Thursday, June 28, 2007

Tom Shales's Latest, Plus a Look Back at His Greatest.

I really don’t a rat’s nether anatomy to this subject, but based on Tom Shales' killer headline in the Washington Post today, simply HAD to read his review:

Paris Hilton, Free To Speak Her Mind (Such as It Is)
(Read the whole piece here.)

I really miss the days when Tom Shales did movie reviews for Morning Edition. Even when he completely trashed a flick - or maybe, especially when he trashed it - he was so funny. I'm sure people headed to the theaters just to see how bad those movies could be. In fact, I went to see "Species" after his Friday morning review had me laughing so hard I became lightheaded. (It was really THAT bad.)

This got me thinking about some of his writing that I've enjoyed very much.

Chief among them would HAVE to be his annual reviews of Kathie Lee Gifford's five Christmas specials.

Here, in its entirety, is the one from 1998.

Kathie Lee? Bah Humbug!

What's the difference between the 24-hour flu and a Kathie Lee Gifford Christmas special?

Twenty-three hours.

You wouldn't want to catch either one if you could help it.
But when CBS refused to make this year's edition of the agonizing event available in advance to TV critics, one such critic, instead of being grateful for the unintentional kindness, was tempted to tune in anyway to see how, or if, things have improved.

He should have known better.

Big mistake.

The special had more aura de horror than holiday glow and proved punishingly similar to previous efforts. In other words, it might have been called "I Saw What You Did Last Christmas." And the one before that.

The actual title for this year's exercise in false piety, faked sentiment and aerobic grinning was "Kathie Lee Gifford: Christmas Every Day," an appalling prospect any way you look at it. This is the kind of television to be watched not from the couch, as it were, but while peering out from behind it and using it as a shield, as if perhaps an air raid or some other sort of massive bombing were in progress.

You try to give it your wholehearted attention, but that isn't easy with a halfhearted production.

Gifford does, of course, give the impression of throwing herself into the project. With a vengeance, some might say. And yet there's always the sense of the cut-rate about the show. This year's version, which aired at 10 p.m. Friday on CBS (an odd hour for a family-oriented show) and was taped in Beaver Creek, Colo., featured the U.S. Air Force Academy Cadet Chorale and the Denver Young Artists Orchestra as Gifford's accompaniment.

What do these two groups have in common? They work cheap. They're composed of amateur or semipro musicians who probably do not have union cards.

The cast also included, naturally, Gifford's two children, the fidgety but cute little girl Cassidy, 5, who hardly got to say one word, and the brightly polished Cody, 8, who was reluctant to shut up during a session of questions from the Bible about, yes, the "real meaning" of Christmas.

There's nothing like being lectured about the real meaning of Christmas by a heavily coiffed Vegasy diva wearing a bare-shouldered black evening gown and braying into a hand-held microphone. Said guest Pam Tillis, accurately, to Gifford: "You are bad. Look at you."

Tillis's face bears at least a slight resemblance to Hillary Rodham Clinton's, an appropriate name to drop since both Gifford and Clinton have suffered the public embarrassment of hubbies who famously philandered. Gifford's husband, Frank -- rolled out onto the stage in his usual quasi-mummified state -- was videotaped in a hotel room with a 46-year-old former flight attendant in 1997. He's sported a sappy sheepishness ever since.

Now, we are to believe, Frank's been forgiven and the marriage is stronger than ever. Or at least Kathie Lee is stronger than ever. She looks like she could bench-press a horse. The woman is tough. The woman's got grit. When Kathie Lee attacks a song, she takes no prisoners, and the victim's always left lying lifeless on the stage.

You have to admire her tenacity. If not her audacity.

Hiring Tillis was a good idea, since her singing may actually be more irritating than Kathie Lee's. It's that there hawg-callin' kind. Tillis sang a medley of those sacred tunes "We Three Kings," "God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen" and "My Favorite Things." Oops. How'd that last one get in there? With great difficulty. At one point Tillis actually sang, "We three kings of our favorite things . . . ."

The bill also included 'N Sync, one of those teenage boy groups that flit by every so often, except its members actually range in age from 17 to 27. Their clothes don't fit, and they don't project the sexual aggressiveness of Backstreet Boys or Boyz II Men or any of the more popular such aggregations, so they were apparently pure enough for Gifford's audience. One fellow had his hair flat-topped and braided in such a way as to make it look like one of Mamie Eisenhower's old hats.

Having shopped for Christmas cards at "our favorite stationers" and finding them not Christmasy enough, Gifford told the audience, she decided to write a song: "And so I sat down and the words came to me: May our heart become a manger for His love.' . . . And I went home and couldn't get those words out of my mind. And so, I wrote some more words." And the rest, thank Heaven, is history, because after Friday night's performance, no one else is likely ever to sing Kathie Lee's original song again. With the possible exception of Kathie Lee.

Gifford tenses all her muscles to sing, it seems, as if her whole body is grimacing. And so one wonders: If it hurts her so much, why does she do it? It's not as if we couldn't live without it. After she sang "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas," the same song popped up in a commercial for Glade air freshener -- except Glade's version was more emotionally affecting.

Tepid, torpid and tripy, the special trundled on, losing momentum rather than gaining it. Where oh where is a cable outage when you really need one? At least Gifford gave fair warning. She was out there singing from the very beginning, a medley of "Sleigh Ride" and "Let It Snow."

Please, one might have prayed, in the name of all that's holy: Let it stop, let it stop, let it stop.


Here's Shales' review for the 1996 special:

Ain't She Sweet: Kathie Lee Gifford's Christmas show comes but once a year. Thank God.

Oh, all right, since you begged so's a snippet:

"Gifford burst from the wings at the outset braying the opening notes of "The Christmas Waltz," and when she finished the song, the first shot of the audience was of her lumpy husband Frank sitting in an aisle seat and applauding. Like he had any choice.

In a brief monologue, Gifford said Christmas was, among other things, the one time of year when we think about "how much we have to be grateful for." What about Thanksgiving? Ah, of course: At Thanksgiving we get to be grateful that Kathie Lee doesn't do a Thanksgiving special."


If you'd like to read any of his other Kathie Lee reviews, you'll have to pay - but worth it, I think. Find them at theWashington Post.

If you can't get enough Tom Shales, read his blog for TV Week.

China insists its exports are safe

Audra Ang of the Associated Press reports today:

BEIJING - China insisted Thursday that its exports are safe, issuing a rare direct commentary as international fears over Chinese products spread.

Wang Xinpei, a spokesman for the Commerce Ministry, said China "has paid great attention" to the issue, especially food products because it concerns people's health.

"It can be said that the quality of China's exports all are guaranteed," Wang told reporters at a regularly scheduled briefing.

The statement was among Beijing's most public assertions of the safety of its exports since they came under scrutiny earlier this year with the deaths of dog and cats in North America blamed on Chinese wheat gluten tainted with the chemical melamine.

The full article can be read at the Boston Globe.