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The man who hates 'The Brady Bunch'

TV critic Ken Tucker offers likes, dislikes in new book

By Todd Leopold
CNN

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Bill O'Reilly
Aaron Sorkin
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(CNN) -- Ken Tucker can't stand "The Brady Bunch."

He also thinks John Larroquette is "tiresome," "Lou Grant" was droning, David E. Kelley is "overrated," "M*A*S*H" was full of "high-minded banalities" and -- get ready -- "Star Trek" (in all its permutations) "sucked."

"I thought it sucked even while I was stoned," he adds for good measure in his new book, "Kissing Bill O'Reilly, Roasting Miss Piggy: 100 Things to Love and Hate About TV" (St. Martin's Press).

Disagree with Tucker? Good. That's exactly what he wants you to do: Watch TV -- and read TV criticism -- with an open mind.

"I've heard from 'Trek' and 'M*A*S*H' fans. They say, 'How can you say that?' " Tucker says, almost gleefully, in a phone interview.

Tucker knows television is a complex animal, inspiring deep feelings in its viewers, who often love and loathe in equal measure -- may even loathe it as they love it. ("My television is covered with spit," John Belushi famously told "Saturday Night Live" creator Lorne Michaels when interviewing for a spot with "SNL's" Not Ready for Prime Time Players. That didn't stop Belushi from joining the cast of what would become one of TV's most influential -- and criticized -- shows ever.)

"I hope [these entries] sort of talk to each other as well as to you, sparking connections between sitcoms, commercials, the news, and 'The Simpsons' in ways they would not otherwise," Tucker writes in the book's introduction.

If anything, Tucker had a hard time keeping the book to its current size.

"I literally had a list of 200 things," he says.

Plugged in

Tucker comes by his television bona fides honestly. A baby boomer -- he's 51 -- he grew up with Westerns and "Batman" and "All in the Family" and the Late Show.

In 1974, he sent an angry letter to Village Voice music critic Robert Christgau about the Voice's non-coverage of some bands, and Christgau called his bluff, asking Tucker to write up the bands himself.

Eventually, Tucker became the rock critic for the now-defunct Los Angeles Herald-Examiner and later The Philadelphia Inquirer. In the mid-'80s, the Inquirer was looking for a TV critic, and Tucker was ready for the job.

"I was always interested in this most mass of mass media," he says. "Rock had fractured into lots of different camps. ... TV was still a place where the networks [dominated]."

Tucker
Ken Tucker

From the Inquirer, he moved to Entertainment Weekly (a unit of Time Warner, as is CNN), becoming the then-new magazine's chief TV critic and critic at large.

A few months ago, he left EW to become New York magazine's film critic, though he still does the occasional piece on TV. ("I haven't unplugged yet," he says.)

He also was willing to question his opinions on television shows. He reacquainted himself with a number of his old favorites at New York's Museum of Television and Radio, finding that some weren't what he remembered.

"I loved Westerns as a kid, and I wanted to see if they held up," he says. "The Rifleman" still crackled -- which Tucker attributes to the presence of movie director Sam Peckinpah, who had a hand in a number of episodes -- but "Davy Crockett," to his disappointment, was awful.

But he certainly can understand how he could have been a fan once.

"The mists of nostalgia color memory," he says.

Bradys no, O'Reilly yes

However, Tucker doesn't cut nostalgia any slack when it comes to bad TV -- especially "The Brady Bunch."

It's not just that the show is full of poor acting ("especially the six child stars' encouraged amateurishness and Robert Reed's ill-disguised I-should-be-doing-Shakespeare boredom," Tucker writes) and unfunny scripts, in Tucker's opinion. It's that the show has become a camp cliché, a model of the "so bad it's good" mentality, he says.

"I hate that way of judging a show," Tucker says. "It's otherwise insulting to other TV shows."

(And don't even get Tucker started on writer Chuck Klosterman's tribute to "Saved by the Bell" in Klosterman's "Sex, Drugs and Cocoa Puffs." "Klosterman makes a fetish of worthlessness," Tucker writes.)

So what does Tucker like? Plenty. He praises risky series such as the short-lived "Profit," offers compliments to the "The Waltons" and gives Bill O'Reilly -- not a political bedfellow -- props with no apologies: "He is a communicator of the first rank," Tucker writes.

Indeed, Tucker laments that good TV too often turns to mediocre TV. A theme of "Kissing Bill O'Reilly" is that many promising shows run themselves into the ground, victims of the medium's never-ceasing appetite.

He once interviewed Aaron Sorkin, the hands-on creator of "Sports Night" and "The West Wing"; in Sorkin's office were huge supplies of soft drinks and M&Ms, caffeine-laced sugary fuel for a writer who soon burned himself out.

Still, even with all the pressures, "when I think of how many hours of TV have to be programmed, it's amazing how much creative stuff gets on the air," he says.

And if you disagree with what Tucker has to say, bring it on (preferably to his Web site, www.kentucker.net). He says he hopes to include responses in the paperback edition.

"A lot of times I'll watch TV with my kids or my wife -- it provides a different perspective. ... It makes me think differently," he says. "I'm always open to hearing what people like and don't like."


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