If I told you I was a member of the TCA, would it mean anything to you?
Possibly not. Or, rather, if it did, there’s a pretty good chance it might not mean what you think it means. For instance, my father, who’s a longtime aficionado of the products made by American Flyer, Lionel and Marklin, has always associated those three letters with the Train Collectors Association. In this case, however, that’s not what they stand for. (And, just for the record, they also do not stand for the Traditional Cat Association, Tradewind Caribbean Airlines or even the Tilt-Up Concrete Association.)
Although it’s an organization the average TV viewer may not be aware of, the Television Critics Association provides full-time television critics with a group of peers to call their own, and to offer what is described as “an unparalleled opportunity to gain access to the people who make television.” That opportunity is known as the TCA Press Tour, which takes place twice a year – once in the summer and once in the winter – and gives the various networks, both broadcast and cable, the opportunity to pimp their wares, as it were, while providing critics with a chance to speak with the various actors, directors, writers and producers responsible to putting all of this programming together.
The networks tend to go all out to sway the critics into their corner while they’re at the tour. It starts before they even arrive, by offering advance screening copies (known as “screeners”) of their new programs. Once you show up for their respective panels, they throw all means of promotional swag your way – pens, pencils, coffee mugs, martini glasses, t-shirts, flash drives, and, oh, lord, does it go on – while also plying you with food, beverages, and -- perhaps most importantly -- alcohol.
The one-line description of the press tour, clearly devised by a TCA member, is that of a “death march with cocktails.” Given that that tag was actually used in the opening remarks by one of the network executives, it’s clear that it must be retired post-haste. (When the suits are in on the joke, it ain’t funny anymore.) But there remains a considerable amount of truth in the phrase. After all, the Summer 2007 tour began July 9, ended July 27, and with precious little exception, it took place almost exclusively within the confines of the Beverly Hilton. Sure, it’s a swank joint, but even the swankest of joints can get boring when it’s the only joint you’re seeing for almost three weeks. At some point, you long for the sweet, sweet release that only an open bar can bring, and the closer you get to the last day of the tour, the more likely you are to find yourself rationalizing that eighth gin and tonic.
Now, mind you, it also means that, by the last night of the event, you can find yourself in a conversation with actor Kevin Dunn (right), who’s playing Christina Applegate’s father in her new ABC series, “Samantha Who,” and, after praising him on all the great character work he’s done over the years, find that you’re suddenly unable to come up with the title of a single one of the 75+ projects he’s been in.
(Thankfully, we ended up bonding over a Virginia connection – he learned to water-ski on the James River – and I gave him my card in hopes of doing an interview. But after this admission, somehow, I’m not holding my breath on hearing back.)
Although I missed the welcoming party, as well as PBS’s two days worth of panels, I nonetheless had plenty of fascinating experiences over the course of my 15 days at the tour. Although I’ve recounted many of them in my countless blog entries from the event, here’s a general wrap-up of my thoughts, impressions and favorite moments of the time I was there.
Most enjoyable panel: The “Family Guy” live read-through of their upcoming 100th episode. Watching Seth MacFarlane (right) bounce back and forth between his voices for Peter, Stewie and Brian is mind-blowing.
Least enjoyable panel: “Men in Trees.” And not just because I don’t watch the show. Reportedly, it was specifically requested of ABC by the members of the TCA, but at every turn, it seemed like people were struggling to think of questions to ask, and that constant hesitation between reporters raising their hands made me squirm in my seat.
Least helpful panelist: While I don’t think anyone really thought James Gandolfini opted to participate in the panel on HBO’s new documentary, “Alive Day Memories: Home from Iraq,” because he was interested in answering “Sopranos” questions, I think you have to give it to Star Jones. She showed up to discuss her new talk show on Court TV, then provided almost no answers to the questions she was being asked. We walked out of there with little or no understanding of what to expect from her show. But, by God, we knew that she’d be revealing the secret of her new look to Glamour magazine in the very near future.
Panelist who found me the least helpful: Christopher Titus (right), of “Big Shots.” During the panel, I prefaced my question by mentioning that I’d interviewed him a few months ago, then began by saying, “You said they were kind of pussing out as far as the title goes, that you were not a big fan of ‘Big Shots.’” Before I could continue and clarify where I was going with that – he’d said at the time that he preferred co-star Dylan McDermott’s suggestion of “Men on Top,” and I wanted to find out if there were any other contenders that his co-stars had liked – he launched into an exuberant rant about how, when he’s doing an interview and making with the comedy, it results him being quoted out of context, then made assurances that, in fact, “Big Shots” was one of the possibilities for the title that he always liked. The performance finally ended with him leaping to his feet, facing his co-stars, and yelling, “Holy crap, can I please stop? Somebody stop me! You guys don't even stop me! Just stop me. You're sitting right there. Just go, ‘Stop! Shut up, Titus!’” Later, I apologized to Titus, we shook hands, and we left on good terms, though I still had to make it clear that, in our interview, he absolutely did make the claim that he didn’t like the title of “Big Shots.” But, hey, maybe he was only joking.
Oddly enough, though, as it turns out, Titus and his girlfriend had only just read my interview a few weeks before, and when they saw the comment about ABC “pussing out,” they actually considered dropping me an email and asking if I’d pull it, because ABC might not view it in terms of being a comedian just being funny. Not being a controversy-driven guy, I probably would have. But now that he’s already got the gig, he doesn’t seem as concerned about it being yanked anymore, so, hooray, it stays up!
Best panelist rants that weren’t inspired by me: James Woods (right). I posted about this already on Premium Hollywood, but, honestly, these two moments were probably my favorite moments of the entire tour, so I think they’re worth repeating:
1: When one of the reporters bemoaned the panel (Woods, co-star Jeri Ryan and producer/creator Ian Biederman) for not giving them anything that made for good copy, Woods stepped up to bat. “OK, well, I honestly hate these motherfuckers, but I’m getting paid so, you know, what am I going to do. That fucking Jeri Ryan bitch. She shows up in a fucking Borg suit and says, “Hey, remember me when I was hot?” One more fucking time and I’m done!” At this point, he finally gave in to laughter, saying, “OK, I think we’re done now.”
2: In the last moments of the panel, Woods tackled the issue of his character’s questionable moral decision in the season finale, when he knowingly sent a man to prison for a crime he didn’t commit because he knew that he was guilty of other crimes. As it happens, Woods didn’t really agree with Biederman’s decision to have Sebastian Stark do what he did. “I don’t believe in vigilante justice,” he said. Then, after a moment, added, “Except if I were pissed off about something. Then I would believe in it. I mean, you know, I get lousy customer support, I want to get involved in a workplace killing.”
At this point, Woods began to mime speaking into a phone. “‘Where in India are you, motherfucker? Where exactly in Sumatra are you, you fucker?’”
Pause for a heartbeat.
“Oh, boy, that wasn’t politically correct,” said Woods. “I wouldn’t want to see that get out.”
Right. That would explain why he then proceeded to make the international hand signal for jacking off, and also why he tried to give the publicists at CBS a heart attack with his next words:
“Hey, Isaiah Washington’s back. So that’s good.” With a wicked grin, Woods continued. “Let’s have some controversy. I’m so tempted. I’m so tempted to say it, but I’m not…”
The reporters, of course, were egging him on, even as Biederman was nervously suggesting, “Let’s wait ’til Season 4, can we?”
In the end, Woods demurred. “I’m sure we could do it and kid around and have a good time,” he said, “but, no, somebody would take it the wrong way. All the CBS people back there, they’re shitting themselves right now.”
And with that, “Shark” publicist Barbara Abseck got the biggest laugh of the panel: “Sooooooo…this concludes our session.”
Most promising new show that I didn’t know anything about before going into the tour: The CW’s “Aliens in America.” My only hope is that Scott Patterson (late of “Gilmore Girls”) meshes into the cast successfully, since he wasn’t in the show’s original pilot.
Least promising new show that I knew quite a lot about before going into the tour: ABC’s “Cavemen.” I walked out of the panel believing without question that the producers of the show aren’t trying to be racist with their minority-based humor, but despite recasting and retooling, I still think it’s going to be received very, very poorly.
Most intimidating person to talk to:
Male: longtime “Saturday Night Live” producer Lorne Michaels (right). As it turned out, though, he was extremely pleasant and patient, probably from all those years of having new “SNL” cast members being just as in awe of him as I was. (For the record, it didn’t exactly help matters any that Michaels was in mid-conversation with longtime NBC Sports chairman Dick Ebersol when I approached him.)
Woman: Christina Applegate / Jeri Ryan / Rebecca Romijn (THREE-WAY TIE). I don’t think I really need to explain why I was intimidated, do I? To answer your question, yes, all three of them are totally just as hot in person as they are on TV, and, frankly, Rebecca Romijn might be even hotter.
Least intimidating person to talk to (because she bailed out before anyone could ask her a single one-on-one question): Mary-Kate Olsen, who was off the stage the second her “Weeds” panel was over, and on her way to the front door. At least her co-star, Mary Louise Parker, who did much the same thing, walked more slowly, allowing reporters to walk and talk with her.
Coolest person I never actually got to meet: Craig Ferguson. And now you’re wondering, “So if you never actually met him, how do you know he’s cool?” Because when the TCA held its bi-annual business meeting during the course of the press tour, at its conclusion, it was announced Ferguson – who’d previously served as host of the TCA Awards – had ordered us 10 pizzas from his favorite Chicago-style pizza place in Los Angeles. In a later discussion with Katie Barker, the publicist for “The Late Late Show with Craig Ferguson,” I discovered that Ferguson had been on the east coast, was sorry that he was unable to attend the CBS all-star party, and, having heard all the discussions about the food being thrown at us journalists, thought that sending the pizzas was, in Katie’s words, “a good way to say, ‘Sorry I missed the event, but I’m thinking about all of you.’” Come on now: that’s cool.
Top 5 worst recurring topics during the panels:
- What people thought of the series finale of “The Sopranos.” (Thankfully, the frequency declined as the press tour continued.)
- What people think of the upcoming HBO series, “Tell Me You Love Me,” which features highly realistic sex scenes. (The show hadn’t even premiered yet, so many of the answers were an understandable “I haven’t seen it.”)
- Mandy Patinkin’s departure from “Criminal Minds.”
- Isaiah Washington’s departure from “Grey’s Anatomy” and his being hired for a stint on “Bionic Woman.”
- What people think about the death of the traditional sitcom, or, to flip-flop it, if people think the traditional sitcom is heading for a resurrection.
Worst recurring question concept by a journalist: I’m not looking to call out anyone by name, but there was one reporter who would regularly take a show’s concept and use it to pose a question to its entire cast. During the “Reaper” panel (the show’s about a guy whose soul has been sold to the Devil), the question was, “What is your own private Hell?” By the end of the tour, I was beginning to backtrack through the new shows and figure out what questions could’ve been asked. (“Drew Carey, you’re the host of CBS’s ‘Power of 10.’ Can you tell me your favorite number between one and 10, and can you maybe give me a little history behind why that is?”)
Most obnoxious moment of any panel: I was embarrassed to be a critic during the ABC executive panel, when my peers bullied network president Stephen McPherson into giving them a revelation about the new season of “Lost” that was originally intended as a Comic-Con exclusive. People were playing the guilt card about the sorry state of the newspaper industry, and how their editors would be pissed if they found out that a major announcement was being given to the fans at Comic-Con, rather than the journalists at the TCA Press Tour. All I could think was, how can you not understand that, for all the praise we may write, it’s still the fans of the shows that make them a success?
Most obnoxious moment of any party: I’d had a very nice conversation with Scott Cohen (late of “Gilmore Girls,” now of “The Return of Jezebel James”) at the beginning of the Fox party, and I left thinking, “Wow, great guy.” Later, however, he lost pretty much all of his points. I was in the midst of an interview with Cohen’s new show’s producer, Amy Sherman-Palladino, when Cohen came up to say his farewells to her, then, without looking at me, reached over and covered the microphone of my tape recorder with his hand. Dude, how about you just ask me if I mind turning off my recorder for a second? Besides, it wasn’t like I was trying to get into your business or anything. I was the one who was in the middle of an interview, you know.
Most surreal moment of any panel or party: Doing a shot with Judd Hirsch (“Numb3rs”) at the CBS party.
Most surreal moment that wouldn’t have happened if my wife hadn’t come to visit me for a few days during the tour: After the TCA Awards ceremony, we were at a cocktail party, and my wife and I split up for a bit while she went on a restroom quest. Several minutes later, she hadn’t come back, but I glanced off in the distance and saw her chatting with the cast and producer of ABC Family’s sci-fi drama, “Kyle X/Y.” As I continued the conversation I was in the middle of, several more minutes passed, and I realized that she was still over there. Finally, I said, “OK, I either need to rescue my wife from the cast of ‘Kyle X/Y,’ or vice versa, and I need to find out which it is.” Knowing how genial my wife is, I walked up, put my arm around her, and said, “OK, I know she’s been talking about me, so how much do you know?” Marguerite MacIntyre, who plays Nicole Trager on the show, grinned and said, “Hi, Will, we know you’ve got a two-year-old daughter who you love and miss very much!” Well, when you’re right, you’re right, Nicole, but it was still bizarre!
Best party by a cable network – HBO: Maybe it’s just because it took place on my first night in town, but within about 30 seconds of getting off the bus at the trendy and upscale W Hotel, in Westwood, HBO’s soiree struck me as the function to beat. I’d only just started up the path to the pool area, where the party was being held, when I was greeted by a waiter offering me a glass of champagne, and it only got better from there. The menu consisted of filet mignon and grilled lobster, with gourmet chocolates from Boule flowing left and right for dessert. The décor was reportedly inspired by barbeques in the Hamptons, but I have no frame of reference for such things, so all I did was wander around, feeling totally out of my element. Of course, it didn’t help that I was wandering past people like James Gandolfini (right), Larry David, Adrian Grenier, Luke Perry, Kevin Dillon and the guys from Flight of the Conchords.
As I left the function and was handed a gift bag that included a bottle of champagne and a small box of those gourmet chocolates, all I could think was, “If I ever get to the point where I’m complaining about the poor quality of the parties and the free stuff that a network provides, I’m totally blaming HBO.”
Best party by a broadcast network – CBS: Theoretically, I guess I should’ve been more impressed by the Fox party, given that they rented the Santa Monica pier for the night and provided for games, rides and carnival food, but, y’know, I just wasn’t. I think it’s because “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 wasn’t very conducive to that. (How can you get a few minutes with Hugh Laurie (right) when he’s busy riding the bumper cars?)
No, ultimately, the party that seemed best thought out, as well as best laid out, was that of CBS, which took place at the Wadsworth Theatre Great Lawn. It was a sprawling affair, but it was totally low-key, and that, coupled with the amount of space, provided me with more opportunities for relatively casual conversation with stars than at any other function during the course of the tour. Even better, a considerable amount of the network’s talent attended. I heard some folks grousing about the lack of “C.S.I.” cast members in the house – there was no sign of William Petersen, David Caruso or Gary Sinese – but I had absolutely no complaints. I was able to thank Rita Moreno (soon to be of “Cane,” but formerly of “The Electric Company”) for helping me learn to read; I found out that I went to high school in the same part of Chesapeake, VA, as several members of Skeet Ulrich’s family; and I learned that Pauley Perrette is one of the cutest, most awesome and most genuinely sweet actresses in the business. Plus, I spent 20 minutes in a booth with Drew Carey – prior to his announcement that he’d gotten “The Price is Right,” unfortunately – while having him inform me in tremendous (and hilarious) detail about why “Boat Trip” is the best bad movie of all time. What’s not to love about a party like that?
Best piece of swag: If there was any competition with HBO in the “best cable party” category, it had to have been the one thrown by BBC America, which took place at the house of the network’s president, Garth Ancier. Yes, at his actual house. But the best bit for me came at the end of the night, when, as we left the premises, we were presented with bow-wrapped bathrobes, their front emblazoned with the logo for the network’s latest drama, “Hotel Babylon.” I know not everyone was as impressed as I was – when one of my peers showed up in the TCA hospitality suite wearing the robe, someone said, “You know, just because they give it to you doesn’t mean you have to wear it!” – but, personally, I thought it was awesome. More importantly, it was unique, which goes a long way in my book.
Most genuine celebrity: This is a tough one, since you know that just about every actor in attendance has been given a strict ultimatum that they’re to be as polite as humanly possible to the press at these functions. Still, if you end up in a conversation that goes on for more than about five minutes, you can generally tell who’s just putting on an act for the media and who isn’t. While the nominees for this category include Angela Kinsey from “The Office,” the cast and producer of “Kyle XY,” Jeff Foxworthy, and the aforementioned Drew Carey, the winner has to be the also-aforementioned Pauley Perrette. I think I ended up hanging out with her and several of her other friends and acquaintances for the better part of an hour at the CBS party, and by the time I left, I asked her if I could snap a picture of her, really intending to just take it of her, but she said, “Oh, let me take it, I’m good at this! I swear, I won’t let you down!” And she absolutely didn’t. It’s a great shot.
Unfortunately, I can’t show it to you.
Well, I mean, I could…but it would be viewed as rather uncool if I did, so, therefore, I won’t.
Confused? Don’t worry, our final category will explain all…
The 5 Most Crucial Lessons I Learned as a Newbie at My First TCA Press Tour:
- Don’t worry about bringing a great deal of spending money. You get all the food, drink, and alcohol you can possibly stand…and if there’s some occasion where, God forbid, you aren’t provided with a complimentary breakfast, lunch, or dinner, it’s a safe bet that you’ll have accumulated enough snacks from one network or other in your various swag bags to get you through to your next free meal.
- Pack at least one (but probably two) empty bags in your suitcase.Otherwise, you’ll never get all swag and publicity materials home without mailing a box or two back midway through the tour. Thankfully, the networks are gradually transitioning away from hard-copy press kits and into using flash drives for their publicity material, which means that, next time around, I shouldn’t have nearly as many three-ringed binder to carry back on the plane with me.
- When it comes to asking questions during a panel, there’s little place for being polite. And it goes completely and totally against everything that’s ingrained in my psyche. As a result, I didn’t get to pose many of the questions during the panels that I really wanted to ask, mostly because someone else always seemed to be bursting forth with their question before the last answer was even finished. Next time, I’ll try to be a little more cutthroat about it…and will probably fail, because that’s just not me. But, by God, I’ll try!
- Excising the best quotes from a panel reads considerably better than just copying and pasting massive chunks from the transcript. And it also makes the TCA much happier, since they very much frown upon the latter, given that it kind of devalues the experience if you put such a huge amount of the material out there on the web for anyone to access. Makes complete sense. I just wish it had occurred to me before I’d written several days worth of entries; if it had, then I wouldn’t have had to go back and re-write every single freaking one of them. Not that I minded, you understand...
- Taking photos of yourself with the celebrities blurs the line between journalist and fan. Which, again, is why the TCA frowns on it…and, again, it makes complete sense. I must say, though, that when I asked an actor if I could take a picture of them for the site, more than half of them instantly responded, “Do you want to be in it with me?” And, okay, I’m not going to lie to you: I didn’t always say “no.” It would take a better man than me to refuse an offer like that from, say, a force of nature like Pauley Perrette…but, alas, given that it was during a TCA-sponsored event when I was being posed that question, it would be inappropriate of me to offer up the photo within a public forum. Sorry, folks.
Fortunately, however, I did manage to get at least one photo with a very, very awesome celebrity that wasn’t taken at a TCA-sponsored event, so let’s close with that, shall we…?
Right before I departed for Los Angeles, I read online that Gallery 1988, a small but kick-ass gallery on Melrose Avenue, was to be opening their latest exhibit – “Crazy 4 Cult,” dedicated to artwork inspired by various cult films – while I was in California for the press tour.
Cool enough, right? Even better, though, was that one of the hosts of the event was to be none other than…wait for it…Kevin Smith (right) .
I’d done a phoner with Smith for Bullz-Eye a few months prior, but realizing that this would be a perfect chance to meet him in person, I headed down to the gallery, along with Bullz-Eye’s mighty President and CEO, Gerardo Orlando. (Thanks for the cab fare, G!) Although a TCA function had resulted in us getting to the opening rather late, Smith was indeed still in attendance, so I approached him, introduced myself, and reminded him of our earlier conversation. I really have no idea if he actually remembered me or not, but, hey, he was pleasant in his assurances that he was glad to meet me, and that was enough for me…almost.
Before departing, I figured, what the hell, why not ask the guy if I can get a picture with him? I mean, I’ve got an actual Kevin Smith “inaction figure” in my office at home, and whenever my daughter sees it, she points at it and says, “Daddy!” So, y’know, basically, I’m thinking the effect of seeing a photo of Kevin Smith and me standing side by side ought to be downright surreal.
Man, I had no idea….