TERRY GROSS, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. Merry Christmas. Our TV critic David Bianculli has brought his 10 best list and is going to talk with us about the year in TV.
Welcome back, David.
DAVID BIANCULLI, BYLINE: I love this.
GROSS: So let's start with the big picture - was this year a good year or a bad year for TV?
BIANCULLI: It was a good year for programming, not a great one in terms of the shows themselves, but in terms of what was happening on television, in terms of new and old formats and new exciting players coming in to the mix - another good year. I'm actually kind of encouraged.
GROSS: Which is wonderful. The frustrating thing about it is that I just can't keep up.
BIANCULLI: Yeah, see you and raise you.
GROSS: Yeah, no, absolutely.
GROSS: But that must be frustrating for you.
BIANCULLI: It is. Well, you know, television isn't even what it was when I started as a TV critic, it was a box in the living room. Now, you know, it's anything that comes in visually regardless of where comes in. It's sort of crazy. It's frustrating to me to try to be a professional and keep up with it all. But what's exciting is that, you know, something like WGN America or something like Amazon or, a few years ago, FX, will try something where they weren't there before and success breeds success. And we're in this wave of quality TV right now where people are betting on that.
GROSS: Yeah, so in this era of quality TV, what's on your top 10 list for the year?
BIANCULLI: OK, I will go through this quickly and with apologies because it could be twice as long, but here they are. Should I do it reverse?
GROSS: Sure, do it reverse, build the suspense.
BIANCULLI: Yeah, build the suspense. OK, number 10 - it's a tie between "Louis" on FX, which I love, and "Last Week Tonight With John Oliver," a new show on HBO. And I think that he defined himself in that show so much in its first season that it deserves prominence.
GROSS: Two of my favorite shows.
BIANCULLI: OK. Number nine is "Homeland" on Showtime, which I think bounced back this year after a bad previous season. Number eight, "The Daily Show With Jon Stewart," always, I think, indispensable. Number seven, for the last time on my list, "The Colbert Report."
BIANCULLI: I know, I know. It just went out, but we're going to see more of Colbert, and we'll talk about that I'm sure in a few minutes. Number six, "True Detective" on HBO, which brought a new concentrated type of programming form that I'm very excited about and which, again, will be imitated. Number five, "Fargo" on FX - the same thing, you know, self-contained stories that leave you in suspense because the characters don't have to live and you don't have to know what's going to happen. It goes all the way back to the old Golden age of television where it was anthology shows and that suspense was built in. Number four, "The Roosevelts: An Intimate History" on PBS.I think it was the best thing that Ken Burns has ever done, and one of the trickier ones. Number three, "The Walking Dead" on AMC. I know it's a genre show, but they're so intelligent about what they're doing with this that I really like that program. Number two, is "Justified," which is just about to come back for its final season. I think this is one of the most underrated shows on television, and it has one last chance to close its book and get some acclaim. And then number one, it's a broadcast show, it's not cable, it's on CBS, it's "The Good Wife."
GROSS: You want to play a clip from it?
BIANCULLI: I would love to play a clip from it. And it's a clip that shows not only Julianna Margulies as the lead in terms of her strength, but also they have the deepest roster of really strong regulars and guest stars. Here you have David Hyde Pierce coming back to TV for the first time since leaving "Frasier" about a decade ago. And he's playing a media pundit who has thrown his hat into the ring for the same state's attorney's office that Alicia, the lead character played by Julianna Margulies, is playing. And in this clip, he shows up unannounced at her office with a taped up shoebox.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THE GOOD WIFE")
DAVID HYDE PIERCE: (As Frank Prady) Before James Castro left the race he gave me this.
JULIANNA MARGULIES: (As Alicia Florrick) What is it?
PIERCE: (As Frank Prady) It's dirt on you, your husband, your children, your family. I haven't opened it, he wanted me to use it against you, but I won't.
MARGULIES: (As Alicia Florrick) Why not?
PIERCE: (As Frank Prady) I want to do this differently. I want to not pound you into submission, and I don't want you to pound me. I've heard politicians in the past agree they won't go negative, and they always go negative and I think I know why.
MARGULIES: (As Alicia Florrick) Because it works?
PIERCE: (As Frank Prady) No, because it's a posture. They don't mean it when they say it, otherwise they go to the other candidate, not the press. That's why I'm here. I'm not going to the press. I'm coming to you to say I will not go negative and I am asking you to do the same.
MARGULIES: (As Alicia Florrick) Now, my campaign manager, if he were here, Frank, would say you're up three points in the polls of course you want to suspend negative campaigning.
PIERCE: (As Frank Prady) Yeah, but you must have the same projections I do. The race will tighten. You have women voters, I have African-Americans. You have Catholics, I have limousine liberals. That's a flipped coin of a race. I like betting, I wouldn't bet on it. Wouldn't you rather win without blotting each other in the process?
MARGULIES: (As Alicia Florrick) I don't have an opinion on that.
PIERCE: (As Frank Prady) I doubt that.
MARGULIES: (As Alicia Florrick) That's your right.
GROSS: OK, that's a scene from "The Good Wife," number one on our TV critic David Bianculli's top 10 list of TV shows of 2014. Good scene.
BIANCULLI: Yeah, no, it's so well acted and so well-written. And what I love about the show is that everyone's motives are always suspect.
GROSS: Yes, what is he covering up? - I want to know.
BIANCULLI: Yeah, and everything shifts. It's such a good show.
GROSS: Just one more thing about your top 10 list, you know, "The Daily Show" is on it and there's a chance it won't be on it in 2016 because Jon Stewart's contract is up at the end of 2015, and who knows what he's going to do. It would be so sad to lose both "The Colbert Report" and "The Daily Show."
BIANCULLI: I know, there's a big shift in terms of late-night. And there are days where I watch those shows and I feel little bit better for having seen them, not because they improve me as a person necessarily, it's just such a nice way to end the day. And it's what Carson was, you know, in the '70s. I remember that it was nice to check in and see what Johnny Carson thought of the day in his monologue.
GROSS: You're making me feel all warm about television, but you do have a worst list, too. It's a short list because I think you wanted to highlight the very worst.
BIANCULLI: This is my favorite thing to do each year because I know you don't watch these, you have much too much sense. And if I just described them, you might not even believe that they exist. But here are my two favorite worst from this year. The second worst I think - they're both from Fox and they're both reality shows. One of them is "I Want To Marry Harry," where they take women from the United States and send them over to England for, like, a dating reality show, but they get a look-alike to Prince Harry and they make these women think and he tries to make them think that that's who he is. And then eventually they're supposed to come this reveal where they find out he's not really a prince but will true love work out in the end?
GROSS: Is deception like that actually legal?
BIANCULLI: You know, this was in the tradition of something like "Joe Millionaire" where he wasn't a millionaire. And there is a tradition, it's just a sorry tradition, but...
GROSS: I thought that tradition was part of crime fiction, not reality television.
BIANCULLI: No, it's really bad. And I don't want to play a clip from that one because I've got a worse clip to play. This is a show called "Utopia." And the idea here was to take, I think, 15 people from all different walks of life and put them in a place where they can create their own society. And of course Fox stacks the deck by making each one of these 15 people an uber-stereotype. So there's like a toothless hillbilly and there's a religious zealot and there's a military vaguen and there's someone they described as a polymorph. You know, it's just - oh, my. So we do have a scene where the people from Utopia are gathering around this table in a barn with laser images that are about to explain a year-long experiment they have just committed to.
GROSS: Hear we go.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "UTOPIA")
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Welcome to Utopia. You're here to create a new world. You have one year to do it. How you live is up to you. There are no laws here, no customs. What will you choose? Democracy or dictatorship? Fidelity or free love? Will you trade with the outside world or cut yourselves off? There are some things here to get you started; a barn for shelter, two cows, some chickens, five acres of fertile land and a lake. There's a telephone and $5,000 in the safe. Will you spend it on construction materials, weapons or farming equipment? Are toilets a priority?
GROSS: So this was supposed to be an experiment that lasted a year.
BIANCULLI: A social experiment that lasted a year. It's so bad, and "I Want To Marry Harry" was so bad, both of these shows were canceled almost instantly.
GROSS: So is this unprecedented or is this a sign of a new trend that reality shows don't have the staying power that they used to?
BIANCULLI: It's not unprecedented but the fact that one of them - "Utopia" - they put so much money behind and so much hope behind and it failed so miserably so quickly, it's better to bet on something original in terms of trying to get - look at the notice that "Transparent" got from Amazon, you know. Bet on something unique or different, rather than the hundredth iteration of a stupid reality show.
GROSS: More and more people are watching television through alternate means. I think one of the things that Amazon has done in trying to create a niche for itself is to come up with a series that is unique, there's never before been a series about a character who comes out as a trans woman as Jeffrey Tambor does on "Transparent."
BIANCULLI: Right, you're absolutely right. It's what HBO did with "Oz," as a prison drama, when it started getting into drama, saying what hasn't been done on television before, how can we get some instant attention. It's hard to think of HBO as a brand new dramatic startup who wants attention, but that's what it did then, and that's one of the things that Amazon is doing now. But here you have this very sensitive subject, and if it were not treated properly, I think that Amazon would have been shot out of the water. But Jeffrey Tambor, his performance is so good. The writing is so interesting. And it takes several episodes to realize what's going on with the show. From the beginning, whenever you hear Jeffrey Tambor in his transitional phase, it's a remarkably good performance.
GROSS: Do you want to play a scene?
BIANCULLI: Yeah, we have a clip from - it's one of his - you know, he's in one of his early transitional therapy group sessions talking about a recent encounter when he went out shopping dressed as his female alter ego.
GROSS: Because he's transition from male to female.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "TRANSPARENT")
JEFFREY TAMBOR: (As Maura) When I went to Target, and I took her out, you know what I mean? And I got into a, you know, a checkout line. And the girl at the cash register said I need to see some ID with that credit card of yours. And you know what that's like, right? And I just knew, I said this is going to not be good, this is going to get ugly. And so she just kept looking at me. And then she said, oh, like that, you know? And she rung up the batteries - something. I mean, that was a big victory. And I would say, do not cry in front of this woman, do not cry in front of this woman.
UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As character) Thank you for sharing, Maura. Thanks for being vulnerable with us.
TAMBOR: (As Maura) One more thing, I made a commitment here last week that I was going to come out to my kids and I didn't do it because it just wasn't time, you know? But I will, and it will be soon. I promise you, I promise you. They are so selfish. I don't know how it is I raised three people who cannot see beyond themselves.
GROSS: So as we end 2014, the late-night landscape is shifting again. What are we in store for for 2015?
BIANCULLI: Well, you know, we've just say goodbye to Stephen Colbert and to Craig Ferguson. So we're going to see Stephen Colbert as Stephen Colbert not playing Stephen Colbert, which is very confusing. You know, that's unprecedented. I mean, it's not unprecedented to have somebody play a late-night talkshow host because you have Martin Mull, you have Gary Shandling doing those things before. But they've never then gone on to do one as themselves. And they weren't playing themselves the first time. This has never been done. And some people are already speculating that Stephen Colbert is going to fail and that it's foolish for him to walk away from his alter ego. My bet is that he's going to do great.
GROSS: I'm with you.
GROSS: And Larry Wilmore is going to have a show on Comedy Central.
BIANCULLI: And he's going to do - he's one of my favorite, you know, guys from "The Daily Show" and that's another win-win. And even James Corden who's coming over to take over Craig is an interesting choice. So I think the next level of them, the next level of talk shows, it's going to be very interested to watch in 2015.
GROSS: What are some of the other programs you're looking forward to next year?
BIANCULLI: One big thing is I've been talking about this for so many years that I ought to get a piece of this, but Neil Patrick Harris is going to do a variety show. And it's based on a British show that I haven't seen, so I don't know the format. But I really have been saying for years that, you know, somebody ought to...
GROSS: I'm a witness.
BIANCULLI: Yeah, somebody ought to give this guy a variety show. Well, he's getting one and it's on NBC. And if anybody can bring - for variety shows, if they get to come back, you know, we've just had anthologies come back with shows like "Fargo" and "True Detective," so if the variety show comes back, I'll be a happy guy. I may be able to retire peacefully.
GROSS: What else are you looking forward to?
BIANCULLI: We have "Twin Peaks" is coming back.
BIANCULLI: Yes, "Twin Peaks" is going to be coming back. And it's very weird because remember those scenes in the red room with the dancing little person? Well, those were supposed to be set 25 years in the future, it's now 25 years in the future. And I don't know whether this is going to be horrible or wonderful. But we're still calling something like "Twin Peaks," nothing like "Twin Peaks" has ever showed up since. I'm very curious about that.
GROSS: Does David Lynch - does he have anything to do about it?
BIANCULLI: Oh, yes, it's David Lynch and I think Mark Frost. It's those guys again.
GROSS: Wow, OK.
BIANCULLI: But still, it doesn't, you know - I remember there was a sketch on doing The Graduate Part Two, it was in the movie "The Player," you know, where just because you have an idea doesn't mean you should do it.
GROSS: Do you think the standards have changed since you started writing television criticism?
BIANCULLI: Yes, in two regards. One is that there's more immediate writing which is reflexive, you know, like writing about a show while it's still being broadcast.
GROSS: Like live-tweeting.
BIANCULLI: Yes, that's exactly what it is, you know, live-tweeting. That to me isn't journalism, its stenography, you know, stenography with an opinion thrown in.
GROSS: With jokes.
BIANCULLI: Yes. And I will do jokes and I will, you know, I'm very proud of how fast I can write a review if I'm writing something on deadline, especially of a live show, but it's still written as a full piece. I think there's less of that. And there seems to be two camps about TV journalism these days, where one camp is doing it the way it was always done and doing it like a professional journalist and some - and I'm not saying it's a new breed because some of these people are as old as I - who feel like they're too cool for the room and don't want to ask any questions and just want to have opinions and be snarky. And I don't think that helps.
GROSS: David, let's talk a little bit about what this year in TV was like for you personally.
GROSS: And I'll note that you had a gallery show in Manhattan that was supposed to be like a personal history of television, and you unearthed a lot of personal TV artifacts, as well as gathering truly historical TV artifacts. Tell us a little bit about what you found for this exhibit.
BIANCULLI: Well, it started with my diary from age 7, where half of it was reviewing TV shows - that was sort of scary - and just ended up pulling artifacts from people that lent them for the exhibit, things that I had collected and then a whole bunch of television programs in sequence that I looked at as history. It ended up being partly autobiographical and partly just history of television. And I really learned about myself from that, that I really love TV, but...
GROSS: I could have told you that.
BIANCULLI: (Laughter) I guess from outside, it's easy to tell. But I mean, I've always been enthusiastic about it and it's always - it's given me friendships, it's gotten me lots of information. It opened up various interests to me.
GROSS: Do you have a favorite TV moment of 2014?
BIANCULLI: I have two favorite TV moments of 2014. One may not work as well on the radio, so I'll just describe it. And if people have seen this, I hope that they will be nodding with me. It's an episode from this season's "Louie" on FX. And Louis C.K. is dating a woman from Hungry. She speaks no English. He doesn't speak her language, but they're sort of feeling each other out. They're living in the same apartment building. And he's walking his daughter home from a music lesson and going upstairs, and they connect. And she runs back in, the Hungarian woman, comes out with their own violin and the two of them play this duet.
GROSS: The daughter and the Hungarian girlfriend.
BIANCULLI: The daughter and Louis' girlfriend. And it's gorgeous and it's wordless, and it's a sort of communication that Louis hasn't been able to manage. And it was just a hauntingly beautiful piece of music, visual scene. I just loved it. It's unlike anything else I saw on TV that year. And then the other favorite moment, which I can play for you - as a matter of fact, I've played this once this year on FRESH AIR when I was doing a review of "The Graham Norton Show." It's a talk show where Graham Norton, this British guy, it's on BBC America, is interviewing a singer named Robbie Williams and he's asking him about the birth of his daughter. And Emma Thompson is one of the other guests and she takes over the questioning. And so it doesn't take long, but it's just - you hear Graham Norton laughing as loud as I've ever heard any TV show host laugh in response to the question.
GROSS: Here we go.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THE GRAHAM NORTON SHOW")
GRAHAM NORTON: Was Teddy born here?
ROBBIE WILLIAMS: Yes, she was born here, yeah.
NORTON: Were you actually at the - the hello, Teddy moment, were you there for the birth?
WILLIAMS: Yes, I was.
EMMA THOMPSON: Were you on the business end?
WILLIAMS: Yeah, I was.
WILLIAMS: It was like my favorite pub burning down.
(LAUGHTER AND APPLAUSE)
GROSS: So that was a scene from "The Graham Norton Show."
BIANCULLI: Yeah and I haven't been able to forget that scene. When I watch it, I couldn't believe that he said what he said, and luckily I was able to rewind and listen to it again. And then it just got funnier and funnier to me that you would say that sort of thing. And I realized there's not a lot of talk in talk shows. And so I'm hoping for more of that in 2015.
GROSS: Well, David, it's been great to talk with you. Thank you so much for being with us today. I want to wish you happy holiday, a great new year. And I look forward to hearing more of your thoughts on television in the year to come.
BIANCULLI: Thanks so much. I love these debriefings. Thank you, Terry.
GROSS: David Bianculli is the founder and editor of the website TV Worth Watching, and teaches TV and film history at Rowan University in New Jersey. You'll find his list of the best TV shows of the year on our website to freshair.npr.org. And if you want to catch up on any FRESH AIR interviews over the holidays, try our podcast, which you can get on iTunes.
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