For 13 years, September was crazy time for me. The seasonal deluge that was the fall TV roll-out required me to churn out copy by the ream and opinions by the bushel. “The Wire” was brilliant, “The Practice” was blah, “The Bachelor” was so stupid it would make you want to turn your TV set into a terrarium.
From 1995 until I took a buyout in 2008, I was the TV critic for the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. Three days a week, a little mugshot of me ran with my column. Even eight years later, this little piece of my past can make people I meet for the first time tilt their heads at a 45-degree angle, sort of the way your dog does when you ask her where you put your car keys.
“Have I met you before? Your name” – or “Your face,” or “Something about you” – “rings a bell.”
I still get slightly flustered when people say this; confirming their suspicion sometimes feels more like a confession than a mere statement of fact. Honestly, I don’t know whether it’s because I’m one of those lucky people who eventually got my dream job, or because I feel like a bit of a has-been.
You have to have been a lot more famous than I was to qualify as a has-been. But in a strictly local way, I was something of a brand name, and now I’m not. I toil in the pleasant anonymity of editing jobs for some publications you’ve heard of and some you haven’t. Having your name appear in small print in a magazine you read at the dentist’s office does not make you Queen Elizabeth II, or even Pippa Middleton.
Once in awhile I miss my old job, but mostly I don’t. One of the things I loved about it was that, with DVDs arriving from the networks well in advance of a show’s airdate, I usually had days or even weeks to watch a show and write about it. Toward the end of my tenure, though, live blogging was born, and more and more I was having to form opinions between commercials. If that sounds like fun to you, your mental metabolism is faster than mine.
I’m now blissfully free of the need to watch “The Real Housewives of Wherever” and other shows I loathe. Like restaurant critic Jeffrey Steingarten, who once apologized for not being able to stand Greek food, I believe a critic should be an omnivore. Sadly, I was no more capable of appreciating shows about vampires, zombies or dragons than Steingarten was of enjoying spanakopita, but I had to try.
I was on the beat at a time when sitcoms were starting to show a new sophistication and sparkle – think “Frasier” and “Seinfeld.” A few years later, cable dramas – “Six Feet Under,” “Mad Men” and others – would begin to rival the best movies and novels for depth, color and addictive plotlines. Reality TV, beginning with “Survivor,” started as a sideshow and wound up changing the definition of celebrity.
I sampled it all. In June and December, the sampling became gorging as the networks started sending out videos by the ton so we could watch them before the July and January press tours, two- and three-week marathons attended by some 150 TV critics from throughout North America.
The “tour” part was a misnomer, since apart from occasional set visits, we mostly just holed up in a Los Angeles hotel as everyone from Jennifer Aniston to LL Cool J paraded before us in a 14-hour-a-day, seven-day-a-week round of press conferences and catered gatherings. Not for nothing did we call it the Bataan Death March with cocktail parties
Press tour was good for daily scoops, interviews to run later in the season and bits of stardust to sprinkle through your copy. And because the networks liked to show off their prestige specials along with the everyday fare, things could get pretty starry.
One afternoon Elizabeth Taylor swept onto the ballroom stage with her tiny white Maltese, Sugar, in tow, then feigned embarrassment when the dog wriggled free and ran up the aisle. Later that day, Meryl Streep talked about perfecting her Midwestern vowels to play a Kansas mom in a TV movie, “First Do No Harm.” Another time a young Beyonce, then merely one-third of Destiny’s Child, took the stage and emanated such an unearthly glow that she appeared to be made not of flesh and blood but of some impossible alloy of caramel and silk.
In fact, most of TV’s beautiful people look even more beautiful in person. True, they were primped and perfected by stylists before we saw them, but you can’t fake perfect symmetry of features or grace of torso and limb.
Every so often, it was rumored, one of these gods would descend to earth and mingle with a mortal. Early one morning the particularly pretty, vivacious Southern critic we all liked was said to have been seen leaving the room of a “60 Minutes” host. Me, I never got closer than planting a chaste kiss on the cheek of Hugh Laurie when it was my turn to present him with a critics’ award for “House.”
But there were other diversions. At an outdoor event to promote a PBS series on frontier life, I milked a goat. A Travel Channel party offered a smorgasbord of insect- based cuisine. (I regret only the dried cricket, which tasted like a broom straw.) When Jimmy Kimmel came to tout “The Man Show,” I asked about the big-breasted women hired to bounce on trampolines – they were named, if memory serves, The Juggy Girls – and he called me an idiot.
Soon, however, the gaudy circus of press tour receded, and it was just me, my notebook and the videos, with Maxie, my golden-beagle mix, curled up beside me on the couch if she didn’t have other plans. No amount of hoopla could make a dumb series into a smart one or disguise the emergence of something exciting.
In late 1998, I slid a bulky tape of a new HBO drama into the VCR and soon realized that I was leaning forward on the couch, eager to catch every nuance. This one had nuance and then some. There were four hourlong tapes, and I couldn’t watch them fast enough.
So I was on board with “The Sopranos” – and “The West Wing,” “Friends” and “Breaking Bad” – from the first 15 minutes, but of course I didn’t always call them right. I’m on record as saying, for example, that Stephen Colbert’s clever but limited right-wing-blowhard act would quickly stale after four half-hours a week.
As it turned out, Colbert outlasted me. By 2008, newspapers were quickly shrinking, and the Journal Sentinel could no longer afford a full-time TV reviewer. I had to choose between a different job at the paper and a buyout. The going-away cash was too good to turn down.
Now and then, when a show makes ripples in the water – I’m thinking of “Key & Peele,” which is so hilarious and incisive about race – I miss the chance to have a conversation with readers about it. On the other hand, even if someone were to launch “The Real Housewives of Milwaukee” in the condo next door, I’d be free to ignore it.
Nobody sends me videos anymore, or volunteers to pay my cable bill, but I never miss an episode of “Modern Family” or “Last Week Tonight with John Oliver.” When I binge, it’s on reruns of “30 Rock” or “Arrested Development.”
Opinions? If you run into me, just ask me about Amy Schumer, Jimmy Fallon or whatever it was NBC thought they were doing with Maya Rudolph and Martin Short this summer. I’m always up for a chat about TV.
Don’t ask me about “Game of Thrones,” though. I just can’t get past the dragons.