Tom Shales, TV critic revered and feared, dies at 79

Tom Shales, TV critic revered and feared, dies at 79

Tom Shales, the Pulitzer Prize-winning television critic for The Washington Post, whose scalpel-edged dissection of shows that left him dead on arrival earned him nicknames like the Terror of the Tube, as well as a reputation for having the power to make or break a show. Millie died Saturday in Alexandria, Virginia. He was 79 years old.

Longtime colleague and friend James Andrew Miller said he died of COVID complications in a hospice.

Despite working hard in a political city far from the entertainment industry’s coastal capitals, Mr. Shales wielded considerable influence during his three-decade career that began in 1977 as The Post’s chief television critic.

Those whose fortunes were tied to the small screen considered him both kingmaker and high executioner in an era when network television’s grip on American culture was so strong as to be almost crushing.

“He has been described as brilliant, thoughtful, incisive and extremely funny,” Time magazine saw In 1981, he was nicknamed “Terrible Tom, the TV Tiger”. “Also, evil, infuriating, cruel and unfair. NBC chairman Fred Silverman no longer returns his calls. His thrice-weekly Washington Post TV column, ‘On the Air,’ which is syndicated to 59 other newspapers, caused gnashing of teeth in Hollywood and outrage at network headquarters in Manhattan.

To celebrate Mr. Shales’s 25th anniversary at the newspaper, The Post’s publisher, Katharine Graham, hosted a party at her home, attended by the likes of Dan Rather, Connie Chung and Conan O’Brien. According to a report in Washingtonian magazine, Ms. Graham explained the star-studded turnout in one word: “Fear.”

No surprise. By making the prose so colorful that it appeared to be written in neon, it had the power to destroy.

In a 1987 review of “The Morning Program,” CBS’s latest attempt to compete with the “Today” show, he wrote that “few TV shows are less demanding of review than exorcisms.”

“It was like waking up and finding the house packed with guests from last night’s party,” he said, adding, “Most of them were huffing and puffing as they walked out.”

In A column from 2005 Of ABC’s “Grey’s Anatomy”, he wrote that it seemed little more than a combination of “scenes from past medical shows already ad infinitum and ad nauseam” and that it was “a ‘new’ only in this sense.” The show was Dr. Frankenstein’s Monster was a New Man.

After working as a cast member on the Fox teen drama “The OC” in 2003 “Moody, moon-faced wretch,” The show began with a hospital scene featuring a patient named Tom Shales who is incontinent. “I consider it an honor,” Mr. Shales said in an interview with the Page Six gossip section of the New York Post. “This is a TV critic’s only shot at immortality.”

He was a magnet for furious phone calls from sitcom stars and network titans. ,So-and-so will call, and he’ll say to me, ‘Come on the other line, it’s going to be good,'” Mr. Miller, who worked on the television team with Mr. Shales at the Post in the 1980s, said in a phone interview. . “This guy would literally curse at him for 20 minutes, and he would sit there and bite his nails. If you connect it to the EKG, there will be no movement.

While Mr. Shales’s reviews could be acidic, his angry salvo came from a place of passion. In a 1989 interview with public radio host Terry Gross, he remembered his thoughts As a child when his family finally got a 14-inch RCA set in a mahogany console: “It was a miracle, it was the Second Coming and Nirvana all rolled into one.”

At the age of 13, he wrote a school paper outlining the steps he would take to become a television columnist when he grew up. “He formed this bond with the medium so quickly,” Mr. Miller said. “It was the love of his life.”

When Mr. Shales delivered one of his spectacular takedowns, Mr. Miller said, “He wasn’t trying to destroy the show or the writers.”

“He was just angry because he knew it could have been better. “He had no patience for people who were demanding it or reaching for the lowest common denominator.”

The show he liked, he liked. In 1990, he called director David Lynch’s eerie and disturbing small-town drama “Twin Peaks” “a captivating blend of the existential and the pulpy, the surreal and neo-real, the serious and the ridiculous.” “Twin Peaks,” he added, “is new age music For the eyes.”

In A column from 2006, he wrote that David Simon’s gritty HBO crime drama “The Wire” “may be the most authentic epic ever seen on television.” He added, “You go to ‘The Wire’ not to escape, but to immerse yourself in a world where madness and sanity can seem interchangeable.”

As Mr. Shales told Time: “People who respect TV, I respect them too. It’s the people who wipe their feet on it about whom I probably write nasty things.

Thomas William Shales was born on November 3, 1944, in Elgin, Illinois, the third of three children to Clyde Shales, who ran a towing service and body shop, and Hulda (Reco) Shales, who owned a clothing store. Used to manage.

He served as co-editor of his high school newspaper and became editor in chief of the campus newspaper at American University in Washington, where he graduated with a degree in journalism in 1968.

His first full-time job in journalism was at The DC Examiner, a free tabloid, where his verbal gymnastics caught the attention of editors at The Post, who hired him as a general-assignment reporter in 1972. Focusing his attention on television and popular culture, he became chief TV critic five years later.

The job put him in the middle of controversies about the toxic state of television, which included blood-soaked detective dramas, sensationalist news shows, and sex-addled sitcoms—which, in the opinion of many pundits, were a source of cultural rot.

Mr. Shales was more than happy to reach her thighs. In response to a series of television films in the early 1980s involving torture, child abuse, and teen prostitution, he wrote that “watching prime-time TV is like being stuck in Sleaze City’s dirtiest honky-tonk.”

He added, “One gets a distorted and depressing view of what it means to be alive.”

With his sharp eyes he won Pulitzer For criticism in 1988.

While the influence of his Post column never waned, Mr. Shales, who was earning more than $300,000 a year thanks to his Post salary and his syndication revenue, took a buyout from The Post in 2006 after a management change. He continued to contribute columns under contract until 2010.

In addition to his Post column, he has published several books, including two oral histories with Mr. Miller: “Live from New York,” A History of Saturday Night Live” (2002), and “Those Guys Have All the Fun,” About ESPN” (2011).

Mr. Shales, who never married or had children, left no immediate survivors.

After spending years with three televisions flickering constantly in his Washington Post office and another three televisions flickering at his home in McLean, Washington, Mr. Shales told Time that sometimes he was too focused on the programming at hand. “After all,” he said, “only 2 percent of what’s going on is actually worth watching.”

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