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Chief Television Critic Tim Goodman will be writing these journals throughout the Television Critics Association summer press tour, bringing insight, analysis, counter-spin and some snark to the nearly three-week industry presentation.
The bread and butter of the TCA press tour is the panel/session — from 15 to 45 minutes on stage in front of TV critics and writers from around the country and Canada, featuring series creators, actors and producers taking questions and talking about what’s to come.
Sometimes it goes well, sometimes it does not.
What’s useful to part of the room may not be to another, and what the panel (and channel or network) wanted to get across may get sidelined completely. There’s no telling how it will go. But in general there are a number of ways to distinguish whether a session was memorable. Sometimes, it’s just one panel member being hilarious or informatively blunt. Sometimes, it’s an executive clearly stating a channel’s position or objectives for the near future. And periodically you get a session that is simply moving, or the main participant reveals actual personal brilliance or there’s a wellspring of profound interest that springs from a session that looked boring on paper.
With that in mind, here’s a collection of TCA sessions that have been memorable:
Trevor Noah, Comedy Central. If the goal was to re-introduce Noah to the press after a long breather from his early Twitter woes — and make no mistake, that’s why he was here — then Noah delivered for the channel. He wasn’t here to apologize or any such thing, just to make a fresh start. He was thoughtful but freewheeling and open, if not actually trying to be funny in any part of his panel. And that worked. He already did a stand-up routine the previous night — another set-up for the press — so taking a more serious and straightforward approach to taking over for Jon Stewart and steering The Daily Show was effective. (However, it probably won’t matter in the way we think it will.)
Ash vs. Evil Dead, Starz. In one of those much-welcome (and sometimes much-needed) times at TCA, Bruce Campbell completely hijacked the session for this bloody and funny series he’s so iconically tied to — an over-the-top, spot-on series of jokes and comments that also helped fuel interest in the show.
Greg Louganis, HBO: A moving and emotional and ultimately uplifting session focusing on the Olympic diver’s story — where has he been and what has happened since his headline-making revelation of being HIV-positive and gay? The Back On Board documentary itself is proof that even in our fast-paced, tech-driven world of news and information, we can lose track of people who at one point dominated the culture.
HBO exec session: This makes the cut because it contains multitudes. Michael Lombardo, president of programming for HBO, had a real chance to deal with the fallout and criticism over True Detective but, in a misstep for a man who has been open and honest about a number of issues at HBO, Lombardo started by suggesting he just got back from vacation and heard about the discontent (the vacation was under a rock?) and then blithely endorsed Nic Pizzolatto‘s genius. Granted, supporting your creative content providers is part of every executive’s job, and Lombardo certainly seemed adamant about Pizzolatto’s value: “I’m going to tell you something. I think what he’s doing on True Detective is so much bolder and braver, and ultimately for me satisfying than so much of what I see in film that I’d happily be in business with him for a very long time.” That said, pretending there are no creative woes (disasters?) in this series is ridiculous. And pointing to the ratings is not a justification — quality has absolutely no correlation to ratings. Lombardo would have been better served to acknowledge that some people might have issues and that’s fine, but he likes the show. You know, something other than rigid “nothing wrong here” nonsense. Because we know.
That said, HBO is in pretty great shape as it pertains to its other series, so there was a lot of positivity (the kind we actually believed), and Lombardo presided over two lengthy sneak peek clips of Westworld and Vinyl, both coming in 2016, and both looked amazing. Creating buzz is part of the TCA experience, but it doesn’t always happen. Both Westworld and Vinyl happened.
Norman Lear, PBS. Here for the American Masters series, Lear — who just turned 93 — was exceptionally mentally nimble, funny, thoughtful and pointed. It was one of those tour de force panels where an icon delivers and then some. And his presence reiterated that TV is unlikely to have someone with that kind of legacy again.
Robert Rodriguez, El Rey, for The Director’s Chair. Yes, it’s his channel, and yes, he’s a busy, interesting guy whose channel also presented a session for From Dusk Till Dawn season two. But the more straightforward, non-fiction interview series that he conducts might be the gem lost among all the high-octane movies of El Rey, and giving it a little push here showed how much love goes into it and how it deserves more attention. Success.
Courteney Monroe, National Geographic executive session. Hearing from execs isn’t as sexy as stumbling on a buzz-generating preview, obviously, but they are often the most important (and, when it comes to broadcast networks, probably most over-hyped), and periodically a bold mission statement or shift in strategy is announced. CEO Monroe, who has been at Nat Geo for about a year, did just that early on: While the channel isn’t going to reboot itself, Monroe is overseeing an ambitious effort to reinvest in its core strengths — documentaries, quality, etc. — while robustly continuing to build its scripted presence. She made a forceful and effective statement about Nat Geo stepping up to be a much bigger player, while mentioning docs from Alex Gibney, the airing of Davis Guggenheim‘s upcoming He Named Me Malala film, plus the channel’s new efforts at scripted with Barry Levinson and Tom Fontana, Ron Howard and Brian Grazer and others.
There will be more of this later in the tour. I wrote most of this journal in sessions, some of them will be included because they were memorable, others won’t because the most I got out of them was free wi-fi and an electrical socket.
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