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Bianculli Picks The Best (And Worst) TV Of 2010

Fresh Air's TV critic rounds up the hottest and the hottest of the year that was. Worth watching? A BBC America import about a choir director teaching people to sing. Jersey Shore? Makes Bianculli want to shower.

42:04

Other segments from the episode on December 22, 2010

Fresh Air with Terry Gross, December 22, 2010: Interview with David Bianculli; Review of the film "True Grit."

Transcript

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Bianculli Picks The Best (And Worst) TV Of 2010

TERRY GROSS, host:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.

Today and tomorrow, we're going to be talking with our critics about
their 10-best lists. Tomorrow, film critic David Edelstein and rock
critic Ken Tucker will be with us. Today, our TV critic David Bianculli
is here to talk about the best and the worst TV shows of the year.

Hi, David. I always look forward to talking with you about the year in
TV.

DAVID BIANCULLI: Me, too.

GROSS: So let's start with this: Was it a good year?

BIANCULLI: Yes, lots of good shows. It was not so good a year for the
broadcast networks. They sort of went backward. But for cable and
overall, a very good year.

GROSS: And what made it good?

BIANCULLI: More good shows coming from cable networks, continuing shows
that remained good. Just in assembling a top 10 this year, the only
difficulty was limiting it to anything close to a top 10. It could have
been a top 20. It could have been a top 30 - whereas, you not too many
years ago, getting to a top 10, you were being generous with the bottom
ones on the list.

GROSS: Well, let's get to your top 10 and see what's on it.

BIANCULLI: Okay. Here's my top 10, which I actually stretched out, if
this is okay, to a top 12. I just couldn't leave some of them off.

GROSS: Uh. Okay.

BIANCULLI: But I'll talk quickly, so it'll all be in the time of a top
10, if that'll - but here we go, in no particular order, except for
alphabetical: "Breaking Bad" on AMC, "The Choir" on BBC, "The Daily Show
with Jon Stewart" on Comedy Central, "Dexter" on Showtime, "Friday Night
Lights" - which starts on DIRECTV and goes to NBC - "Glee" on Fox; "The
Good Wife" on CBS, "Mad Men" on AMC, "Modern Family" on ABC, "Rescue Me"
on FX, "True Blood" on HBO and "30 Rock" on NBC.

So at least the broadcast networks, each is represented here, which is
kind of surprising, given how good everything else is. But boy, there's
a lot of stuff that just missed the cut.

GROSS: I don't mean to sound critical, David.

BIANCULLI: It's okay.

GROSS: You stretched the 10 best to a 12 best, and yet...

BIANCULLI: And yet what did I not put in?

GROSS: "The Colbert Report."

BIANCULLI: Again, again, I know, and I should have remembered that last
year you slapped me around for "The Colbert Report." I know. I know. But
I sort of figure Jon Stewart is sort of like grandfathering a little bit
the spirit of Colbert.

GROSS: That's not fair to Colbert. I'm sorry.

BIANCULLI: All right. Okay. All right. My top 13...

(Soundbite of laughter)

BIANCULLI: ...would include Colbert.

GROSS: So while we're on the subject of "The Daily Show," what makes Jon
Stewart such a special and important figure in television now?

BIANCULLI: I am fascinated by how valuable his show is and how
entertaining it is, that I not only laugh at it, but I learn from it.
You know, when he does media criticism, he does it smarter than most
people that are doing it out there, and even when he has guests on and
does interviews, you know, he does a good job with those, too.

GROSS: Do you want to play an example of that?

BIANCULLI: Love to. He had a sitting president, Barack Obama, sitting
down opposite him and interviewed him, and just listening to the
question and how he listens to the answer gives you a sense of how good
he is.

GROSS: Let's hear it. So this is Jon Stewart with President Obama.

BIANCULLI: Yes.

(Soundbite of TV show, "The Daily Show with Jon Stewart")

(Soundbite of applause, cheering)

Mr. JON STEWART (Host, "The Daily Show with Jon Stewart"): You expressed
some frustration with those on the left that are still feeling
dissatisfied. Do you think, in any way, the expectation was something
that maybe even you and your campaign created? Were people being naive
in the sense of - I remember very clearly you said, you know, we can't
expect different results with the same people.

President BARACK OBAMA: Right.

Mr. STEWART: And I remember when you hired Larry Summers...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. STEWART: ...I remember thinking: Well, that seems like the exact
same person, and why would you...

Pres. OBAMA: Yeah.

Mr. STEWART: ...so in some respects, I get your frustration with this
idea that, well, geez, are you never satisfied? But again, the
expectation, I think, was audacity, going in there and really rooting
out a corrupt system. And so the sense is: Has reality of what hit you
in the face when you first stepped in caused you to back down from some
of the more visionary, like a guy like Larry Summers, like...

Pres. OBAMA: First of all, the - if you look at how we have handled this
financial crisis...

Mr. STEWART: Right.

Pres. OBAMA: ...if you'd told me two years ago that we're going to be
able to stabilize the system, stabilize the stock market, stabilize the
economy, and, by the way, at the end of this thing, it'll cost less than
one percent of GDP, where the S&L crisis cost us two-and-a-half percent
of our entire economy, a much smaller crisis, I'd say: We'll take that,
because we saved taxpayers a whole lot of money...

(Soundbite of applause)

Pres. OBAMA: And in fairness, Larry Summers did a heck of a job trying
to figure out how to...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. STEWART: You don't want to use that phrase, dude.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Pres. OBAMA: I was...

GROSS: David, why did you choose that clip in particular?

BIANCULLI: There's two things I loved about it. In the question, you
know, there's a criticism, there's a pointed direction, but there's an
intelligence to it.

And then during the answer, he's - he being Jon Stewart - is actually
listening so carefully to the answer, rather than just thinking about
what his next question's going to be, that he pounces comedically on the
you don't want to be saying heck of a job, which makes it a great moment
of television.

GROSS: You know, in talking about "The Daily Show," I want to ask you
about one of the outcomes of the Jon Stewart-Stephen Colbert Rally to
Restore Fear and/or Sanity in Washington.

And one of Jon Stewart's points at the rally - and it's a point he's
made on his show, as well - is that the cable news networks,
specifically Fox and MSNBC, are amping up partisan anger and partisan
disagreements through taking partisan positions on their show, as
opposed to more, you know, neutral, journalistic discussions, and to
which some other people - and I think specifically Rachel Maddow on
MSNBC - responded: A, she thought the criticism was unfair to MSNBC, but
B, that - and I think a lot of people share this opinion - that Jon
Stewart, on his show, through his satires, his very funny, very
observant satires, isn't exactly being, like, polite and civil and
courteous in the way that he would like to see the news channels become,
to which he answers: Well, I'm a comic. I'm not a journalist.

I wonder what you make of his response, that he's kind of exempt from
his own criticisms because he's a comic, not a journalist.

BIANCULLI: Well, I think the one thing that he's exempt from is that
when he calls the president dude, he can do that as a comic. But in the
rest of it, I don't give him any exemption, whatsoever.

I think that he's - he is a journalist, by my definition, and asking
questions and preparing for interviews and structuring interviews and
conducting them not only as a journalist should, but as few journalists
on television do. So I don't give him a free pass by saying he's a
comic. He's too good for that.

GROSS: So getting back to your top 10 or 12 list.

BIANCULLI: Thirteen - Stephen Colbert, can't forget. Yeah.

GROSS: Yes, which includes "The Daily Show," this - one of the shows on
your list, I'm embarrassed to admit, I've never even heard of, and
that's "The Choir."

BIANCULLI: Don't be embarrassed. Most people haven't. Most people
certainly didn't watch it. This was just something that was imported by
BBC America. I absolutely fell in love with it.

Gareth Malone is a choirmaster, a young guy in his 20s who just went
first to various schools, and then to a downtrodden community and just
got everybody together, formed a giant choir and then, using the clout
of television, you know, had them perform during a performance at Royal
Albert Hall, for example. And you got to see how...

GROSS: This is like a reality show.

BIANCULLI: It's a reality show. It's a reality show, but it's how these
students, how these community members, how the kids' parents, how
everybody was just transformed by the simple power of music. It was a
reality show where nobody was trying to hog time just to get on the air
or to become a star.

It was more like what I think of as just a straight documentary, where
you're just watching the process. And it was so uplifting. Half the
time, you know, I was so encouraged watching this, and lots of episodes,
I actually cried. So there.

GROSS: What kind of music did they sing?

BIANCULLI: They sang - there were adaptations of Police music. There was
old madrigal stuff. They went all over the map. But it was just saying:
Here's music. Let's enjoy it. And pulling people with raw talent and
getting, like, you know, street rappers that wouldn't have anything to
do with the program at first and showcasing them as part of an
arrangement, and just bringing people together. It's just a nice thing
for television to do.

GROSS: So, of course, the choir makes me think of another program on
your top 10 or 12 list, and that's "Glee." Do you think "Glee" is still
a good show? Is it holding its own?

BIANCULLI: It tried a few too many very special episodes in its second
year.

GROSS: With very special guest stars?

BIANCULLI: With very special guest stars, or just using the music of
very special people. So, you know, you had not only a Madonna episode,
you had a Lady Gaga episode, and you had all these sorts of things.

But I still really like the show, and I love its uniqueness, and I love
what it says - it's probably the best show that television has ever
presented in terms of gay characters, and I think that's valuable.

GROSS: My guest is our TV critic David Bianculli. We'll talk more about
the best and worst TV shows of the year after a break. This is FRESH
AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: We're looking back on the year in television with our TV critic,
David Bianculli, who's brought his list of the best and worst shows of
the year.

"Friday Night Lights" is on your top 10 list. I think that's one of
those shows where the people who watch it absolutely love it, and
everybody else doesn't even know it exists.

It's funny. It's been on for several seasons. Why do you think it hasn't
caught on to a larger audience, given how beloved it is among the people
who actually watch it?

BIANCULLI: Part of it is that it began on NBC, which, at the time,
didn't have too many good shows to try to promote it around or pair it
with. And then NBC was going to cancel it, and kept it going only by
making a deal with DIRECTV, a satellite company, and they shared
production costs, but DIRECTV gets it first.

So TV critics, people like myself who have satellite and who want to
write about things and watch them when they first come out, we've all
talked about, you know, "Friday Night Lights" already. It's on right
now. The final season finale on DIRECTV will be on in February, and then
it's only after that that NBC will begin spooling out the season.

It's not only one of the best family dramas on television now, it's one
of the best family dramas that's ever been on television.

GROSS: So when NBC broadcasts it after DIRECTV, it's on on Friday
nights, which I think, for most adults, is not a great night for
television, and traditionally, it's not where networks put their best
series.

BIANCULLI: Yeah.

GROSS: So does it matter anymore where a TV show is, or are people
basically, you know, recording it on their DVRs and watching it back?

BIANCULLI: Two separate questions, and they're both really good ones. It
ended up on NBC on Friday night because NBC lost faith with it, and as
you say, Friday night is like a graveyard. So you cut your losses, you
know, by putting in on Friday, which is like life support for
television, Friday and Saturday night.

But the other question, as to whether time slots matter anymore, they do
if a program is going to survive, but they don't for the way more and
more people are watching television.

And that's going to change - that, to me, I think, is probably the
biggest issue of the year, is that that is changing. You know, for all
of network television, that's starting to matter less.

GROSS: Yeah, because people are either recording it, or they're waiting
till it comes out on DVD, especially if it's, like, on HBO, and they
don't subscribe.

So how are the TV networks measuring who's watching so they can decide
how much to invest in the show, if it's become so hard to measure and if
the measurement is spread out over time because, like, the show might be
watched in six months or in a year when the DVD of the season comes out?

BIANCULLI: Yeah, they're trying - they're doing it badly. They're trying
to do it. They're doing a viewing plus seven, you know, so that if it's
recorded and then watched within the week, and they can tell that from
the systems that they have...

GROSS: Can they tell that? Like, if I DVR it, they know? Yeah?

BIANCULLI: Yes. Then it counts. Oh, yeah. It's Big Brother. Yeah. It's
Big Brother. They know. They know whether you watch the commercials or
zip through them.

GROSS: They really know that?

BIANCULLI: Oh, yes. Oh, yes. And they know what you're wearing, Terry.
No, no, that's...

GROSS: Do they like me any less if I zip through the commercials?

(Soundbite of laughter)

BIANCULLI: No, they figure that even to zip through the commercials, you
have to look at them. And so the people who make commercials are making
more of them visual, with more graphics, so that you actually see the
stuff even if you go through it.

GROSS: Oh, that's interesting, because there's some commercials where
I'm actually reading while the commercial's on. So I have no idea what
it's for, because there's so little that's said about it.

BIANCULLI: Yes. Well, that's why.

GROSS: That's why. Okay. Now, "The Good Wife" is an example of a
relatively new network TV show. It's on your 10 best list. Why is it
there? What works about it?

BIANCULLI: Well, the acting works. The writing works. But what - I
really want to support it by putting it on there is that this is old-
style network television.

You know, one of the thoughts that's out there is that one of the
reasons why networks are succeeding is because they can spend so much
more money, they have so much more freedom to say things, to show
things, that there's no way to do a compelling drama under the
constrictions, you know, financial and editorial, of broadcast network
TV.

But then you say: Well, look at "The Good Wife." It does it just fine.
So that's as simple as that.

GROSS: And "Rescue Me," which is ending, I think, at the end of this
season?

BIANCULLI: Yeah, "Rescue Me" and another FX program, which didn't make
my top 12 or 13 or 10, or whatever this is was "Damages" - I mean, just
really good shows that are not getting the attention that they deserve.

"Rescue Me" with Dennis Leary has done some really strong stories, some
spectacular acting, and Michael J. Fox was one of the guest stars this
year, and a great performance.

GROSS: So you'll be sorry to see "Rescue Me" end?

BIANCULLI: Mm-hmm.

GROSS: When I was growing up, there were very TV channels, and everybody
watched the same shows. So you can have the same conversation about TV
with everybody because you had, like, three choices or four choices of
things to watch.

BIANCULLI: Right.

GROSS: Now you have a zillion choices of things to watch. So there's a
few shows that seem to unite America, but only a few. And it's
interesting to see which shows actually have an impact on American
culture.

And one of the shows that's had an impact, in this very fragmented pop-
culture period, is "Mad Men." So it's on your 10 best list. What's
continuing to make "Mad Men" work?

BIANCULLI: Well, you know, and there's two levels of working. I mean,
the audience, the audience that comes to television to see "Mad Men" is
only like two, three million. Twice as many people watched "The Walking
Dead," which was the zombie series on AMC, as watched "Mad Men."

So raw numbers, it's not, you know, an "American Idol" sort of thing.
It's not even a "Modern Family" or, you know, it's not even a "Good
Wife."

But what it is that it's in the conversation, wherever you turn. If you
turn to the Internet and you're reading Huffington Post, it's on there.
If you're reading national magazines, it's there. If you're doing - if
you're on network television and the morning shows, it's on there.

GROSS: If you're watching TV, you're likely to hear Jon Hamm, who plays
Don Draper, voicing an ad for Mercedes. It's in advertising. I mean,
"Mad Men" has affected the look of ads.

BIANCULLI: Right. And, you know, TV can still do that. What I worry
about is I think that if you think of it as canary in the coal mine,
fewer shows are doing that every year. We are losing the whole idea of a
mass medium with television.

GROSS: Considering that there's a relatively small number of people who
watch "Mad Men," why do you think it's had such an effect on the, excuse
the expression, zeitgeist?

BIANCULLI: When it showed up, it was like nothing else that was on
television. These are always the things that seem to break out. You
know, if you're a "Twin Peaks," if you're even a "Walking Dead" from
last year, something that isn't like anything else on television has a
chance of standing out.

And then for it to succeed and thrive, it has to say something. I mean,
"Mad Men" is saying something about that period, but it's also saying
something about us in every episode.

GROSS: You have an honorable mentions list that you brought with you,
too, shows that didn't make the top 10, but you want to give a shout-out
to.

BIANCULLI: It's just a fast one. "Lost" ended this year on ABC.
"Rubicon" was not renewed by AMC, and "Walking Dead" was renewed on AMC.
And those are all shows that tried to do something unique and creatively
succeeded.

GROSS: Tell us something about "Walking Dead."

BIANCULLI: A zombie show based on a comic book. You know, I reviewed it
for FRESH AIR, and I was a little nervous. You know, I want to talk
about this zombie show. This zombie show is really good. And I was
stunned when it got as many viewers as it did. I think AMC was stunned.

But there's something there, and we're in an age where it's vampire
everything. So I guess zombies are just claiming their turf.

GROSS: It's interesting how AMC has really revamped its image. It stands
for American Movie Channel. It used to only show movies. And now it's
doing a lot of series TV, including "Mad Men," "Walking Dead," "Breaking
Bad."

BIANCULLI: Yeah. It's denied its past.

GROSS: "Rubicon."

BIANCULLI: It now is just AMC. It's no longer American Movies, although
that's still a big bulk of it. But it's doing what FX did, which says if
you do one great show - like FX started with "The Shield" - and then you
do another great show, and then you do a third one, you don't need a
whole network. You don't need seven days. You'll get attention as the
network that's taking TV seriously. AMC did it beautifully.

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.

I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR. Here's music from "Glee."

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross, back with our TV critic David
Bianculli. We're talking about his list of the best and worst programs
of the year, and looking back on the year in TV.

I think there used to be a lot more made-for-TV movies than they are.

BIANCULLI: Mm-hmm.

GROSS: Like, they were networks that had, like, a made-for-TV movie
every week.

BIANCULLI: Right.

GROSS: And that's kind of fallen by the wayside. But there are still,
you know, pretty major made-for-TV movies or movie series, like the John
Adams thing, that are done. So what happened with made-for-TV movies
this year?

BIANCULLI: The best thing that happened was both of them came from HBO.
And you're right, except for CBS doing occasional Hallmark specials, the
networks - the broadcast networks have basically given this up to cable.
But cable, thank goodness, is taking this seriously. HBO gave us "The
Pacific," which was the miniseries follow up to "Band of Brothers," and
that was excellent, and also gave us "Temple Grandin," which I thought
was remarkable. And that was Claire Danes in, basically, what was a
biographical drama - the sort of thing the broadcast networks would have
done 20 years ago without even thinking about it. But it was done so
well. Both of them are out on DVD. So if you need, you know, to add to
your library, there you go.

GROSS: David, what do you think were the worst TV shows of the year?

BIANCULLI: I have three that really are so - well, "Outlaw" is the
number three. That was Jimmy Smits. And I love Jimmy Smits as an actor.
So the fact that he would take on this NBC series and not complain about
it, playing a Supreme Court justice who decided to step down in order to
achieve real justice by, like, taking on cases one at a time and, like,
helping people at night, almost like a crime fighter. It's like, you're
on the Supreme Court, and you're going to step down so that you can make
a difference? It was just such a mind-blowingly bad idea...

(Soundbite of laughter)

BIANCULLI: ...that there was no getting past that.

But my number two most hated show of the year, the general consensus of
how to say it is "Bleep My Dad Says," which was based on a Twitter feed
that was called something much ruder, scatological "My Dad Says." And
they put William Shatner in it, who'd just had this wonderful career
revival, you know, with "Boston Legal," and then he has to do this. And
it's horrendous.

GROSS: But was it popular? Was it watched?

BIANCULLI: No. It's still on. It's not popular, but it's right behind an
incredibly popular program, "The Big Bang Theory," which was moved to
Thursday night. So it's in a cush time slot. But if taste had anything
to do with it, it would be gone.

Which leads us to...

GROSS: The worst of the year.

BIANCULLI: ...the worst. By far the worst, and one which is going to
resonate and have - you know, it's already got imitators, and it will be
with us for years and - "Jersey Shore" on MTV. And I just cannot tell
you how despicable this show is. It's - it makes me want to shower.

GROSS: Who is behind it, and what else did they do?

BIANCULLI: I don't know that they've done anything else in terms of
other credits. Largely, it's MTV, which, you know, as a huge history of
building shows around misbehavior.

GROSS: Mm-hmm.

BIANCULLI: And, you know, it started with "The Real World," where you
would take one person from this sort of subculture and one person from
this sort of culture and put them in a room, knowing that they were
going to butt heads and argue. And after, like, 20 seasons of that, then
you get "Jersey Shore," where it's people who are guaranteed to
misbehave and to attract other people who will misbehave, and all for
the edification of a viewing audience that learns how to misbehave by
watching them. And it's just part of a subculture on MTV where they're
doing shows about, you know, people who are demanding the biggest
weddings or, you know, running around and they're teenagers who are
pregnant. And there's a glorification of a whole lot of stuff that
shouldn't be glorified.

GROSS: Now, I noticed absent from your 10 best list are two of the big
HBO shows of the year: "Treme" and "Boardwalk Empire."

BIANCULLI: Mm-hmm.

GROSS: Is HBO, in your opinion, losing its place in terms of creating,
you know, incredible new programs?

BIANCULLI: Well, they're coming back this year, and I liked both of
those shows very much. And so I would put both "Treme" and "Boardwalk
Empire" as part of an HBO resurgence after a few fallow years. But they
just weren't good enough to me because of the high caliber of the top 10
or 12 or 13. But right now, it's really interesting, because HBO used to
have bragging rights that were unassailable. But Showtime, in the last
few years, has done so many programs, that even though they're far
behind in terms of subscribers, in terms of critical acclaim, it's
pretty much a big battle right now.

GROSS: What are the Showtime shows?

BIANCULLI: Well, there's - you've got "United States of Tara" and "Nurse
Jackie." You've got "Dexter," which is - which made my top 10. You've
got new programs which are coming out just in January. And there's an
awful lot of development there where Showtime is taken seriously and is
taking risks and getting good, creative people involved and having them
do this sort of shows you aren't seeing everywhere else on the dial.

GROSS: My guest is our TV critic David Bianculli. We'll talk more about
the year in television after a break.

This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: My guest is our TV critic, David Bianculli. We're talking about
the year in television.

Last year, you gave your worst program of the year award to the Jay Leno
prime time show, the one that was on at 10 o'clock.

BIANCULLI: Yes.

GROSS: The one that he left to go back to "The Tonight Show," which
forced Conan out of "The Tonight Show."

BIANCULLI: Right.

GROSS: So now they're both on the air, Jay Leno hosting "The Tonight
Show," Conan recently debuting with his new show at 11 o'clock on TBS.

BIANCULLI: Mm-hmm.

GROSS: So what are your thoughts on both of those shows?

BIANCULLI: Leno was an obvious failure in terms of the prime time
experiment. But I was so happy that it failed, because it was taking
precious prime time hours away what could have been scripted
programming. So am I happy that Leno is back on "Tonight" and more
successful, you know, than CBS, which had Letterman, who was gaining on
Conan when he was at "The Tonight Show"? No, because people had liked
Leno and settled for Leno before, so they were settling for Leno again.

Conan on TBS is going to be a more interesting question. It's already
settled in where the audience is about a million, a million and a half.
It'll take a while to see whether he can do the freeing things that he
wants to do now that he's there.

But what's interesting about all of these shows is how you don't have to
watch them to see them. You don't have to stay up late or set a
recorder, that if there's three good minutes out of any of these late-
night shows, they'll show up and they will get repeated on the Internet.
And I worry, well, then, what's the purpose of the one-hour shows past a
certain point?

GROSS: Is there a good example of that, of a sketch or a segment that
really went viral on the Internet?

BIANCULLI: I brought one example, which is my absolute favorite, and it
is a recent one. Jimmy Fallon did an entire hour with Bruce Springsteen
as his only guest, and that's an hour that's worth watching all by
itself. But as part of that, Jimmy Fallon - who, on several occasions on
his show, has imitated Neil Young and does a great imitation of Neil
Young - did Neil Young and convinced Bruce Springsteen to do, like, a
late '70s-era Bruce Springsteen, and they would do a duet on a song. And
the song they chose was Willow Smith's "Whip My Hair." And Willow is the
pre-teen daughter of Will Smith, and it was just this novelty song with
just ridiculous lyrics, but they take it so seriously. It's one of my
favorite moments of television of 2010.

GROSS: I'm so glad you chose this. I actually saw that edition of
Fallon's show...

BIANCULLI: Oh, good.

GROSS: ...and I couldn't believe how good he was at doing Neil Young. I
mean, he not only gets Neil Young's voice, but he gets those Neil Young
notes, those unusual Neil Young notes.

BIANCULLI: Yeah.

GROSS: And...

BIANCULLI: It's so talent - it's so funny. And it's actually - I've
watched it so many times, and I realized I like hearing this. I like
this version of "Whip My Hair," you know, and...

(Soundbite of laughter)

BIANCULLI: ...you have to hear it for yourself and...

GROSS: Let's play it. Let's play it.

BIANCULLI: Okay.

GROSS: So this is the Neil Young opening part.

BIANCULLI: Okay.

GROSS: Okay. So here's Jimmy Fallon.

(Soundbite of "Late Night With Jimmy Fallon")

(Soundbite of song, "Whip My Hair")

Mr. JIMMY FALLON (Host, "Late Night With Jimmy Fallon"): (Singing) Whip
my hair back and forth.

(Soundbite of laughter, applause)

Mr. FALLON: (Singing) Whip my hair back and forth. Whip my hair back and
forth. Whip my hair back and forth. Whip it real good. Hop up out the
bed and turn my swag on. Pay no to attention to them haters, 'cause we
whip 'em off. We ain't doing nothing wrong. Don't tell me nothing. I'm
just trying to have fun. So keep the party jumping.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. FALLON: (Singing) Whip my hair back and forth. Just whip it.

(Soundbite of applause)

Mr. FALLON: (Singing) Whip my hair back and forth. Whip it real good.

GROSS: So that's Jimmy Fallon, doing Neil Young on his show. And
Springsteen comes in later.

So, David, finally, what you consider to be the biggest TV story of
2010?

BIANCULLI: It's that television is changing so quickly, that everybody's
got to understand what to do next very quickly - the manufacturers of TV
sets, the purveyors of the Internet, the producers of programs. It's
clear that the younger generation is not watching TV the way the older
generation did. They're not even watching on televisions. There's a big
race to get television and the Internet on the same, one big screen in
your living room, because otherwise, there won't be a big screen in your
living room anymore. And then the other part of it is that young people
aren't watching shows when they're scheduled. And in a lot of instances,
they're not even watching the shows, they're just watching whatever
portions of the shows interest them or interest their friends, who then
tell them, go see this clip. So you're getting pieces.

So I don't know what's going to happen, but I have a feeling that being
in television right now is like owning a video game parlor in the '70s,
or a Blockbuster now. You know, it's going away, and somebody's got to
figure out what's happening next.

GROSS: What do you do as a TV critic now? There was a time when you
started as a TV critic when there was...

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: ...there was broadcast networks and UHF...

BIANCULLI: Yeah.

GROSS: ...channels. And now there is like, you know, hundreds of
channels. Do you actually know what's on all those hundreds of channels?

BIANCULLI: I try to. I mean, I still try to figure out what's the best
thing to watch each night as one of the things that I do as a TV critic.
And that means that I do have to sort of keep track. But it's an endless
universe. And the way of seeing these things in advance when I can get
them has changed considerably. You know, when I started - when I
started...

(Soundbite of laughter)

BIANCULLI: ...you know, you would drive to the TV station, sit in the
screening room, and they would put up the show. And you would take
notes, and then go back and it would be chiseled out in, like, hot type.
You know, it's just ridiculous. Now, there are some sites - like if I'm
going to watch an ABC show in advance, I go to the ABC media site and
watch it on my computer. And I'm irritated because I can't watch it on
my big TV set. I have to watch it on my computer. So there's another -
you know, there's a reason to pull out all together. But there is so
much television coming from so many directions. And even though the 90
percent of it always was and always will be awful, there's more of that
10 percent now that's good, if you dig it out.

GROSS: Well, I think there should be a David Bianculli reality show.

BIANCULLI: Oh.

GROSS: Where the camera...

BIANCULLI: I wouldn't watch that.

GROSS: No, the cameras are on you watching TV all the time.

BIANCULLI: No, no.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: Wouldn't it be fascinating?

BIANCULLI: I would watch "Jersey Shore" before I would watch my own
life.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: So, David, as the founder and editor of tvworthwatching.com, the
website that you started after you left being TV critic at the New York
Daily News...

BIANCULLI: Daily News. Yeah.

GROSS: How's the website doing, and how is it affecting your impressions
of what it means to have criticism on a website, as opposed to in a
newspaper?

BIANCULLI: I'm learning about this. There's actually about 15 writers on
the site now, and we're all writing about television and we're all
finding different things to write about. So it amazes me how it's almost
like old newspapers used to be when they would come out with seven or
eight editions a day and just update for a sports final. These damn
things never stop. You know, there's always more stuff to put on it, and
so it's exhausting. But I'm proud of what it's, you know, built into,
and it's still one more thing that I'm doing.

GROSS: I always felt sorry for some of my friends who have...

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: ...those kind of responsibilities...

BIANCULLI: Yeah.

GROSS: ...because you constantly have to update it, and it never ends.
There's never a time when you say, woo, I made my deadline.

BIANCULLI: I know.

(Soundbite of laughter)

BIANCULLI: I know. It's like I made that deadline.

GROSS: Yeah.

BIANCULLI: You know, and then you just wait for something else to
happen.

GROSS: Right. Okay.

Well, David, it's always great to talk with you, and thank you as always
for hosting the show, as well...

BIANCULLI: Oh, well, thanks.

GROSS: ...on many Fridays. And...

BIANCULLI: I love anything you'll let me do here.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: So David Bianculli is the founder and editor of
tvworthwatching.com.

David, let's end with more of that great Jimmy Fallon, Neil Young
impression, and let's pick it up where Bruce Springsteen comes in.

BIANCULLI: Oh, perfect. Okay. You'll enjoy this, everybody.

GROSS: Okay. Here it goes. This is great.

(Soundbite of "Late Night With Jimmy Fallon")

Mr. FALLON and BRUCE SPRINGSTEEN (Singer, Songwriter): (Singing) Whip my
hair back and forth. Whip my hair back and forth. Just whip it. Whip my
hair back and forth. Whip my hair back and forth.

Mr. FALLON: (Singing) Whip it real good. All my ladies, if you feel me.

Mr. SPRINGSTEEN: (Singing) Whip your hair.

(Soundbite of cheering)

Mr. FALLON: (Singing) Do it, do it, whip your hair.

Mr. SPRINGSTEEN: (Singing) Whip your hair.

Mr. FALLON: (Singing) Don't matter if it's long or short.

Mr. SPRINGSTEEN: (Singing) Whip your hair.

Mr. FALLON: (Singing) Do it, do it, whip your hair.

Mr. SPRINGSTEEN: (Singing) Whip your hair.

Mr. FALLON and Mr. SPRINGSTEEN: (Singing) Oh, oh, oh, oh.

Mr. SPRINGSTEEN: (Singing) Whip my hair.

Mr. FALLON and Mr. SPRINGSTEEN: (Singing) Oh, oh, oh, oh.

Mr. SPRINGSTEEN: (Singing) Whip my hair.

Mr. FALLON and Mr. SPRINGSTEEN: (Singing) Oh, oh, oh, oh.

Mr. SPRINGSTEEN: (Singing) Whip my hair.

Mr. FALLON: (Singing) Whip my hair back and forth.

Mr. SPRINGSTEEN: (Singing) Whip your hair.

Mr. FALLON: (Singing) Whip my hair back and forth, just whip it.

Mr. FALLON and Mr. SPRINGSTEEN: (Singing) Whip my hair back and forth.

Mr. SPRINGSTEEN: (Singing) Just whip it.

Mr. FALLON: (Singing) I whip my hair back and forth.

Mr. SPRINGSTEEN: (Singing) You got to whip your hair.

(Soundbite of cheering, applause)

Mr. SPRINGSTEEN: Thank you.

GROSS: That's Jimmy Fallon and Bruce Springsteen. Our TV critic David
Bianculli teaches TV and film history at Rowan University in New Jersey.
You'll find links to David's reviews of the shows on his best of list on
our website, freshair.npr.org.

Coming up, our film critic David Edelstein reviews the Coen Brothers'
new adaptation of the Charles Portis novel "True Grit."

This is FRESH AIR.
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From The Coens, A Grittier Sort Of Truth Out West

TERRY GROSS, host:

The Arkansas-based writer Charles Portis is best known for his brutal,
but comic Western novels "Norwood" and "True Grit," the basis of a hit
movie starring John Wayne. Now filmmakers Joel and Ethan Coen have made
their own "True Grit," starring Jeff Bridges as Rooster Cogburn, and co-
starring Matt Damon and Josh Brolin.

Film critic David Edelstein has a review.

DAVID EDELSTEIN: Joel and Ethan Coen are probably tired of the question,
but you can't not ask it: Why make a film of Charles Portis' 1968 novel
"True Grit" when it already was a movie, a good one, with a definitive,
Oscar-winning performance by John Wayne as the one-eyed Marshal Reuben
Rooster Cogburn? After all, it's not like the brothers need the work.

On the basis of the new film, I'd say the Coens made their own "True
Grit," because their voice and sensibility owes something to Portis.
Their dialogue, like his, is a blend of the baroque and the deadpan,
their vision nihilistic, with a hint of farce.

The Coens signal their approach to "True Grit" by replacing the Duke
with "The Big Lebowski's" the Dude, Jeff Bridges - and by introducing
him, or rather his voice, from an outhouse. He sits inside and
churlishly refuses to engage with Mattie Ross, played by Hailee
Steinfeld, a 14-year-old girl who seeks a man with, quote, "true grit,"
to help her capture the drunken handyman who gunned down her father.

Rooster is a mean drunk who once rode with William Quantrill, the man
who led the infamous Lawrence, Kansas massacre of 1863. Bridges plays up
the debauchery: He's half-hidden behind an unruly beard and mustache,
and his nose and cheeks are dotted with the alcoholic's classic burst
blood vessels. He's lowered his voice so that it seems to slosh around
in a pool of whiskey and phlegm. Even with his deliberate, quasi-
biblical diction, maybe half his words are intelligible.

(Soundbite of movie, "True Grit")

Ms. HAILEE STEINFELD (Actor): (as Mattie Ross) Can we depart this
afternoon?

Mr. JEFF BRIDGES (Actor): (as Rooster Cogburn) We? You are not going.
That is no part of it.

Ms. STEINFELD: (as Mattie Ross) You have misjudged me if you think I'm
silly enough to give you $50 and watch you simply ride off.

Mr. BRIDGES: (as Rooster Cogburn) I'm a bonded U.S. marshal.

Ms. STEINFELD: (as Mattie Ross) That weighs but a little with me. I will
see the thing done.

Mr. BRIDGES: (as Rooster Cogburn) (unintelligible) I can't go after Ned
Pepper and his band of hard men and look after a baby at the same time.

Ms. STEINFELD: (as Mattie Ross) I am not a baby.

Mr. BRIDGES: (as Rooster Cogburn) We won't be stopping in boarding
houses where there's warm beds and hot grub on the table. I'll be
traveling fast, eating light. What little sleeping is done will take
place on the ground.

Ms. STEINFELD: (as Mattie Ross) Well, I have slept out in that before.
Papa took me and little Frank coon hunting last summer on the Petit
Jean. We were in the woods all night. We sat around a big fire, and
Yarnell told ghost stories. We had a good time.

Mr. BRIDGES: (as Rooster Cogburn) Coon hunting? This ain't no coon hunt.

EDELSTEIN: As you can infer from all that drunken, surly verbiage, the
movie takes its sweet time to get going. But as soon as Mattie, Rooster
and a Texas Ranger played by Matt Damon head off for Oklahoma's Indian
Country, the movie finds its peculiar rhythm. Damon is a wonderful foil
for Bridges, with his ostentatious, jangling spurs and fringed jacket.
He's a macho preener, but he lives by a gentleman's code, and he's
dogged.

Young Hailee Steinfeld, in her film debut, has a prim little unsmiling
face and a Gatling-gun delivery that makes you laugh. Their banter is
acid, but they're good company - like the movie.

Unlike the 1968 "True Grit," which had the look of a classic Southwest
John Wayne picture, the Coens' version unfolds in barren, high deserts
and wintry forests, with a Carter Burwell score that's built around
elegiac Protestant spirituals. In Roger Deakins' beautifully deep-toned
cinematography, the frontier is like a vast graveyard, still resonating
with the deaths of Native Americans and the carnage of the Civil War.
Rotting corpses hang from trees. In one surreal shot, a bear on
horseback slowly approaches - only it turns out to be a man, bigger and
older and hairier than Bridges' Rooster, with an even deeper voice, a
nomad searching for anything, even a corpse, to buy and sell.

Retribution, when it comes, has no particular kick - or, rather, without
giving anything away, its kick leads to a new disaster and can't be
savored. Even when the lone-gunfighter hero rises up to face off against
the bad guys, there's no catharsis, no sense of wrongs cosmically
righted. Perhaps that's why the Coens' "True Grit," amusing and
impressive as it is, is an arm's-length experience, without much
emotional power. The brothers have reclaimed Portis' novel from John
Wayne by making it darker and colder and more grotesque. The prevailing
stoicism and death is their idea of realism - of true grittiness.

GROSS: David Edelstein is film critic for New York magazine. Tomorrow,
David will talk with us about his 10 best list, and our rock critic Ken
Tucker will talk about his best of the year list.

We want to close with a great Christmas song, so we asked Milo Miles,
who reviews world music and roots music for us, to choose a favorite.
I've got him on the phone.

Milo, what would you like to play for us?

MILO MILES: Well, I picked "At the Christmas Ball" by Bessie Smith, a
deep favorite of mine. It was recorded in 1925, with Joe Smith on
coronet and Charlie Green on trombone and Fletcher Henderson on piano.
It's done in a style that's never played on the radio, so it'll never be
overexposed. But it's a favorite song of mine because it's a celebration
of Christmas parties. And you always play Christmas music at the
Christmas party, so it's nice to have a wonderful tune that actually
celebrates the party itself, done by the great Bessie Smith.

GROSS: It's funny that you chose this, because Friday, Christmas Eve
Day, we're featuring a concert with Rebecca Kilgore singing Christmas
songs and winter songs. And she sings this song in that concert. So
that's great.

MILES: There you go. It has appeal.

GROSS: Thank you so much for choosing this. And Milo, I wish you a Merry
Christmas and a happy and healthy New Year.

MILES: And the same back.

GROSS: Thank you.

MILES: Okay.

GROSS: And we wish that to our audience, too, to our listeners.

(Soundbite of laughter)

MILO: Okay.

GROSS: So here's Bessie Smith.

(Soundbite of song, "At the Christmas Ball")

Unidentified Man: Hey, Merry Christmas to you.

Ms. BESSIE SMITH (Blues singer): Hear, hear. Hurray for Christmas.

(Singing) Christmas comes but once a year, and to me, it brings good
cheer, and to everyone who likes wine and beer. Happy New Year is after
that. Happy I'll be, that is a fact. That is why I like you here. Oh, I
say that Christmas is here. Christmas bells will ring real soon, even in
the afternoon.
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Transcripts are created on a rush deadline, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of Fresh Air interviews and reviews are the audio recordings of each segment.

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