Links to Some of My Writing about TV

Hi! I write about TV and other things (but mostly TV). Here are recent pieces (and conversations) I’d love you to check out!

During the last 16 years or so, I was a TV critic at Variety, at HuffPost, and at the Chicago Tribune. Everything I wrote at Variety, from fall 2015 to spring 2018, is collected here. Here is a selection of pieces from the last few years that I would love for you to read:

In case it’s of interest, I have an Instagram (warning: It’s mostly pictures of my travels, animals and pretty flowers). Three other things before I get to the next section: One, I frequently get the questions, “How did you become a TV critic? How could I get into the writing-about-TV game?” and I’ve addressed those queries in this post. Two, I still love TV and, as you can see from the links above, I’m still writing about it, reporting on it and even doing the occasional review, but I’m no longer reviewing TV full time, and this Vanity Fair article explains why. Three, if you’d like to know more about my life and tattoos, this post from 2013 is from the middle of my family-pocalypsethis is about life stuff and my arm tattoos, and this is what I wrote when my mom died in 2016. More tattoo content: This is my back piece.

Before I joined Variety, I was the TV critic for Huffington Post. Quite a bit of that work is here. You can also find the HP pieces here, and there are archives going back to 2011 on the right side of that page. Until the fall of 2010, I was the TV critic for the Chicago Tribune. All the links to my work there are gone now.  Not great, Bob.

Here’s a long 2007 feature on the production of “Friday Night Lights.” I visited the set in Austin way back in Season 1, and was moved and delighted to write about the way they shot the show and how that influenced the intimacy of its vibe. To this day, that long FNL feature is one of my favorite things I’ve ever gotten to do. Texas Forever. 

My extensive “Lost” coverage was sent into an island vortex by the publication I worked for then. I have to go back… and try to figure out what to revive from that era on this site.

The drama that might be closest to my heart – and the show I’ve almost certainly written about more than any other – is “Battlestar Galactica.” For “BSG’s” final run of episodes, I interviewed the writer of each episode and also offered my own thoughts; those posts are long but I so enjoyed doing them (and now that they have disappeared into a black hole, I may post them here eventually). Perhaps the most extensive entry into that array of final-season coverage is an in-depth, post-finale interview with executive producer Ron Moore; that piece also contains my thoughts on the finale as well as comments from actors Edward James Olmos and Mary McDonnell. In late 2013, I interviewed Moore again, on the 10th anniversary of “BSG’s” debut, and you can find that conversation in both story and podcast form.  I still miss Adama and Roslin and Saul damn Tigh. So say we all.  

I wrote a ton about “Breaking Bad” back in the day; here are a few links to some pieces I wrote during the show’s home stretch. I’m still not over “Ozymandias.”

By the way, I used to be half of a podcast duo: “Talking TV with Ryan and Ryan” is over – and if you ever listened, thank you. And you can still listen, if it’s new to you. It usually consisted of Ryan McGee and I blathering about whatever shows we were into (or not into) at that moment in time. Sometimes the podcasts contain interviews with actors and TV writers. (You can search the podcast’s site for show names.) This podcast (which is also on iTunes) may just be in your wheelhouse.

In addition to the ones names above, of course there are dozens of shows I want you to watch and catch up on and love. I don’t have time to list them all, but here are a few worth mentioning: I wrote quite a bit about Spartacus over the years – interviews and reviews and a “what to watch before you binge it on Netflix” explainer. If you think you’re too good for “Spartacus” and that “Spartacus” is something you should sneer at, think again.

More content for you:  “Wynonna Earp” makes me smile every damn time (and the first two seasons are on Netflix, woo!), “Peaky Blinders,” “Crazy Ex-Girlfriend,” “Rectify” “Happy Valley” are also on Netflix, “You’re the Worst” is on Hulu (as is the cult gem “Mary Kills People“), get into “The Americans” via Amazon for Lenin’s sake (comrades, that final season!!) “The Returned” is magnificently cry-inducing and weird, “Banshee” and “Strike Back” both had wobbly final seasons but were really worth watching before that.

Comedy is so good in recent years that I wrote a big piece in 2016 about how half-hour shows are crushing it even more than drama (it’s good to live in a world in which half-hours as varied as “Atlanta,” “One Day at a Time,” “Brooklyn Nine-Nine” and “The Good Place”  are so consistently excellent). More raves! “Killjoys” is my sci-fi jam and “Killing Eve” is amazing. As previously stated, I am a megafan of “Jane the Virgin.” Oh, also, “Black-ish!” (And more “Black-ish”!)

Some of the shows listed above are a little bit obscure, but I watch and like a lot of popular dramas as well! Some of them are on my end-of-year Best TV lists. Here’s my 2016 Top 20 list (I ranked shows for the first time! Exciting! I did not rank programs on two other lists of very good shows from that year). Here’s my 2015 Top 20 list (which contains links to two other lists of very good shows from that year). Also, feel free to check out my 2014 Top TV list, my 2013 Top TV list and 2012 Top TV list, all of which you can treat as rosters full of viewing suggestions. Finally, follow me on Twitter if you want the full scope of my daily obsessions, enthusiasms and rants. (Spoiler: I post a lot of pictures of foxes.)

But wait, there’s more! Here are a few reported stories worth noting:

Representation of women and people of color as TV showrunners for the 2016-2017 broadcast network season and what those dire statistics mean for the pipeline of future TV creators.

Representation of women and people of color as TV directors: The amount of scripted TV has doubled in the past five years, but guess who is directing most of it? I bet you don’t have to guess. If you only read one or two sidebars from this story, make it the ACLU interview and/or the roundup of comments from TV directors.

[Addendum to the directors story: If you think real change is not possible when it comes to diversity and inclusion in the TV industry, think again. This story proves that significant improvements are indeed possible. Everyone in the TV industry should take note.]

Representation of women in writers’ rooms. Spoiler alert: The percentages are not great. (This story is a couple years old but … yeah. Still not great.)

Film world bonus! Check out the stats on the writers and directors of “Star Wars.” I love “Star Wars” a lot. Its writers and directors are almost all white guys.

Representation of women and people of color as creators at prestige-drama outlets. Spoiler alert: I’ll let Sisko take this one.

[Four years later update: HBO has changed its ways – everyone in the TV industry should take note. I’m leaving Sisko in place because there’s much more work to be done.]

See You On the Other Side: My Battlestar Galactica Post-Finale Interviews and Review

This piece was originally published March 14, 2009. The publication I worked for then let the post lapse into the void. But there were many copies.

Can you believe it’s really over? I can’t either. Before accepting that fact, let’s talk and think and write about the finale way too much. Here goes…

Part 1: The interview with Moore

MR: I think one thing that threw me about the finale was that it was hopeful.

RDM: [laughs] There were a fair number of people that were prepared for the most nihilistic [finale ever].

MR: “You’re going to kill them all, aren’t you!?”

RDM: I know.

MR: It’s the ultimate sucker punch of “Battlestar Galactica” — that it ends on a hopeful note.

RDM: Yeah, it’s true. It’s the final twist. The final twist is — that it’s all OK. 

MR: Talk to me about that whole second Earth thing. That kind of gave me pause me when I saw it.

RDM: It was built into the show when we decided to get to Earth. This was always the plan – the plan was to get to Earth, have it be a cinder, and then go, “God, where now?” And take the audience on this other journey and make them forget about that and not think about it. Because the concept of the show was to search for a place called Earth.

So we wanted to give that to you before you expected it and make it a downer and [have you go,] “Oh shoot, now what?” And now you’re really adrift. [The intention was] to put the audience with the characters, where they were really adrift and not hoping that anything better was going to happen.

And at the very last, at the very end, to then have a moment of hope, to have something to hang on to, and to give them the thing that they had quested for for so long, and to give that to the audience too.

MR: And so it’s as if this Earth is an homage to the other Earth, the first one.

RDM: I thought there was something interesting about that. This isn’t the original Earth. We’re actually [living on] an homage, as you said, to the original Earth. They come here and try to learn a lesson from the original Earth and make this Earth a better story.

MR: So the question is, did they learn their lesson?

RDM: Exactly. And the show could not answer that. It didn’t feel right for the show, like [happens] with so many things, to give a definitive answer to that. Any more than the show said, “This is the answer to terrorism, this is the answer to Iraq, these are the answers to security and freedom.” It gets to a place where you have an opportunity and you have a hope, but you couldn’t definitively say, “It’s going to be OK.”

MR: I went back and watched the closing moments of “Crossroads, Part 2” again, and the final image is of a planet that looks a lot like Earth. How does that fit in to what we see in “Daybreak”? Can you walk me through that?

RDM: That was all specifically thought out. The planet that you see at the end of “Crossroads” is this planet that we stand on. It has the North American continent and the South American [continent], it’s very clear, we wanted it to be visually easy to identify for everybody.

Kara takes them to both Earths, as a matter of fact. She takes them to the original Earth, which, when we showed it in Revelations, we were careful to never quite be able to identify the land masses from orbit. We wanted you to accept it as Earth, and most people assumed it was this Earth, but we didn’t want to flat out mislead you, so we didn’t want to have it look like North America too.

MR: So Kara comes back in “Crossroads,” she says, “I’ve been to Earth”…

RDM: She had been to that Earth. The original Earth.

MR: The crispy Earth.

RDM: She guided the fleet to get there. She takes us to that. That’s part of her experience that she remembers. She remembers traveling there, seeing there, and comes back to the fleet saying, “I know how to get to that place.”

In the finale, she makes an intuitive leap connecting the music as coordinates, enters the into the jump computer and those coordinates take us to the second Earth, this place.

MR: It was a little bit of a fakeout, you have to admit.

RDM: Yeah, we did a head fake. But I don’t think it crosses the line, I don’t think it’s unduly misleading. I think you accept it as you go along. And clearly [we] wanted people to draw the connection that it was going to be this Earth, but we also didn’t put anything in the show that prevented us from doing the finale the way we wanted to.

Continue reading “See You On the Other Side: My Battlestar Galactica Post-Finale Interviews and Review”

A 2007 Friday Night Lights Set Visit: Witnessing the How the Magic Was Made

This piece was originally published March 20, 2007. 

AUSTIN, Texas — A dusty field in Texas. A ramshackle house in a cash-strapped part of town. The cramped, battered office of a high school guidance counselor.

They’re all unlikely places for a creative revolution, but there’s no other way to describe what’s happening on the set of “Friday Night Lights,” NBC’s acclaimed series about life in the small town of Dillon, Texas.

Far from the bright lights of Hollywood, in vibrant yet laid-back Austin, the actors, writers and directors of the show have created one of the most realistic, subtle, enthralling dramas on any screen, large or small. And they’ve done it on this first-year show by breaking many of the rules of television.

“When I first came on [the ‘FNL’] set, I thought, it’s interesting — this is what I imagined filmmaking would be, before I saw what filmmaking was,” says executive producer Jason Katims, the show’s head writer and a veteran of beloved cult series such as “Roswell” and “My So-Called Life.”

“What I imagined it would be was, people moving really fast, actors trying this and trying that, everybody being very excited, and it being very creative and it being a place to sort of discover things. That’s what I thought it would be, and this is the first time I actually saw it work that way.”

Indeed, a visit to the set of “Friday Night Lights,” which touches on the fortunes of the Dillon High School Panthers football team but is much more about the lives of the residents of the town, demonstrates that the show’s creative process is like nothing else on television.

There are no fancy lighting setups. Actors are not only allowed but encouraged to improvise their lines. Every single scene is shot in real locations, unlike most TV series, which use prefabricated sets. And with inspiration from what director of photography David Boyd calls “gonzo documentary guys” such as D.A. Pennebaker and David and Albert Maysles, three cameras simultaneously record the action, capturing nuances and moments that many other shows ignore in their forced march to the next plot point.

It took a little time to settle into its groove — even NBC entertainment president Kevin Reilly says he got a little tired of the show’s “jiggly camera” style, which has been toned down since the pilot.

But over the past six months, as it has unfurled surprising, deeply human stories about an injured quarterback suing his coach; a high school boy’s attempt to care for his sick grandmother; and one couple’s attempt to raise a spirited, smart daughter while dealing with the pressures of modern life, “Friday Night Lights” has quickly become appointment television for a growing number of critics and fans.

One of several fan sites devoted to campaigning for a second “FNL” season, fightforlights.com, has collected dozens of the show’s critical raves, and a recent Tribune column on the show prompted an outpouring of more than 100 positive emails and message-board comments from readers.

“Everything about the show just feels so natural and real, which is a rarity on TV. It’s not about quippy one-liners or bombastic arguments,” one commenter wrote. “All of the characters are flawed, some more than others. But all of it is beautiful to watch.”

Though the “FNL” audience has hovered around 7 million viewers, well below NBC’s expectations, its viewers are positively rabid about the show, as Reilly well knows.

“I just got an e-mail today forwarded to me from one of the heads of one of the major advertising agencies — and I literally get a version of this every day — saying this is the best television show in years, or the best television show on the air,” Reilly says.

“Everything’s real, and all the relationships [make you] feel like you know these people,” says Scott Porter, who plays former Panther quarterback Jason Street, the character who was paralyzed in the show’s first episode. “I think that’s why people who watch the show have such a strong connection to it.”

But if fans travel to Austin to find the show’s fancy soundstages, they’ll be out of luck. There is a bare-bones production office on the outskirts of the city, but there is no soundstage, there are no sets.

All scenes are shot in houses, businesses and stores in and around Austin, which is where you’ll find the gritty high school that doubles as the home of the Dillon Panthers, the tiny house that quarterback Matt Saracen (Evanston’s Zach Gilford) shares with his grandma, and the fast-food joint that doubles as one of the show’s hangouts, the Alamo Freeze.

On the farthest outskirts of Austin on a recent February evening, klieg lights and cranes carrying a rainmaking machine were poised like towering robots over that day’s set, which recently had been home to a herd of cows, judging by what was underfoot. In the March 28 episode, which was filming that night, circumstances force the residents of Dillon to build an improvised football field for an important Panthers game.

On the sidelines, Tim and Billy Riggins —actors Taylor Kitsch and Derek Phillips — tossed perfect spirals at each other during breaks in the filming. Extras wandered around in Dillon Panther shirts and waved pennants during the big plays, which were filmed until the wee hours. As the night wore on and this “Mud Bowl” episode lived up to its name, the actors playing the Panther team members and coaches were soaked by the rain and covered in mud. Nobody minded.

Addressing the show’s critical acclaim and glowing press notices, Kyle Chandler, who plays Coach Eric Taylor, said in an interview the next day, “I don’t think anyone’s going, ‘Oh, well, now I’m going to get this new car.’ I think all the actors on this show love the process more than anything we’ll get out of it in the long run. I love this process. It’s an actor’s dream.”

Shooting in real locations in Texas has given the show an authentic feel that it would never have had in Los Angeles, says Chandler, who was raised in a small town in Georgia.

“When you live in this town, you are from Texas. You’re experiencing and feeling it,” Chandler said. “Austin is a great place. It’s not hard to get ideas for your character when you just go to breakfast across the street.”

But there’s far more to the show than a palpable sense of place. The show’s actors and directors have unprecedented freedom to change lines, alter scenes and improvise moments that feel true to the moment and to their characters. And the show’s writers, who’ve come up with some of the most nuanced, compelling story lines on television (most of which don’t have a thing to do with football, despite the show’s origins as H.G. Bissinger’s non-fiction account of a real Texas high school football team), are fine with those improvised alterations.

“Truthfully, 95 percent of the time, the actors are only lifting up what we originally envisioned as writers,” says Katims. “Every once in a while, you’ll be like, ‘I wanted that line because I wanted that transition.’ But you work it out.”

But on most shows, changing one line – heck, one word — of dialogue can lead to tense negotiations between actors, director and writers.

“Normally you’ve got a writer sitting there, watching every single word,” says Jesse Plemons, who plays Landry Clarke.

In the tiny high school guidance counselor’s office that serves as the office of Dillon High School counselor Tami Taylor (Connie Britton), the quest to convey the emotional truth of a scene and not just recite each word as scripted was demonstrated again and again.

In the scene being shot that night, for a different upcoming episode, Landry is struggling to tell Taylor, a Dillon guidance counselor, about a friend who has been physically attacked. Taylor’s comforting words change slightly with each take. And the words Landry is struggling for come out differently every time; he doesn’t want to reveal the friend’s name, and at one point, Taylor thinks he may have been the one who was assaulted. The words keep changing, but the emotional impact only grows as Britton and Plemons mine the difficult emotions at the heart of this moment.

“We try to definitely hit all the points in a scene, but we’re allowed to change the lines around to kind of fit us and fit our characters,” says Plemons.

Continue reading “A 2007 Friday Night Lights Set Visit: Witnessing the How the Magic Was Made”