Television critic David Bianculli chats with us about his new book and the shows worth watching right now.
Over 40 years of professional television viewing, and TV critic David Bianculli exhibits the same enthusiasm for the medium day in and day out. Bianculli, whose encyclopedic knowledge of television is mindblowing, foreshadowed the proliferation of streaming services in his 1992 book, Teleliteracy: Taking Television Seriously. Now, the writer and man behind the website TV Worth Watching, has just released a new read entitled The Platinum Age of Television, which goes in depth about television’s evolution and features a plethora of interviews with the likes of Mel Brooks, Larry David, Carol Burnett, and Amy Schumer.
Here, Bianculli talks about his new book, the celebrity interview he loved the most, and the finales he’ll never forget.
In your new book, you said that there was a golden age of television and that we are now in the platinum age. Can you explain? DAVID BIANCULLI: The golden age is what’s come to be known as the era of live TV in the ‘50s, when we had TV dramas like Marty and Requiem for a Heavyweight. It wasn’t so much about the weekly series as it was about the live drama specials. In music you can have a gold record, but then if you sell even more than that, you have a platinum record. This is the platinum age of television because I think it’s even better than the golden age. It started just at the turn of the century with The Sopranos and The West Wing. Television has gotten so good in the last fifteen years or so that I wanted to ask why.
Your book is full of interviews with television luminaries like Larry David and Matthew Weiner. Was there one that stood out to you? DB: I enjoyed every single one of them. There were lots of different experiences, but if had to say one that stood out from all the others was the first time I ever talked to Louis C.K. He surprised me part way through by quoting back to me a very negative review I had done of one of his shows that I’d forgotten and he hadn’t. It was to make a larger point, and we had a great conversation about creating TV and criticizing TV, and the relationships of critics and artists. That to me is one of my favorite parts of this book.
You also touch on how Larry Wilmore’s daughter watches Jane the Virgin, but wasn’t sure which network it airs on. How do you think streaming is changing the face of television and how viewers digest shows? DB: There’s a couple of things that it’s done. It’s helped quality TV. For instance, I tell you there’s this great show, Breaking Bad, or even something that’s still on like The Walking Dead. You can go back to a streaming site or through releases on DVD and catch up. You weren’t able to do that before. In the ‘80s, for example, if somebody talked about to you about St. Elsewhere or Hill Street Blues, and you missed the first few seasons, you had nowhere to catch up. It was just too complicated. So, I think it helps certain shows by reputation. I think more people have seen The Wire since it was canceled than saw it while it was on HBO, just by reputation. Another good thing about streaming is that it increases the number of players that are presenting good television. You have Netflix, Amazon, Hulu, and Crackle doing some really interesting stuff. The bad part is it’s coming in from all directions now. There’s not a lot of reliable organization about where the good TV comes from. There’s more than 400 shows per year—and that’s scripted programs. When you add unscripted shows, reality TV to the mix, it more than doubles.
What do you see as the future of television in its many forms? DB: I’m not sure. I actually guessed correctly that there would be streaming services when I wrote my first book in the early ‘90s. Now, if I were going to try to look 20 years ahead, I don’t have a clue. I don’t even pretend to know what’s going to happen. I hope that we retain some sort of television as we know it, because if we get rid of the communal, shared experience of watching TV at the same time, that’s something bad for us as a society. We seem to be headed more and more in that direction.
What’s your favorite show of all time? DB: Breaking Bad is one of them. The most obscure, weird one that I have is a miniseries called The Singing Detective and I write about it in the book. It is the single best thing I have ever seen written expressly for television. It’s never been shown nationally in US TV history, but it’s definitely something worth seeking out.
Of all the finales you’ve watched, which ones have been the most memorable? DB: My favorite might be Newhart which was such a lovely, crazy finale. I loved the final of St. Elsewhere which was very controversial. I love the controversy behind The Sopranos, and I loved the way Six Feet Under ended. The Breaking Bad finale was wonderful. Lost, not so much. That finale didn’t quite work for me, but it was something I definitely wanted to see. Shows didn’t used to end until The Fugitive presented a finale, and then it still took decades for it to happen all the time. Now, even comedies come up with final episodes. I think that’s another way television has gotten better—to kind of try to give us a sense of closure. I think television is thinking of itself as novels now, where they develop and have endings.
Going back to The Sopranos, what did you think of the finale? DB: I liked it, but I watched it in an HBO screening room about an hour before the rest of the country got to see it. So, the good thing about that was I knew that my cable hadn’t gone out, which a lot of people thought that something had technically gone wrong. I still don’t know what his motives were. Although I talked to David Chase in the book, he wouldn’t talk to me about the finale. The idea that that has become one of the most famous finales in TV history and he didn’t have to come up with a conclusion, makes it kind of brilliant. Nobody can do that again without it being fully compared to The Sopranos.