TERRY GROSS, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. We're going to look back on the year in TV and film. Our film critic Justin Chang will have his top 10 list a little later in the show. First, our TV critic David Bianculli, who also sometimes guest hosts our show, is here with his top 10 list.
Welcome back to your show, David.
DAVID BIANCULLI, BYLINE: This is so much fun where I get to actually talk to you, even though every year, it gets harder to talk about TV.
GROSS: Why is that?
BIANCULLI: Because there's so much more of it, there really is. I can't do my job the way I used to do it. And it's just too big.
GROSS: Yeah. We'll get to that...
GROSS: ...In a couple of minutes. But first, let's do your top 10 list for the year. Why don't we start with number 10 and dramatically work our way up to number one?
BIANCULLI: OK. Number 10 is "Barry," an HBO comedy with Bill Hader in it and with a great supporting performance by Henry Winkler. It's one of two shows on my top 10 about a paid assassin, which is kind of weird. But the other one is more of a drama. Number nine is "Patrick Melrose" on Showtime. And it's a - was a limited series. And Benedict Cumberbatch - and the interesting thing about these, as I go through them, I don't expect anybody to have seen all 10 of these. It - television has just become too diverse. But if you listen to these and you want to watch them, that's the whole idea. You know, this is a second chance. You've already missed them once this year, most likely. But there's a chance to go back.
Number eight - another HBO series, "Sharp Objects." That was with Amy Adams. "Patrick Melrose" and "Sharp Objects" were both very dark, psychological studies. But I really think they were very well done. Number seven - a returning show from Hulu, "The Handmaid's Tale." Again, dark, dark, dark, but what an amazing performance. Elisabeth Moss is just so good in that. Number six - another marvelous performance. This is from "The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel." And it's one of the better comedies on all of television, one of the best. And it looks so good. It's like a world I want to go in. It's "Mad Men" all over again, except it's lighter.
Number five is the only broadcast network show on my list. And it's "The Good Place" on NBC, which fascinates me because it's a philosophical comedy about the afterlife and about the worth of life on Earth. And if you pay attention to it, not only is it much more serious than most television shows, but it's also got some really big surprises in it, which I will not spoil if you haven't started watching it yet. You can start, but it will throw you for several loops. Number four is "Killing Eve" on BBC America, which is the other show about a paid assassin - in this case, a woman being hunted by a government person who is also a woman. "The Americans" is number three. That was on FX. That ended this year with a very strong finale and a very strong final season. And that was about Soviet sleeper agents in the U.S. And these days, when we're so...
GROSS: Science fiction, right? Yeah.
BIANCULLI: Yeah, exactly. We're so hyper aware about Russia again that it's sort of like - you root for the family not for the politics. But it's very interesting in the way that it landed all of its stories. It stuck its landing. Number two is "Legion" on FX, which is one of the most difficult TV shows to watch visually and the way it edits and the way it does shifting perspectives and unreliable narrators. But it's a really good show.
And then number one, my favorite - it used to be when we would do these end of year shows, my favorite show was "Breaking Bad." Now it's - it continues to be the spinoff which, is "Better Call Saul," which takes the character - Bob Odenkirk's character of Jimmy McGill who turns into Saul Goodman and shows us in a prequel how he turns into Saul. And it is my very favorite show on television right now.
GROSS: And Saul, of course, becomes a kind of drug lawyer, like, representing people in dealing large amounts of drugs or manufacturing them.
BIANCULLI: Yeah. It's "Breaking Bad" all over again, where you see a character that could be a nice guy and then just gets worse and worse and worse. And that happens with "Better Call Saul."
GROSS: Since it's your No. 1 show, do you want to play a scene from it?
BIANCULLI: Oh, sure. And without ruining anything, I can do it from the ending episode where it's been building up, where Jimmy McGill gets to go into a hearing to try and get reinstated as a lawyer. And he is - he has a letter that he wants to read from his brother, who was a lawyer who was very disapproving of him but much more successful and then decides to go another way. And it sounds like he's being very sincere, and it's a really good acting job.
GROSS: Well, here it is.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "BETTER CALL SAUL")
BOB ODENKIRK: (As Jimmy McGill) Chuck was the one who was always right - always - and usually, he was. You know, so for a guy like me, I did lousy in school. I lacked ambition. I always cut corners. I mean, for me, to live up to the standards of Charles McGill (laughter) - I mean, look at me. I'll never be as moral as him. I'll never be as smart. I'll never be as respected. I'll never be as good as Chuck, but I can try. I can try. If you decide that I get to be a lawyer, I'll do everything in my power to be worthy of the name McGill. And if you decide I'm not a lawyer, it doesn't matter. I'll still try to be the best man that I can be.
BIANCULLI: Why I love this is that he's lying. And as soon as it's over, when he fools even his partner and everybody else - he was just doing it. Not only is he not going to try and live up to the name, as soon as he gets reinstated, the very first thing he does is change the name. And so starting...
GROSS: (Laughter) So he doesn't have to live up to it anymore.
BIANCULLI: Right, he doesn't have to live up to it at all.
GROSS: (Laughter) That is great. OK. So you've been complaining about how difficult it is as a TV critic to even try to keep up with all the stuff coming out.
GROSS: You brought a clip with you of Homer Simpson.
BIANCULLI: This is from "The Simpsons."
GROSS: And - yeah.
BIANCULLI: So it's from a broadcast show.
BIANCULLI: But it's when Homer Simpson became a TV critic. And then...
GROSS: I missed that. When did he become a TV critic?
BIANCULLI: Just a couple of weeks - oh, it's only for one episode.
BIANCULLI: It was like a few weeks ago. And he becomes a TV critic. Technically, he's a recapper, where he's just recounting what went on. And when you think of Homer Simpson - sadly, the way it reflects on me - Good idea, make him a TV critic. He's on the couch most of the time anyway.
BIANCULLI: But they call him in in this conglomerate - Google-Disney is this a made-up conglomerate - because he stopped recapping. And they can't have it because the status quo is being threatened by Homer not writing about television. So here's the clip.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THE SIMPSONS")
PETER SERAFINOWICZ: (As CEO) Homer, I'm the CEO of a major media conglomerate. We can't have you quit. You're one of America's top recappers.
DAN CASTELLANETA: (As Homer) I had to quit. Recapping was ruining my marriage. There were so many shows. I couldn't keep up.
SERAFINOWICZ: (As CEO) It's true. Currently, there are over 500 scripted shows on network cable and streaming.
CASTELLANETA: (As Homer) Why are you making so many shows? No one could watch more than 300 of them.
SERAFINOWICZ: (As CEO) Oh, we don't care if people watch. We just care if they subscribe for $13 a month.
CASTELLANETA: (As Homer, gasping).
SERAFINOWICZ: (As CEO) You see, if people subscribe and don't watch, then we don't actually have to make the shows. We just need viewers to believe they can watch them.
CASTELLANETA: (As Homer) Fake shows - but what if people try to see them?
SERAFINOWICZ: (As CEO) They won't because recappers like you will give those shows a B-.
CASTELLANETA: (As Homer) No one ever watches a B-. But that's crazy. It could never work.
SERAFINOWICZ: (As CEO) It already has. Are you familiar with the USA Network?
CASTELLANETA: (As Homer) Sure. "Royal Pains," "Suits," "White Collar."
SERAFINOWICZ: (As CEO) Have you ever seen any of those shows?
CASTELLANETA: (As Homer) No, but somebody must have - surely, somebody.
SERAFINOWICZ: (As CEO) There is no USA Network. There hasn't been for 20 years. It's just bus ads.
BIANCULLI: That's how I feel.
GROSS: That's hilarious (laughter).
BIANCULLI: I know. I know.
GROSS: That's an excellent piece of TV criticism...
GROSS: ...In terms of TV criticism of the system.
BIANCULLI: And it's on "The Simpsons," which started in 1989, and so it's weathered all this and survived longer than just about any broadcast TV show.
GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is our TV critic David Bianculli. We're talking about the year in television. And we'll talk about it more after we take a short break. This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF THE COUNT BASIE ORCHESTRA'S "WINTER WONDERLAND")
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR, and if you're just joining us, my guest is our TV critic David Bianculli. We're looking back at the year in television.
So let's move on from the dilemmas of criticism and viewing in the age of streaming television to late night political comedy this year. What were you paying the most attention to?
BIANCULLI: I try to pay attention to it all, the ones that made me laugh the most and that I was most excited by - two Daily Show alumni, Stephen Colbert on "The Late Show," John Oliver on "Last Week Tonight" - and then Seth Meyers from "Late Night With Seth Meyers." They're always worth checking in on. And John Oliver in particular just because of where he's placed in the news week - I feel better after I've watched him. It sort of makes everything that's happened over the week a little bit more sane. Plus he's very instructive.
GROSS: Oh, absolutely.
GROSS: I always learn so much when I listen to him. And it's so interesting to compare how Stephen Colbert has changed from the time he was on "The Colbert Report" 'cause on "The Colbert Report," everything had to be cast in the terms of his persona. And on "The Late Show," you can tell how passionate he's become about politics in America now and how angry. And what he says is hilarious. But his genuine anger at watching the Trump administration just kind of comes right through.
BIANCULLI: And increasingly it's become the signature part of the show. And it's an amazing piece of work that he's doing. And you're right. Now he's showing other muscles.
GROSS: And while we're on the subject of late night political comedy, "Saturday Night Live" has had some very funny opening sketches - political sketches about President Trump and his administration.
BIANCULLI: Right, and one of the best ones of the whole year just ran in the Christmas show of 2018. And it had Alec Baldwin, who frequently comes on to play President Trump. And it had - playing Brett Kavanaugh, it had Matt Damon returning for the second time to play that character. And they're all in this "It's A Wonderful Life" spoof where, what would happen if Trump had not been elected president? And so can I play a little piece from that?
GROSS: Sure, sure.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "SATURDAY NIGHT LIVE")
ALEC BALDWIN: (As Donald Trump) Brett Kavanaugh, how's the Supreme Court?
MATT DAMON: (As Brett Kavanaugh) Me on the Supreme Court with my temperament - are you insane?
DAMON: (As Brett Kavanaugh) No, no, they went with that nerd Merrick Garland. But on the plus side, when I tell people I like beer, they find it charming and not like I'm threatening violence.
DAMON: Plus I have so much more time now to hang out with PJ and Squee and Needle-Dick Nick and No-Means-Yes Nate. Hey, I brought a little present for you. It's a calendar, and every day is a different beer.
GROSS: So that's Matt Damon as Brett Kavanaugh on "Saturday Night Live." And of course after that sketch, as you may know, President Trump tweeted his harsh criticism of that sketch and of "Saturday Night Live" and of NBC. David, do you want to read the tweet?
BIANCULLI: Yeah, I mean, President Trump the morning after - he tweets about NBC and other shows and then hones in on "Saturday Night Live" and says it's a Democratic spin machine and said should be tested in courts, can't be legal - only defame and belittle.
GROSS: You wrote a book about the Smothers Brothers, and they were censored actually.
GROSS: So that kind of applies to what we're hearing now from President Trump. Like, what's the connection?
BIANCULLI: Yeah, well, they - nobody did it then. You know, before John Oliver, before Jon Stewart, before "Saturday Night Live," the Smothers Brothers in primetime were attacking Presidents Johnson and Nixon. But it was a different time not only for the reaction to their comedy but from the presidents.
Nixon, you know, sort of put Tommy Smothers on what was an early version of what became the enemies list whereas LBJ, you know, President Johnson - he wrote a letter to Tom Smothers the year before the Smothers Brothers were fired. And I brought this here 'cause I thought of it after the tweets. It said, it is part of the price of leadership of this great and free nation to be the target of clever satirists. These are LBJ's words. You have given the gift of laughter to our people; may we never grow so somber or self-important that we fail to appreciate the humor in our lives. So that's different than can't be legal.
GROSS: Speaking of President Trump, you and I recently did an event together.
GROSS: You know what I'm going to say.
BIANCULLI: Well, I don't know, but I...
GROSS: You know where I'm going. And at that event, I learned something I never knew about you. And we've been working together a very long time.
GROSS: You used to be a TV critic in New York. You wrote for the New York Post and the New York Daily News. During that period, President Trump before he was president had his reality shows, and you would of course write about them as a TV critic. And you spoke to him, like, several times.
BIANCULLI: Yeah, he would call up his secretary. I think her name was Robin - would call up and say, Mr. Trump is on the line. And so I would talk to him when he called.
GROSS: What did he call about?
BIANCULLI: It was invariably what I had written about that day. I mean, he does read New York tabloids. And so it was either - if I said something good about "The Apprentice," he would say that I was giving much better advice or analysis than the people that he was paying a lot of money to. And I said that he should - you know, he should find better people because the paper didn't cost that much. And if I said something detrimental about it, then he would complain.
GROSS: Had you given "The Apprentice" good reviews or bad reviews or mixed reviews?
BIANCULLI: When - I didn't like its structure originally, but I liked some of the things. And then I didn't like stuff, so I would say I was mixed on it. It was not, by any means, the worst of the reality shows, but I couldn't make sense of a lot of his capricious decisions. So there you go.
GROSS: So there's another encounter you had with Trump. And this was at, like, a - one of the TV conferences where all the critics show up, I think.
GROSS: And then some of the people behind the shows that are being written about are there, too. Tell us about that story.
BIANCULLI: Well, that's the TV critics press tour, where, you know, people come on stage - producers, stars - and there's like a hundred, 200 TV critics. And we ask questions. And at one of them, Donald Trump started off by saying that "The Apprentice" was the No. 1 show on television. And I raised my hand and asked how that was possible since it didn't even win its timeslot. And without missing a beat, he said, well, that's what I was told.
GROSS: One of the big dramas this year happened off screen. And that was, you know, a lot of men having to leave their positions, being forced out of their positions because of charges of sexual harassment or sexual assault, including Kevin Spacey...
GROSS: ...The star of "House Of Cards," so the final episodes of the series that landed this year were, like, without the president - without that president.
BIANCULLI: Yeah, which wasn't the way they would have planned it.
GROSS: Yeah. And then I - we have Les Moonves, the head of CBS, forced out. And, you know, a lot of other people who - you know, people will remember having been forced out in the recent past. How do you think that's affecting, like, the world of television, not just from a viewing point of view but in terms of what's happening in the world of television production and television executives, television power?
BIANCULLI: Well, Les Moonves - they've just ruled that he's probably not going to get his 100 million plus parachute, and that's the way you teach lessons in Hollywood. But creatively, in terms of what's being made, you are getting more women both behind the camera scripting things and starring. "Killing Eve" came - is a perfect example where the - there are so many strong women in "Killing Eve" that that would've populated entire seasons' worth of television, this one show, just 10 years ago.
GROSS: Did you have a favorite TV moment of the year?
BIANCULLI: I did. I did. And if there are any people left who have not seen it, I cannot stress enough how you really have to because I've seen it so many times by now. But it makes me happy. It makes me weepy. It just hits all the emotions beautifully. It was when James Corden on "The Late Late Show" did a carpool karaoke with Paul McCartney, but it was extended. It started off with him driving Paul McCartney in Liverpool through and on Penny Lane while they sang along, but it ended up with so much more. So I'll play a little bit of the start of that. But for the rest of it, please seek it out for yourself.
GROSS: And David, I want to wish you happy holidays and a great 2019.
BIANCULLI: Oh, thank you very much. It's so much fun to do this.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THE LATE LATE SHOW WITH JAMES CORDEN")
JAMES CORDEN: I mean, I feel it's only right that we would listen to this while we're here.
PAUL MCCARTNEY: Yeah.
CORDEN: Don't you think?
MCCARTNEY: Yeah, I would...
JAMES CORDEN AND PAUL MCCARTNEY: (Singing) There is a barber showing photographs of every head he's had the pleasure to know. And all the people that come and go stop and say, hello.
CORDEN AND MCCARTNEY: (Singing) Penny Lane...
GROSS: David Bianculli is FRESH AIR's TV critic. He's also a professor of TV and film history at Rowan University and the author of "The Platinum Age Of Television." You can see his 10 best list along with our other critics' top 10 lists at npr.org/freshaircritics. That's npr.org/freshaircritics. After we take a short break, our film critic Justin Chang will tell us what's on his top 10 list. I'm Terry Gross. And this is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THE LATE LATE SHOW WITH JAMES CORDEN")
MCCARTNEY: I used to be in the choir at that church.
CORDEN: That church there?
MCCARTNEY: Saint Barnabas, yeah.
CORDEN: You were in the choir.
MCCARTNEY: I was a choir boy.
CORDEN: Thank God for that choir...
CORDEN: ...And the voice it's given us.
MCCARTNEY: Yes, indeed. And my brother got married in that church.
CORDEN: No way.
MCCARTNEY: Legendary, yes, he is. He says hi, by the way.
CORDEN AND MCCARTNEY: (Singing) Penny Lane is in my ears and in my eyes.
MCCARTNEY: That's where the nurse was.
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