Bullz-Eye’s TCA 2009 Winter Press Tour Recap

Wait, didn’t I just go to one of these press tours…?

Actually, that was back in July, when the networks were busy pimping their new fall schedules; this time, they were presenting us with an idea of what we can expect to see on our favorite broadcast and cable channels from now until they premiere their next fall schedule.

Going out to L.A. in January was a new thing for me, though. It was my first winter tour since becoming a member of the Television Critics Association in 2007 – last year’s was canceled due to the writers’ strike – and, if the rumblings throughout the ballrooms at the Universal Hilton were any indication, it may well prove to be my last January tour. I’m hopeful that this presumption turns out to be inaccurate, but given the current economic climate and an increasing tendency for newspapers and publications to only send their TV critics out for one tour per year, there’s every reason to suspect that the networks will join suit and only be willing to pamper those critics once per year.

Sorry, did I say “pamper”? Of course, I meant, “Treat with the utmost respect.”

It feels a bit odd to be doing a wrap-up of my experiences at the tour before I’ve even had a chance to write up all of the panels I attended while I was out there, but, hey, when you get a good spot on the calendar, you make it work however you can. So still keep your eyes open for my ongoing pieces on the various shows you can expect to find on the broadcast networks during the next few months, but in the meantime, here’s a look at some of the best and worst bits from the January ’09 tour as a whole.

Most enjoyable panel by a cable network: “Rescue Me,” FX.

I’ve been a big Denis Leary fan every since No Cure for Cancer, so I knew the guy was inevitably going to go off on a profanity-filled rant before the end of the panel. What I didn’t expect, however, was that Peter Tolan – who co-created the show with Leary – would start the proceedings by telling Leary to watch his mouth, adding, “If you were going to say ‘cunt,’ don’t.”

From there, the two of them seemingly battled each other in an attempt to offer up the most memorable line. Leary complained about his salary. (“I had a crazy idea of getting paid, like, $250,000 an episode. They put limits on that, let me tell you. That’s Kiefer Sutherland money right there.”) Then Tolan claimed that he was at fault for the show’s fourth-season slump, blaming it on a drug problem and that “I was heavy into a kazillion hookers that year.” Then Leary bitched about how Michael J. Fox was going to guest on “Rescue Me” and get the Emmy that Leary himself has yet to earn. (“Five fucking episodes, he comes in. God damn, $700 million from ‘Spin City.’ He never asked me to do the show. He’s going to walk away with the fucking Emmy. That son of a bitch.”) Then Tolan started mocking Hugh Laurie’s American accent by talking about how he could do a British accent. (“Aye, pip, pip, mate, aye! ‘Allo, Mary Poppins!”) And…well, as you can see, there was really no contest: this may well have been the greatest panel ever.

Most enjoyable panel by a broadcast network: “The Late Late Show with Craig Ferguson,” CBS.

To be fair, this was already set up to be a gimme by the fact that, the night before the panel, I turned on Ferguson’s show to hear him talking about how he was going to be addressing the Television Critics Association tomorrow. The guy appreciates the critics, but he also likes to tease them, and the combination makes him just as entertaining when he’s answering our questions as he is when he’s doing his own show. He assured us that his lead-in, David Letterman, is “very touchy-feely. He’s very, ‘How are you doing?’ You know, it’s hugs, not drugs. It’s all of that with Dave.”) He told us that concerns about his being too Scottish are possibly not shared by his fellow countrymen. (“Scottish people would tell you that you could get a lot more Scottish than me, that I am not Scottish enough. Look at me, Goddammit, I’m sober.”) And he impressed everyone by challenging us to not review his new late-night competition, Jimmy Fallon, until he’d been on the air for a month. (“He hasn’t done anything yet, but everybody is commenting on his performance. Give him a chance.”) But most importantly, he bought us pizza for the third TCA press tour in a row, describing his actions as a “shameless attempt to corrupt you.” Consider me corrupted, Craig.

Most disappointing panel by a cable network: “The Beast,” A&E.

Well, it was always going to be, wasn’t it? I mean, The Swayz wasn’t there. Clearly, we’re all rooting for him, but when one of the biggest reasons you were excited about attending the tour was to be able to talk to Patrick Swayze, you can still be bummed when you hear he’s not going to be there…though, of course, you first have to get over being horrified by the very real possibility that a man in his condition could check into a hospital with pneumonia and never check out again (Thankfully, Swayze returned home within the week.)

Most unnecessary panel by a broadcast network: “The Last Templar,” NBC.

It was bad enough that NBC only allotted the tour half a day, but rather than shine the spotlight on some of their existing series with large fan bases or even a returning show like, say, “Medium,” they set aside 45 minutes for a 2-part miniseries that – with all due respect to its stars (Mira Sorvino, Scott Foley, Victor Garber) and executive producer (Robert Halmi, Sr.) – absolutely did not need its own panel.

Most promising new program that I didn’t know anything about before going into the tour: “Important Things with Demetri Martin,” Comedy Central.

I’d been aware of Martin since the release of his 2006 album, These Are Jokes, but I’d never actually heard the album, nor had I caught any of his appearances on “The Daily Show.” But perhaps knowing that not everyone in the crowd was familiar with his work, Martin opened by showing a few clips from his new show (“I wanted to show the shittiest stuff so that then everyone would be even more surprised with how excellent it is after that”), then took the stage with a giant sketch pad and offered us a brief introduction to his comedic sensibilities. First, he assured us that the target audience for “Important Things” was no less than the whole world (“I’m not going to discriminate anybody with eyes or a head or ears or anything”), then admitted that his real aim was the United States but that he didn’t even need all of the US to fall in love with him. “I started thinking, okay, we have about 300 million people in the country,” he said. “Look, realistically, if I get a third of those people, that’s a hundred million people watching this show. That takes a lot of pressure off, because that means 200 million people can hate the show and it really doesn’t matter.” Despite his concerns about trying to do comedy at 10:00 AM, he certainly had me in stitches…and, as a result, he earned himself at least one new fan.

Least promising new series that still resulted in a really funny panel: “Osbournes: Reloaded,” Fox.

Oh, my sweet lord, does this look bad. It’s a mixture of hidden camera stuff, wacky shenanigans in front of a live audience, guest stars, and not nearly as much music as you’d like to have from the man who once fronted Black Sabbath. But you’ve got to give them credit: the Osbournes themselves remain a riot. The back and forth between Jack and Kelly still crackles, Sharon still doesn’t take shit from anyone, and although Ozzy had to have virtually every question repeated to him during the panel, he always managed to hear Sharon when she made a smart-arse comment at his expense. (After she quoted someone as saying, “Everybody adores Ozzy,” he snapped, “Why didn’t everybody adore me when I was pissed drunk all the time?”) I wish the Osbournes the best of luck, but on the whole, the clips they showed made me wish they’d cut their losses, throw in the towel on “Reloaded” before it ever gets on the air, and just give them their own talk show a la “The Kumars at No. 42.” Now that I’d watch.

Most intimidating person to talk to:

Male: Conan O’Brien. Damn, he’s tall.

Female: Eliza Dushku. Damn, she’s hot.

Least intimidating person to talk to (and I mean that in the best possible way):

Male: Tom Kenney (“Sit Down, Shut Up,” Fox). He was hanging out at the bar during the Fox party, so I struck up a conversation with him about his life in the world of animation. When he described himself as the equivalent of a session drummer, I said, “So, basically, you’re the Hal Blaine of voiceover work.” His response was to lean into my recorder, embrace me, and say, “You can’t hear it, but I’m hugging Will Harris right now because he knows who Hal Blaine is.” By conversation’s end, he had recorded a message for my 3-year-old daughter in his best SpongeBob Squarepants voice. Good times with a great guy.

Female: Tracey Ullman (“Tracey Ullman’s State of the Union,” Showtime). She was so pleasant from the moment that I approached her, and when I risked bringing up her music from the ’80s, she at least claimed to be amused by asking about it. First, we bonded over our mutual love of the late Kirsty MacColl, and then she proceeded to reveal that her son recently put one of her songs on his iPod when loading up for a road trip…and she responded by accusing him of taking the piss. (He assured her that he really did like the song.) Geez, I guess I’ll have to start watching her Showtime series now, huh?

Coolest person I still haven’t gotten to talk to, even after three tours: Hugh Laurie. The guy’s always so surrounded by people that I never feel up to fighting my way into his proximity, and I’m not sure I’d really want to do so, anyway, because I’d like to have an actual conversation with him, not just score a one-off question.

Cheapest thrill of the tour: It’s a tie between shaking Ozzy Osbourne’s hand (even though I know full well he had forgotten it the moment our hands unclasped) and asking Drew Barrymore a question in the press scrum and, as a result, finding myself close enough to her to see that she has a pierced tongue.

Coolest moment of the tour: Sir Ian McKellen scaring the living hell out of a PBS publicist.

I managed to score a 25-minute one-on-one interview with McKellen in his hotel suite, with the publicist keeping a discrete distance in the background, but as we talked about his appearance on “The Simpsons” and the supposed theatrical curse of speaking the name “Macbeth” aloud, he said, “I’ve suffered no ill effects thus far,” then gasped and clutched his side. The poor woman turned pale, and when he realized her reaction to his actions, he had to assure her, “No, no, I’m only joking…”

The moment that made many of my friends want to punch me in the face: Getting to watch an advance screening of the third episode of the new season of “Lost” (before the first two episodes had even premiered), then having the opportunity ask executive producers Damon Lindelof and Carlton Cuse questions afterwards.

The moment that every 10-year-old girl in American was jealous of me for experiencing: Getting to sit in the same room as the Jonas Brothers as they promoted their new Disney Channel sitcom, “Jonas.” They’re such nice boys.

Most awesome visit to the set of a network show: “The Big Bang Theory.” Just getting to look around the set of Leonard and Sheldon’s apartment was geek bliss. I mean, they’ve got an actual Green Lantern power battery there, for God’s sake. How awesome is that?

Biggest mixed-bag visit to the set of a network show: “CSI.” I’m not saying it wasn’t cool to tour the offices, and the opportunity to get my picture taken with the show’s two resident coroners was undeniably awesome, but there wasn’t nearly enough time or space for us to adequately approach the cast members for one-on-one interviews. I mean, literally, by the time I was able to get anywhere near any of them with my recorder, we were being told that our time was up.

Most awesome visit to the set of a cable show: “Trust Me.” Actually, it wasn’t that the set was all that awesome…it’s an ad agency, and having toured the “Mad Men” set in July, it couldn’t even remotely compare…but, still, I got to talk to Griffin Dunne and ask him about working on “Johnny Dangerously.” Look, I just admitted to getting a thrill out of seeing a Green Lantern power battery; it shouldn’t surprise you that I’m a fan of a movie with a theme song by “Weird Al” Yankovic (“This Is The Life”).

Best off-site visit that was in no way connected to the tour: I finally fulfilled a dream and got to see Jon Brion play at Largo…and – bonus! – Benmont Tench came out and played piano for several songs. When Brion performed a cover of Roxy Music’s “More Than This” on mandolin with Tench accompanying on keys, it took me to some heretofore-unexperienced level of musical nirvana. I couldn’t have asked for a better first Largo experience. (Special thanks go to the West Coast contingent of Popdose writers, with whom I attended the show.)

Best piece of swag: Everything offered up during Fox’s “Simpsons” breakfast. There were Simpsons watches, Pez dispensers, official Lard Lad doughnuts, and I’ll have you know that this entire piece is powered by a can of Duff Energy Drink that I brought home from the tour.

Most interesting way to hype a show which has yet to start filming: The new Amy Poehler sitcom…you know, the one created by Greg Daniels which isn’t a spin-off to “The Office,” even though it co-stars Rashida Jones…doesn’t actually go in front of the cameras until February, but to help get critics excited about the series, Daniels provided each member of the TCA with their very own copy of the script for the show’s pilot episode. And just to make sure nobody would get cheeky and leak it onto the ‘net, each copy has that TCA member’s name sprawled across every single page. If you’re wondering, yes, it IS very funny…not that that should come as a surprise, given the pedigree of the show’s stars and creator. And did we mention that the cast also includes Aziz Ansari from “Human Giant” in it? It just keeps getting awesomer and awesomer.

My best opening line to any interview: I walked up to Jimmy Fallon and asked, “So, are you scared shitless or what?” He looked momentarily shocked, then burst into laughter and said, “Yes. Yes, I am.”

Most obnoxious moment of the tour: Getting once again reminded that, for as incredibly cool as I think this whole thing is and how in awe of the proceedings I’ll probably always be, there are a whole lot of jaded jerks in attendance who think of it as just another day and can barely be bothered to sit through the panels to get to the free food and booze.

Not me, baby. The TCA tour is the greatest opportunity I’ve ever gotten in my career as an entertainment journalist, providing me with unparalleled access to talent both behind and in front of the camera, and it’ll always have my utmost respect.

Does that sound like I’m kissing ass? Probably. But it’s true nonetheless.

  

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