The semi-annual Television Critics Association press tour has always carried a whiff of mystery and allure for me. Years and years ago, when I had a blog and little to no clue how to move beyond that, I would read reports from the event, even for shows I wasn’t terribly interested in, and be bitterly envious of all of the people sitting in that room, watching upcoming shows, talking about those shows with their creative personnel, and getting to talk shop with fellow TV critics.
But, OK, now, I’ve been here for a day, and I know that what the press tour is really about is trying to maintain your sanity when Oprah Winfrey simply will not. Shut. Up. Also, it’s about listening to Mike Tyson go on a lengthy series of monologues about how he loves pigeons.
The entirety of the second day of press tour (I skipped the first day for a variety of reasons, and if you’re upset you didn’t get to read my take on what the Weather Channel is bringing us in the new year, well, I’m sorry) was building to the moment when Winfrey deigned to grace us with her presence for the first time in several years. (According to several old hands of the event, she was last here supporting the TV movie Their Eyes Were Watching God.) She was here for her new cable network, OWN, the first significant cable launch of this size in nearly a decade, and she brought a rambling band of Oprah Players along with her, including BFF Gayle King, Lisa Ling, and reality show impresario Mark Burnett. But the main event was the woman herself, come to share the wisdom of the world according to Oprah with us. The room was packed, spare reporters who were attending just to cover this session (as it turns out, you don’t need to actually be a TCA member to attend select sessions, apparently) were lined up against the far wall, and the sounds of keyboards thrumming dominated the soundscape.
Here’s the thing about Winfrey: She’s a pretty magnetic presence. There’s a reason she rose from humble beginnings to become one of the two or three most powerful people in television, and it’s almost entirely due to the fact that she can talk about anything and make it seem more or less interesting. And when a reporter asked her what her dreams were before she became a cultural monolith, she said it was a good question and paused to think about it for a bit. She led with a nice anecdote about how what she really wanted to be was an occasional fill-in for then-current Good Morning America anchor Joan Lunden but was told by her agent that there wasn’t room for another black person on network TV, since Bryant Gumbel was holding that job down. It was a sweet, funny story, and it was followed by some interesting thoughts about how she felt placed on Earth to deliver a message to others, that message being, “You can.” A little cheesy, sure, but undeniably heartfelt and delivered movingly.
But then she just kept talking. She went on and on and on. My Twitter feed started to crowd up with thoughts from other people in the room, who referred to it as the Oprah filibuster. According to Alan Sepinwall, the monologue went on for an astonishing 18 minutes and 15 seconds, and the entirety of the back half had no structure to it and was just Winfrey freestyling about her early career, her grandmother, and assorted other things. Some of it was interesting. Some of it lacked context. Almost all of it didn’t have a throughline. What was the question again?
Over the course of about 45 minutes, Winfrey visited a mere handful of questions (the first of which was a joke question about whether she’d brought us all cars), following almost all of them with lengthy rambles about whatever the hell was on her mind. The new cable network? We talked about that a little. But for the most part, we talked about Oprah’s vision of herself. The new OWN lineup of programs has some interesting stuff in it (in particular, Ling’s roving documentary show looks like it could be really legitimately fascinating), but it needs that extra boost to gain buzz. Instead of making the panel about her network, Winfrey made it about herself. And while that’s fine (again, she’s mostly magnetic enough to pull it off here and there), it eventually created a weird kind of Stockholm Syndrome, where I was ready to agree with pretty much whatever she said just to get out of there.
The big new footage screened came from HBO, which brought 15 minutes of mostly completed footage from the hotly anticipated fantasy series, Game Of Thrones, based, as you surely know by now, on the George R.R. Martin novel of the same name. Martin himself was there as HBO’s secret, surprise guest, and he seemed fairly chuffed to have this many people gathered to watch disjointed scenes from the filmed version of his book. While it’s difficult to come up with full impressions based on what was seen, it’s fairly obvious that Game Of Thrones looks stunning. Everything about the production is even more lavish than the trailers and press stills have suggested, and the few completed effects shots were remarkable. (HBO had hoped to have the full pilot ready for us, but CGI work continues on the project.) It’s harder to say the acting looks amazing. There was a strange airlessness to some of the scenes, as though all involved were so reverential to the material that it lost some of its earthiness. It’s entirely possible this came from seeing scenes sans context, and there were plenty of moments that landed just as they would need to to have the same impact as they did in the book, but at the same time, so much of the acting felt slightly flat and presentational. Perhaps it will work better when it’s all stitched together.
Oprah and Game Of Thrones were the big stories of the day at press tour, but there were plenty of other things going on as well. Forthwith, a few quick hits.
—The day started with a visit from the cast of Adult Swim’s Childrens Hospital. This session was less about hyping the new season (which has just begun production) and more about Adult Swim trying to harness the buzz that’s grown for the show in some circles (including these circles) and spinning it out to a more mainstream audience. Maybe if the cast is witty and charming here, the critic for Newsweek checks out the show and writes an article about it, and ratings go up a couple of points. Anyway, the panel was very funny but not terribly informative (my personal highlight was Rob Huebel saying the blood they use on the show was “delicious”). Still, if you’re curious about what’s going to happen in season three, the creators teased a major guest star from a famous medical drama and an episode set entirely in the ‘70s. All right.
—TNT stopped by with two new dramas, Franklin & Bash and Falling Skies, and one returning one, Men Of A Certain Age. Franklin & Bash stars Mark-Paul Gosselaar and Breckin Meyer as lawyers who apparently aim to make their new, stodgy law firm more like something out of Animal House. I haven’t seen it, but Kevin Falls (of The West Wing and Journeyman) is involved, so surely it can’t be as generic as the trailer made it seem. I hope, at least. Falling Skies I have seen and mostly enjoyed, though I’m pretty much genetically hard-wired to enjoy shows about alien invasions. Noah Wyle leads a small band of alien resistance fighters after the aliens invade and blow shit up. The series is nicely grimy and may capture some of the Walking Dead buzz when it debuts in the summer. In particular, I’m pleased that the producers say they have some secrets about the aliens up their sleeves and by their steadfast refusal to show the actual invasion and instead focus on the aftermath. (That said, TNT will be showing brief shots of the invasion exclusively in the promos for some reason.) And Men Of A Certain Age mostly turned up to remind us it exists and for Ray Romano to thank us for writing nice things about the show. (You’re welcome, Ray, but you should take it up with Noel Murray.) The series is struggling in the ratings, so the real news came from network official Michael Wright promising to stick with the show. Wright, at least, seemed really taken with the series, so that was good.
—Dr. Drew Pinsky and Larry King replacement Piers Morgan both dropped in to close out the Turner Cable bloc, Pinsky promoting a new show on HLN, mostly by offering his unvarnished opinions about how crazy and out of control everyone you already think is crazy and out of control (including Miley Cyrus and Snooki) is. Morgan was more fun, though he was obvious forcing some of his pugnaciousness, dropping lots of names, and just generally acting like a cocky S.O.B. to get a rise out of assorted people. In the course of his short session, he insulted Madonna, insisted he knew the royals well, and said he had a very good sex life. It was sort of surprising the session didn’t end with him stripping down and getting into a fistfight with someone.
—The afternoon opened with Discovery’s networks, including the unexpected one-two highlight of the day: Mike Tyson waxing rhapsodic about pigeons and Ricky Gervais and Stephen Merchant picking on Karl Pilkington via satellite. Everybody was looking forward to Gervais and Merchant (who did not disappoint), but the real surprise was both how passionate Tyson was about pigeons and how… incongruous that seemed. “The pigeons are man’s first feathered friend,” Tyson declaimed at one point, and he also avoided a question about Michael Vick’s dog fighting charges by saying the only thing he wanted to talk about were the little birds. Tyson knows a lot about pigeons, maybe more than anyone has ever known about any single subject ever, and it was incredibly engaging to watch, making me instantly more intrigued by a show I never knew existed about a former boxer with a trouble history getting into pigeon racing. As for the British trio? Well, they were a lot of fun, particularly when one realized that all three were drinking gigantic beers or when Pilkington’s earpiece somehow broke in two, leaving him slouched over to answer questions and Merchant in hysterics, falling off his chair. I still don’t know if that’s enticement enough to be excited for the program the three were promoting (involving Pilkington visiting the seven wonders of the world), but, hey, it made for a fun 20 minutes.