David Bianculli

For decades, when broadcast television called the shots and dominated the TV landscape, the biggest event of the year was "the fall season," when networks would unveil their new shows and return with fresh episodes of old favorites. But now, because of cable and satellite TV, the fall season isn't the only game in town. There's the summer season, which used to be nothing but reruns; now it's the time when HBO brings back True Blood, and when AMC, in just a few months, is going to present the...

The HBO movie Phil Spector is a production that demands attention because of the heavyweight names attached. First, of course, there's the subject of the drama: Spector himself, the man who invented the "wall of sound," and recorded hits for everyone from the Crystals, Darlene Love and Ike & Tina Turner to the Beatles and the Righteous Brothers. Oh, and who also went on trial, in 2007, for the 2003 shooting death of actress Lana Clarkson. He claimed she shot herself with one of his many guns;...

Top of the Lake, a new seven-part miniseries premiering tonight on the Sundance Channel, was co-created and co-directed by Jane Campion, who teamed with Holly Hunter 20 years ago on the movie The Piano. Hunter is back for this new project, playing a mysterious New Agey guru of sorts. She's started a small commune for emotionally damaged women, on a remote strip of land in New Zealand. That story could have been at the center of Top of the Lake, but it isn't. It's more like a running subplot,...

This week brings two new high-profile drama series. One is The Americans, premiering Jan. 30 on the FX network; it's about sleeper KGB agents living in the U.S. during the Reagan era. The other is House of Cards, a new series premiering Feb. 1. Both of these new series are all about intrigue, and they set themselves apart from the TV pack in both setting and style. Based on their first episodes, House of Cards, which stars Kevin Spacey, is the more artistically successful of the two, but both...

In the new Fox TV series The Following , Kevin Bacon plays a former FBI agent asked to help apprehend an escaped serial killer he once put behind bars. The show is from Kevin Williamson, who also created the Scream horror-movie franchise. One reason Bacon is coming to television is that his wife, Kyra Sedgwick, recently left it. Both of them have spent most of their careers in motion pictures, but once Sedgwick agreed to star in The Closer, for cable's TNT, it ended up lifting her to a new...

Of all the cable comedies returning with new episodes Sunday, Girls is the most ambitious — as well as the most unpredictable, and occasionally unsettling. When thirtysomething premiered on ABC more than 25 years ago — yes, it's been that long — that drama series was both embraced and attacked for focusing so intently on the problems of self-obsessed people in their 30s. What that drama did for that generation, Girls does for a new one — and for an even younger demographic, by presenting a...

Downton Abbey, the drama series about the residents and servants at a grand estate in early 20th-century England, has done for PBS what the commercial broadcast networks couldn't achieve last year. It generated a hit show — one with an audience that increased over its run and left fans hungry for more. And that's a lot of hunger because when the second season was televised here in the states, it averaged 7 million viewers, more than most TV shows on any network, cable or broadcast. In fact,...

On Friday night on PBS, Great Performances presents a documentary about the making of a Beatles TV special from 1967 — Magical Mystery Tour — then shows a restored version of that special . Magical Mystery Tour has the music from the U.S. album of the same name, but it's not the album. It's a musical comedy fantasy about the Beatles and a busload of tourists taking a trip to unknown destinations. It was written and produced in 1967, which was an incredibly fertile period for the Beatles. ...

I'm biased, of course, because I'm a television critic — but to me, giving someone a gift of a TV show you yourself enjoyed tremendously is somehow very personal. You're giving something that you love, and that in many cases will occupy many hours, if not days, of their time. And during that time, they'll occasionally be reminded of you. But which ones to get, and where to get them? Many stores have reduced shelf space for DVD box sets, except for the most popular ones. And with the growth of...

Right now, as we near the end of the 2012 fall TV premiere week, there's a tendency for a sense of weariness to set in. So many of the new TV series are so bad this year, and not one of them is outstanding. It tends to get a little depressing. But then you think about the rich bounty of returning series, and how good television drama has gotten lately, and there's cause to rejoice all over again. AMC's Mad Men and FX's Justified, which are on hiatus, had wonderful years. CBS's The Good Wife...

Last year, the broadcast networks didn't do well at all when it came to new series development. We got ABC's clever Once Upon a Time, which was about it for the fall crop, until midseason perked things up with NBC's Smash. Otherwise, a year ago, all the exciting new fall series were on cable, thanks to Showtime's brilliant Homeland and FX's audacious American Horror Story. This fall, there are no new cable shows to steal the spotlight — but the broadcast networks don't seem interested in...

Johnny Carson walked away from The Tonight Show, after 30 years at the top of the late-night ratings, of his own volition. And except for a few fleeting TV appearances after he retired, he never looked back — and never went back. When filmmaker Peter Jones would send an annual letter to Carson, asking for his cooperation in a TV biography of him, the answer was always no. One year, Carson went so far as to explain why: Let the work, he said, speak for itself. Well, after Carson's death, Jones...

I, Claudius came to American television, imported from the BBC, in 1977 — the same year as another ambitious long-form production, ABC's Roots, which proved to everyone that miniseries were an exciting and extremely popular new form of television. I, Claudius, shown on the PBS series Masterpiece Theatre, didn't get anything close to the audience that Roots did — but it sure got a lot of attention. And a few years later, when the ABC prime-time soap opera Dynasty was launched, its creators...

This Sunday, HBO premieres a new comedy series that's written and directed by Lena Dunham , who grabbed the media spotlight in 2010 with her film Tiny Furniture . She's 25 years old now, and stars in this new TV series as well. She plays Hannah, who's spent the past two years trying to pursue her dreams, and her idea of romance, in the big city. Some people already are calling it Sex and the City for a new generation — but some comparisons go even further back. In the very first scene of...

AMC's The Killing started strong, with raves from critics and an impressively loyal core of viewers. But in the final episode of the year, when it left its season-long murder mystery intentionally unresolved, most fans felt angry, even betrayed. HBO's Game of Thrones, on the other hand, took a bit longer to get established, and to get as much attention . But thanks to some strong performances and a few bold strokes of plot, Game of Thrones — based on the George R. R. Martin fantasy novels of...

Yes, it was worth the wait. Absolutely. Mad Men returns Sunday with a two-hour season premiere — and by the time it's over, if you react the way I did, you'll be satisfied and even comforted to have spent two wonderful hours with the folks at Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce. Series creator Matthew Weiner has created something magical with Mad Men, and that spell continues in Season Five. This show has a pace and feel all its own, and the writers, actors and directors all attack with the cocky...

I don't want to complain about Frozen Planet , however, until I dish out a little praise. Frozen Planet, which premieres this Sunday on the Discovery Channel, is the kind of program that television was made for — and, even more certainly, the kind that modern TV was made for. This series not only takes us, quite literally, to the coldest, most remote places on Earth, but captures images of so much majesty, artistry, and clarity, it's almost ridiculous. On a large-screen, high-definition TV,...

There are times when TV dramas about national politics and politicians deserve criticism, even ridicule, for their fast-and-loose narratives and characterizations. Recent miniseries about the Reagans and the Kennedys, loaded with unsubstantiated dialogue and action, are only two very fresh examples. But Game Change — HBO's new take on the John McCain-Sarah Palin campaign — is entertaining, and commendable, precisely because it stays so close to the facts, not because it strays from them. The...

The premise of NBC's new detective series, Awake, is about as high concept as it gets. Jason Isaacs, one of the leads of Showtime's Brotherhood, stars as Michael Britten, who survives a horrible car crash intact. Well, his body is intact — but his mind, or at least his subconscious, is split. He sees a therapist to deal with all this, while continuing to work police cases with his partner and help the car crash's other survivor deal with similar feelings of grief and guilt. But — and this is...

The Singing Detective is the story of a writer of pulp-fiction novels, hospitalized for a horrible skin condition that has his entire body flaking and raw, and his mind slipping in and out of fever dreams. Some of those hallucinations have the people around him breaking into song, or shifting into other places and times and characters, or both. He tries to maintain his sanity by rewriting, in his head, one of his old novels into a Hollywood screenplay — and, in his mind, he's the healthy,...

The two DVDs I want to talk about today are hilarious, but they aren't sitcoms. They're talk shows — well, one's a talk show, and one's a filmed seminar. But they're both fascinating examples of a specific pop-culture moment frozen in time. And they're something else as well: Both are highly entertaining real-time examples of talk-show Darwinism. Both shows feature a large, unwieldy guest roster, all of the guests competing for attention at the same time — and by the time the programs are...

It isn't a long shot that David Milch's newest series for HBO, called Luck , will be on par with his HBO series Deadwood . It's a sure thing. HBO sent out all nine episodes of the show's first season for preview, so there's no guesswork here. The racetrack is at the center of Luck, with every character and plot line orbiting around it. But you don't have to like horse racing — or even understand it — to get pulled in and swept along. The show examines the track, and its various intrigues,...

The new Fox series Touch stars Kiefer Sutherland as a father — a widower — raising a withdrawn preteen son with behavioral problems. But it doesn't begin with Sutherland. It begins, instead, with the son — Jake, played by David Mazouz — providing the narration that opens the series. By the time the opening narration is over, you already know you're watching something a little different. Jake has characteristics of being both mute and autistic, but apparently, he's something else entirely. He...

Let's begin with Justified – because, frankly, that's the one that's got me the most excited. This is a series that ended its previous season about as brilliantly as you can end one: With Timothy Olyphant , as Deputy U.S. Marshall Raylan Givens, and Margo Martindale , as backwoods drug-kingpin matriarch Mags Bennett, sitting down for a drink of home-made moonshine. I won't say what happened next — but as a piece of TV drama, it was absolutely, unforgettably, deliriously perfect. So now, on...

It's one of my favorite TV moments of this year. On Tuesday, the night of the New Hampshire primary, Stephen Colbert had Bill Moyers as his special guest on The Colbert Report. Moyers was there to publicize his return from retirement and the launch of his new TV series, Moyers & Company. Colbert booked him to help him do just that — but as his on-screen persona Stephen Colbert, the pontificating political conservative, he was there to throw good-natured verbal punches. And Moyers, just as...

There are three new hosts of CBS This Morning , which was unveiled yesterday. One is Erica Hill, a holdover from The Early Show, the previous program in the early-morning time slot. Another is Gayle King, still best known as Oprah Winfrey's best friend, who's here to handle most of the entertainment interviews. And the third, the pivot point, is Charlie Rose, brought over from PBS to give this new show an injection of instant respectability and seriousness. But the first hour of CBS This...

The New Year brings with it new TV programming, and this Sunday is an especially busy one for television. Two new series premiere, while one miniseries and several other series return. But because it's a new year, let's start with the new shows. First up is NBC's The Firm , a spinoff continuation of the John Grisham book – the one that, in the 1993 movie adaptation, starred Tom Cruise as a lawyer on the run from sinister forces within his own corrupt law firm. This new version, starring Josh...

Fresh Air 's TV critic David Bianculli liked so many shows this year that he says he couldn't pick just 10 favorites. Instead, he split his favorites into several lists, including best documentaries and best scripted comedies/dramas. Bianculli also highlights some of the worst shows to hit TV screens this year — including not one but two shows featuring Snooki. Despite his Snooki misgivings, Bianculli says it was a banner year for TV. "There is more good television on a weekly basis than...

By now, I hope my position on spoiler alerts is firmly established. My feeling is that once something has been televised, it's fair game for discussion. I feel it's the responsibility of the person who's delaying his or her enjoyment of a TV show to avoid mentions of it, rather than putting the onus on critics. And believe me, I know that's not always easy. I have to do some time-shifting myself — there are so many good shows presented on Sundays this season that it sometimes takes me the...

Woody Allen: A Documentary is the result, though not the culmination, of three very long and distinguished careers. First, there's Robert Weide , the writer-director whose examination of Allen's life and art follows similar — and similarly impressive — documentaries on the Marx Brothers, Mort Sahl and Lenny Bruce. Second, there's Susan Lacy, who created the PBS American Masters series 25 years ago, overseeing and nurturing brilliant programs on everyone from Buster Keaton and Jerome Robbins...

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