When I was 29 (almost 30), I got my dream job — television critic! A job I’d been inadvertently training for all my life by watching way too much TV.
Now I’m 59 (almost old enough for special grocery store shopping hours), and I’m still writing about TV. It’s still my dream job. And on Tuesday, it will be 30 years since I began.
Three decades is a little bit more than half my life. It’s also an eon in TV time. In 1990, almost everybody was watching the three major networks — ABC, CBS and NBC. Fox was just getting up and going; it expanded from two nights to five that fall, but still wasn’t programming Tuesdays and Wednesdays. Cable had but a handful of original shows — most of them bad — and streaming services weren’t even on the horizon.
I once wrote a column begging the networks to produce more bad shows because — who had time to watch all the good shows? I never imagined a world with more than 500 original, scripted shows in a year and way too much great content for anyone to even sample all of it.
Back in 1990, it was still possible to watch and review every series that premiered on TV. And I did. I liked “Twin Peaks,” “Northern Exposure,” “Law & Order,” “The Flash” and “Beverly Hills, 90210”; I disliked “Ferris Bueller,” “Uncle Buck” and “Cop Rock.”
A frequent criticism I’ve heard over the years is, “You hate everything.” That’s clearly not true; just check the archives. And, honestly, there’s nothing worse than a TV critic who hates TV — both for readers and for the critic, who would have to be miserable.
I may hate individual shows, but I love TV. Dramas, comedies, documentaries, news, sports, reality shows — there’s great stuff in every category. I can find you something worth watching on TV every day of every year.
People have often said to me, “You’re so lucky. It’s your job to watch TV.” Well, actually, it’s my job to write about TV … which requires watching it first. But, yes, I am lucky.
One of the great joys of being a TV critic is telling you about a show that you ought to watch. Although, honestly, it’s more fun to write bad reviews to warn you away from terrible shows.
By the way, I never aspired to be an actor or to write TV shows. Which, I believe, is a good thing because my criticisms have not come out of frustration or envy. I’ve made the occasional appearance as an extra in various TV series — from the sci-fi series “Crusade” in 1999 to “High School Musical: The Musical: The Series” last year — so I could write about the experience. And sometimes because one of my bosses made me do it.
At this point, a lot of this is a blur. For more than 20 years, I wrote five to seven columns a week; it’s been a minimum of two for the past decade. Add in all the feature stories, daily programming updates, blogs, sports on TV columns, and the number easily exceeds 15,000. And that’s a conservative estimate.
I’ve also been attending Television Critics Association press tours in Los Angeles twice a year since 1990. I’d (conservatively) estimate I’ve spent about three years of my life on press tour.
Those things used to stretch more than three weeks in the summer. Midway through one press tour when my younger daughter was a toddler, she asked her mother, “Is Daddy dead?”
That’s funny ... now. It broke my heart then.
Eventually, I served on the TCA board and became treasurer, vice president and president — an amazing experience filled with the kind of stress I wouldn’t wish on anyone. The president has to keep more than 200 critics and umpteen network executives, publicists and hotel personnel happy … an impossible task.
In a meeting following my reelection as TCA president, a certain network publicity chief with whom I shared mutual antipathy congratulated me and expressed his delight that I’d be around for another year. I thanked him for his support and thought, “Hollywood is full of phonies, and now I’m one of them.”
Actually, Hollywood is also filled with some really great people. I genuinely like and admire a lot of the execs, stars, producers and writers I’ve met over the years. Not all of them, certainly, but a lot of them.
I’m often asked who my favorite interviewees have been, and it’s a tough question to answer. There have been so many … thousands … in so many settings. The ones that stand out for me are the legends, like Mary Tyler Moore, Dick Van Dyke, Carol Burnett, Bob Newhart, Bob Hope, Maureen O’Hara, Roy Rogers, Lauren Bacall, Debbie Reynolds, David Letterman, Carroll O’Conner, Walter Cronkite … the list goes on and on.
But it’s also been fun to gossip with Bryan Cranston, share baby pictures with Valerie Bertinelli and Eddie Van Halen, get hugged by Kristin Chenoweth, and get a kiss on the cheek from Betty White.
Every once in a while, I run across something I wrote many years ago. Maybe a review I don’t remember about a show I forgot even existed. And my reaction tends to be — well, I don’t remember that, but it sure sounds like me. A former colleague once told me I write just like I talk, only I don’t swear when I write. I consider that high praise.
This job has been like one long conversation I’ve had with readers. I tend to write conversationally because, c’mon, we’re talking about TV shows. I do try to keep it more businesslike when writing about serious issues — and there are a lot of those.
Some TV shows are frivolous entertainment, and there’s nothing wrong with that. But a lot of shows — not just news and documentaries, but dramas and even sitcoms — deal with important topics. It’s one of the reasons I’m a fan.
I’ve heard from lots of people who disagree with me, and some of them have been downright rude. The most common criticism is: “You’re biased.” Which I am. A critic is, by definition, biased. I get paid to write my opinions.
You’re under no obligation to agree. I get that. If we all liked the same shows, there would only be one channel and I’d have to get a real job.
Over all these years, only one local station manager tried to get me fired. (He didn’t take criticism well, and he definitely didn’t think I was funny.) And only one network executive (that I know of) ordered one of his minions to tell my boss to give me the ax. And he was the CFO of UPN, so it didn’t really count.
This fall, I’ll mark my 10-year anniversary with The Salt Lake Tribune. My first 20-plus years as a TV critic were at the Deseret News, back when it was (in my opinion) a very different publication. I’ll be forever grateful to the people who gave me the job and the editors who supported me and let me write pretty much anything I wanted … for the first 18 years, at least.
(Factoid: While working at the Deseret News, the only thing I was ever ordered not to write again was anything questioning KSL’s future as a CBS affiliate. This was, of course, before KSL became an NBC affiliate in 1995.)
I’m also incredibly grateful to the folks at The Trib who called me the day after the DesNews laid off 43% of its staff, including me. And for the continuing support of the editors who still let me devote a good part of my time to TV, even in an age when shrinking staffs mean we’re all obliged to write about other things, too.
This isn’t a farewell column. I’m not ready to give up writing about TV. Maybe I never will be. I’m certainly not ready to give up watching TV. I love it.
One of the editors who first hired me to be a TV critic said that he expected me to become an institution of sorts, and that there were two ways to do that — either be really good at it, or do it for a really long time.
Well, I’ve accomplished the second one.