Tom Shales, TV Critic Both Respected and Feared, Dies at 79

Tom Shales, TV Critic Both Respected and Feared, Dies at 79

Tom Shales, the Pulitzer Prize-winning television critic for The Washington Post whose scalpel-sharp dissections of shows he deemed dead on arrival earned him nicknames like the Terror of the Tube, as well as a reputation for the power to make or break shows, died on Saturday in Alexandria, Va. He was 79.

James Andrew Miller, a longtime collaborator and friend, said he died in a hospice facility from complications of Covid.

Despite toiling in a political town far removed from the coastal capitals of the entertainment industry, Mr. Shales wielded enormous influence during his three-decade career, starting in 1977, as The Post’s chief television critic.

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

“He has been called brilliant, thoughtful, incisive and screamingly funny,” Time magazine observed in 1981, christening him “Terrible Tom, the TV Tiger.” “Also, vicious, infuriating, cruel and unfair. NBC president Fred Silverman no longer returns his calls. His thrice-weekly Washington Post TV column, ‘On the Air,’ syndicated in 59 other newspapers, causes teeth-gnashing in Hollywood and heartburn in Manhattan’s network headquarters.”

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

No wonder. Delivering prose so colorful it seemed to be written in neon, he had the power to devastate.

In a 1987 review of “The Morning Program,” CBS’s latest attempt to compete with the “Today” show, he wrote that “some TV shows seem to call less for a review than an exorcism.”

“Watching it was like waking up and finding the house overrun with last night’s party guests,” he continued, “most of them stewed to the gills and gabby as all get-out.”

In a 2005 column about ABC’s “Grey’s Anatomy,” he wrote that it seemed like little more than an assemblage of “scenes from medical shows of the past already restaged ad infinitum and ad nauseam,” and that it was “a ‘new’ show only in the sense that Dr. Frankenstein’s monster was a new man.”

After he teed off in 2003 on the Fox teenage drama “The O.C.” as a “moody, moon-faced trifle,” the show fired back 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. “It’s 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 would call, and he’d tell me, ‘Get on the other line, this is going to be good,’” Mr. Miller, who worked on the television team at the Post with Mr. Shales in the 1980s, said in a phone interview. “This person literally would be just cursing him out for 20 minutes, and he’d be sitting there trimming his fingernails. If you hooked him up to an EKG, there would be no movement whatsoever.”

While Mr. Shales’s reviews could be acidic, his indignant salvos came from a place of passion. In a 1989 interview with the public radio host Terry Gross, he recalled his thoughts as a child when his family finally got a 14-inch RCA set in a mahogany console: “This was a miracle, this was the Second Coming and nirvana all rolled into one.”

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

When Mr. Shales would do one of his brilliant takedowns, Mr. Miller said, “he wasn’t trying to destroy the show or the writers.”

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

The shows he loved, he loved. In 1990, he called “Twin Peaks,” the director David Lynch’s eerie and unsettling small-town drama, “a captivating blend of the existential and the pulpy, the surreal and the neo-real, the grim and the farcical.” “Twin Peaks,” he added, “is new age music for the eyes.”

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

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

Thomas William Shales was born on Nov. 3, 1944, in Elgin, Ill., one of three children of Clyde Shales, who ran a towing service and body shop, and Hulda (Reko) Shales, who managed a clothing store.

He served as co-editor of his high school newspaper and went on to become the 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 D.C. Examiner, a free tabloid, where his verbal gymnastics caught the attention of editors at The Post, who hired him in 1972 as a general-assignment reporter. Focusing his sights on television and popular culture, he became the chief TV critic five years later.

The job landed him in the middle of swirling controversies about the toxic state of television, with its blood-soaked detective dramas, sensationalized news shows and sex-addled sitcoms — which, in the view of many pundits, were a source of cultural rot.

Mr. Shales was all too happy to wade in up to his thighs. In response to a spate of leering television movies at the dawn of the 1980s involving torture, child molestation and teenage prostitution, he wrote that “watching prime-time TV is like being trapped in Sleaze City’s tackiest honky-tonk.”

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

His sharp-eyed takes won him a Pulitzer for criticism in 1988.

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

In addition to his Post columns, he published a number of 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, leaves no immediate survivors.

Having spent years in his Washington Post office with three televisions flickering nonstop, and with another three televisions glowing at his home in McLean, Va., Mr. Shales told Time that sometimes even he tuned out on the programming at hand. “After all,” he said, “only about 2 percent of what’s on is worth really watching.”

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