a row, this year I’m giving it to Terry Crews, who plays the dad on The CW’s “Everybody Hates Chris.” Not only did he look legitimately excited to be at the party, he seemed thrilled to talk to my wife and me, chatting with us for probably about 10 minutes before we let the next person step up to bat.
Most desperately needed moment of excitement on a panel: In the final panel of the entire tour, in a room filled with critics who were already imagining hopping on a plane and heading home, there was only one man who could snap their attention back to the stage: Ian McShane. Having not yet seen the pilot for McShane’s new NBC series, “Kings,” we were all a little uncertain about what to expect, but one poor writer made the mistake of responding to the producers’ attempted explanation of by saying, “Okay, now you’re not making any sense at all.” Oh, dear: McShane didn’t like the sound of that one bit. He exploded on the writer, growling back a tirade which ultimately found him asking, “What do you expect, it all spelled out for you?” Thankfully, the tension eased up a bit as the writer attempted to backpedal his way out of harm’s way, but everyone remained on the edge of their seats for the duration of the panel, just in case the next annoying question might find McShane leaping off the stage and throttling someone to death. It didn’t happen, of course, but I think we all felt like it could’ve…and by that point in the tour, some of us secretly wished that it would.