Fight! Fight! Fight! We like to think we’re so mature and evolved, but nothing makes our attention perk up and hearts race like an ‘ol fashion school-yard brawl. And this month’s Television Critics Association’s semi-annual press tour provided several tense squabbles between reporters with inquiring minds and panelists with TV shows to promote in a Pasadena hotel ballroom. Here’s our round-by-round guide:
Panel: Investigation Discovery’s Deadly Crime with Tamron Hall
What happened: A perfectly innocuous question turned into a jaw-dropping remark.
Blow by blow: MSNBC anchor Hall was on hand to promote the second season of her Discovery true-crime series. A reporter asked Hall to explain how she’s able to work for both NBC and Discovery. Hall started to answer the question, then segued into a lengthy and heartbreaking account of being inspired to do this show by her own sister’s brutal murder.
“My sister had been found facedown in the swimming pool of her backyard, her hair had been ripped from the back of her head, all of her nails were gone,” she recounted. “… I thought, oh, this will be explained, the murderer will be charged, and this — we will be able to heal. One day turned to two, two days turned to a month, and a person was never charged …. I feel that I failed my sister, because I knew there was domestic violence happening but I didn’t know what to say.”
To which the TV reporter replied: “That’s all very nice. But can you explain the relationship between your job and NBC and your job at Discovery?”
That’s all … very … nice?
Hall: “To say that it’s just all very nice, when I don’t know if you’ve had a sister found murdered, but I have. So it is not meant to be nice, it is simply me sharing my own –
Reporter: “I am simply trying to get an answer to a simple question…”
Verdict: It’s understandable that the reporter wanted to get more clarity on the question, yet displaying an iota of sensitivity would have been, well, nice.
Panel: HBO’s Girls
What happened: This is the one that received the most press. A reporter asked why star Lena Dunham gets naked so much and was nuked by producers Judd Apatow and Jenni Konner.
Blow by blow: The question to Dunham: “I don’t get the purpose of all of the nudity on the show, by you particularly, and I feel like I’m walking into a trap where you go, ‘Nobody complains about the nudity on Game of Thrones, but I get why they are doing it. They are doing it to be salacious and, you know, titillate people. And your character is often naked just at random times for no reason.”
Dunham: “It’s because it’s a realistic expression of what it’s like to be alive, I think, and I totally get it. If you are not into me, that’s your problem, and you are going to have to kind of work that out whatever professionals you’ve hired.”
An irritated Apatow asked the reporter if he had a girlfriend, then said, “Let’s see how she likes you when you quote that with your question …Then tell me how it goes tonight.” Producer Konner added. “Maybe she’s a misogynist.”
Now, if the fight had ended there, the story probably wouldn’t have blown up. We also would have not had been treated to the term “rage spiral,” which would have been a real shame. Because a few questions later, Konner brought the matter up again. “I literally was spacing out because I’m in such a rage spiral about that guy that I literally could not hear. I’m so sorry. I really don’t mean to disrespect you. I just was looking at him and going into this rage, this idea that you would talk to a woman like that and accuse a woman of showing her body too much. The idea, it just makes me sort of sick, and so I apologize to everyone. I’m going to try to focus now, but if I space out, it will be because of that guy.”
Verdict: Lot of debate and points have been made on this question. Here’s my take: The question wasn’t inappropriate, but it was late. Dunham’s nudity was a big talking point after season one. Dunham herself mocked her nudity during the Emmy Awards cold open skit in 2012. Going into season three, producers are understandably weary of the topic. Yet their response was over the top – they’re going into a room with a couple hundred TV critics, this may not be a question they want to answer but it shouldn’t be a surprise, either. By getting enraged, they gave every publication an excuse to write about Girls nudity yet again (including ours). Given that Girls returned to series-high ratings, the flap clearly didn’t hurt.
Panel: The CW’s executive session
What happened: Not too much, thanks to The CW’s president Mark Pedowitz’s non-combative answer. We wish this had been a bigger battle, because a debate over the proper use of high heels and strapless dresses would have been fun.
Blow by blow: Major networks at TCA often have young people serving as interns/pages who pass out press releases, hand microphones to reporters asking questions and other menial tasks. Oftentimes they’re dressed in dorky uniforms (remember Kenneth on 30 Rock? Like that). But The CW has hot “pages” dressed in fashionable, contemporary clothing. One reporter was offended by their outfits: “Every other network dresses the pages who bring us microphones in practical, comfortable clothes since they’re running around all day,” the reporter started and is interrupted by laughter. “No, seriously. Is there a reason that, you know, a lot of your network is putting ‑‑ the brand is putting attractive, you know, people on screen? Is there a reason that you don’t ‑‑ that you dress, especially the women who are working for you today, the way that you do rather than practically?”
Pedowitz seemed confused. “Would you try to make that question a little more succinct?” The reporter replied more directly: “Why, unlike every other network, do you have the women who are working for you here today in strapless dresses and heels?”
Pedowitz seemed taken aback. “You know what, I don’t have an answer to that question. I’ll look into it. Next question.”
Verdict: The CW’s pages are not real pages, they’re models hired for the event, and likely accustomed to wearing outfits far more salacious than strapless dresses. If anything, the outfits look more comfortable than dressing like a bellhop from the 1940s.
Panel: CBS’ Friends With Better Lives
What happened: CBS’ latest raunchy sitcom got chastised for its humor, then the conversation devolved into a wonderfully confused mess. Bonus: James Van Der Beek.
Blow by blow: Reporter to producer Dana Klein: “You were talking about the theme of the show, but we could see from the clip what many people may take away from the opener are the sex jokes, the ball joke, the dick joke, the blow job joke. Is this necessary in a CBS pilot? Is this the direction that you are taking every week? Is this the tone of the show?”
Klein seemed ready for this: “I think we do have an edgier tone … There are certainly episodes where we don’t touch on sex at all, but sex is a real part of adult life, and for me, I’ve always wanted to do a show that feels real and relatable. We don’t do any stories about sex just for the sake of doing a sex story or a sex joke just for the sake of a joke. We try not to do things that real people wouldn’t say. But insofar as sex is a real part of adult life, we don’t shy away from it.”
With much of the show’s content purportedly inspired by real-life anecdotes, a reporter wanted to know if a particularly naughty scene was based on a true story. In the scene, a husband and wife try to spice up their relationship with a “surprise” moment in a dark room – except that he planned a surprise party with their friends and she thought they were alone and started to go down on him. The reporter asked: “You know someone who walked into her dark house and the lights went off and she was on her knees in front of her husband?” James Van Der Beek stepped in to reply: “We can’t tell you that. It would be impolite to say.” Co-star Majandra Delfino: “We’re trying to protect someone.” Van Der Beek: “It did not happen to me is all I’ll say.” Klein: “We go for real stories, and we exaggerate them a little for comedy.”
Then things got weird. A reporter asked about a joke that uses a “cutaway” (a common modern sitcom device where there’s an interruption of the story with a brief insert of something else, usually a mini-flashback). But here’s what happened when a conversation about filmmaking technique was mixed with a query about a testicle joke, with co-stars Brooklyn Decker and Kevin Connolly jumping in too. This is from the official TCA transcript:
QUESTION: “In the first episode, you have Brooklyn’s character responding to something that Zoe’s character expresses in a cutaway. Is there a problem with that, do you think?”
DANA KLEIN: “No.”
QUESTION: “She talks about the person with one ball, and that’s a totally different time that was happening, and then Brooklyn asks about it?”
BROOKLYN DECKER: “The ball thing isn’t in the pilot, right?”
QUESTION: “It is.”
BROOKLYN DECKER: “The ball story is?”
JAMES VAN DER BEEK: “Is what a problem with what? We’re confused. The cutaway? You don’t like cutaways?”
QUESTION: “It’s a cutaway and it’s a series of things that she’s referencing.”
KEVIN CONNOLLY: “It’s like a flashback. You’ve never seen a flashback?”
QUESTION: “And then Brooklyn’s character asks a question about something that she couldn’t have seen because it was a flashback within the show.”
KEVIN CONNOLLY: “Telling the show. It’s showing.”
BROOKLYN DECKER: “Zoe tells me about all balls. She tells me about all the balls she encounters.”
MAJANDRA DELFINO: “So, like, she’s telling a story, and then we get to see it as an audience in a flashback.”
BROOKLYN DECKER: “I know all the balls.”
KEVIN CONNOLLY: “Otherwise it’s expositional, so why not.”
MAJANDRA DELFINO: “It’s being narrated, and then she responds. TV.”
Verdict: Nobody could ever invent the above dialogue.
Panel: Fox’s Cosmos
What happened: Writer-producer Seth MacFarlane took two very different approaches to two critical questions.
Blow by blow: A critic asked this very carefully worded question: “Mr. MacFarlane, you have another show on Fox that I’m sure you know a lot of people in this room don’t think that much of. People have said Dads you know, people have said lots of negative things about being sexist, being racist. You’ve heard it all. [Cosmos] is a wonderful show. I got to watch it yesterday. It’s amazing the idea that this would be on television, on broadcast television. It’s excellent. And I’m wondering, do you sort of make an attempt to balance out the kinds of things that you put into the world?”
There was a pause. MacFarlane then hilariously replied, “I would submit that the question is flawed.” And explained: “I get myself involved with shows and people that I’m enthusiastic about and who I trust. [Alec Sulkin and Wellesley Wild], who I wrote Ted with, are two of the funniest comedy writers I’ve ever worked with, so it made sense to do a show with them. For me, it was a great move … So, no, I don’t it’s not a matter of balance in my mind, because I don’t see it that way. The projects that I choose to be involved with are projects that I’m enthusiastic about and I’m enthusiastic about the people.”
The second clash was more unexpected and abrupt. A critic asked re: Cosmos’ audience-drawing potential, “In what parallel universe does PBS and Fox compete for the same programming? … Obviously very creative nerds tuning in on a Friday night–”
MacFarlane: “F–k you.”
Big laughter in the room.
The critic quickly shot back: “Who are you? Judd Apatow?”
Verdict: Good fun, well played, on both sides.