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The Year In Television

Audio

Aired 12/23/09

Adam Lambert shocked audiences at the American Music Awards, Glee becomes an unlikely hit, and Mad Men grabbed the spotlight. Television in 2009 had some hits and misses and we'll talk about both.

The cast of Fox's musical comedy "Glee."
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Above: The cast of Fox's musical comedy "Glee."

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH (Host): I’m Maureen Cavanaugh, and you’re listening to These Days on KPBS. One of the big items people are snapping up this holiday season are big screen HDTVs. So apparently a lot of us think there’s been something worth watching going on this year. From reality shows to smart comedies, from risqué cable series to vampires, the choices have perhaps never been as wide or the quality so varied. We’re surveying the best and possibly the worst of TV in 2009. I’d like to welcome my guests. Karla Peterson is the television critic for the San Diego Union-Tribune. And, Carla, welcome to These Days.

KARLA PETERSON (Television Critic, San Diego Union-Tribune): Thanks for having me.

CAVANAUGH: Julia Turner is deputy editor of Slate.com. Julia, good morning.

JULIA TURNER (Deputy Editor, Slate.com): Hi. Good to be here.

CAVANAUGH: Now, Julia, let’s start out just with an overall kind of a view of this. Has this been a good year in TV for you?

TURNER: Absolutely. I think it’s been a fantastic year. We’ve had really good seasons of old shows. Mad Men’s third season was fantastic. Curb Your Enthusiasm staged a Seinfeld reunion that was really thrilling. And then there’s been a bunch of exciting new shows. I’m a particular fan of Modern Family, a family sitcom that’s got real spark.

CAVANAUGH: Okay, so both old and new. Good for Julia. Karla, do you think this was a good year in television? Is it still this golden age that some critics claimed at the beginning of the decade?

PETERSON: Well, I think it’s still pretty shiny out there. As Julia said, it’s been a – it was a great year for older shows. I thought Lost had a really good season. I thought Battlestar Galactica signed off in a really amazing way. And then you had some really good new shows. I like Better Off Ted, another fun, oddball comedy on ABC. And I’m a big fan of Vampire Diaries on the CW and, of course, Glee.

CAVANAUGH: Glee we’re going to talk about more in depth in just a few minutes. That vampire thing has just been crazy, though, so many vampire series. And we’re talking a little bit about True Blood later in the show as well. Karla, one of the major television changes this year, though, for people who watch regular television in the evening, they’re used to something coming on at ten o’clock, a nice adult program perhaps but now what they see is Jay Leno. The Jay Leno Show moved to the 10:00 p.m. timeslot from the 11:30 slot where it had been for years. How has that turned out, Karla, in your opinion?

PETERSON: Well, it hasn’t turned out so well for viewers, I don’t think. What NBC did by moving Jay to ten is basically moved the same old late night show to ten o’clock. And I think in late night, people are into comfort TV. They kind of – they slip in and out, they’re dozing off. It’s kind of a comfort thing. And I think in primetime, people are expecting a little bit more. And it was just the same old Jay, and it’s getting stale and so I think for viewers it was not much of a win. For NBC, I think it’s still maybe considered a win because they’re not spending any money on ten o’clock shows, and they were having a really hard time. They were spending big bucks on 10:00 p.m. dramas that nobody was watching. So maybe NBC’s doing fine; I’m personally not so happy.

CAVANAUGH: Julia, do you miss that 10:00 p.m. time slot on NBC?

TURNER: Absolutely. As a viewer, I mean, I’m just a much bigger fan of scripted television than of talk shows. And, you know, I’m perhaps at fault. I’m one of those people who wasn’t watching the umpteenth season of ER and I was one of those people who was not trying some of the new NBC dramas that they were trying to roll out at ten but now I wish I had because, you know, I – you need them to be creating as many scripted shows as possible and then they find a few good ones that stick. I mean, that’s been the model for years and now there’s that many fewer opportunities to create something really magical.

CAVANAUGH: Well, even with that time slot gone, network television isn’t completely lost. There have been some very good shows this year. And speaking of NBC, Julia, you really like Parks and Recreation. Why is that?

TURNER: I think Parks and Recreation has been the television turnaround story of the year. It debuted last year. It’s a show that stars Amy Poehler as a deputy in the department of Parks and Recreation in Pawnee, Indiana. And its first season was clunky, awkward, it felt like an Office knockoff. They took the beautiful, charming, hilarious Amy Poehler, a wonderful comedienne, and had her basically play Michael Scott, the character who plays the boss…

CAVANAUGH: Right.

TURNER: …on The Office.

CAVANAUGH: Umm-hmm.

TURNER: And, you know, she was awkward, she was stilted, she was stiff. They didn’t let her be funny. They didn’t let her be charming. They didn’t let her have any friends. This year, they’ve just rejigged the formula a little bit. They’ve made her a little bit more comfortable in her own skin. They’ve built up some of the supplementary characters in the cast. She has a lot of very funny officemates. They’ve upped the screen time they’ve given to a very sullen and funny intern named April. And it is consistently the funniest show on NBC on Thursday nights, and it’s sadly, I think, of the four big comedies, the least watched…

CAVANAUGH: And…

TURNER: …that night but I think – I hope people will give it another shot. It’s just become very, very funny.

CAVANAUGH: It’s still that mockumentary style like The Office, though, right?

TURNER: Yeah, it’s still – you can still see Office DNA in it but it’s really become more about these characters and their lives and less sort of trying to imitate the style.

CAVANAUGH: Well, let’s hear a scene from Parks and Recreation. This is Amy Poehler on a door-to-door campaign to build support for a local park, and it doesn’t go so well.

(audio clip from television show Parks and Recreation)

CAVANAUGH: Karla, is this a show you like as well?

PETERSON: You know, I think I was too traumatized by the first season because I keep checking in because I keep hearing that it’s gotten so much better and it’s still not really working for me.

CAVANAUGH: Ah.

PETERSON: I am, however, a big fan of 30 Rock so I’m still sort of in the NBC camp but not – I’m going to keep trying Parks and Rec because people keep saying that it’s better and that it’s funny, and when I hear little snippets I think, oh, ha-ha, that’s really funny. But when I actually sit down in front of it, I’m not laughing a lot.

CAVANAUGH: Interesting. Those favorites that surround this show, The Office and 30 Rock on NBC, have they maintained their quality during this year, Karla?

PETERSON: Oh, I think The Office is slipping.

CAVANAUGH: Uh-huh.

PETERSON: I hate to say that because I love it but I think it’s getting to the point where it’s kind of run its course and I don’t know how much more steam that show has left in it. And I love it.

CAVANAUGH: What do you call it? Jump the shark? Is that what The Office has done?

PETERSON: I don’t know if they’ve jumped – I mean, jumping the shark would sort of indicate maybe that they’ve done something.

CAVANAUGH: Uh-huh.

PETERSON: And I feel like they’re just sort of running on the same old fumes. It’s still funny in spots but I’m not making a point to see it the way that I used to. And 30 Rock, I make a point of seeing it every week because I still think it’s hilarious.

CAVANAUGH: And what about you, Julia? On The Office and 30 Rock?

TURNER: It’s definitely fallen off, and I’ve heard a couple of interesting theories. I mean, I think some people argue that actually having Jim and Pam, the longtime lovelorn couple at the center…

CAVANAUGH: Umm-hmm.

TURNER: …of the show get married was a shark-jumping moment.

CAVANAUGH: Ah, yes.

TURNER: But I totally disagree. I actually think the writers have handled that relationship pretty well. One thing that they have been doing this season that’s just been very depressing is really tackling the economy head-on with the plotlines. I mean, Dunder Mifflin, the paper company that the characters work at is facing a possible bankruptcy. It’s – And so what the characters are dealing with every waking moment is sort of the same depressing economic environment that faces viewers outside of their television sets and I wonder if that’s part of the downer.

CAVANAUGH: That’s so interesting because you can see the story conferences going, well, they’re going to bring real storylines into The Office. And yet at the same time, do you think this – people watch because they don’t want to be reminded about what’s going on in the real world?

TURNER: Possibly. I mean, I think one other thing that’s been particularly depressing here, a friend of mine has this theory and I think it’s really smart, is that Jim, in early seasons of The Office, was sort of a bright-eyed, bushy-tailed eager young salesman who wasn’t getting his due, and one had the sense that maybe there was a great future ahead of him, maybe he was going to leave the dead end paper company and find a better job someday. And now he’s sort of graduated into senior management and he’s the co-boss with Michael Scott, played by Steve Carell, and you have the sense that he’s never going to move on with his life and he’s never going to leave Dunder Mifflin and there’s nothing brighter for him in the future. And I think that’s sort of a big – that theory just really rang true for me when I heard it. It’s a big letdown at the center of the show.

CAVANAUGH: Karla’s shaking her head yes.

PETERSON: Jim has lost his sparkle. Jim looks sad and frustrated. And I think we always held out Jim and Pam as kind of this ray of light, this sort of breath of fresh air, and they’re both sort of looking like, oh, man, is this our lives now? And I don’t think I want that.

TURNER: No, that is not what I want on Thursday night.

CAVANAUGH: How about 30 Rock, Julia? Has that maintained its quality?

TURNER: I think it’s still pretty strong. You know, I would say the episodes so far this season haven’t been the best ever but there’ve been some good ones. I will say I was disappointed as a Boston native with – they’ve had some cameos from Julianne Moore as a childhood crush of Alec Baldwin’s Jack Donaghy, and her Boston accent is not up to snuff.

CAVANAUGH: Ohh…

TURNER: So that’s been distracting me lately but I do still really like the show.

CAVANAUGH: That’s a hard accent to pull off.

TURNER: It surely is. I can’t even do one but I can hear when it’s wrong.

CAVANAUGH: Julia, the CBS show How I Met Your Mother had some plot twists this year that not everyone is thrilled with. What’s been happening on that show, and what’s your opinion about it?

TURNER: So How I Met Your Mother is a show – it’s basically like a Friends for the Oughts. It’s about a group of late-twenties, early-thirty-something friends living in New York, and their careers and their love lives and whatnot. And the show has been sustained for a long time by the performance of Neil Patrick Harris as Barney Stinson, an incredible and ridiculous ladies man who coins funny catch phrases and does – pulls ridiculous stunts to get women to sleep with him. But at the end of last season, they had Barney recognize that he was actually in love with one of the female characters on the show, Robin Scherbatsky played by Cobie Smulders, and, you know, they created, in the beginning of this season, a believable relationship between these two characters. And some fans thought it was interesting and wanted to watch it progress and I think other fans found it frustrating that the show could no longer rely on the antics of Barney Stinson. And very abruptly in one episode this season with no foreshadowing, Barney and Robin were broken up, and it’s caused a real schism, I think, among fans of the show. Some people said, hurrah, we’re back to Barney’s crazy ways, others said, you can’t – you spend seasons making us care about these characters and believe that they’re in love with each other and then just snap your fingers and say it’s all over. And I’m definitely in that latter camp. I’m not sure I’m even going to watch the show anymore. It’s really…

CAVANAUGH: Wow.

TURNER: It’s really been, you know, it still sounds a little ridiculous to care that much about these fictional people but, you know, I feel as though a con has been pulled on me. You made me believe that these characters were as weird as they are and that yet – that they still found happiness with each other and then you just went, poof, it’s all gone.

CAVANAUGH: Oh, so this is a deal breaker for you.

TURNER: I think it might be.

CAVANAUGH: That’s interesting. I want to move on to one of the most popular new shows this year is the Fox drama/comedy called Glee. Karla, could you describe this show for people who haven’t seen it?

PETERSON: Glee takes place in McKinley High School and it’s all about life among the nerds and the sort of displaced jocks and cheerleaders in this high school’s glee club. And you have an outrageously megalomaniac cheerleading coach played by Jane Lynch, who’s fabulous. And she’s always fighting with the wonderful nice guy glee club coach over who gets the cheerleaders, who gets the jocks, who gets the money from this cash-strapped school. And it’s just – it’s fun, it’s snarky, it’s heartwarming. And then you have all these glee club versions of popular pop and rock tunes. And it’s just – it’s a patch that really shouldn’t work. It should not work.

CAVANAUGH: Uh-huh.

PETERSON: And the fact that it does is one of the things that I love about it.

CAVANAUGH: Let’s hear a scene from Glee. This is one of the musical numbers featuring Will, the teacher, and Rachel, the overachieving glee club member. We also hear the inner monologues of some of the other glee club members who are watching them perform.

(audio clip from television show, Glee Club)

CAVANAUGH: And if a real glee club participant sounded like that, they’d already be in Hollywood.

PETERSON: Well, yeah, they do stretch it a little bit in the fact that many of these high school students look like they’re 30…

CAVANAUGH: Aha.

PETERSON: …and it is a little bit of a problem for some people but not for me. I’m willing to make the leap.

CAVANAUGH: Julia, does this work for you?

TURNER: I really wanted to like this show.

CAVANAUGH: Uh-huh.

TURNER: I’m a total sucker for all things musical, anything that involves a dance number I love. I’m like a completist on Step Up and How She Move and that kind of dance movie in general, and I like singing stuff too. This show turned me off in its early episodes with its misogyny. A lot of the female characters are terrible, terrible people. They’re either shrewish – the wife of the cute show choir coach lies to him and pretends that she’s pregnant as part of the some plot that I didn’t totally understand. There’s a cheerleader who is actually pregnant but lies to her boyfriend and says he’s the baby daddy when in fact that he’s not. Even the Jane Lynch character, I love Jane Lynch and she’s hilarious but she’s sort of this crazy, megalomaniacal evil character. And I just couldn’t quite get my head around it. They never – none of the women seemed to be actual genuine characters capable of a positive emotion. And I don’t know, maybe that’s changed over the course of the season. Should I give it another shot?

PETERSON: Well, I think some of your problems have been kind of solved in a real good karmic way. Will’s wife, who was horrible and was not believable at all, the whole pregnancy scam just came to light and it looks like they might be breaking up. Rah, for that. And the cheerleader character has softened and also kind of warmed up and broadened a lot. She’s not nearly the cliché that she seemed to be at first. And the cat is out of the bag about the real father of her child. So a lot of what bothered me also at the beginning has sort of been taken care of. And what hasn’t been taken care of yet, I’m still willing to let slide just because I love the feel of it, and I think it’s just – I love a show that’s heartwarming but really, really snarky at the same time. It’s a fun combination for me.

CAVANAUGH: This has cleaned up its act enough in the misogyny category that you’re comfortable watching this with your teenage daughter now, is that right?

PETERSON: I do. My daughter just turned 14 and it’s actually a family show in my house. You know, my husband, who’s not into musicals at all and didn’t think he would like the show, he loves it. My daughter’s 14, she loves it. And we get into some real interesting conversations about homosexuality, about how you can’t get pregnant from being in a Jacuzzi. I find that very useful, as a parent.

TURNER: Always a good lesson.

CAVANAUGH: A teaching moment.

PETERSON: It is. Many teaching moments in Glee.

CAVANAUGH: The music, where did they cull the music from for Glee? Is it all old standards like we just heard? Or…?

PETERSON: Not at all. It’s all over the map. You have Journey and then you’ll have Kanye West and you’ll have Rihanna, you’ll have Heart. It’s – I think that’s one of the things that I love about it because I’m a big radio and music junkie and I love what they do with the songs. So it’s a big mix.

CAVANAUGH: We’re surveying the best TV in the year 2009 and possibly some of the worst as well. My guests are Karla Peterson, television critic for the San Diego Union-Tribune, and Julia Turner, deputy editor of Slate.com. We have to take a short break and when we return, we may talk about your favorite shows. You’re listening to These Days on KPBS.

CAVANAUGH: Welcome back. I'm Maureen Cavanaugh. You're listening to These Days on KPBS. We’re talking about what’s been worth watching on television in 2009. My guests are Karla Peterson, television critic for the San Diego Union-Tribune, and Julia Turner, deputy editor of Slate.com. Let’s move on as we go through some of the most popular shows and talk about Mad Men. I know a lot of people are just crazy about this show. This year marked the third season and, Karla, do you think Mad Men has really hit its stride this year? Or did it fall off in your estimation?

PETERSON: Well, I think it really did hit its stride this year. I mean, the second season was incredible when we sort of found out about Don’s back story and how he became Don Draper, and that was fascinating. But in this season, we dealt with Betty and her dissatisfactions which I think finally coalesced. And then Don finally had to come out to Betty about his secret life because she stumbled upon some papers and suddenly the cat was out of the bag. And I was really, really happy to see that because I think there was a sort of a vacuum in their relationship because there was no truthfulness and suddenly the veil was ripped away and there you had it. And then you also had the assassination of President Kennedy, which sort of brought in a lot of sociological items and feelings and emotions. And then you had Sterling Cooper breaking up and a whole new ball starting to roll for next season. So I thought it was a pretty fascinating season.

CAVANAUGH: Julia, I’d like to get your take on what you think of the Draper marriage this third season on Mad Men.

TURNER: You know, it’s funny. I found myself rooting for the Draper marriage even thought it was empty and airless and truthless and awful. I mean, clearly awful. But for some reason, maybe it’s because I’ve been trained in watching television shows to root for the main man and the main woman to get together and perhaps it’s because I felt indignant on Betty’s behalf for the way the bum has run around on her for so many seasons, but I was interested in some kind of reconciliation and I thought that scene where Don is forced to tell the truth to Betty was incredibly powerful and incredibly well done. It must’ve been a tricky scene to write and stage and they really delivered a harrowing moment with tons of tension and great acting. But in the episodes that followed it looks like the couple is breaking up and headed for a proper divorce and I don’t know what we’re going to do with – when we have Don free to cat around and not constrained by suburban niceties. It’ll really change the tenor of the show I think.

CAVANAUGH: Interesting. You know, do you think there was something about this season set in the year 1963 that added to this mounting sort of tension, this theme through the year because of leading up to the Kennedy assassination? Did you have that feeling as you went through the year that they’re – you know, oh, this is coming up. We know it’s coming up. I wonder how they’re going to handle it? Karla? Oh, Julia.

TURNER: Oh, absolutely. I think that really informed everybody’s watching of the show this year. In, I think, the first or second episode, we see that one character’s wedding is going to take place the day after the assassination and, sure enough, and so we wonder, oh, are we going to get there? Are we going to see that scene? Or what – is it going to mess up the rehearsal dinner? You know, the seed is planted very early on. And there’s foreshadowings of that moment throughout the season in various costumes and in some of the ad campaigns that they create. So I certainly spent much of my viewing season wondering how they were going to handle it.

CAVANAUGH: Julia, we had you on the show a couple of months ago to talk about Mad Men and during that time we talked about whether or not Mad Men was actually taking on interesting social issues of the time, whether it had to do about race, or it had to do about gender relations or were they really just sort of playing around with these and making fashion statements, if you will, about what the world was like back then. Has that issue resolved itself in your mind at the end of this season?

TURNER: I think it’s still a little bit up in the air. I mean, I think that the fundamental question at the heart of Mad Men fandom is, is this a show with something interesting to say about the 1960s and about how we got from the prim ‘50s to the wild and crazy present, or is this a show that has obsessively observed that era and set a pretty cheap and lurid soap opera in kind of a jewel box of ‘60s style and iconography? And I think the show is still doing a little bit of both. I think there are some moments where when it tries to comment on the changes that were taking place within American society in the ‘60s it says things that are very pat and obvious. There’s a scene where some of Betty Draper and her white, suburban friends, where they’re at a party and they’re saying, oh, goodness, it’s terrible how this civil rights thing’s happening and about how could people be so cruel to, you know, to black people and then meanwhile Betty’s black maid is answering the door and taking coats in the shot behind them. And that felt a little bit on the nose to me, like it’s as if you are familiar with the period at all you’d think, right, northern or south, they were more enlightened than they were. There’s evidence of that. This isn’t actually changing my understanding of the ERA in any way.

CAVANAUGH: Right.

TURNER: On the other hand, some of the arcs really are complex and interesting. And one of my favorites this year was Pete Campbell. He’s sort of an entitled guy, not someone you would think of as a civil rights advocate. He’s a account sales guy at Sterling Cooper and he, in some ways, despite being a complete idiot about racial matters, having no racial sensitivity at all, sort of chatting up the black elevator operators in the office without understanding the power dynamic there, actually proposed an integrated ad campaign because he recognized that one of the – one of his accounts, Admiral Television, was being bought mostly by African American consumers. And so he asked, why are we making ads full of white people and placing them in magazines directed primarily at white people? And his bosses were shocked and horrified and said, we can’t go back to Admiral and tell them they need to start making ads for black people, that’s crazy. But it points out that some of the changes in the civil rights era were not made by starry-eyed idealists in the south. Some of them were made by ambitious pragmatist, you know, idiots in the north who were just trying to come up with a successful business strategy to save their jobs.

CAVANAUGH: And, Karla, are there any characters or story arcs on Mad Men that are particular favorites of yours?

PETERSON: Well, I was very, very happy at the end of the season to see Joan back because she’s – I’m fascinated by Joan. There cannot be enough Joan in Mad Men for me.

CAVANAUGH: Tell us about Joan.

PETERSON: Joan is—was—the office manager at Sterling Cooper and she’s a total bombshell but she’s also really, really smart. She knows where all the skeletons are buried, she knows how everything works. She’s the only one in the office who really knows how to make things work. And at the end of the season when Sterling Cooper kind of – when there was a coup, essentially, and Don took some of his – the best people and ran, he really had no idea how to start an office. He didn’t know where the – nobody knew where the paper was. Nobody knew where anything was. And Don said I’m going to take care of this, I’m going to make a call. And suddenly Joan shows up and she’s already rented, you know, she’s already gotten a hotel where they can set up, she’s already rented furniture. She’s going to find an unfurnished – a furnished apartment for Don because his marriage broke up. And it just was – she just came in and she looks fabulous and she knows how to make things work. And I think this means that she is going to be a big player again next season because she was a little sidelined this year because she was married and she had to leave the office. So, to me, Joan being back is wonderful, and I’m very excited about this new satellite operation of Don’s that’s working out of, I think, the Pierre Hotel. So it’s looking good, I think.

CAVANAUGH: And they’re – her relationship with Roger is interesting and there’s been foreshadowing about their relationship, Karla.

PETERSON: Their relationship is fascinating. You know, Don – not Don, Roger…

CAVANAUGH: Yeah.

PETERSON: …divorced his wife and then married Don’s secretary…

CAVANAUGH: Yeah.

PETERSON: …who’s a lush, I think, and way, way, way too young for Roger, and before that Roger had been having an affair with Joan, and I think he really, really cares about her and respects her. And I think Joan really cares about him, so they have this interesting dynamic where there’s a lot of sexual tension but there seems to be mutual respect and affection. And if they can make that work in some interesting way, I think we’re going to be in for a really wonderful plotline but it’s going to be delicate. It’s a very subtle relationship. And I’ll be interested to see what they do with it.

CAVANAUGH: Do we see a Roger-Joan pair-up, do you think, Julia?

TURNER: I can only dream. They’re the most delightful couple on television.

PETERSON: It should all – it just should be Roger and Joan all the time.

TURNER: Well, I also learned this season, I didn’t realize this, but the woman who plays Roger’s wife that he divorced, Mona, is actually his wife in real life.

CAVANAUGH: Oh, I didn’t know that.

TURNER: Or, actually, is actually the actor’s wife in real life.

CAVANAUGH: Yes, that’s sort of surprising.

TURNER: I thought it was great. It sort of explains why he still has sort of magical chemistry with his divorced wife in addition to the chemistry he has with Joan. I mean, he’s such a delightful center of the show. He has chemistry with everybody, he has chemistry with the, you know, the underlings he’s putting down. And he was also sidelined a little bit this season as he sort of became less central to the operations at Sterling Cooper so I think now that Sterling Cooper Draper Price is a smaller operation with fewer extra hands on board, we’ll see him doing more, and I’m happy about that, too.

CAVANAUGH: Why do you think, Julia, this show is so popular?

TURNER: It looks good, the plots are good. You know, it’s – I don’t know, it’s just addictive.

CAVANAUGH: That’s enough. That’s enough. And, you know, Karla, Mad Men was first offered to HBO and they turned it down.

PETERSON: Whoopsie.

CAVANAUGH: Yeah. Has HBO’s domination waned a little bit or is their reputation still unassailable?

PETERSON: I think they’re still doing pretty well. It’s unfortunate that they had Hung this year. I’m not a fan of that. But they had In Treatment, which I think is wonderful. They still have Big Love for another season or two at least. And I think that’s very, very promising, both those shows. And then David Simon, the creator of The Wire, has a new show Tremaine (sic), about New Orleans, I believe it’s coming out next year. And so I think HBO still has some real quality programming but they have to share a lot of the quality TV spotlight with, ironically, the cable networks that have really followed in their footsteps. You know, Showtime has some good stuff now, AMC took Mad Men and AMC has Breaking Bad, and even TNT has Men of a Certain Age, which I think is really, really good. So HBO, ironically, has to compete with all of the premium cable networks and the non-premium cable networks who are also creating quality dramas.

CAVANAUGH: Karla, what did you like on Showtime this year?

PETERSON: Well, I keep wanting to like Dexter and it keeps not working. But I admire that it’s there. And I also wanted to like Nurse Jackie more than I did but I still think that there was some really good stuff in there and Edie Falco was amazing. So those are both really, really strong shows, not shows that I love personally but shows that I’m very glad are kind of out there.

CAVANAUGH: Well, one of HBO’s rather surprise hits of this year is True Blood, that’s the southern vampire soap opera we mentioned earlier in the program. Julia, what do you like about this show?

TURNER: It’s a little hard to explain. I mean, it’s an interesting departure for HBO because I think most of HBO’s great shows have also been about larger themes. And The Wire was a police procedural but it was also an amazing drama about the state of the American city. The Sopranos was about power and family and the mob and even Curb Your Enthusiasm is about, you know, power and Hollywood and in an interesting way. True Blood is not about anything. True Blood has no bearing on reality. It has occasionally touched a few political nerves here and there but it is basically a southern gothic soap opera horror thriller about vampires and werewolves and shapeshifters and, you know, ancient Dionysian goddesses that have come back to wreak havoc upon us all. And it’s utterly ridiculous. It sort of doesn’t have the gravitas that I feel HBO has tried to have at the core of its shows for awhile. And it’s been an incredible success. Season One did pretty well last summer but this summer of 2009, Season Two just took off and had ratings that were unprecedented for HBO for a long time anyhow. And, you know, I resisted soapiness at first but now I’ve kind of gone along for the ride. I think some of the performances are great, particularly the actor who plays Jason Stackhouse, the brother of the lead Anna Paquin, Sookie Stackhouse. The show has a lot of fun with people’s southern pronounciations of her name, Soo-kay.

CAVANAUGH: Now, Kar – Soo-kay, yeah. Karla, you’re not a big fan of True Blood, are you?

PETERSON: You know, I feel the same way about True Blood that Julia felt about Glee. It should be my show.

CAVANAUGH: Uh-huh.

PETERSON: I’m a sucker for all things supernatural, including the show Supernatural, which I love. And I like Vampire Diaries even though I’m not remotely in the CW demographic. But True Blood it’s just such a pulpy mishmash for me. I mean, I just – I had a hard time with the very first episode which had this very weird mix of sex and humor and really, really heavy violence and I never quite got over that. So the couple of times that I’ve checked in, I like it well enough but I just don’t feel the need to stick with it. There’s something about it that bugs me and I think it might be what Julia was saying, it’s sort of like not – no bearing in reality, no purpose, really, for being there. It’s got this great pulpy, overbaked atmosphere that people really, really like that I happen to not be one of them.

CAVANAUGH: We have to take a short break and when we come back, we’ll hear a clip from True Blood. Stay with us. You’re listening to These Days on KPBS.

CAVANAUGH: Welcome back. I'm Maureen Cavanaugh. You're listening to These Days on KPBS. My guests are Karla Peterson and Julia Turner. We’re talking about TV in 2009 and we were just talking about the HBO show True Blood. We have a clip from that show. This is the beefcake character, his name is Jason Stackhouse, and the Reverend Steve Newlin of the church Fellowship of the Sun. They are in the church basement looking through the arsenal of weapons amassed in the hopes of killing vampires.

(audio of clip from HBO series True Blood)

CAVANAUGH: That’s a clip from the HBO show True Blood. Even with that arsenal, still not enough to kill all the vampires on TV this year. Lots and lots of them coming out of everywhere. Julia, does this confirm why you like the show True Blood, that clip?

TURNER: I think that’s a good clip because it gets a sense of the overblown style of the show.

CAVANAUGH: Uh-huh.

TURNER: One thing you can’t really hear in the clip is that Jason Stackhouse is – has very mixed feelings about vampires. He befriended one in Season, I think, Season One and then ended up killing him and regrets it and so in this scene he’s sort of halfway the wild-eyed good old boy who’s excited about the prospect of using all this weaponry but he’s also kind of haunted by guilt about the vampire he killed and he conveys with his face more than you hear in his voice, I think, of the ambiguity in his feelings.

CAVANAUGH: Well, another big genre on TV this year besides vampires continues to be reality television. It apparently is now a full blown staple in the television landscape. Karla, how do you think reality television changed or influenced our entire culture this year?

PETERSON: Well, I think this was really the year that the whole idea of extreme people television really kind of exploded in a not good way. It seems as though with especially all the cable stations, everybody’s fighting to grab our wayward eyeballs and in the process they’re doing more and more extreme programming about people who aren’t on television for any reason except for the fact that they’ve done something rather extreme. They’ve had a whole bunch of kids or they’re really obese or they throw their 16 year old daughters ridiculous 16th birthday parties. And so I think it encourages people who are looking for some little piece of the same pie to push the envelope and to be outrageous and then you end up with things like Balloon Boy, you know, the parents engineering this whole hoax in the hopes of getting a reality show. Or the party crashers in Washington, D.C. because they were hoping to get on the Real Housewives of Washington, D.C. So I think what you’re getting is television that encourages people to act in really extreme ways so that they can get on TV and I can’t see that getting any better.

CAVANAUGH: Julia, I’d like to get your take on that, Karla’s idea of reality television smashing into real reality, becoming part of the Cable News Network cycle.

TURNER: Yeah, I’ve had my head under a rock trying to avoid all these television shows. I just can’t stand them. I mean, I think it’s troubling the kinds of people that you see pulling more and more extreme stunts in an effort to win their 15 minutes of fame on some absurd reality television show. And the way that I handle that is just to stick with reality television that’s about competitions. I like sort of the Project Runway, Top Chef, American Idol breed of reality show where people are attempting to show how good they are at a particular skill or talent as opposed to how audaciously they conduct their lives.

CAVANAUGH: Yeah, and apparently the Emmys like Intervention. They liked that show. They gave it an award.

PETERSON: Well, Intervention is a really interesting show, I think. I mean, it deals with people who have major drug and alcohol problems, also other types of addiction and it really does burrow into their lives and burrow into their problems. And that’s very different, I think, from something like I Didn’t Know I Was Pregnant, which is actually a show.

CAVANAUGH: Yes, it is.

PETERSON: And that, I mean, especially you look at TLC and you look at their lineup and you think is this a show? I Didn’t Know I Was Pregnant? Yes, it’s a show. And it’s apples and oranges really because Intervention is very, very thoughtful and I think they really do try and deal with people’s issues. And I Didn’t Know I Was Pregnant, I mean, I don’t even know what to say about that.

CAVANAUGH: Yeah. Yeah, I understand. Well, it’s amazing what you can find yourself watching, though, she said, as she watched Parking Wars.

PETERSON: And that’s a show.

CAVANAUGH: Yes, it is.

PETERSON: That’s a show that’s having what, it’s second or third season?

CAVANAUGH: Yes. Yes, I have to say I do know. But, Julia, what – so your idea of good reality television is So You Think I Can Dance or something along those lines?

TURNER: Yeah, I’m a fan of Project Runway.

CAVANAUGH: Umm-hmm.

TURNER: I’ve watched various cycles of even America’s Next Top Model, with a, quote, unquote, talent as diffuse and odd as modeling. I think you really do see in that show these untutored girls getting better at the skill of modeling whatever that is. You do see them figure out how to take better photographs and how to walk better and as silly as that profession may be, it’s fun to watch people trying to achieve something. For me, that’s much more fun than watching in fear that they’re about to make even more of a train wreck out of their own lives which is why I’ve steered clear of the Real Housewives genre of…

CAVANAUGH: Right.

TURNER: …of television.

CAVANAUGH: Do you think, however, that that’s the direction reality program is taking though, that Housewives direction?

TURNER: They seem like two pretty healthy strains to me. I mean, the competition shows are very popular, too, so I’m sure there will be a proliferation of the extreme reality that Karla’s been talking about but I’m hopeful that the slightly more constrained ‘look, mom, I’m good at this’ variety of reality show will keep going strong.

CAVANAUGH: And would you, Karla, actually recommend any reality programs?

PETERSON: Oh, of course. I mean, I’m right there with Julia. There’s some terrific – especially the competitive reality shows where you’re seeing talented people do what they’re good at. I love American Idol, I love So You Think You Can Dance. Also, Top Chef I think is terrific. Project Runway had an iffy season on Lifetime this year but it’s back in January and I have great hopes that it will be really good again. So the joy of watching talented people do something amazing, I don’t get tired of that at all. My problem is with these really cheap reality shows where you get people who are not good at anything, they just want to be on television. And the way you can get on television in those shows is by being extreme, and I have a really hard time with them. So, you know, American Idol, yes. You know, Parking Lot Wars, no.

CAVANAUGH: Okay. I’ll have to clean up my act then.

PETERSON: No more Parking Lot Wars for you.

CAVANAUGH: Well, speaking of American Idol, we shouldn’t forget one reality television star from this year, hometown favorite, San Diego born, Adam Lambert. Karla, explain why Adam Lambert made waves this year.

PETERSON: Well, he made waves in several waves. His first wave really came on American Idol. He really pushed the envelope as far as performance goes. He probably put on the most theatrical, the most boundary-busting performances ever, I think, in American Idol history. And he probably had a more amazing vocal range than any previous contestant. It’s astounding the notes that he can hit. So that was the good news. He came in second to Chris Allen, which considering, you know, that Adam had his eyeliner going and his jewelry and his black nail polish, very, very Goth, very gender bending, the fact that in such a middle American show that he could come in second was actually pretty amazing. So that was kind of the first wave of Adam. And then the second wave of Adam came just recently on the American Music Awards when he performed towards the end of the show and kind of pushed the envelope. He is openly gay and he kissed his keyboard player and—I believe it was the keyboard player—one of the male musicians. Kissed him. Kind of did a little crotch thing with another performer, and kind of all heck broke loose. There was an FCC complaint. ABC canceled a bunch of his performances. And so now he’s having to do a lot of damage control.

CAVANAUGH: In your estimation was his performance really that shocking, Karla?

PETERSON: I think what bothered me about that performance was not really that it was shocking so much as it was kind of self-consciously provoking. He’s much better than that. And I think that it’s unfortunate that now everybody’s spending time talking about the performance and not talking about what a terrific vocalist he is and how much promise that he has. So I think if you, you know, don’t watch a lot of other kinds of television, it might’ve been a little shocking but to me it just was distracting and self-conscious in a way that he was not on American Idol.

CAVANAUGH: Well, as you say, he went on shows to do a mea culpa and here he is on the daytime talk show The View.

(audio clip from The View, Barbara Walters and other panelists interviewing Adam Lambert)

CAVANAUGH: That is the ladies of The View talking to San Diego’s own Adam Lambert about his provocative performance and, Karla, I’m wondering do you think that this will affect Adam Lambert’s chances for mainstream success?

PETERSON: You know, I’m not sure it will. I think he learned from that very, very quickly. And if you’ve seen any of his performances lately, he’s not even doing that song anymore. He’s doing a much more subdued ballad. He…

CAVANAUGH: Just in case he gets…

PETERSON: Just in case…

CAVANAUGH: …he gets overcome by the lyrics again.

PETERSON: You know, he’s not really toning down his style at all. He was on So You Think You Can Dance the other night and he had the full-on eyeliner and what appeared to be high heel spats. But it was a beautiful performance. And I think that he learned early that, you know, whoa, I need to kind of back off a little bit. And I don’t think it’s going to be a career-damaging problem for him.

CAVANAUGH: Okay. I’ve been told that I’m kind of up against the clock here. Julia, I wonder, before we run out of time, is there a show you really like you want to let people know about?

TURNER: Yes, there is. I would love for people to pay more attention to a show called Make It or Break It, which appeared on ABC Family this summer. It’s a drama aimed, I think, mostly at teenage girls and it follows the lives of high-powered gymnastics stars as they train for an Olympics at a gymnastics gym in Colorado. And it’s a little bit soapy and a little bit ridiculous and a little bit schlocky but it’s very, very fun. And if you’re one of those people who can’t wait for the 2012 Olympics and your fix of gymnastics action, it’s a really good show. I mean, in some ways it has that same spirit of watching people try to achieve things and it’s a show about teenage girls that’s not all about – it’s not Gossip Girls, it’s not all about sex and boys, it’s about girls really trying to achieve something serious and then balance their lives in the wake of it.

CAVANAUGH: And, Karla, in our final seconds, a TV show you’d like to recommend?

PETERSON: I would like to recommend the Vampire Diaries, believe it or not. It’s on the CW and it’s very, very stylish. The acting is a lot better than you would ever think. It’s very, very good. It’s funny. It’s pop culturally aware and very, very enthralling. So lots of great cheekbones on that show but some really good dialogue as well.

CAVANAUGH: I want to thank you both. Julia Turner is deputy editor of Slate.com. Karla Peterson is television critic for San Diego Union-Tribune. Thank you both so much for speaking with us about TV in 2009.

PETERSON: Thank you.

TURNER: Thanks.

CAVANAUGH: Stay with us for Film Club of the Air. You’re listening to These Days on KPBS.

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