December 24, 2013
Guests: David Edelstein - David Bianculli
TERRY GROSS, HOST: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. As Santa finishes checking his list, we have a couple of lists to go over, 10-best lists. A little later our TV critic David Bianculli will be here to talk about the year in television. First we're going to talk with our film critic David Edelstein about his picks for the best of the year.
David, welcome back to FRESH AIR. I love doing these 10 best with you.
DAVID EDELSTEIN, BYLINE: Oh me, too, especially this year.
GROSS: Why, is it a good year?
EDELSTEIN: Oh, it's a miraculous year. I mean, given...
EDELSTEIN: Well, given Hollywood's cataclysmic turn away from middle-range so-called grownup movies, the Peter Pan in me hates me lauding anything grownup, but still when you just see a steady diet of blockbusters, comic book Marvel hero movies they can clean up with overseas, particularly in Asia, it's really great when so many interesting movies somehow or other manage to bleed through.
GROSS: Well, OK, prove it to me. Tell me what's on your 10 best list.
EDELSTEIN: OK. Well, you know that it's a 10 best list of fictional movies, and then I have five documentary, nonfictional movies. Why, you ask, do I do this? Because I can. So here is - here are the fictional 10 best films.
GROSS: I let you get away with this every year.
EDELSTEIN: Thank you so much. The first is "Her," Spike Jones' story of a man who falls in love with his operating system, and it is a soaring romantic film. "American Hustle" is number two, that's David O. Russell's delightful ABSCAM comedy. The third is Shakespeare, "Much Ado About Nothing," Joss Whedon's - essentially his home movie he shot on a break from "The Avengers" in his backyard, best Shakespeare comedy on film, comedy not tragedy.
"Short Term 12," terrible title, the portrait of a Southern California short-term care facility for at-risk teenagers. Number five, "All Is Lost," J.C. Chandor's one-man disaster picture with Robert Redford. Number six is a very small movie, "Caesar Must Die," more Shakespeare, the great Taviani brothers, the great Italian directors. It's about Julius Caesar done by prisoners, many lifers.
Number seven, "Blue is the Warmest Color," the wonderful sexual coming-of-age film. Number eight, "The Wind Rises." This is Hayao Miyazaki's supposedly last film, animated by not for kids. Number nine, "The World's End," the rollicking Edgar Wright genre-bending black comedy with Simon Pegg and Nick Frost.
Number 10, "Fruitvale Station," which is Ryan Coogler's debut film about the shooting of a young man in - north of San Francisco with a deep and searching performance by an actor named Michael B. Jordan.
GROSS: Well, of those films, which surprised you the most that maybe you didn't expect to like, and it ended up on your 10 best?
EDELSTEIN: Well, I think "Much Ado About Nothing" was extremely surprising. Here you've got a director of superhero films and also "Buffy The Vampire Slayer," let's give him credit, and a bunch of TV actors who have, what, eight or nine days on their hands, and they decide that he's going to shoot it in black and white, essentially in his backyard, one of Shakespeare's, you know, great comedies.
And it turns out to be so much fun because it's fast, and it's casual, and these people really know how to speak the verse. You know, they don't linger in this Methody way on certain words so it ends up being incomprehensible. So I was very, very surprised.
"All Is Lost," J.C. Chandor's film, who wants to spend two hours just staring at Robert Redford? He's been such a dull actor over the last 20 years, and yet this movie kind of pushes him to the limit of his own self-containment, and I thought it was enthralling.
GROSS: So you have a separate list of the best documentaries of the year, and it seems like it's been, for the past few years, that documentaries have really become popular, that there's a place for them in theaters. People show up to see them. People talk about them. So do you think that that's like a growing trend?
EDELSTEIN: Well, some people show up for them. It's still - there are still very few documentaries that cross over, and none of these documentary directors is getting rich. At the same time, because the means of production are so much less expensive, there are more people making them, and these films, you know, hold up against the best fictional films.
The five I want to choose are "The Act of Killing," which is Josh Oppenheimer's documentary in which he has Indonesian mass murderers reenact their atrocities from 40 years ago. The second is...
GROSS: These are war atrocities, not just serial murder atrocities.
EDELSTEIN: These are war atrocities, yes, yes. I mean, a million Indonesians were killed in the late '60s, and these guys are still around. They're beloved by the government. And it - who would've thought that they love reenacting their crimes? They want to be movie stars. They think it's just great to play gangster on camera.
The next film is "Twenty Feet from Stardom," Morgan Neville's film about backup singers, which actually has broken through. I guess it's made $4 or $5 million. And these singers have had - their careers have had a new life, people like Darlene Love and Mary Clayton and Lisa Fischer.
"Let the Fire Burn," Jason Osder's amazing documentary about the explosion, the conflagration of the MOVE headquarters in the 1980s. And let me just say why this is such an important film. It is all archival footage. There are no modern talking heads. And yet stitching together all this footage from the time, he's able to create the kind of present-tense excitement that you rarely get in a documentary.
"Blackfish" is Gabriela Cowperthwaite's film about the psychotic whale Tilikum and makes a great case for why we should not keep such mammals in captivity. And finally Alex Gibney's "We Steal Secrets: The Story of WikiLeaks," which is much more traditional documentary, but I think everybody should see it if they want to know the story of Julian Assange.
GROSS: So David, one of the things that makes end-of-the-year lists and award nominations at the end of the year fun is that you can compare your own taste with the tastes of, you know, the critics you're hearing or the nominations you're reading about. So when you compare your list to the films that have been nominated for awards or have already received awards, where do you feel most in synch and most out of synch?
EDELSTEIN: Well, people will notice that "12 Years a Slave" is not one of my best films of the year. It's a very powerful film, and it will get a lot of awards. It's also a very bludgeoning film. And I know that there are people out there saying well of course it's bludgeoning, that's what slavers did, they bludgeoned their African-American slaves. Are you a slavery apologist?
And from a political standpoint, it's easy to see why the film is so vital. But for me, I got the feeling that the director, whose name is Steve McQueen, likes to fix his camera on people whose bodies are being defiled. They were starving to death in hunger. They were shaming themselves sexually in shame. And now they're being tortured on camera.
And I think I'd watch his films less guardedly if I thought he was searching for something more than his characters' reactions to extreme degradation. But, Terry, it's important to say something. Nowadays, there are so many movies that are competing for people's time and their entertainment dollars, and I often find that if I have reservations about a film like "12 Years a Slave" or the Coen's "Inside Llewyn Davis," people say oh, you're saying I shouldn't see it.
And that's not it at all. I want people to see "12 Years a Slave." I want them to see "Inside Llewyn Davis." See it, wrestle with it, be part of the conversation and don't be afraid of ambivalence. Don't be afraid if your thumb doesn't go up or down. That's part of what's wonderful and miraculous about movies, that you can try to sort out your own responses.
GROSS: You know how some years there's like prestige movies, and you know that these movies are designed to get Oscars?
EDELSTEIN: Oh yeah.
GROSS: What was on your list of that kind of prestige film this year?
EDELSTEIN: Well, a lot of these films, you know, it's such a - man, these Oscar campaigns, you do not know what is happening behind the scenes. You do not know what the Academy voters, how they are being bombarded. Talk about bombardment. Every second, phone calls, parties, leaflets, you know, swag of all kinds by people who are pushing their nominees.
A lot of films screen for one week in New York and L.A. to qualify for the Oscars, and then they open again in February. And, you know, just to get on these Oscar short lists. Everything opens around Christmastime and December so it's fresh in people's minds.
Let me give you an example. "Lee Daniels' The Butler" this summer was - everybody was talking about this movie as a shoo-in for every Oscar category and every critic award. Well, it's largely forgotten now except for Oprah Winfrey, who has the money to mount, you know, a colossal Oscar campaign for herself.
There's no reason from that apart from the fact that it opened in August, and all these other movies are fresh in people's minds. But I do think "Her" and "American Hustle" are opening in time for big awards and are extraordinary films, and they're opening within three days of each other, and they're two of the best American films I've seen in years.
And you know what else is really interesting about them? They are produced by the same person. They are - one of the producers is Megan Ellison. She is 27 years old. She is the daughter of Oracle founder Larry Ellison, obviously comes from billions, and you know, and she's produced - last year she produced "The Master" and "Zero Dark Thirty." This year she produced "American Hustle" and Harmony Korine's "Spring Breakers" and Spike Jones's "Her."
And, you know, on one hand while it's a reflection of the tremendous inequality in this society, but on the other hand it gives you hope that, as in the days of Mozart and Beethoven, maybe these rich kids will come out and they'll take their daddies' money, and they'll put it into really difficult, interesting films that, you know, no studio these days would finance.
GROSS: You know, getting back to the Oscar campaigns, are they effective? Can the people who actually vote for the Oscars really be effectively lobbied or bought?
EDELSTEIN: Oh, sure. Let me give you an example of that. A few years ago, Julie Christie won all the critics' awards for her extraordinary performance in "Away From Her." And everybody thought she was going to be a shoo-in for the Oscar. But Julie Christie didn't want to campaign. She was somewhat reticent, whereas Marillon Cotillard, who was in the Edith Piaf documentary, they brought her to Hollywood.
Nobody knew her. They introduced her at parties. People saw how breathtakingly beautiful she was. I actually think now that Marion Cotillard is one of the world's greatest film actresses. So I'm very happy that she was recognized. But I can tell you in no uncertain terms that her charming all those Oscar voters led directly to her Academy Award.
GROSS: My guest is our film critic David Edelstein. We'll talk more about the year in film after a short break. This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is David Edelstein, FRESH AIR's film critic and film critic for New York magazine. And we're talking about the year in movies. Well, David, it's holiday season and, you know, there's a bunch of films that are opening for the holidays or have just opened. Of those films, which would you recommend? And I'll ask you to stick to films that are opening beyond New York and L.A., that are opening beyond just, like, Oscar consideration.
EDELSTEIN: Well, "American Hustle" is of course on my 10 best list, and I could not recommend it more highly. Will Ferrell does - and Adam McKay do not disgrace themselves in "Anchorman 2: The Legend Continues." They finally took the big sequel money. But they feel like they have to earn their salaries. So the movie is this stuffed, overstuffed bounty of cameo roles and the weirdest, most absurdist slapstick imaginable.
It does not all work, but you really are seeing people trying so desperately to be weird, to be - and to do something different and to kind of bombard you with surrealism in a way that you don't see in many comedies.
People will go to see "The Wolf of Wall Street," the new Martin Scorsese film with Leonardo DiCaprio. I think it's absolutely nightmarishly awful, but there are colleagues of mine who disagree. It's three hours, essentially, of watching this jerk steal money and be an insider trader, scam people and celebrate by snorting cocaine off the buttocks of hookers and cavort and sleep with everybody and consume conspicuously.
And there are scenes that run on and on and on of Leonardo Di Caprio making these insane speeches about the beauty of capitalism. And the only person who does well in the movie, I think, is Kyle Chandler from "Friday Night Lights," who underplays everything and is surrounded by these desperate over-actors. He's this beacon of sanity. He plays this agent on the trail of Leonardo Di Caprio.
OK, so do I recommend the film? Sure, I recommend it. You should see it, even though...
GROSS: After all that?
EDELSTEIN: After all that, yes, see it, see it. Make up your own mind. "August: Osage County" was from a wonderful play, and you know, the movie is really misdirected, but there are extraordinary performances by Julia Roberts of all people, who gives a very finely tuned cinematic performance versus Meryl Streep, who is chewing up the scenery. And there's Margot Martindale and Chris Cooper. It's an extraordinary ensemble cast.
The one that I recommend for reasons that have nothing to do with its quality is a film called "Labor Day." It's directed by Jason Reitman from a kind of hopelessly bad book by Joyce Maynard. And it is - it's one of the worst films I've ever seen, but it's so hilariously terrible that I think it could turn into a "Rocky Horror Picture Show" or a "Mommy Dearest," where people just sit there and they yell at the screen and they have these rituals.
It's about an escaped convict who hides out with this mother and son and becomes a surrogate father. And he's a gourmet cook. So a lot of the movie is him showing them how to make like peach pie. And they're sitting there, he's fixing up the place, and he's becoming a dad, and then there's a little bit of sort of PG-13-rated bondage in there to add to the sort of romantic literature, you know, kinkiness of it, just a great time hooting at this movie.
GROSS: What are you looking forward to in 2014?
EDELSTEIN: I have no idea.
GROSS: Because you don't know what's coming out, or you don't really know what's going to be good?
EDELSTEIN: You know, Terry, and this is really worth saying: Because it's my job, I'm lucky enough to be able to go into a film not even knowing the genre. I know the title, maybe I know who's in it, and I sit down and I allow the filmmaker to take me someplace without any preconceptions. I love being that way, and I'm sorry that more people, more and more people go into films having watched the coming attractions, which give everything away, on the Internet or in theaters, having read reviews or heard reviews like mine.
I would encourage people just sometime walk into a movie that you don't even know what it's about. Be transported. Sure, you may be crushed, you may be pissed off, you may be disappointed. On the other hand, you may be enthralled and surprised in a way that you can't be when you've kind of steeped yourself in all the material that surrounds these films before they come out.
GROSS: Do you not watch trailers because mostly you're going to screenings where they are not showing trailers, or do you actually making a point of leaving when the trailers are on?
EDELSTEIN: When I see movies in theaters, which I do all the time, I either plug my ears or I leave the seat. I don't want to - I don't want to see it. I don't want to know what the best slapstick moment in a film is. I don't want to know the arc of the story. That's what they give away.
That's what they give away. They show you oftentimes every beat of the story, or a film like "Nebraska," one of the worst trailers I've ever seen, and I don't necessarily blame the people who made it, I think they're trying to sell this very quiet movie, it gets a lot of its power from scenes that kind of carry on in real time in a very low-key way.
When you cut it up in order to make it look like some outrageously quirky movie about this crusty old oldster and people cheering him for - you know, that he's going to be this rich man, when you see a movie like that, that gives such a strong misperception of the film, you oftentimes don't even want to see the movie, or you come to it with, you know, the worst kind of prejudices.
GROSS: Well, I guess you'll be nice and surprised in 2014.
EDELSTEIN: I know, you know, you know which directors you love. You know which actors you love. There are certain directors, David O. Russell, I'll see any film he makes. Nicole Holofcener, who made "Enough Said" this year, I'll go to any film Nicole Holofcener makes in a state of great excitement.
So many films this year, what's remarkable about them, the bad and the good, you really feel as if directors are taking chances in their storytelling. They are creating a new syntax for every story. They are finding new and extraordinary ways of - maybe it's even familiar material, but they're going at it through the back door or the side door, or they're mixing up the syntax.
And that - and they're reminding you of what is so marvelously elastic about cinema. A lot of us have been raving over the past few years about great television shows like "Breaking Bad" that have done narratively what film cannot, by immersing you in a story for 60-some-odd episodes and allowing you to track a character over time.
Maybe movies can't compete narratively with television in that way, but they have extraordinary elasticity in terms of the language of what they can do, of the order in which they can present things, of the technical magic that they can use. They're creating new forms of narrative that I find so exciting.
You know, even if a story, even if it's a formula story, to be able to see it with new eyes, from a new perspective, that's what movies can do that no other medium can.
GROSS: Well, David, it's been a lot of fun to talk about the year in film with you. Thank you so much.
EDELSTEIN: Well, thank you for having me, and thank you for allowing me to do reviews for this wonderful show.
GROSS: Our absolute pleasure to have you. Thank you for being our film critic. I wish you happy holidays. Have a wonderful new year.
EDELSTEIN: Thank you, Terry.
GROSS: David Edelstein is FRESH AIR's film critic and film critic for New York Magazine. You'll find his best-of list with his capsule reviews of each film on our website, freshair.npr.org. I'm Terry Gross and this is FRESH AIR.
TERRY GROSS, HOST: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. Our TV critic David Bianculli is here to talk about the year in television. We'll see what made it onto his 10 best lists.
Welcome, David. It's good to talk about the year again with you. I love these end of the year shows.
DAVID BIANCULLI, BYLINE: Oh, me too.
GROSS: So let's start with your diagnosis of the year.
BIANCULLI: Actually, a good year - if for other reason - than Netflix changed everything again by bringing in "House of Cards" and "Orange is the New Black." It changed things not only for them and for the Emmys and for the competition, but everybody else started to say, hey, that's a new way to do stuff. And so in 2014, we're going to have other people swinging for the fences and putting money behind quality shows that haven't been getting on the networks lately and maybe the networks will finally wise up.
GROSS: Well, let's see how Netflix does in your 10 best of the year list.
BIANCULLI: Oh, OK.
GROSS: You want to count us down for 10 to number one?
BIANCULLI: Number 10 - I'll go through them quickly - is "Orange is the New Black," which is from Netflix and was basically a female "Oz," which was HBO's first big prison drama, but done really well. Number nine, "Downton Abbey," on PBS. I think it kept up its quality and was noticed for all the right reasons. Number eight, a new show from Showtime, "Masters of Sex," which is sort of like the first show since AMC's "Mad Men" to do a period drama really well, and it's because of how clear it's delineating these characters.
Number seven, "House of Cards," on Netflix - that's the Kevin Spacey one that sort of blew Netflix wide open. Number six is "The Walking Dead" on AMC. And I'll never forget, when I came in here to review "The Walking Dead" and I said, oh no, it's a zombie show, but it's good and you guys let me do it anyway.
BIANCULLI: It's like, but no, really. It really is an amazing show. And then number five, "The Colbert Report" on Comedy Central, did too much good stuff this year to not make the list again. Number four, "Justified "on FX, I think had one of its very best years, so well written, so well directed. Number three is "Mad Men," which didn't have the best year for me but have the best single moment I think it "Mad Men" has had in a long time.
GROSS: Which was?
BIANCULLI: When his daughter came in on him when he was with someone else. I want to be as vague as possible for people who haven't gotten to it yet. But that was so unexpected and so dramatic and you felt it instantly from the point of view of every character in that arc. I was so impressed by that.
And the number two, a network program, CBS's "The Good Wife," which has been fantastic this year, and has sort of done what "Homeland" did its first season which by splitting up its law firm and having people that you liked now be adversaries, you had equal weight given to what would be the antagonist and protagonist and you sort of liked them both. It's a fascinating year for "Good Wife."
And then number one, "Breaking Bad," which just ended and ended as brilliantly as it began. And I'm so grateful for that series. It's such a wonderful show.
GROSS: You mentioned the ending of "Breaking Bad." There's actually like an alternate ending, like a comic alternate ending. And I've heard about it but I haven't heard it. David, would you tell us about it?
BIANCULLI: Yes. Well, it's available in the complete DVD box set of "Breaking Bad" and I have brought it along as my favorite moment of the year.
GROSS: Oh great - even though it wasn't actually on TV.
BIANCULLI: Well, to me, if I see it on TV, that counts for me. It was made and it harkens back to television. And it's just, it's my favorite moment.
GROSS: So you want to set it up for us?
BIANCULLI: All right. This is, you have to go all the way back to the ending of "Newhart," which is my favorite TV ending of all time. And it had Bob Newhart waking up in his old bedroom from "The Bob Newhart Show" next to his wife from that show played by Suzanne Pleshette. And he was explaining everything that had happened on "Newhart" as being a bizarre dream, and the more he described it, the more absolutely unreal it sounded. Well, for the end, the alternate ending of "Breaking Bad" they have Bryan Cranston wake up in his bedroom and sleeping next to him is Jane Kaczmarek, who played his wife on "Malcolm in the Middle."
And he describes all of "Breaking Bad" as being a bad dream, and brilliantly. Brilliantly. And it reminds you, because you've forgotten how good a comic actor he is, how ridiculous "Breaking Bad" was out of context, but how superbly it all fits together. It's a brilliant parody. It would be, I thought the real ending of "Breaking Bad" was the best ending possible, but this comes really close.
GROSS: OK. So this is Bryan Cranston and Jane Kaczmarek.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "BREAKING BAD")
BRYAN CRANSTON: (as Hal) Wake up. Honey. Honey. Wake up. Wake up.
JANE KACZMAREK: (as Lois) For the love of crimony, what is it? What's the matter?
CRANSTON: (as Hal) Oh, I just had the scariest dream.
KACZMAREK: (as Lois) I told you not to eat the deep-fried Twinkies.
CRANSTON: (as Hal) No, you don't understand. You don't understand. I was - oh, I was this meth dealer.
KACZMAREK: (as Lois) What?
CRANSTON: (as Hal) Yeah. I was this world class chemist and I cooked and I sold this ultra pure methamphetamine.
KACZMAREK: (as Lois) You cooking anything?
CRANSTON: (as Hal) There was a guy who never spoke. He just, he just rang a bell the whole time. And there was this other guy who was a policeman or a DEA agent and I think it was my brother or something. He looked like the guy from "The Shield." And then there was this other little guy who was a waif - a man child kid who always looked like he was wearing his older brother's clothes. And he would always say things like hey - the B word. He would use the B word a lot. He would say, yo, B word. Yeah, science B word.
KACZMAREK: (as Lois) OK. OK. Calm down, honey. Just calm down. Calm down.
CRANSTON: (as Hal) And then there was me and I had a shaved head and a goatee, and I wore a black hat. And the only thing that made sense in the whole dream is I still walked around in my underwear.
KACZMAREK: (as Lois) If you think this nightmare is going to keep you from driving the kids to school this morning, you have another thing coming.
CRANSTON: (as Hal) Oh, I haven't told you the scariest part yet.
KACZMAREK: (as Lois) OK. What? You've got two minutes.
CRANSTON: (as Hal) I made bombs and poison and I killed people.
KACZMAREK: (as Lois) Oh come one. You could not kill somebody.
CRANSTON: (as Hal) I know.
KACZMAREK: (as Lois) Now, I knew this was going to happen. You grow a beard and suddenly you think you're Osama bin Laden. Wasn't I there to tell you to knock it off?
CRANSTON: (as Hal) No. Some other woman did that. Ooh right, I was married to this tall beautiful blond.
KACZMAREK: Yeah. Well, keep dreaming, pal.
GROSS: That's really hysterical.
BIANCULLI: Isn't it brilliant? I know. I know. There are so many good things in there.
GROSS: I think my favorite line is, in talking about Hank on "Breaking Bad"
GROSS: Bryan Cranston says he looked like the guy from "The Shield."
GROSS: That's so hysterical.
BIANCULLI: Yeah. No. It's clearly, you know, the whole series was done by a team that loved television, loved what it was doing, put a lot of care into everything. And to have a little extra on a DVD thing that's that good, you know, that's almost showing off. That's talent to spare.
GROSS: David, I know you brought with you a scene from one of the programs on your 10 best list and that's "Masters of Sex."
GROSS: What do you want to play from that show?
BIANCULLI: Well, it doesn't, the show is essentially about Masters and Johnson and that pioneering sex study. But what fascinates me most about the show are the supporting characters. And so I've brought a scene that doesn't feature either one of the stars, but it features a couple of the supporting stars, Beau Bridges and Allison Janney.
Now both of them are on CBS sitcoms this year - new ones - that aren't very good but here in this drama they're wonderful. He plays Masters's boss at the University Hospital and Allison Janney plays his wife. They've been married for 30 years and she discovers over the course of this first season that he has been unfaithful to her and going to prostitutes. What we know as viewers at the time of this scene but she does not know is that those prostitutes are male prostitutes. But she's just confronting him about the initial betrayal. And, you know, in a show that is supposed to be about sex and discovery and awakening, it's such an interesting layer of subtext and so well acted.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "MASTERS OF SEX")
BEAU BRIDGES: (as Barton Scully) We didn't have a drive-ins in our day.
ALLISON JANNEY: (as Margaret Scully) We didn't need them. We were married when we first slept together.
BRIDGES: (as Barton Scully) We were out of our time.
JANNEY: (as Margaret Scully) That's not why we waited. I have spent the day racking my brain, pacing, wondering maybe I should light his clothes on fire. Maybe I should drive his car into the pool. Maybe I should tell him all about the man I've been seeing. Who, by the way, wanted me in his bed...
BRIDGES: (as Barton Scully) Margaret. Margret.
JANNEY: (as Margaret Scully) ...though he didn't love me. I don't say this to punish you, although, God knows, you deserve to be punished. I mean prostitutes? That is so insulting to me and so far beneath you.
BRIDGES: (as Barton Scully) I will never do it again, ever. I swear to you.
JANNEY: (as Margaret Scully) Even if you never laid a hand on a hooker again, that wouldn't change what is so impossible to understand. This morning when you came in my room I was practically naked and you didn't look at my body once. Not once. And yet your face was filled with such love.
BRIDGES: (as Barton Scully) Because I love you. You know that.
JANNEY: (as Margaret Scully) We didn't sleep together before we were married because you weren't interested in sleeping with me and I excused it away by saying passion is for teenagers and nymphomaniacs. Passion is not what makes a good marriage. This is a perfect, beautiful man who loves me, who doesn't care that I'm tall and athletic, who doesn't want me to act stupider than I am. This is a man who understands me.
BRIDGES: (as Barton Scully) And 30 years later we're still the best of friends. How many people can say that?
JANNEY: (as Margaret Scully) That's not enough.
GROSS: Nice scene.
BIANCULLI: Yeah. Isn't that something? I mean even if you had never seen the series, you get into those two people instantly. And no one, no matter which point of view they're coming from, is taken for granted or written superficially.
GROSS: And that was Beau Bridges and Allison Janney in a scene from the Showtime series "Masters of Sex." And with me is David Bianculli, our TV critic, and we're talking about the year in television. And "Masters of Sex" is one of the shows on his top 10 list.
BIANCULLI: Number eight.
GROSS: David, let's take a short break.
GROSS: Then we'll talk some more. This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. My guest is our TV critic David Bianculli. So let's get back to your year in review. You started about talking about the importance of Netflix this year. There were two Netflix series on your 10 best list, "Orange is the New Black" and "House of Cards." "Arrested Development" did not show up on the list.
BIANCULLI: Mm-hmm. It made honorable mention, though.
BIANCULLI: Which you have to trust me on that.
GROSS: But in talking about how Netflix is changing television, you know, one of the things it's really doing is creating this wave of binge watching.
GROSS: And I'm just wondering how viable you think that is, whether you think that's the wave of the future...
GROSS: Or whether you think people are going to become tired of it. Can I tell you my thing about binge watching?
BIANCULLI: Yes. Yes.
GROSS: It's great while you have time for the binge. But the problem with it is, then when you get tired of it or you feel like I don't have time anymore, speaking for myself, I never get back to it.
BIANCULLI: The momentum ends.
GROSS: The momentum ends. Because it's not like you're going to accidentally turn on the TV and there it's going to be or, oh, it's Wednesday night, I might as well put it on.
BIANCULLI: Yeah. The other - I agree with you completely. And the other thing that bothers me about it is that let's say that I am a real good binge watcher and the day that it becomes available, I'll watch all of the episodes. Well, if people that I know - even if they are looking forward to the series haven't seen it yet, I can't talk to them. You know, I've got to wait till they catch up. You know, all of this sort of stuff, it denies the chance for people to have a communal experience.
GROSS: I also wonder too, once binge watching becomes more commonplace and like lots of people are releasing all the episodes at one time, it's not going to be a novelty anymore so it won't get attention because it's a new delivery system...
BIANCULLI: Right. You know, that's true. And then the other thing is they are not all going to be this good. And one Netflix series that we haven't mentioned is "Hemlock Grove," which was sort of like a Twilight thing in between and it was terrible. And so nobody's talking about that while they're talking about Netflix. And Netflix also still is very, very protective of its numbers. So we don't really know how many people are watching. We don't know unless they tell us how they're watching, how many people who see the first episode binge immediately or go back. But I want to praise Netflix for going to quality programmers, coming up with quality programs. I just would beg them - so just release one or two new episodes a week. Double it if you have to, but keep that sense of anticipation coming.
GROSS: You talked earlier about how Netflix is really changing things and how a lot of, you know, production companies and broadcast entities...
GROSS: ...are trying to replicate Netflix's success. What are some of the other big maybe surprising successes of the year on TV that you think might create some kind of trend?
BIANCULLI: Well, the two biggest successes, or among the biggest successes of 2013 were a cable show, "The Walking Dead," which got 12, 13 million viewers. I mean more than network television was getting for a zombie drama. And something that was just televised this month, "The Sound of Music: Live" on NBC, which got that level of viewership.
I mean, in the week "The Sound of Music" was done live the only program that was more popular all week was the Sunday night sports football show. It shows that if you give people reasons to watch live TV or TV at the same time, they still will. With "The Sound of Music" it was the novelty of it being live. With "Walking Dead" it was the promise of delivering so many surprises that people wanted them as soon as they could get them.
But otherwise, what I think network television is doing as it's marching towards its own grave is not giving people reasons to watch programs as they show them. They can catch them a day later, a week later, a season later, a DVD box set later. And when I talk to my students at Rowan University when I'm teaching college, and I ask them what are you watching? They're not watching a lot. You know, they're catching after the fact.
GROSS: The moments that go viral.
BIANCULLI: Yeah. And so the idea of...
GROSS: Or watching on Hulu or...
BIANCULLI: Yeah. I mean, who's going to watch an hour of late night television show?
GROSS: Am I right? Watch it on Hulu or something else?
BIANCULLI: Yes. Yeah, catching it either on Hulu or catching it viral or grabbing it from a friend or Bit Torrent illegally or whatever they're doing.
GROSS: Mm-hmm. With every year that goes by, your students are more and more children of the Internet and children of the post-television era. So what are some of the things your students are finding most surprising about the history of television when you teach?
BIANCULLI: They're most surprised to find cynicism early in television. Or surprising things that they consider dark that they would never have believed could've happened in a black and white television era. Since it's the holiday time of year, I always show the "Jack Benny Christmas" show as part of showing them why Jack Benny would lead to "Seinfeld" and everything else.
And in the "Jack Benny Christmas" show, Mel Blanc plays a salesperson who constantly has to deal with Benny, you know, changing orders and doing things. And so much so that at the end of this Christmas episode, Mel Blanc pulls out a gun and then walks off camera and kills himself.
And these current day 20-year-olds are so stunned by that in a holiday special. And we talk about, all right, do you think CBS could show that, you know, in a Chuck Lorre sitcom today? And they don't think so. So that sort of stuff is fun because they think that, you know, old times are black and white and dusty and don't have any life to them. And it's fun to prove that differently.
GROSS: Let's look at this year's news coverage. There are always horrible breaking news events that TV and cable...
GROSS: ...that broadcast and cable cover. What do you think is something outstandingly good or bad that happened this year in terms of news coverage of breaking stories or live events?
BIANCULLI: Well, the Boston Marathon bombing is the big story of the year as far as I'm concerned, and it showed both what television could do really well and the excesses and the problems with going live all at the same time. It was getting the information out but it was also getting misinformation out and that was exacerbated by, you know, the Twitter universe and everything else.
And it certainly, I think, help to spread the word instantly and to show that even in these times of the Internet people will still go to television for news, at least in 2013. And then, it was the 50th anniversary of the first time this had really happened with the JFK assassination. But the best thing I saw was on the Internet and that surprised me.
GROSS: What was it?
BIANCULLI: "CBS News." On its website "CBS News" ran the entire four days of coverage from the second Kennedy was shot. And when CBS, the network, went dark in 1963, so did the website. When it was on, there it was. And I kept going back to that over that four days. And I was seeing so many things that I had never seen before that weren't part of the usual coverage packages.
GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is our TV critic David Bianculli. We're talking about the year in television. David, let's take a short break.
GROSS: Then we'll talk some more. This is FRESH AIR.
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GROSS: This is FRESH AIR, and if you're just joining us, my guest is our TV critic David Bianculli. We're looking at the year in television. What are you looking forward to next year?
BIANCULLI: I'm actually looking forward to a resurgence of miniseries and live television. And maybe, maybe even the one I keep holding out hope for - the variety special. I think that as television decides that - broadcast TV - that it's got to have event TV - back in the '50s they were called spectaculars, you know, by NBC. Specials and then spectaculars.
Like really big reasons to tune in. You know, you give Justin Timberlake a variety show every six months and that would be a spectacular. You do - and they're starting to talk about mounting really big miniseries again. TV can still do good things. It just doesn't seem to want to spend the money or take the risk.
GROSS: So I have a question for you about what does season mean anymore on television?
BIANCULLI: Oh, man.
GROSS: Because, like, seasons used to be, you know, like, half a year or a whole year or something, right?
GROSS: And then it was like 16 and then 12 episodes. But now with "Mad Men" and "Breaking Bad" it looks like the new season is eight episodes.
GROSS: Because for both of the series' finales for those shows, the last season has been divided into two parts.
GROSS: I personally find that frustrating because just as momentum is really building, then you have to wait a year or so until it continues.
GROSS: And I'd like to know what the logic is behind that and if you think that's going to continue.
BIANCULLI: Well, part of the logic is that sometimes the producers just don't feel like they could do quality by turning it out faster than that. David Chase on "The Sopranos" was one of the first to say I've got to slow down a little bit. And when shows such as "Breaking Bad" split seasons and they were rewarded - "Walking Dead" same thing - they had more people when they came back rather than fewer people.
So it was like, oh, OK. So it's a sensible way of doing it but only if you have enough of them that when one show goes away another one that you like is taking its place. That's the problem with the networks, is they don't have that.
GROSS: It's also just really relying on your loyalty to the show, that you're going to care about the plot you saw and the characters you saw.
GROSS: A year or more ago.
BIANCULLI: And that can backfire.
GROSS: Which of course, I usually do. But, you know, with shows like "Breaking Bad" and "Mad Men" but it's still - it's asking a lot.
BIANCULLI: And the season, it used to be the fall TV season because that began because the U.S. auto manufacturers wanted to push their new models. So...
GROSS: Seriously? That's why?
BIANCULLI: Yes. So that's why. So the cars came out in September so they wanted to have all the eyeballs in front of the TV sets and they wanted to sell lots of ads. And so that's how it began.
GROSS: Gee, I should've learned that on "Mad Men."
BIANCULLI: They should've pointed that out on "Mad Men." That's true. But now that's totally ridiculous in terms of a 2013 reason for a season. So it's an antiquated set of rules that people are still playing by.
GROSS: And those rules are being broken anyways.
GROSS: Because so many shows don't premier in the fall anymore.
BIANCULLI: Right. Or they now call them - these shows that are going away for the rest of December and will show up early in January are now saying our fall finale. It's like rather than say we're going to show nothing for three weeks and go into - our fall finale. It's just a joke.
GROSS: David, thank you so much for doing this end-of-the-year retrospective.
BIANCULLI: No thanks. I love this.
GROSS: I always enjoy it. I wish you a very Happy New Year.
BIANCULLI: Thanks. And I wish us all a better year of a television.
GROSS: Yes. And Merry Christmas.
BIANCULLI: Thanks a lot. You too.
GROSS: David Bianculli is FRESH AIR's TV critic and the founder and editor of tvworthwatching.com. He teaches TV and film history at Rowan University in New Jersey.
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