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Tom Shales, longtime TV critic, dies at 79

<em>Washington Post</em> columnist, Tom Shales, pictured in 2002, died at age 79.
Julia Ewan
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The Washington Post via Getty Images
Washington Post columnist, Tom Shales, pictured in 2002, died at age 79.

Updated January 13, 2024 at 5:06 PM ET

Tom Shales, a Pulitzer-Prize winning TV critic for The Washington Post who was nationally known for his sharp-witted reviews of a broad range of small-screen programming, has died. He was 79.

He died of complications from COVID and renal failure, his caretaker Victor Herfurth told the Post.

Shales was hired to the Post as a Style section writer in 1972, before being named the newspaper's chief television critic in 1977, kicking off more than three decades of incisive cultural commentary that coincided with early cable TV. His coverage spanned genres and mediums, from late-night talk shows to State of the Union speeches, from network sitcoms to nightly news programs.

In 1988, he won the Pulitzer Prize for criticism for a collection of his work from 1987. The winning portfolio included the piece "Bork and Biden," his breezy yet cutting review of the Senate hearings for Supreme Court nominee Robert Bork — before the federal judge's confirmation was rejected — that likened the proceedings' opening day broadcast to a "TV successor to Mork and Mindy."

In 2006, Shales took a buyout from the Post but stayed on contract for an additional four years, according to the paper, "before being, in his view, unceremoniously edged out because of a salary of about $400,000 per year."

While at The Post, he also channeled his snark at the silver screen as a frequent film critic at NPR, where he was heard on Morning Edition for two decades.

On Morning Edition in 1997, Shales had good things to say about the re-issue of the first Star Wars film: "What still differentiates Star Wars from its legions of imitators in the succeeding years is that it was not driven by its special effects, but rather merely decorated with them. The story was the thing, it has the primal pull of ancient myth, and the romantic charms of a fairy tale."

When American Pie 2 hit theaters in 2001, the critic panned the teen sex comedy sequel for its reliance on "cheap gross-outs and smutty pranks," telling NPR listeners, "the film is made with what amounts to absolute cynicism and contempt for its target audience."

Jay Kernis, the founding producer of Morning Edition and NPR's former senior vice president of programming, said Shales' reviews were key to the early success of Morning Edition.

"NPR listeners looked forward to his Friday segments, not only because they trusted his judgment, but because of the wonderful style and wit in which he wrote," he said in an email.

Kernis recalled one particular week when Shales said he would be too busy to write his weekly NPR review. Foreseeing a disappointed audience, Kernis said he went to the Post's office, stuck the mic in front of him and asked Shales: "What did you think of the movie?"

"Spontaneously, he gave a 7-minute answer that needed only two pick-up edits," Kernis said. "Sounded as if he had spent days writing it."

Shales was also the author of two best-selling oral histories, Live From New York: An Uncensored History of Saturday Night Live (2002) and Those Guys Have All the Fun: Inside the World of ESPN (2011), both of which he co-wrote with journalist James Andrew Miller.

Copyright 2024 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Emma Bowman