EW remembers longtime critic Bruce Fretts
The former Entertainment Weekly writer, who played a key role in developing EW's approach to television coverage, has died at the age of 54.
Bruce Fretts had a great laugh. It started as a low-key chuckle, accompanied by a sheepish grin that showed off his dimples. Something would have to be really funny — Wayne Knight as Newman on Seinfeld, say — for it to develop into a full-fledged, open-mouthed guffaw. Pop culture didn't just make him laugh, though; it made him go.
Today, we at Entertainment Weekly are mourning the loss of a godfather of EW’s TV coverage, a key player in the magazine’s three-decade history, and an all-around good-natured, big-hearted soul.
As a critic at EW from 1991-2003, Bruce Fretts — who died at the age of 54 on Friday — played a pivotal role in developing EW’s approach to television coverage with his in-depth reporting, discerning analysis, and incisive wit. Bruce was also crucial in defining EW’s voice in its early days; if you read something funny about a TV show in EW during the ‘90s, there’s a very good chance that Bruce wrote it.
Bruce penned cover stories on shows such as Friends and Baywatch; profiled celebrities including Harrison Ford, Howard Stern, and James Garner; and declared that TV was empirically better than movies back in 1995 — way before that sentiment was popular. And when EW made its first foray into books, it was Bruce who wrote the best-selling The Entertainment Weekly Seinfeld Companion. He had a calming, easy-going air about him, and he put everyone, including big stars, at ease. This made him an effective interviewer. (“I hate the monkey,” Friends star David Schwimmer famously told him in 1995.)
In addition to his love of the Mets, the Redskins, and Pez dispensers, Bruce was enamored with the best of the small screen, becoming a steadfast champion of high-quality, low-rated shows such as Freaks and Geeks, Homicide: Life on the Street, NewsRadio, and Everybody Loves Raymond. (Raymond wasn’t actually a hit in its first two seasons, but Bruce’s persistent quality-television-over-here! alerts surely played a small role in the series widening its audience.) Pity the shows coasting on ratings or name power (Coach, According to Jim, Veronica's Closet, or any NBC filler on Must-See Thursday in the '90s) that were taking up valuable space on the broadcast network schedule, for they would find themselves targets of Bruce's cutting wit.
His humor was always on full display in EW’s annual Fall TV preview, an issue of which Bruce often wrote the lion’s share. One year, a Walker, Texas Ranger producer was quoted as saying that the coming season of the CBS action drama would bring "a different Walker than anyone's ever seen — it's a real tearjerker… There's two words I want to put together — that's Walker and Emmy." Bruce’s obliging punchline? “Okay, how about this: Walker will never win an Emmy.” When ABC’s lackluster Ryan Reynolds sitcom Two Guys, a Girl and a Pizza Place rebranded itself as Two Guys, Bruce summed up the attempt at reinvention perfectly: "Two Guys remains the Domino's of sitcoms: The best thing about it is that it's done in 30 minutes."
Bruce didn’t just champion pop culture projects, he also championed many young writers at the magazine. He was a generous mentor, taking pride in helping to develop the younger EW scribes. His tastes were varied and unexpected, and his knowledge was even more extensive. While he wrote authoritatively on shows as a critic, Bruce also offered up astute stories on scheduling, pilot season, and, of course, ratings (his "Winners and Losers" articles were clear-eyed examinations of what was — and wasn’t — working on TV). Bruce always had another story to tell, which is one of the many reasons that his "Remote Patrol" columns were a must-read.
After leaving EW in 2003, Bruce remained a prolific writer and editor, first working at TV Guide, where he assumed the reins of the Cheers and Jeers column, and later as an editor for Closer Weekly. Up until his death, he contributed to a wide range of outlets, including The New York Times, Time, Fast Company, Emmy Magazine, and WBGO (as a TV critic). But for Bruce, his greatest achievement was his two wonderful children, Olive and Jed, of whom he was immensely proud.
Thank you, Bruce, for the words, the laughs, and the counsel. You will be missed. You won't be forgotten.
In lieu of flowers, donations can be made in Bruce's memory to the Children’s Inn at NIH.