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 there has ever been," Bianculli says. "I am absolutely certain of it."
A TV critic since 1975, Bianculli has been a Fresh Air contributor since the show's inception. From 1993 to 2007, he was a staff critic for the New York Daily News. An associate professor of TV and film at Rowan University in New Jersey, Bianculli is also the author of Dangerously Funny: The Uncensored Story of the Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour, and the founder and editor of the website TVWorthWatching.com.
Best Scripted Comedies And Dramas
1. Breaking Bad (AMC) Vince Gilligan's drama stars Bryan Cranston as Walter White, a high-school science teacher turned crystal-meth manufacturer — not a character with whom you'd normally empathize. But Cranston, as Bianculli said in a review that aired March 19, 2010, "commits so highly to [his] role that [he] not only wins our sympathy, but disappears within the part." Bianculli notes that Gilligan has said from the start that he wanted to take Walter White, and viewers, on a journey, following the central character as he changed from meek hero to forceful villain, and this season certainly delivered on that promise.
2. Homeland (Showtime) The first-year drama stars Claire Danes as a CIA agent who suspects a heroic American POW is actually a double agent for al-Qaida. What makes the drama so unusual — and so good — says Bianculli, is that viewers at home are initially unclear about who is telling the truth. "It's so rooted in character," he says, "that I love this show."
3. The Good Wife (CBS) Bianculli says both the acting and writing really work on this CBS legal drama, which stars Julianna Margulies as a litigator attempting to rebuild her reputation after her husband lands in jail on corruption charges. And this season has amped up the emotional stakes for Margulies' character Alicia as she navigates work — and a new relationship.
4. Modern Family (ABC) Bianculli says he continues to recommend the family comedy for Wednesday night TV viewing. In a review from September 2010, Bianculli applauded the series for creating a sense of "risky creativity" — one that ended up being rewarded, both with solid ratings and at the Emmys.
5. Justified (FX) Timothy Olyphant plays Raylan Givens, a U.S. marshal transferred from sunny Miami to his former home in the backwoods of Kentucky. In those Kentucky hills, Givens encounters a slew of unsavory characters, including Mags Bennett (Margo Martindale), the moonshine-making matriarch of a law-defying hillbilly family. In a March 2010 review, Bianculli said that the show "pulls off that same tricky balancing act of mixing tense drama and low-key comedy, often in the same scene."
6. Dexter (Showtime) Michael C. Hall, who played the uptight gay undertaker on HBO's Six Feet Under, stars as Dexter Morgan, a forensics expert whose specialty is blood-spatter analysis. He helps solve murders as a member of the Miami Police Department, but also harbors a deep secret: He's a serial killer who channels his murderous impulses by hunting down other serial killers. In a review that originally aired on Sept. 24, 2010, Bianculli said the show is "one of the most inventive and exciting shows on TV," one that explores "twists with breathtaking imagination."
7. American Horror Story (FX) The series was created by Ryan Murphy and Brad Falchuk, who previously worked together on Glee. The central story has Connie Britton and Dylan McDermott moving into a house where the previous tenants were found dead. Bianculli says it "may be the scariest TV show" he's ever seen, and it leaves him thinking about the characters long after he's turned off the TV set.
8. Curb Your Enthusiasm (HBO) The eighth season of Curb saw Larry David moving from Los Angeles to New York for several episodes. It's "one of the funniest and [most] daringly different shows ever made for TV," wrote Bianculli in July 2011.
9. Louie (FX) Comic Louis C.K. plays a divorced father of two struggling to balance his comedy career with his duties as a single dad. This season racked up honors from Time Magazine and GQ, as well as from Bianculli, who called it "ambitious" in his 2010 summer TV guide.
10. True Blood (HBO) The HBO vampire series created by Alan Ball is a soap opera, pure and simple, said Bianculli in a review that aired originally on June 9, 2010. "Or more accurately, it's a soap opera, impure and complicated." The show's constant plot twists — and the regular introduction of new characters — keep Bianculli hooked. And "for a safe, long-term investment in pop culture's fascination with the paranormal, I say take your money and let it ride on vampires," he said last May. "They're undead in more ways than one — every generation, they always seem to earn a brand new life.
As always, Bianculli had trouble limiting his list to just 10 shows. His honorable mentions include Rescue Me on FX, The Walking Dead and The Killing on AMC, Boardwalk Empire and Treme on HBO, Men of a Certain Age from TNT, NBC's Friday Night Lights and 30 Rock, Showtime's Episodes, and Damages on DirecTV.
He also highlights several nonfiction broadcasts and documentaries, including HBO's George Harrison: Living in the Material World, the Science Channel's Idiot Abroad and three documentaries on PBS: Prohibition, America in Primetime and American Masters: Woody Allen.
Worst TV Shows Of 2011
1. Fear Factor (NBC) "I think of it like locusts," Bianculli says. "Like it went underground for many years, and now it's back. It was a horrible show the first time. It's a horrible show now."
2. Jersey Shore (MTV) Snooki, Pauly D, JWoww and The Situation headed to Italy this season. That didn't change the show for Bianculli, who called it "by far the worst show" on television. "I just cannot tell you how despicable this show is," he observed last year. "It makes me want to shower."
3. H8R (NBC) The already-been-canceled show featured celebrities ambushing people who had previously snarked about them on the Internet. "The [celebrity] in the pilot was Snooki," notes Bianculli. "By being in Jersey Shore and in the pilot of H8R, Snooki is actually in 40 percent of my worst shows of 2011."
4. Kim's Fairytale Wedding: A Kardashian Event (E!) "It was four hours long, and Kim's marriage to Kris Humphries was 72 days," Bianculli says. "This TV show lasted about 1/300 as long as the marriage. I'm not sure on the math on that, [but it was] a waste of time."
5. Charlie's Angels (ABC) "The second that you had a buff Bosley, you knew you were in trouble with that show," says Bianculli. "In the original Charlie's Angels, Bosley was this Pillsbury Doughboy-type guy who hung around and was the nonsexual buddy who would drive the car and do things. Now he's a matinee-idol kind of player. ... But to dissect Charlie's Angels on that level is to give it too much time."
Bianculli also discusses several TV personalities who retired or switched networks in 2011, the state of cable news and what he's looking forward to, TV-wise, in 2012. Highlights include:
High Points In News
"Were I to have a Top 10 list that included news programs, 60 Minutes would probably be on it. But also vying for my Top 10 would be The Colbert Report and The Daily Show with Jon Stewart. ... Many times, they don't just do the best comedy take on the news. They do the best take on the news."
Mobile TV Personalities
"Oprah and Keith Olbermann both presumed that they would go from one venue to another ... and felt that their TV audiences would follow them wherever they went. And it's like real estate. A lot of it's location, location, location."
Critics And Spoilers
"They used to call this 'water-cooler' conversation. If you had a TV [show] that was 'water-cooler,' then people were talking about it the next morning — 'Who shot J.R.? Did you see what happened over here?' — Well, now, if there are water coolers and if there are offices, one person goes up and says, 'Did you see Dexter?' And they're like, 'No, shut up, I didn't see it. Tell me in a year.' This is not the way to have a conversation.
"I feel once it's broadcast, I should be free to talk about it. You should be free to avoid my discussion of it or avoid my articles on it if you want to keep it that way. Television has gotten so good that I can't watch it fast enough. So I have to do the same things I'm requiring other people to do. As we're talking right now, I'm four days behind on television I really am dying to see. But it's so good, my rule about great TV is that if it's that good, I don't want to multitask. I just want to sit and watch it."
TERRY GROSS, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. It's best of the year time. My guest is our TV critic David Bianculli, who has made his choices for the best and worst TV shows of the year, and as you'll hear later, this year has ended with some big news for David. Hi, David, happy holidays.
DAVID BIANCULLI, BYLINE: Hi, hi, I'm so glad to be here.
GROSS: So let's start with your top 10. You want to just start by running through the list?
BIANCULLI: OK, except I always have to have a caveat. I know this irritates you...
GROSS: It's always something, isn't it?
BIANCULLI: But I did limit it to just 10, but there are so many good shows this year that I had to do it by saying all right, I'm only going to do scripted comedy dramas, and I want to put the documentaries over in another spot, and I want to put a couple other shows in another spot so they don't take up my top 10.
GROSS: OK, so let's go with the top 10, and then we'll move on.
BIANCULLI: OK, all right, the official top 10 of 2011. Number one, "Breaking Bad" on AMC.
GROSS: Yay, OK.
BIANCULLI: OK. Oh, this is good. You want to do - no, it's all right. I can run through the whole list. You don't have to...
GROSS: Hold your applause, ladies and gentlemen.
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
BIANCULLI: Yes, I know, hold your applause until the end, or we'll never get through this list. It's such a good list. Number two is "Homeland" on Showtime, that's a first-year show. Number three is "The Good Wife" on CBS. That's a network show, broadcast television.
So is number four, "Modern Family" on ABC. It's not that I'm rooting for broadcast television, necessarily, but they're not on this list as much as cable. And then number five is "Justified" on FX. Number six is "Dexter" on Showtime. Number seven is another first-year show, "American Horror Story" on FX. Number eight is "Curb Your Enthusiasm" on HBO. Number nine is "Louie" on FX, and number 10 is "True Blood" on HBO.
GROSS: Did you bring any clips with you to show us how good any of these shows are?
BIANCULLI: I brought one, from "Homeland," and it's not from the most recent, you know, season ending or even the one before that. So it's a perfect little clip to show how intense this program is and why I like it so much. So if you want to hear it...
GROSS: Yeah, yeah, set it up for us.
BIANCULLI: OK, it's - Claire Danes plays Carrie, a CIA agent who thinks that the other star of the show, Damian Lewis as Brodie, is actually a prisoner of war that has come back that's been flipped by al-Qaida and that he may have some designs about U.S.-based terrorism.
So she thought that, and then she didn't think that, and now she thinks it again, but she's been in an explosion. She's in the hospital and she's off her meds, and we already know that she's bipolar. And so she's trying to explain to her boss, Saul, who is played by Mandy Patinkin, what her theory is. And when you listen to her explain it, it's not just the drama of what she knows or what she fears but of what's happening to her as a character.
(SOUNDBITE OF TELEVISION PROGRAM, "HOMELAND")
CLAIRE DANES: (As Carrie Mathison) The thing is, Saul, the avenues here have methods and patterns and priorities. A single sniper? No, Abu Nazir doesn't do that. He never has. He never will. He goes big. He explodes. He maims en masse. We know that.
MANDY PATINKIN: (As Saul Berenson) Slow down.
DANES: (As Carrie) The fact is that we have about a week, maybe less, to figure out the real target, not this single shot to the president, spy novel 101 (beep).
PATINKIN: (As Saul) Well, actually, that's the working theory.
DANES: (As Carrie) Well, it's wrong. It's incomplete. Walker's not even critical. He's just a part, a piece, a pixel, a pawn of no importance. There is a bigger, pernicious, Abu Nazir-worthy fly out there, and we have little time. We have to code it, collide it, collapse it, contain it.
PATINKIN: (As Saul) Lie down, Carrie, the doctor's coming.
BIANCULLI: Isn't that amazing? I mean, it sets up the drama of what's to come about the terrorist threat, but you're so worried about her, and he's so worried about her, it's so rooted in character that I love this show.
GROSS: So David, every end of year, when we have this kind of year-end review chat, we kind of do this measurement of how good the networks are doing compared to, you know, the broadcast networks compared to cable. So when you look at the overview, what's the score?
BIANCULLI: Networks down, cable up. It's sad to me that for the second year in a row, the broadcast networks for the most part seem to be underestimating the audience, whereas...
GROSS: You mean the intelligence of the...
BIANCULLI: The intelligence of the audience, yes, and therefore they're getting an underestimated audience from the Neilsens. It's just you don't have to - "Charlie's Angels," which is on my worst list this year...
GROSS: And we'll get to that list soon.
BIANCULLI: It's just a perfect example of even if you're going to redo that show, why redo it stupidly? You know, or why do "The Playboy Club," or why do so many of the shows this year, the only two that I was excited about in advance from the whole fall crop were cable programs. There wasn't a single thing.
Now there are some things coming up in the first part of next year. So I have some hopes for 2012. But they just seem to be timid.
GROSS: So let's get your worst list.
BIANCULLI: OK, worst list, I'll do it from number five to number one. So we'll build in some exciting suspense. The number five is "Charlie's Angels," the remake on ABC. And the second that you had a buff Bosley, you knew you were in trouble with that show.
GROSS: Who's Bosley?
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
BIANCULLI: See, you're just upping your cred. Bosley in the original "Charlie's Angels" was like the sort of Pillsbury Doughboy guy who hung around and was the non-sexual buddy who would drive the car and do things. Well, now he's, you know, a matinee idol kind of player, and it's like that's just really dumb. But to dissect "Charlie's Angels" on that level is to give it too much time. We've already given it too much time. "Charlie's Angels," here, gone, gone.
Number four, "Kim's Fairytale Wedding: A Kardashian Event." I don't think I have to explain - but this TV show on E! was two parts. It was four hours long, and Kim's marriage to Kris Humphries was 72 days. So I don't know how you do the math on that, but it's like you take 72 and then divide it again by six, and this TV show lasted maybe 1/300 as much as the marriage. I'm not sure about the math, but a waste of time, I'm talking about the TV show now, a waste of time.
Number three, a new CW show that has already been canceled, started in the fall, called "H8R," except it's not spelled H-A-T-E-R, it's spelled H-8-R.
BIANCULLI: Do you know the idea of this one?
GROSS: No, no, I don't.
BIANCULLI: OK, see I worry when I describe new ones that you think that I'm joking, but this is the premise: You take people on the Internet who have written snarky things about celebrities, and then you take those celebrities and a camera crew, and you ambush the snarky person, and you have the celebrity try to charm them while the cameras are rolling so that they will like them.
GROSS: Wow, who dreams this stuff up?
BIANCULLI: I don't know.
GROSS: So name one celebrity or...
BIANCULLI: Oh gladly because the one in the pilot was Snooki.
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
BIANCULLI: So Snooki - yeah.
GROSS: It's perfect, someone who this kind of show created becomes a celebrity in it.
BIANCULLI: Exactly, so - and to jump ahead to number two...
GROSS: And, like, Snooki is really unfamiliar with people being snarky?
BIANCULLI: And so good at being charming, too. It's just a trifecta with this show.
GROSS: We're spending too much time on this one, too.
BIANCULLI: I know. But the thing is the number two show, the number two worst show is "Jersey Shore," so Snooki, by being in "Jersey Shore" and in the pilot of "H8R" is actually in - let me do the math correctly - what, 40 percent of my worst shows of 2011.
GROSS: And number one?
BIANCULLI: Number one just came back this month after a hiatus. I think of it like locusts. Like it went underground for several years, and now it's emerged: "Fear Factor" on NBC. It was a horrible show the first time. It's a horrible show now. I mean, it's a more horrible show now because they're spending more money, and they're upping the gross factor to try to get attention on the Internet.
GROSS: And I think to prove your point, you've brought a clip with you?
BIANCULLI: Yeah, this is host Joe Rogan explaining the rules, and all you have to do is just imagine a giant, clear, see-through glass vat with a red liquid in it, and here we go.
(SOUNDBITE OF TELEVISION PROGRAM, "FEAR FACTOR")
JOE ROGAN: Inside this tank is over 3,000 gallons of cows' blood.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: I just got chills.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
ROGAN: You and your partner will be bound together by the wrists, and you will alternate dunking into that tank to retrieve these cow hearts.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Ew. Oh my God.
ROGAN: One at a time, you will alternate dunking down into that tank, retrieving a cow heart and then stuffing it in to your partner's mouth, who will them attempt to spit it into that box. The team that transfers the least amount of cow hearts in three minutes will be eliminated today.
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
GROSS: I'm sorry.
BIANCULLI: No, no, I'm going to let this run.
GROSS: Oh God, that's so ridiculous.
BIANCULLI: Sometimes my job is pretty easy, don't you think?
GROSS: And is it part of your job to make sure you watch these shows?
BIANCULLI: I had to watch the first two hours to see what they had done to "Fear Factor" in the interim. If suddenly it had somehow turned into "Omnibus," you know, I wanted to be prepared. But now that I've seen those first two hours, I think that I can move on to other things. I'm so glad of your reaction to that.
GROSS: For anyone tuning in wondering what is happening to FRESH AIR, we're talking about the best and worst television shows of the year. That was an example of the worst. And with me is our TV critic David Bianculli. David, let's take a short break here, and then we'll talk some more.
GROSS: OK. This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
GROSS: Well, if you're just joining us, with me is David Bianculli, FRESH AIR's TV critic, and he's reviewing the year in television. So let's move on. Your 10 best list was all scripted television. So what about news? What's happening in news this year? What do you think were some of the high points in terms of coverage and regular programs?
BIANCULLI: Well, there's interesting stuff in news both in terms of - the networks seem to be deciding, not all of them, but that people want serious news, and so they're making more choices. "CBS Evening News," now that Katie Couric is gone, is trying to be a little bit more serious. In January, they launch a morning show, where they're taking Charlie Rose as a new host and Gayle King.
GROSS: Oprah's good friend.
BIANCULLI: Yes, Oprah's good friend. I don't know that that's a really good fit, it doesn't seem to make sense to me, but I'll wait and see if that works. It looks to me as though Charlie Rose will get all the serious things, and Gayle will get the rest, and I don't know if that's the way they plan it. But they're at least saying for the morning show audience, "Today" is light and fluffy with a mix of news, "Good Morning America" is the same thing. So they're going to go more serious. So there's a try for that sort of thing.
But still I find the best analysis of news to be on a comedy program. You know, I mean, I still think "60 Minutes" is a great program, and were I to have a top 10 that included news programs, "60 Minutes" would probably be on it. But also vying for my top 10 would be "The Colbert Report" and "Daily Show with Jon Stewart," and that's 30 percent of my top 10.
So I'm just shoving the news things over to the side, if you'll let me, but they're all great.
GROSS: So Colbert and Stewart belong in your top 10, and you're just subdividing it.
BIANCULLI: Yes, I'm just saying OK, those guys, and it's a different sort of thing that those programs do, so I will put them over to the side. But I'm not saying that they just do the best comedy take on the news. Many times, they do the best take on the news, and I actually have an example, if you want to hear it.
GROSS: Oh play it, absolutely, yeah.
BIANCULLI: This is Jon Stewart on "The Daily Show" right as the Penn State scandal was breaking, and he started off giving his opinion about what should have happened at the time of the alleged event occurred. Then he played a clip of Penn State students taking to the streets to defend, you know, Coach Joe Paterno.
And then he comes back with really what is an editorial.
(SOUNDBITE OF TELEVISION PROGRAM, "THE DAILY SHOW")
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: (Unintelligible) is a part of JoePa. We think it's absolutely ridiculous that he got fired over this sort of situation.
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
JON STEWART: I don't want to jump to conclusions here, but it appears the street riot is in response to Coach Paterno's firing. See, I get that it's probably hard for you to believe that this guy you think is infallible and this program you think is sacred could hide such heinous activities, but there is some precedent for that, yeah.
And just like with the Catholic Church, no one's trying to take away your religion, in this case football. They're just trying to bring some accountability to a pope and some of his cardinals who (beep). So don't worry, on Saturday you'll still get to go to services against Nebraska. No one's going to take that away because obviously you're young, and that would be a traumatic experience, and we wouldn't want that memory to scar you for life. We'll be right back.
BIANCULLI: Isn't that wonderful? You know, I'm a student of Mark Twain, and there are times - and I do not want to over-inflate Jon Stewart - but when he's saying something really strong, even though it's humor, that you can hear where his heart is and where his anger is.
GROSS: It's also so hard to take, you know, a child sex abuse story and find any humor in it. He knows where the humor is and how to find it without being...
GROSS: Thank you.
BIANCULLI: Yeah, but also he knows when not to go for the laugh. You know, I mean, at the end of that particular program, he actually apologized, he said, because maybe it wasn't that funny a show, but it isn't that funny a topic. And I'm paraphrasing. But there are so many days where I will watch Colbert, or I will watch Stewart, and it's not only a half hour and then an hour well-spent, but I feel like thank goodness somebody is watching television and politics and reality the same way I am.
GROSS: David, in terms of talking about what's happened in news this year on television, the Republican debates, I mean, everybody's saying this, it's become this ongoing, you know, like reality series. And I don't know if you saw the debate in Iowa Saturday night on ABC.
BIANCULLI: Oh yes. Oh yes.
GROSS: There was the opening, the opening announcement credit sequence, and it struck me like they did it in the style of the opening of a reality show.
BIANCULLI: Yeah, it's "Survivor," you know, and that's what it's turned out to be, and they're even playing and planning that way. I mean, debates have always been, since they figured them out in terms of political debates, who's going to score the soundbites, who's going to be talked about the next day. And what you try to avoid is making the mistake that's going to make you talked about the next day.
Well, there's been enough of both of those this time, you know, with Rick Perry being the perfect example: You make one mistake that's an oops of that magnitude, and you're pretty much done. So it's actually a good service what's happening.
These debates, most of them which are on cable, but some are on broadcast TV, are out-drawing just about anything except for football games on cable. I mean, they're the most popular shows on cable. These are Republican debates just for the candidates. So they are engaging people.
Now, what if they're only engaging people because they're watching them like a reality show? I don't know if that's bad because you're still getting the information, eventually.
GROSS: You know, David, let's share a conversation we often have in the FRESH AIR office with our listeners, when a series has ended and we want you to review the season finale.
BIANCULLI: Oh yeah.
GROSS: We always have this, like, long debate internally like: Is it fair to say what the ending was because a lot of people have just recorded it, and they're going to watch it later, or they're going to watch it in six months or a year when the DVD comes out?
And is it fair to them to spoil the ending? Should we say spoiler alert and give them a chance to tune out? Should we not talk about it at all? And, you know, if you've watched the finale, then I would really want to hear what do you have to say about it. So what's your take on how to deal with reviews and actually talking about what everybody who saw the show wants to hear you talk about when you know other people haven't seen it yet?
BIANCULLI: It drives me crazy. They used to call this water-cooler conversation. If you had a TV show that was water-cooler, you know, then people were talking about it the next morning: You know, who shot J.R.? Did you see what happened over here?
Well, now, if there are water coolers, and if there are offices, you know, one person goes up and said did you see "Dexter"? Like no, shut up, I didn't see it. I don't want to know about it. Come tell me in a year. I'll be thirsty again in 2014. This is not the way to have a conversation.
And my job, I feel once it's broadcast, once it's out there, I should be free to talk about it. You should be free to avoid my discussion of it or my articles on it if you want to keep it that way. And I have to tell you television has gotten so good that I can't watch it fast enough.
So that I have to do the same things that I'm requiring other people to do. As we're talking right now, I'm four days behind on television that I really am dying to see. But it's so good, my rule about great TV: if it's that good, I don't want to multitask. I just want to sit and watch it and reward myself and reward the show with full attention.
Well, I don't have that many hours in the day to do that, you know, or a week. So they start piling up.
GROSS: So David, you were just saying that you don't have time to watch all the good TV, and that's exactly the dilemma that viewers who aren't TV critics are in, and that's why they're recording it or, you know, watching it on demand or waiting for the DVDs. There just isn't enough time, and that's why we worry so much about talking about what happened in the season finale, knowing so many people didn't have time to watch it.
BIANCULLI: But when is - when is it long enough? When is it OK? You know, maybe people record sporting events because they're out doing something or can't see it. Nobody expects sports scores not to be thrown out there and highlights not to be out there. You just avoid them. Besides, I don't think most people are as busy as I am.
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
GROSS: Our TV critic David Bianculli will be back in the second half of the show. He's the founder and editor of tvworthwatching.com and teaches TV and film history at Rowan University in New Jersey. Here's some music that was used on his number one show "Breaking Bad" and is on the "Breaking Bad" soundtrack album. I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross, back with our TV critic David Bianculli. We're talking about the best TV shows of the year.
So David, you've already given us your top 10 scripted TV shows.
GROSS: But there's so much TV you like this year, you have 10 runner-ups.
BIANCULLI: Yeah. This is I think a perfect example of how good television is in 2011. If I just read this list, which I will, very quickly. And so this is my other top 10 list. It sounds good enough to be right up there. So, but this is actually my 11 through 20. "Rescue Me" on FX. "Walking Dead" on AMC. "Episodes" on Showtime - not too many people saw it but really good comedy. "Boardwalk Empire" on HBO. "Friday Night Lights," which ended, you know, DirecTV and NBC, its final season. "30 Rock" on NBC, slipped down from my top 10 but it's still a good show. "Men of A Certain Age," which TNT should've renewed but didn't. "Treme" on HBO. "Damages" now on DirecTV once FX let it go. And "The Killing" on AMC. Those are good programs.
And I also pushed off like five documentaries or nonfiction shows and I want to list those if I can.
GROSS: Yeah, go ahead.
BIANCULLI: I realize this is just a lot of titles, but for people who care about these things I want them to know I care about them too. "George Harrison: Living in the Material World," an HBO documentary by Martin Scorsese. Brilliant. "Prohibition" by Ken Burns on PBS. "America in Prime Time," the best study of television I've seen in 20 years. That was on PBS. "American Masters," a Woody Allen, biography on PBS. And then a real strange one, "An Idiot Abroad" on the Science Channel, which took Karl Pilkington, who is the guy that Ricky Gervais and Stephen Merchant discovered, has him going around the world. It's the only travel series I've ever seen where the guy doesn't want to travel and doesn't like much of what he sees, so that makes it different. But it was very entertaining, very informative and really unpredictable.
GROSS: What are you looking forward to in 2012 on television?
BIANCULLI: There's a new show called "Smash" that's a musical drama. I've seen the pilot. I don't know why NBC held it back until midseason. They had it ready. It could have gone in the fall. But they're going to launch it a day after the Super Bowl so it's going to get lots of promotion. And it's really good. It's kind of "Fame-ish." It's more like "Fame" was than "Glee" is. But if I interpret the pilot correctly the whole season is going to be about casting and writing and rehearsing and staging a new musical based on Marilyn Monroe. And then who knows, at the end of the season they may actually present it as a TV special. But it's produced by the producers who have done almost every good musical theater special on TV for the last 10 or 15 years, and also were behind the film version of "Chicago." It's just, it's just really good. I'm excited about that.
GROSS: And this is scripted. It's not a reality show.
BIANCULLI: This is scripted. It's totally scripted. And then there's another show by Howard Gordon who is doing "Homeland" right now called "Awake," which is going to be on NBC in a couple of months which looks really good also. So there are two broadcast shows coming in midseason that I can't wait to see and that's two more than there were in the fall of 2011. It's true.
GROSS: Well, with me is David Bianculli, FRESH AIR's TV critic, and we're looking at the year in television. David, did you have a favorite TV moment of the year?
BIANCULLI: Oh, I do. But I don't think this is going to be anybody else's TV moment. Now I'm used to liking obscure things but this is just so personal. This is my favorite moment of 2011. I don't expect it to be anybody else's. I didn't know it was coming. So imagine you are me - as horrifying as that may be.
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
BIANCULLI: And you're watching television live and this scene comes up on "Parks and Recreation." It is set in a public radio control room where Dan Castellaneta is playing a public radio host interviewing Amy Poehler, who plays Leslie Knope on "Parks and Recreation," about her new book.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "PARKS AND RECREATION")
DAN CASTELLANETA, ACTOR: (as radio host) Leslie, could one say that a book is nothing more than a painting of words which are the notes on the tapestry of the greatest film ever sculpted?
AMY POEHLER: (as Leslie Knope) One could say that. But should one?
ACTOR: (as radio host) Join us next week when David Bianculli will be filling in for Richard Chang-Jefferson who will be filling in for me. Leslie, would you like to take us out?
POEHLER: (as Leslie Knope) OK. Please enjoy a song from the lesbian, Afro, Norwegian funk duo Nefertiti's Fjord.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
POEHLER: (as Leslie Knope) Oh wow, they are terrible.
ACTOR: (as radio host) Oh yes, they're quite awful. But they are lesbians so...
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
GROSS: So David, what was your reaction when you heard that the first time?
BIANCULLI: I was, well, I was stunned in hearing my own name but then it just kept getting funnier. I mean as public radio parodies go that was pretty much spot on in my critical eye. So I just loved that scene.
GROSS: Oh, it's great. So that was not the only thing that made this an especially interesting year for you. Can we break the news to anybody who hasn't heard it yet?
BIANCULLI: Oh, yes.
GROSS: It was just a couple of years ago that at the end of the year we were talking about David's book about the Smothers Brothers.
GROSS: Was that two years ago?
BIANCULLI: Two years ago, "Dangerously Funny," December 2009.
GROSS: And now it's been optioned by...
BIANCULLI: By Smokehouse Pictures, which is George Clooney and Grant Heslov.
GROSS: So George Clooney we hope will be making this into a movie.
BIANCULLI: Well, yes, we do hope this. But I feel like I've won the lottery even just by getting the book optioned. You know, I feel like I'm Sally Field, George Clooney is the Oscar and she's saying, you like me, you really like me...
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
BIANCULLI: ...just because he sees the potential of the story of the Smothers Brothers and their, you know, fight against censorship back in the 1960s. So to me I've already won. Very unexpected. I don't know how to handle good news. I'm not used to it but even I recognize this is good news. Very happy.
GROSS: It's really exciting news. And I hope he actually chooses himself to direct it.
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
BIANCULLI: Well, the great thing is is that, you know, I teach TV and film at college and I teach his stuff. I teach "Good Night and Good Luck."
GROSS: Oh that's such a good film. That's the film about Edward R. Morrow. Yeah.
BIANCULLI: Edward R. Morrow going against McCarthy. And I show the film after I show the entire 30 minute episode of the real Edward R. Morrow going against McCarthy and it holds up. And the students are always impressed by the fidelity of tone to the actual words. And not many people who saw "Good Night and Good Luck" are actually going back and seeing, you know, the 1954 episode of "See It Now." But it's a wonderful comparison and that's why I couldn't think of a better person to make it if it does get made.
GROSS: I always wish that I could have been a student in one of your classes.
BIANCULLI: Yes, because you've never been in one of my classes.
GROSS: No, you show such great like clips that, you know, like old clips from television and movies. Your students who are, you know, what, in their late teens or early 20s...
GROSS: ...for the most part are probably not familiar with a lot of like the actors and the newscasters in the programs and movies that you're showing.
GROSS: What surprises you most about what they do and they don't respond to?
BIANCULLI: Well, it's funny. It's this sort of thing where I try to put together lectures where I will show them things knowing they don't know some of this and I've got to set this up. And I'm always putting in new things and I don't know how these new students - I teach a Rowan University but I think that this would happen at any university - don't know how they're going to respond.
And just a couple of weeks ago I showed some new stuff from "Second City TV," when I was showing clips from the first years of "Saturday Night Live" and I was showing early "Monty Python," to me that's fun. That's not college. But it's a real course. And out of all the clips that I showed the two things to which they responded the most both vocally and emotionally and really liked were things I would not have expected. One was Randy Newman singing "Short People" which they had not heard most of them and really thought was, you know, outrageous. And the other thing was an "SCTV" skit making fun of Perry Como by having him sing disco hits while he's so laid back he's almost comatose. I mean literally lying on the floor.
GROSS: I remember that.
BIANCULLI: Yeah. And, but I wanted to show that because I thought it was hilarious 20, 30 years - whenever it ran, but they don't. I tell them Perry Como, very laid back entertainer doing this and they're singing disco songs so I don't know what connection 18, 20-year-olds have did that. They roared. I wish I had run a recorder to hear. It was like an episode of "Married with Children," that was what the soundtrack was like from the students. They loved Perry Como being made fun of on "Second City," so who knew? I don't know.
GROSS: Well, all right. So...
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
GROSS: That's great. I do envy them.
BIANCULLI: Well, no, because you can't really envy them. What good is that knowledge, actually?
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
BIANCULLI: This is the trick that I have to keep dancing. I teach with two other teachers. We teach TV of the '50s and were teaching so much about the '50s that makes sense. '60s and '70s, what I want to teach is the pivot point between TV being very sedate and not at all controversial and then going to court controversy with "All in the Family" and everything else and "Saturday Night Live" and the pivot point, hurray, turns out to be "The Smothers Brothers." So, you know, I'm loving that.
GROSS: Well, David, it's been great to talk about the year in television with you.
BIANCULLI: All right. Thanks. You know how much I love being here and how proud I am to be associated with FRESH AIR, so thanks.
GROSS: Oh David, we love having you. Thank you so much.
BIANCULLI: Thanks a lot.
GROSS: And happy New Year.
BIANCULLI: You too.
GROSS: David Bianculli is the founder and editor of tvworthwatching.com and teaches TV and film history at Rowan University in New Jersey. You'll find links to all our TV coverage from the year, interviews and reviews, on our website, freshair.npr.org.
Coming up, our rock critic Ken Tucker has his list of the best of the year. This is FRESH AIR. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.