Critic’s crystal ball can get a bit fuzzy

Well, as Garry Shandling would say, how do you like me so far?

Critics, columnists and pundits are generally blessed with little conscience and less memory. These traits allow “The McLaughlin Group’s” shouting heads and Larry King’s posse of legal analysts to unabashedly toss out wild predictions. Similarly, Los Angeles Times sports columnist/sob sister-in-residence Bill Plaschke can advocate a coach’s firing and then, if the team wins a few games, call for his enshrinement in the Hall of Fame.

Sadly, this has never been my gift, and after four months in the role of Variety‘s TV critic, I must confess that my powers of prognostication have been about as good as everyone else’s in television. Which is to say, not all that great.

So with the semiannual TV critics’ tour in full swing, I decided to forgo the usual temptation to unleash a noxious blast toward that event — where someone actually asked “The Sopranos” castmates James Gandolfini and Steve Buscemi “Do you think you two could have been cousins in real life?” — and instead evaluate my own performance.

This periodic self-review is undertaken as a quality-control measure, having learned through experience that many critics are so thin-skinned their internal organs should be visible. By contrast, I pride myself on being thick-skinned — and not merely because of an unhealthy fondness for Carl’s Jr. and the baskets of muffins that kept appearing in Variety‘s lunchroom through the holidays. (The idea that some critics can’t endure criticism drips with irony, but really, is it any worse than network and studio execs being able to tear a script apart in front of the writer and having a conniption fit over a line about them in the trades?)

Scanning my reviews, the biggest forecasting gaffe undoubtedly involved CBS’ “Joan of Arcadia,” which I gave little chance of succeeding “barring divine intervention” in its Friday timeslot against NBC’s “easier-to-promote ‘Miss Match.'”

Another swing and a miss came on ABC’s “It’s All Relative,” where I opined that “a decent lead-in from ‘My Wife and Kids’… shouldn’t be enough to save this series,” which subsequently earned a full-season pickup.

On a broader level, I have a blind spot on the subject of reality-dating shows, mostly because they invariably strike me as so patently staged and unreal. So I had a hard time believing viewers would buy into “Average Joe,” inasmuch as the big plot twist (Oil up the studs!) was so predictable and the blow-dried object of affection was so obviously preparing for her close-up.

Then again, I was equally skeptical that a dating show would ever produce a marriage, and now with those “The Bachelor” kids Trista and Ryan, well, if they can’t make it, what chance do any of us have?

In another instance of personal feelings clouding perception, keeping “8 Simple Rules For Dating My Teenage Daughter” going after John Ritter’s untimely death struck me as morbid. “Their curiosity satisfied, much of America will move on,” I wrote in reviewing its return, only to see the comedy manage to sustain acceptable ratings after an initial fall-off.

OK, so you’re wondering, “Did this guy get anything right?”

Well, sure. I labeled Fox’s “The Simple Life” a hit-in-waiting that should show off “Nielsen legs.” For that matter, I even recognized the show’s electronic press kit — otherwise known as the Paris Hilton sex video — as a sure-fire winner.

In not exactly a bold move, I guessed “Two and a Half Men,” blessed with the post-“Everybody Loves Raymond” slot, would perform solidly. On the flip side, I saw trouble coming for the WB’s “Tarzan” and Fox’s “Skin,” diagnosing potential problems in the pilots (which I mostly liked) that ultimately sank both of them — admittedly, faster than I could have imagined. Ditto for ABC’s provocative but ratings-challenged crime drama “Line of Fire,” which I concluded would likely “wind up a chalk outline” versus NBC’s “Law & Order: Special Victims Unit.”

Overall batting average on new fall series: About .450, I’d say conservatively — a terrible percentage for a quarterback or free-throw shooter (unless you’re Shaquille O’Neal), but enough to land an outfielder or TV exec in the Hall of Fame.

So when it comes to the crapshoot of identifying hits, the moral is that you can often skate by thanks to low standards. But then, if you watch enough TV and movies or peruse enough criticism, odds are you already knew that.

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