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After 23 years, our TV critic changes the channel

After 23 years, our TV critic changes the channel


In June 1994, I got the best job in the world, writing about television for the Post-Dispatch. Less than a month later, I found myself in Los Angeles, holding a plastic cup of wine and watching guests at an NBC party get out of their limousines.

I had no idea who they were. None of us did. Turned out, they were stars of two new fall shows, “Friends” and “ER.”

One actor I did recognize. He was fresh off an NBC show I watched, “Sisters,” where he played a detective romantically involved with the sister played by Sela Ward.

So I asked George Clooney (yes, that George Clooney) how his character would be written out. Making sure I really wanted to know, he confirmed that he was being killed off so he could play a sex-symbol doctor (my words, not his) on this new hospital show. Then he put his arm around me and we posed for a picture together.

I found that snapshot when cleaning out my desk in the Post-Dispatch features department. TV critics no longer take pictures with the talent at Television Critics Association press tours each January and July, but then it was common. I also found pictures with Ellen DeGeneres, Dean Cain (during the “Lois & Clark” years), Angela Lansbury and Wayne Knight (Newman from “Seinfeld”).

I was cleaning out my desk because I’m retiring. My fall preview, in Sunday’s A&E section, and this goodbye column are the last things I’ll write about TV for this newspaper.

My feelings are mixed.

I’ve loved so much about this job, especially getting to know writers and producers, some of the most interesting people around. For a while during “The West Wing,” Aaron Sorkin was my pen pal. Chris Carter held an elevator door so long to talk “The X-Files” (original run) that the alarm went off. I toured the “Mad Men” set with Matthew Weiner, who sought me out to tell me his late aunt, a St. Louisan, had mailed him everything I wrote about the show.

Most of all, I’ve enjoyed my editors and colleagues in the features department. There’s no better place than a newspaper office for fun and stimulating conversation.

On the other hand, writing about television in the era of “peak TV,” with nearly 500 original scripted series last year on broadcast, cable and streaming networks, is almost impossible for one person.

In 1994, I mainly reviewed shows on the broadcast networks and PBS. Cable originals were still relatively rare, and half of St. Louisans still watched TV via antenna. (Coming full circle, many are now cutting the cord from cable or satellite and installing antennas again.)

Programs were delivered to critics on VHS tapes and played on VCRs. DVD screeners replaced tape, and now most previews are accessed via the networks’ press websites, which work at least half the time. Newspapers have changed just as much, with emphasis shifting from print columns to blog posts and slideshows.

Through it all, I never stopped trying to help readers sort out available TV, finding the good stuff without wasting time on the bad. I never forgot, though, that tastes vary, and that many folks liked “Touched by an Angel” a lot more than I did.

I loved to shine a spotlight on St. Louisans in Hollywood and follow their careers. That way, I got to know Jenna Fischer and Ellie Kemper and became friends with their “Office” colleague Phyllis Smith. I was the first person ever to interview Jon Hamm, and he hasn’t forgotten it. Neither has Sterling K. Brown, whom I met in 2005 at his mother’s house in Olivette when he was beginning his first series, only to go on to become one of the hottest stars in prime time.

Above all, I’ve always hoped to entertain as well as enlighten with my writing. If you told me you didn’t watch much TV but still read my columns, I considered that a great compliment.

As I began doing weekly chats and hosting a Tube Talk page on Facebook, I genuinely enjoyed getting to know the readers who participated. On any given night, people responding to my “what are you watching?” query would list options that made it clear just how diverse television is. (I also heard from people who said “reading,” and that’s fine, too. I was skeptical, though, about anyone who said “a movie.” TV is so much better!)

In July, in my 24th trip to the TCA press tour, I spent 10 days with fellow critics from across the country, some of whom feel like family by now. Several started the same year I did and became close friends. But newspaper critics are fewer and fewer, with many of the seats at press tour filled with bloggers and staffers from entertainment websites.

We talked, as always, about how we were doing our jobs, about the pressures of trying to sort out, let alone keep up with, so many shows from so many sources. Some of us talked about retiring.

And now it’s happening. I’m not ready, and I am. I hope to keep up with many of my Tube Talk posse via Facebook. Friend me, and chances are good that I’ll accept. (I did turn down the bikini-clad woman looking for “single or married men.”)

I won’t talk about TV much, though, and if I do, I won’t know any more than you. I’ll never be able to tell you how much CBS is running over on a football night, or when “Game of Thrones” will return.

Although I’ll still watch, I have no interest in continuing my old job on an unpaid basis. Instead, you’ll see pictures of cats and cocktails, the same as anyone else on Facebook.

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Gail Pennington is the television critic for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.

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