They called him Terrible Tom, and it was a compliment.
Longtime Washington Post writer Tom Shales, who died Saturday at 79 of complications from COVID, was the most influential TV critic in North America for many decades, admired for his wit and insight and dreaded for his brutal takedowns of programs and artists he disliked. Shales wrote or cowrote four books, including the bestseller “Live from New York: An Uncensored History of Saturday Night Live,” coauthored with James Andrew Miller. He had a voracious and wide-ranging curiosity, and wrote about TV news coverage of U.S. politics as well as reviews of new entertainment programs.
Born in Elgin, Illinois, Shales worked as an editor at The Washington Examiner before getting hired as a writer for The Washington Post‘s Style desk in 1972. Five years later, he was named TV critic. His default voice was that of a skeptical midwestern curmudgeon who could be roused to righteous ire when confronted with a program he found creatively lackluster or morally repulsive.
Panning the 1987 miniseries “Napoleon and Josephine,” Shales wrote that costar Anthony Perkins’ eyes were “perpetually popped open through the whole thing, as if Mama Bates has just rushed out of the fruit cellar with her butcher knife again.” He called late night host Jimmy Kimmel “”a living monotone in most conceivable senses of the word,” dismissed the entirety of Comedy Central as “a pantingly desperate cable network,” and was one of a handful of TV critics to generally dislike “Seinfeld,” for what he saw as its gratuitous coldness and meanness, its reliance on ethnic stereotypes, and self-loathing attitude towards Judaism. “What ‘Seinfeld’ has helped spread through network television is darkness, that seemingly most valuable of contemporary qualities, the thing that some sophisticated viewers find a redeeming quality for otherwise undistinguished pop,” he wrote in a piece that ran in advance of the series finale, adding that he considered Seinfeld himself “a tremendously uninteresting, empty-headed man for someone who makes his living by his wits.” At National Public Radio, where Shales delivered on-air reviews of movies for two decades, he coined a memorable phrase to describe the over-scaled, increasingly digitized action in superhero movies: “huge things crashing into other huge things.” (He was reviewing 1997’s “Batman and Robin.”)
But Shales could be generous, even ecstatic, when he came across a TV program or movie that he thought had been made with intelligence, care, and a sense of showmanship. He praised “Twin Peaks,” “The Sopranos,” “NYPD Blue,” “The Wire,” “Cheers” and many other series that are now considered permanent fixtures in the pantheon, as well as some outliers that he thought should have been more widely recognized for their excellent, such as “Cold Case,” “Mystery Science Theater 3000,” and “Scrubs.” In 1977, Shales reviewed a then-new movie called “Star Wars” for National Public Radio and called it “casually profound. In an atmosphere of seemingly groundless escapism, it worships the air we hang in. Without ever stopping for a breath, much less the making of a statement, ‘Star Wars’ celebrates that portion of the human brain that is shared by the brilliant and the stupid.” He called “Jurassic Park” “the greatest monster movie since ‘King Kong'” and praised it as “a technological triumph about technology run amok.”
Shales carried the whole history of two mediums around in his head, and could access them in an idiosyncratic, personal, pre-Internet style, one that made it clear that he actually knew what he was talking about, and had actual books in his possession, and wasn’t just Googling titles and grabbing the first factoids that popped up. In one of the last big pieces Shales wrote before stepping down from the Post in 2010, a consideration of “Dancing with the Stars,” “America’s Got Talent” and other performance-driven competition shows, Shales gave readers a thumbnail history and analysis of the importance of music in the early years of TV, citing not just “The Ed Sullivan Show” and “Hollywood Palace” but “Ted Mack’s Original Amateur Hour” and “Arthur Godfrey’s Talent Scouts.” Writing on the singularly odd energy of talk show host Tom Snyder—a hero of David Letterman—Shales wrote, “The Snyder we saw on TV was not a replica of the real guy; it was the real guy.”
He was the Post’s television critic from 1977 until he was forced to take a buyout in 2006 during the first of many layoffs at the paper. Then Shales went under contract as a freelancer at the Post for four more years, but was forced out permanently when the paper decided it couldn’t afford him even on a piecemeal basis, and left with what he described as sizable debts. A piece published at TBD.com, a local news site that operated in Washington, D.C. from 2010-2012, said, “the lump sum [Shales] took from the buyout is gone…”I either frittered it or the stock market ate it.” And his contract, Shales says, isn’t nearly as lucrative as his former salary… “it’s scary, damn scary,” he says. “Plus I’m so heavily in debt and my house is underwater. Suddenly I’m a cross-section of the American public.”
Roger Ebert, a fellow Illinois-bred journalist and longtime admirer, gave Shales a regular slot at RogerEbert.com for a couple of years after that. The archive of pieces can be found here, covering everything from cable news accounts of the George Zimmerman trial and the naming of a new pope to the 2012 presidential race.
One of the best of these pieces was titled “Leno, Late Night & Me.” It started with an anecdote about Jay Leno rushing at Shales while he was waiting for a valet to bring his rental car out of a hotel garage in Los Angeles and excitedly assuring Shales that he wasn’t mad at him, without specifying which piece, specifically, he wasn’t mad at him about. This led to a roundabout, anecdote-rich remembrance by Shales of multiple generations of late night talk shows hosts, stretching from Jack Paar through Jimmy Fallon and Jimmy Kimmel. The highlight was an account of the time that David Letterman dispatched a limousine to pick up Johnny Carson’s predecessor on “The Tonight Show,” Jack Paar, and his wife Miriam and bring them to lunch at New York’s 21 Club for lunch, and invited Shales to attend.
“Dave subsequently made it clear that he and I were not friends,” Shales wrote. “Well of course not, and tempting though it may be, critics should never try to be friends with the people they write about. But that lunch, that gesture, couldn’t help but deepen my regard for him — not because I was there, but because he took the trouble to make Jack feel remembered.” Shales’ last piece for this site was an appreciation of his friend Roger. “He was nothing but encouraging, ever, always. He forced me to see daylight. He helped me out of a deep hole. And then he died.”
The Post’s obituary summed him up: “His body of work elevated the coverage and criticism of television beyond mere musing on plots and gags. He described shows, serious or silly, as pieces of a cultural mosaic worthy of deeper inspection.”