Dispatch From Halfway Through The TV Critics' Press Tour: Mariah, What's Good?

Aug 4, 2016

We're halfway through this year's Television Critics Association press tour. I've been to 77 press conferences and — sadly — only one of them has involved Mariah Carey reclining on a purple chaise longue while drinking champagne. Elsewhere, the assembled reporters and critics have been introduced to devastating documentaries about tragedy, heard the stories behind splashy and expensive new series from familiar creators, and watched a digitally puppeteered cartoon fish sing the Hamilton favorite "My Shot." And there are eight more days to go.

When last I wrote, I was a much younger woman, full of hope and optimism. Now, I am 80 percent Diet Coke and 20 percent strange facts about upcoming television shows.

Thus far, we've had a day of Netflix, two days of PBS, three days of unaffiliated cable (meaning it's not tied to NBC or Disney or CBS), a day of NBC, and a day of NBC cable (which includes channels like SyFy, E! And USA). Still to come: ABC on Thursday, Hulu panels and some field trips on Friday, the TCA's own awards presentation on Saturday, and Amazon on Sunday. Then next week: Fox on Monday, FX on Tuesday, CBS on Wednesday, the CW and Showtime on Thursday, and on Friday, a flight home and a detox from 17 days of conference coffee.

The themes of this tour haven't been all that different thus far from the themes of last year's tour: more and more outlets are making scripted series — which is a little funny, after everyone was so worried a few years ago that cheap, unscripted shows would put writers out of work. This year, both Discovery and the premium movie and event channel EPIX made their first moved into scripted series — Discovery with the series Harley And The Davidsons (which, yes, is about the birth of Harley-Davidson) and EPIX with the political satire Graves (starring Nick Nolte as a failed ex-president) and the spy show Berlin Station.

Outlets are tweaking their business models as both National Geographic Channel and Turner Broadcasting (the parent of TBS and TNT) committed to, in some cases, substantially reducing the number of commercials in each hour of programming in the hopes that they could charge more per ad and raise ratings. And a ratings presentation from NBC on Tuesday made it clear that they're still struggling with how to measure audiences in all the places where people find shows.

Networks know that it's hard to get people to pick up new shows if they can't catch up on existing episodes. But they're still hammering out where and how those should be available, which can be particularly tricky when the series is still ongoing. (Drop the phrase "in-season stacking rights" at a party and it will seem to all your friends like you either know a lot about streaming and network television or you play a lot of tournament Jenga.)

In some cases, the show itself is more interesting to think about than anything a network has to say about it yet. Starz brought two executive producers out to talk about its 2017 adaptation of Neil Gaiman's American Gods. But through not fault of their own they weren't able to show critics anything, and they don't yet have a whole lot to say other than that they're happy they cast Dane Cook as Robbie, and that they appreciate the tax breaks that come from filming in Toronto.

But here's the most important question: What looks good?

I've already written about Baz Luhrmann's The Get Down for Netflix, which not everyone will like (partly just because of Luhrmann's stylish way of doing ... you know, everything) and the upcoming Gilmore Girls reunion — who can be against that? (Don't email me.)

But I also really liked Issa Rae's show Insecure for HBO, which has a terrific female friendship at its center and also really made me laugh.

I can't wait for the new season of IFC's Documentary Now!, which includes a sendup of the Clinton campaign documentary The War Room. It's called The Bunker, and it gives you a fresh chance to see a variant of Bill Hader's James Carville impression, except that it's a younger version than the one he did on Saturday Night Live.

Speaking of documentaries, beginning in November, PBS is airing a series called Soundbreaking that's all about music producers, and judging by the first episode, the music nerds among you will not want to miss it.

And perhaps the most surprisingly entertaining panel was for the documentary Million Dollar Duck, about the people who enter the art competition known as the Duck Stamp Contest. Set for airing by Animal Planet, the film looked from the session like it might be the kind of enthusiast story that I like the most, where passion is saluted even when — and especially when — it might seem a little unusual.

Honestly, at this point, it's too soon to tell with the vast majority of these projects. With a lot of them, either the premise is interesting or the talent is interesting — it's rare to see something and think, "I cannot imagine why they're making this." With most shows, you can at least see what the intent is.

But let's get back, just briefly, to Mariah Carey. She has a reality show (which she says is more like a ... multi-part documentary) coming to E! on December 4, so she came to the stage, escorted by several shirtless men who then were responsible for circulating the microphones among the press in the room. She was aggressively saucy — when asked about her experiences on American Idol, she said, "Oh, it was the most abusive experience," then picked up her glass and said, "By the way, you've just driven me to drink." And when asked what current female pop stars she thought were doing things the right way, she said, "There's a few." The reporter followed up: "And they would be ...?" And Mariah Carey smiled and said, "They would be lovely ladies, and it's not their day."

Halfway through the press conference, she got a hair and makeup touch-up. It was the only panel we've had at which champagne was served. With eight days to go, it will be a hard moment to top when it comes to pomp, unless someone rides onstage on horseback and steps down onto a carpet of diamonds.

We've got a lot of time left. It could happen.

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