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The Greatest Hits Of 'The Platinum Age Of Television'

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The Greatest Hits Of 'The Platinum Age Of Television'

The Greatest Hits Of 'The Platinum Age Of Television'

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TERRY GROSS, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. I can't think of anyone who knows more about TV history than our own TV critic David Bianculli. He's just written a new book called "The Platinum Age Of Television: From I Love Lucy to The Walking Dead, How TV Became Terrific." It's a genre-by-genre history discussing the shows that were turning points in dramas, sitcoms, Westerns, children's programs and so on with a list of the big five in each genre. David's brought some of his favorite clips to play for us.

David has been a TV critic for 40 years, including writing for the Philadelphia Inquirer and the New York Daily News. He created the website TV Worth Watching and teaches TV and film history at Rowan University in New Jersey.

David, I'm really excited about your new book coming out. Congratulations, and welcome back to the show...

DAVID BIANCULLI, BYLINE: Oh, thanks. Well, so am I, oddly enough. Yeah, yeah.

GROSS: So let's start with the title "The Platinum Age Of Television." What do you define as the platinum age?

BIANCULLI: Well, it's sort of like taking off of gold records that go to platinum records. It's even better, so platinum age is better than the golden age. Traditionally, the golden age of TV was live television, the best of the Paddy Chayefsky, Rod Serling, Reginald Rose live dramas. And so the platinum age is the stuff since then.

And the interesting thing for me was when does it begin? When do you say the best new age - because I had three different ages in mind. And I ended up with 1999 with...

GROSS: Because...

BIANCULLI: ...The West Wing, one of the last broadcast great shows and "The Sopranos," one of the first great cable shows were both that year.

GROSS: So within each category of television, you have your big five, the shows that were the kind of turning points for that genre in television. So let's start with children's TV, since most of us started watching TV when we were children. What makes your big five?

BIANCULLI: The big five were "The Mickey Mouse Club," "Captain Kangaroo," "Mister Rogers' Neighborhood," "Sesame Street," and then you jump all the way to "Pee-wee's Playhouse." That doesn't mean - those aren't the only shows. And in each of these evolutionary chapters, I sort of build up to one of these five and then do the time between the five and sort of make the connections.

GROSS: Well, to illustrate something special about "Mister Rogers' Neighborhood," you brought a clip with you.

BIANCULLI: This is my absolute favorite clip maybe from all of television. I mean, imagine how much I must love this clip. This is a real rarity. And it's from the summer of 1968, the year that his program started on public television. And only a couple of months into the run, Fred Rogers went to public TV and asked for a prime-time special, an instant special so he could talk to adults as well as kids. And they said OK.

And so it's this special, and one segment in it has Fred Rogers doing the puppet of Daniel Striped Tiger and talking to Lady Aberlin, Betty Aberlin and asking her to blow a balloon up and then let the air out of the balloon. And you wonder where this is going. It's just this innocuous little conversation. And then it goes somewhere completely unexpected.

GROSS: OK, let's hear it.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

FRED ROGERS: (As Daniel Striped Tiger) Well, what about your air?

BETTY ABERLIN: (As Lady Aberlin) My air inside me?

ROGERS: (As Daniel Striped Tiger) Mhmm. What if you blow all your air out? Then you won't have any left, just like the balloon.

ABERLIN: (As Lady Aberlin) But people aren't like balloons, Daniel. When we blow air out, we get some more back in. Watch, I'll blow air out (blowing up balloon).

ROGERS: (As Daniel Striped Tiger) Oh.

ABERLIN: (Blowing up balloon).

ROGERS: (As Daniel Striped Tiger) What does assassination mean?

ABERLIN: (As Lady Aberlin) Have you heard that word a lot today?

ROGERS: (As Daniel Striped Tiger) Yes, and I didn't know what it meant.

ABERLIN: (As Lady Aberlin) Well, it means somebody getting killed in a sort of surprise way.

ROGERS: (As Daniel Striped Tiger) That's what happened, you know? That man killed that other man.

ABERLIN: (As Lady Aberlin) I know, and a lot of people are talking about it right now.

ROGERS: (As Daniel Striped Tiger) Too many people are talking about it.

ABERLIN: (As Lady Aberlin) A lot of people are sad and scared about it, you know?

ROGERS: (As Daniel Striped Tiger) I'd rather talk about it some other day.

GROSS: So that was the day after Bobby Kennedy's assassination.

BIANCULLI: Yeah. It's unbelievable to me that - that Fred Rogers would be so sensitive that he would think that even preschoolers would be part of the family dynamic where everybody was upset. And, you know, maybe parents wouldn't bother to explain anything to kids that young. But Fred Rogers thought they needed it. But that's just so unexpected to me, and I can't imagine any children's television program today daring to do that.

GROSS: So, David, you brought another clip with you involving Fred Rogers. This is about the creation of public television.

BIANCULLI: Yeah. He was actually testifying before Congress before John Pastore, who was the guy who had led the anti-violence TV hearings. And the question was whether or not the federal government was going to fund PBS to the tune of $20 million. And Fred Rogers went up to testify, and his show had been running for a year. And John Pastore had never seen it. But the more that Fred Rogers described it - and the more that Fred Rogers just acted like Fred Rogers - you know, the way he talked on TV was not an act and wasn't just for children. And again, it's something - this was a live telecast of a hearing by Congress. And it's just fascinating to hear.

GROSS: Let's hear it.

(SOUNDBITE OF 1969 SENATE SUBCOMMITTEE ON COMMUNICATIONS HEARING)

ROGERS: I'm constantly concerned about what our children are seeing. And for 15 years I have tried in this country and Canada to present what I feel is a meaningful expression of care.

JOHN PASTORE: Do you narrate it?

ROGERS: I'm the host, yes. And I do all the puppets and I write all the music and I write all the scripts.

PASTORE: I'm supposed to be a pretty tough guy, and this is the first time I've had goose bumps for the last two days.

(LAUGHTER)

ROGERS: Well, I'm grateful, not only for your goose bumps but for your interest in our kind of communication. Could I tell you the words of one of the songs which I feel is very important?

PASTORE: Yes.

ROGERS: This has to do with that good feeling of control, which I feel that children need to know it's there. And it starts out, what do you do with the mad that you feel? And that first line came straight from a child. I work with children, doing puppets in very personal communication with small groups.

What do you do with the mad that you feel, when you feel so mad you could bite, when the whole wide world seems oh, so wrong and nothing you do seems very right? What do you do? Do you punch a bag? Do you pound some clay or some dough? Do you round up friends for a game of tag or see how fast you go? It's great to be able to stop when you've planned the thing that's wrong and be able to do something else instead and think this song. I can stop when I want to, can stop when I wish, can stop, stop, stop any time. And what a good feeling to feel like this and know that the feeling is really mine, know that there's something deep inside that helps us become what we can, for a girl can be someday a lady and a boy can be someday a man.

PASTORE: I think it's wonderful. I think it's wonderful. Looks like you just earned the $20 million.

(LAUGHTER)

GROSS: What a beautiful clip.

BIANCULLI: I love it. I love it.

GROSS: So let's just say that's Fred Rogers testifying at a congressional committee that was responsible for deciding whether to fund public television.

BIANCULLI: Yeah. And I love it because not only is Fred Rogers so honest and open and forthright, but so is Pastore. You know, I mean, to have a politician say, OK, I love this. I have goose bumps, and then you just earned the money - you know, I don't know if it's just a different era or if that was a different feeling, but it's why I love that.

GROSS: And public television was indeed funded and shortly after it was funded, "Sesame Street" premiered on it.

BIANCULLI: Yes. Yes. And so it's all, you know, partly due to that clip, to that poem, to that song.

GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is our TV critic David Bianculli, and he has a new book called "The Platinum Age Of Television From I Love Lucy To The Walking Dead: How TV Became Terrific." Let's take a short break here and then we'll talk more about TV.

BIANCULLI: Thanks.

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is our TV critic David Bianculli. He has a new book called "The Platinum Age Of Television From I Love Lucy To The Walking Dead: How TV Became Terrific." So two of the genres are family sitcoms, workplace sitcoms and then a third that you have is the split-com which combines the two. So let's just start with the top five of your family sitcoms and your workplace sitcoms.

BIANCULLI: The five big family sitcoms were "I Love Lucy" which really did change everything, and then "All In The Family," "The Cosby Show," "Roseanne" and "Modern Family."

GROSS: And workplace sitcoms - and explain why you split up the two, why that's important.

BIANCULLI: OK. The earliest favorite evolutionary important one I think was "Fawlty Towers" then "Taxi" then "Cheers" then "The Larry Sanders Show" and then "The Office." And, you know, sitcoms in general are such a wide kind of spotlight that you have to narrow it down. And so the ones that take place primarily at work like "Cheers" are a different kind of show than the ones that you think of like "Leave It To Beaver" which are primarily just family-domestic sitcoms.

GROSS: And you coined the term split-com.

BIANCULLI: Yeah, and I don't expect it to catch on, you know, but, I mean...

GROSS: I think it's pretty good.

BIANCULLI: But split-com is like it's half one, half the other, and you think, well, what shows spend time halfway between work and home? And then when you start thinking about them, there are lots of those.

GROSS: So now I'm going to ask you to read your split-com five list.

BIANCULLI: OK. "The Andy Griffith Show," "The Dick Van Dyke Show," "The Bob Newhart Show," "Seinfeld," which is pushing it a little bit, and "Louie."

GROSS: OK. So let's go to "Andy Griffith."

BIANCULLI: OK.

GROSS: You brought a clip from "The Andy Griffith Show." And there's a story behind the clip.

BIANCULLI: Well, there's - the whole idea behind where "The Andy Griffith Show" came from - it was a backdoor pilot from "The Danny Thomas Show" for "Make Room For Daddy." And he just had Andy Griffith come in and play the sheriff of a...

GROSS: He being the producer of "The Danny Thomas Show?"

BIANCULLI: He being - well - yes. Sheldon Leonard was the producer, and Danny Thomas was the star. And their idea was to - they wanted to do a show starring Andy Griffith as a small town sheriff, so they had Danny Thomas' character in his program visit this small town and get stopped in what seemed to be just a traffic trap, you know, a speed trap. And it's a great way to lead. If you're - if you have a TV show and you make a backdoor pilot, you don't have to pay for it. The network is paying you back for that episode of the series.

GROSS: Clever. Right.

BIANCULLI: Where if you start it from scratch, you're putting your money at risk.

GROSS: Interesting. OK. So let's get to the clip that you brought.

BIANCULLI: OK. So the clip that I brought - you have to remember that Andy Griffith - his Andy Taylor was the sheriff of this town the authority figure at work. And then at home, he was a widowed father raising his young son Opie. And so in this clip, Opie had - he had a sling shot, and he killed a bird while just goofing around with the slingshot in the neighborhood. And his dad figured out that that's why Opie was acting so sad at the dinner table - comes up to his bedroom at night and asks for the slingshot and then sort of demands the truth out of him, and he does a bit of parenting that for 1960s TV - this is 1963, this particular episode - I find amazing.

GROSS: Well, let's hear the clip.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THE ANDY GRIFFITH SHOW")

ANDY GRIFFITH: (As Andy Taylor) You killed that bird, didn't you? Didn't you? You remember me telling you to be careful with this thing?

RON HOWARD: (As Opie Taylor) I'm sorry, pa.

GRIFFITH: (As Andy Taylor) That won't bring that bird back to life. Being sorry is not the magic word that makes everything right again.

HOWARD: (As Opie Taylor) You going to give me a whippin'?

GRIFFITH: (As Andy Taylor) No. I'm not going to give you a whippin'.

(SOUNDBITE OF BIRDS CHIRPING)

GRIFFITH: (As Andy Taylor) Do you hear that? That's those young birds chirping for their mama that's never coming back. Now you just listen to that for a while.

GROSS: Then what happens?

BIANCULLI: Well, then what happens is that Opie, who's played by Ron Howard, decides to take responsibility. And so they take the birds out of the nest, put them in a cage. He feeds them until they're old enough to fly off on their own. So he learns about responsibility. That's an amazing clip to me, you know. And, first of all, it has them talking about, you're going to give me a whippin'? Like that - a totally normal thing to have corporal punishment in the early 1960s. And instead, here's this new type of parenting that Andy Taylor does. And I find it so amazing because it's like I want you to listen to these little babies whose mom is never coming back. You know, he might as well have said, like, your mom is never coming back. I mean, it's heart-rending and there's not a single joke in that whole scene.

GROSS: And did you see that as a child, the episode?

BIANCULLI: Yes.

GROSS: What did it mean to you when you were a child?

BIANCULLI: I loved that show. And this is a little personal, but OK. By the time this show aired in 1963, my mom had died, and I was being raised by my dad as a single parent. So I really related to this show and to that dynamic.

GROSS: Did you get as a child that this was, in part, about being raised without a mother?

BIANCULLI: I do now, when you ask the question. But I think I related to that dynamic and totally understood. And that was the sort of relationship that I had with my dad. I was very fortunate in that way. But that's why I find that so evolutionary, that here was a comedy that not only didn't feel like it had to do three jokes a page - it didn't have to do jokes at all.

GROSS: So let's look at the mini series. Why is the mini series important in terms of the evolution of television?

BIANCULLI: Well, it's sort of what happened to the Golden Age of television drama in terms of live drama and the idea of TV as telling stories that are like novels with beginnings, middles and ends. The mini series in...

GROSS: As opposed to, like, here's an episode.

BIANCULLI: Right. Yes.

GROSS: It wraps up. Here's another episode, it wraps up.

BIANCULLI: Here's another "Columbo," another "Manics." This was a whole different thing. And it got really big in the '70s and '80s, and then died off. And now it's back. I mean, the whole idea of - they're now called anthology series, and they switch around every single week, so it's kind of like the Golden Age TV drama where anthology series where you had a different episode every week, completely different cast, writer, subject. And then now you have mini series, which go, you know, 10 episodes, 13 episodes and whether it's "American Horror Story" or "Fargo" or, you know, "The People Versus O.J. Simpson" - these are self-contained stories, and you get better cast that way. You get really good writers.

GROSS: Why do you get better casts that way?

BIANCULLI: Because the actors aren't going to commit to seven years, but they'll commit to 13 weeks. You know, it's just like making three or four movies all in a chunk and not much more than a regular movie schedule. And I think television has really become where a lot of the action is right now. And that's reflected in this genre in particular.

GROSS: So what makes your list of the big five in the mini series category?

BIANCULLI: Well, it starts with "Roots," although my history of the mini series goes way before that. And then my personal favorite television show ever made "The Singing Detective" is in there and then "Lonesome Dove," one of the last great Westerns and "The Civil War," a non-fiction but still an incredible mini series by Ken Burns and then "Downton Abbey" which just ended up and went back to one of the first kind of popular mini series "Upstairs Downstairs" and did the same formula all over again.

GROSS: My guest is our TV critic David Bianculli. He's written a new book called "The Platinum Age Of Television From I Love Lucy To The Walking Dead: How TV Became Terrific." After we take a short break, he'll tell us about a surprising encounter with Louis C.K., and Maureen Corrigan will review a new collection of essays by the late writer Stanley Elkin. I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross back with our TV critic David Bianculli. He's written a new book called "The Platinum Age Of Television: From I Love Lucy To The Walking Dead, How TV Became Terrific." His other books include "Dangerously Funny: The Uncensored Story Of The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour." "The Platinum Age Of Television" is a genre by genre history of TV that also includes David's list of the five most important shows in each genre and his interviews with some of the people who created those shows.

One of my favorite parts of your book That also includes David's lists of the five most important shows in each genre and his interviews with some of the people who created those shows.

One of my favorite parts of your book is this interaction that you have with Louis C.K. because you profile a whole bunch of people who are responsible for some of the shows that you write about in the book. And you have an interview with Louis C.K. that takes a really surprising turn.

BIANCULLI: It was surprising to me, that's for sure.

GROSS: Yeah, so he tells you in the middle of the conversation that he wrote an email to you and you deny ever having received the email. So set this up for us because I want you to read part of the transcript of your interview with Louis C.K.

BIANCULLI: Sure. It was the first interview I'd ever had with Louis C.K., by the way. And we were going through his childhood with all of these profiles. I sort of find out what TV or radio they listened to as kids and what influenced them and then go through their careers. And we were working our way, and we got Louis C.K.'s HBO sitcom, which was called "Lucky Louie." And this was before the FX sitcom "Louie," the workplace sitcom that I love so much.

And when we brought up with that, you know, we started describing it. He started talking about it, and I said, you know, I didn't - I have to be honest - and I didn't really love that show. And he said you hated it. And he goes off on how much he remembers how negative my review was. I didn't remember it being that negative. And again, this is your review of "Lucky Louie," the show that preceded Louie. Yes, when I was a New York critic and had written apparently that - you know, this was back when HBO would renew everything as a show of faith about how it was programming stuff.

And I must have written that I thought that HBO should show its taste by canceling "Louie" just to let us know that they knew that it wasn't that good.

GROSS: So now I want you to read an excerpt of the transcript in which he's telling you about this letter he wrote to you in response to your review suggesting that HBO cancel his series "Lucky Louie."

BIANCULLI: Right. And I said I'd never gotten it. And he said (reading) I wrote it, I wrote you an email and I said I think you've overstepped your responsibility because TV criticism is a great thing when you discuss the content and the intent behind a show and what your opinion is of it. But what you're doing now is talking about people who - I have hundreds of people who work for me. And they're trying to get through the Christmas holidays without getting fired. And so I wrote you this angry letter.

And I say, oh, I never got it. Oh, damn, OK. And he says (reading) you couldn't because I looked at it. It was a very important moment. I read it on the screen in front of me and I thought no, no, no, don't send this. You don't write this. You don't send this. This isn't how to respond to this. This is the water you're in, and this is an exciting time in television. Television is becoming an art form. I remember thinking that. Television is coming into a new place - "The Sopranos." I remember I talked to Norman Lear on the phone when I was making the show - this is still Louis C.K. - (reading) and he talked to me about how when "All In The Family" came out, he was getting killed. But The New York Times wrote, like, a page-long review that kept the show floating. And I knew that this is what it's like. You're being shot at from all angles and you're trying to shoot back, but you're trying to just do your job. It's heavy. It's heavy, heavy fire. And so when I wrote that email and didn't send it, I thought this is part of it. You've just got to defend the show the best you can and it might not survive, and everybody is doing their job. Everybody's got a passionate voice because TV matters now, and you'll see how this turns out.

GROSS: This is just an amazing conversation to have with somebody who you admire so much but gave a bad review to early on.

BIANCULLI: It was chilling.

GROSS: What impact did that have on you?

BIANCULLI: Well, immediately I was like I hope you understand how much I love "Louie," and I hope you felt better when you read those reviews. He goes no, you're missing my point. You know, my point is think of how when you were younger, how much you would have given to have been in the arena talking about the TV you like, just like I would have loved to be in the arena making the TV. It's what we're both doing now, so that's what's important. And I haven't talked to him since, but I treasure having had that conversation. I really do.

GROSS: I think it's a great moment. And I love the fact that he wrote this really angry email and then read it and took a step back and said, no, you don't send this email and that he - that email, instead of sending it to you, it caused him to reflect and to reach a realization about what television has - was becoming and how important it had become in the national conversation and everything. So, yeah, I love that. And on an - on a flip side - well, let me just back up a second. Did it make you think more about the impact your bad reviews have on the lives of the people who make the shows?

BIANCULLI: It's funny because I try to stress being positive. And if I do - I'd rather not write about a show if I hate it that much. So it's always something that I'm drawn to a show before I want to waste my time writing about it or telling people about it. And with "Lucky Louie," he was, like, updating "The Honeymooners." And that was really interesting to me, but I didn't like the way he was doing it. And as it turns out, neither did he because he was writing with a full writing staff and everybody was adding in stuff. And so he decided that if he ever did another show, he was going to be the only writer. And that's how "Louie" came about.

GROSS: So the flip side of that coin is that you tried to save a show. And I'm thinking of "Cheers," which is also - is that in your split-com or workplace category?

BIANCULLI: "Cheers" would be workplace.

GROSS: Oh, OK. So it's a show that you think of as a great show, as a turning point show. But it didn't do well in the ratings when it started.

BIANCULLI: Oh, it did terribly.

GROSS: Yeah, it was kind of at the bottom of the list. And you tried to intervene and save it with this really weird - can I call it a prank? What do I call it?

BIANCULLI: Well, maybe performance art, maybe - maybe '60s radicalism, I don't know. But this was in the early '80s. I was a TV critic at The Akron Beacon Journal, and "Cheers" was the - was actually last one week, dead last in the ratings. It was one of the best shows on TV, and it was being rejected by everyone. And so just because the 1,700 people at the time that were Nielsen families and had these Nielsen ratings boxes attached to their TV sets...

GROSS: This is how ratings were done...

BIANCULLI: At the time. And so there's so many in every city, and that's it. They determine what lives and what dies. So I wrote a column basically inviting any Nielsen family within range of Cleveland, Akron, to come to my house on Thursday nights, and I would let them watch whatever they wanted to watch on my TV. And I would feed them and give them liquor, and all they had to do was to turn their TV sets to NBC before they left so that "Cheers" would get credit and it would stay on the air.

I got two calls the next day. One was from a representative of the AC Nielsen Company threatening to sue me because apparently you can't do that. But luckily under the form of satire, I'm protected as a critic so that's OK. Even if I was serious, I could say I was satirical. And the other - the other thing was that I got a call from Grant Tinker at MTM productions at the time and thanked me for doing that.

GROSS: Did your column, your review have an impact on the survival of "Cheers?"

BIANCULLI: No. Did I not mention that I was an Akron at the time?

GROSS: (Laughter) Oh, but it's a great story.

BIANCULLI: Yeah.

GROSS: One of the many great stories in your new book. And if you're just joining us, my guest is our TV critic David Bianculli. And he has a new book called "The Platinum Age Of Television: From I Love Lucy To The Walking Dead, How TV Became Terrific." David, let's take a short break here...

BIANCULLI: OK.

GROSS: ...And we'll be right back. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

GROSS: If you're just joining us my guest is our TV critic David Bianculli. And he has a new book called "The platinum Age Of Television From I Love Lucy To The Walking Dead, How TV Became Terrific." What role did TV have in your life when you were growing up?

BIANCULLI: Jeez, everything. And I sort of had to confront that and discover it in the book. I'd never really been introspective in that way before. But I watched a lot of TV when I was a kid because I was alone a lot as a kid. It's also why I read a lot when I was young. And because my father, after my mom died, was working so many hours a week, I was...

GROSS: Doing what?

BIANCULLI: He was a pharmacist at the time and then a pharmaceutical chemist. But I got to watch a lot of TV and have control of it early. And so I was choosing what it was I wanted to watch, and that was kind of important. And then it ended up being - opening up a world to me that I responded to. I can remember watching things like - did you see Lee J. Cobb in "Death Of A Salesman" when it was on TV?

GROSS: I don't think so.

BIANCULLI: It was - it was a transformative moment to me. I'd never been to New York. I'd never been to a Broadway show. And that meant it was such a powerful performance and play. And I hadn't read "Death Of A Salesman" before, and TV gave me that. And TV made me laugh and TV entertained me, and I ended up going to college to want to be a TV critic at a time when film studies were still new and TV studies were non-existent. And I sort of cobbled together my own major.

GROSS: Did you read TV reviews when you were growing up?

BIANCULLI: Yes. There was a guy in the Miami Herald, Jack Anderson, that I read every morning and Cleveland Amory in TV Guide. And those were the people that let me know that the job - there was a job out there to write about TV.

GROSS: Now, in your interview with Matthew Weiner, who created "Mad Men," he mentions that he wasn't allowed to watch TV by his parents on weekday nights or Sunday nights because it was school the next day and he had to wake up early, plus there was homework. So here's somebody who creates, like, one of the best TV shows, "Mad Men," and he wasn't allowed to watch TV most of the time.

BIANCULLI: Yeah, his relationship - go ahead.

GROSS: And you, it was the opposite because, like, your mother - you know, your mother had died, your father was working. You were alone at home watching TV a lot. And for you, your father was probably happy that you had television for companionship and for something to occupy you while he was out.

BIANCULLI: Yeah. And our favorite...

GROSS: Did you have babysitters?

BIANCULLI: No, no, I was a latchkey kid before there was the term. And my dad and I would watch TV on Sunday nights when he came home, and we would play two out of three games of chess. And whoever won got to control the TV for the night. And - but no matter which one of us won, we both picked "The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour." And I ended up...

GROSS: Which you wrote a book about.

BIANCULLI: I ended up writing a book about that. And it all ties together with me. I'm a fairly simple person, and you can sort of trace, you know, not only does everything that I care about eventually show up on TV so I get to write about it, which is why I love being a TV critic, but I think so much of me can be traced to TV. It's kind of - it's kind of simple that way.

GROSS: What were the family TV shows that you watched when you were growing up, and did you relate to them since you didn't have a mother? How - you were 11?

BIANCULLI: I was 10 when she died.

GROSS: Yeah, so, you know, you didn't have a mother. Was she sick before she died?

BIANCULLI: She was sick for a few years before, yeah.

GROSS: Yeah, so even when she was alive, it wasn't your typical family sitcom or family-drama-type family.

BIANCULLI: Well, you know, it's funny, one of the things that happens in the book - not to deflect the question, I'll get to the answer - but Ken Burns and I are the exact same age. He had a very similar upbringing. He had a sick mother, and he thinks that the reason why he started to care about history was because his mother was dying of cancer and he felt so helpless. He didn't want to watch sitcoms because they were all based on misunderstandings and the sort of anxieties, and he had enough anxiety in his life. And he saw what was going on in the news with civil rights, and he wanted to write those wrongs and, you know, I don't...

GROSS: He says he transferred the sheer terror of the cancer that was killing his family to the cancer that was killing his country. Instead of sitcoms, he started watching news.

BIANCULLI: Yeah. I don't know what my parallel to that is, but I watched news early. When my mom was alive, my parents were both Kennedy freaks. And so I got to - I was allowed to stay up to watch the debates, to watch the convention. I mean, I'm talking - I was 7 years old, you know, and it really stuck with me. And then, of course, so did the Kennedy assassination. And, you know, maybe when I say this out loud, it's sort of not that surprising that I consider television to be so important, so young and that it sticks with me because, you know, that's quite a crazy thing to have, you know, a first grader or a second grader pay attention to.

GROSS: So, you know, you mentioned the Kennedy assassination. Did you watch a lot of coverage of that and did you see Jack Ruby shoot Lee Harvey Oswald?

BIANCULLI: Yeah.

GROSS: In real time?

BIANCULLI: I'm hesitating. This is very personal. This was just a year before my mom died. She was very sick then, but very caught up with the Kennedys. And so my dad called me. We were let go from school, and I walked home and my mom was asleep and didn't know anything had happened. And I called my dad, and he said take the TV which was on rollers out of her bedroom, put it into my room and lock the door because he did not want her to know until he got home. And so for that next several hours, I watched it alone in my bedroom.

GROSS: And you had to keep it secret?

BIANCULLI: Yeah. And then once my dad got home, some time - I remember by the time Oswald was killed, it was out in the living room, and everybody was watching it. But there was a while there where it wasn't.

GROSS: That must have compounded how upsetting it was because you knew it was so upsetting...

BIANCULLI: I'm upset...

GROSS: ...Your mother couldn't find out about it.

BIANCULLI: Yeah. I'm upset talking about it now, and I didn't realize it would be. Yeah.

GROSS: So getting back to watching, like, shows about families when your family was different, when your mother was sick and then your mother died, did you relate to the families? Did you wish you had those families?

BIANCULLI: I remember the - I watched - I think that's why fantasy shows were so popular in the '60s. If anybody is old enough to remember while the real 1960s were incredibly grim with all this stuff happening on TV, it was talking horses and genies and flying nuns, and I watched a lot of those shows, too. I watched "Gilligan's Island" knowing that it wasn't a good show, but I was at the exact age where I loved watching, like, Ginger and Mary Ann. So that was a different part of it. But the family show dynamics - the shows that stick out to me oddly enough are "Andy Griffith" and "My Three Sons" which also had no mother figure. And - yeah, I hadn't thought of that before.

GROSS: David, it's really been great to talk with you. Thank you so much.

BIANCULLI: Thanks. I've loved this, and I appreciate it so much. Thanks, Terry.

GROSS: Oh, it's my pleasure. Congratulations on the book.

BIANCULLI: Thanks.

GROSS: David Bianculli is FRESH AIR's TV critic and author of the new book "The Platinum Age Of Television: From I Love Lucy To The Walking Dead, How TV Became Terrific." After we take a short break, Maureen Corrigan will review a new collection of essays by the late novelist and short story writer Stanley Elkin. This is FRESH AIR.

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