TERRY GROSS, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. It's that time when our critics look back at the year. And today, our TV critic David Bianculli does just that. There's a lot to consider.
DAVID BIANCULLI, BYLINE: So much TV, so little time. A top 10 list no longer seems comprehensive. Because even though I try, I simply can't see everything. Some shows I really, really liked, for example, are ones I didn't get to watch until after they premiered like the excellent "Fleishman Is In Trouble" on Hulu with Claire Danes and Jesse Eisenberg and Jerrod Carmichael's very raw comedy special "Rothaniel" on HBO and "The English," Amazon's disturbingly original Western starring Emily Blunt. They're all well worth the time if you can find the time and have the access to find those shows.
I want to single out some other shows in this year-end review. But first, I want to point out some larger trends and issues. After years of expansion during the pandemic, the TV universe is beginning to shrink a bit again. There have been major layoffs recently at CNN and AMC and cutbacks at Netflix. There's a continued erosion of certain TV offerings from broadcast TV to streaming-only sites. A few football games and soap operas, one shown on broadcast television, for example, are now watchable only if you subscribe to Peacock or Amazon. But every game of this year's World Cup has been available to watch live either on Fox or Fox Sports 1, and I've been there for every one. And shown primarily by cable news networks, the January 6 House Committee hearings was TV's most important miniseries of the year and was covered in both daytime and primetime, drawing large audiences, informing the public and arguably changing history.
It was both a good and bad year for finales as long-running shows tried to stick their landings by presenting satisfying endings. The worst of 2022 was AMC's finale of "The Walking Dead," which was so eager to keep its franchise going that the final episode included promos for two coming "Walking Dead" spinoffs, featuring characters you then knew would survive the finale. BBC America's "Killing Eve" had a disappointing finale also, as did HBO's "Westworld." But the Paramount+ series "The Good Fight" had a good finale, FX's increasingly audacious and inventive "Atlanta" had a better one, and the best of the year for me was AMC's "Better Call Saul." The last few episodes ended that series perfectly, with a final storyline that had Bob Odenkirk's Jimmy and Rhea Seehorn's Kim confronted by their mutual con jobs and sins and by one of their victims, Patrick Fabian as fellow attorney Howard. I'll only play part of that scene, but the rest of it floored me.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "BETTER CALL SAUL")
PATRICK FABIAN: (As Howard Hamlin) You're perfect for each other. You have a piece missing. I thought you did it for the money, but now it's so clear. Screw the money. You did it for fun. You get off on it. You're like Leopold and Loeb, two sociopaths.
BOB ODENKIRK: (As Jimmy McGill) All right, that's enough.
FABIAN: (As Howard Hamlin) You know it's true. You just don't have the guts to admit it.
RHEA SEEHORN: (As Kim Wexler) Great. Now you need to go.
FABIAN: (As Howard Hamlin) I'm going to make it clear to everyone because I'm going to dedicate my life to making sure that everybody knows the truth. Believe it. You can't hide who you really are forever.
BIANCULLI: Three of my favorite TV series - HBO's "Succession" and "Curb Your Enthusiasm" and Apple TV+'s "Ted Lasso" - didn't present any new episodes in 2022. But others did and return with style, so I salute them all - "Barry," "Last Week Tonight With John Oliver" and "The White Lotus" on HBO; "Hacks" on HBO Max; "Only Murders In The Building" on Hulu; "What We Do In The Shadows" on FX; "Documentary Now!" on IFC; "Evil" on Paramount+; and, yes, "Saturday Night Live" on NBC, sometimes. In addition, there were some outstanding programs making their premieres this year - "Severance" on Apple TV+, "The Old Man" on FX, "The Rehearsal" on HBO and some flat out fun ones, like Netflix's "Wednesday" and Disney+'s "She-Hulk: Attorney At Law." As for my favorite TV moment of the year, these tend to be musical in nature. Early in the pandemic, there was the online salute to Stephen Sondheim. Last year, Disney+ gave us the year's best program, the documentary miniseries "The Beatles: Get Back." A few years earlier in 2018, James Corden's Carpool Karaoke special with Paul McCartney on CBS was another favorite TV treat.
But my winner this year for favorite TV moment comes from HBO's recent special, "The Howard Stern Interview: Bruce Springsteen." Basically, it's just a couple of cameras rolling during an extended two-hours-plus Sirius XM conversation between the two icons - a radio show with a video simulcast. Their discussion is rambling and unpredictable, but those are compliments, not complaints. Bruce jumps around from guitar to piano as they talk, and their talk itself is riveting, as when Howard asks if Bruce's lengthy onstage shows may be a reflection of something deeper. Bruce agrees immediately.
(SOUNDBITE OF HBO SPECIAL, "THE HOWARD STERN INTERVIEW: BRUCE SPRINGSTEEN")
BRUCE SPRINGSTEEN: People say, gee, how can you play so long? I say, no, my problem is stopping. I don't have a problem starting and playing.
HOWARD STERN: Right.
SPRINGSTEEN: I have a problem with stopping because I was using it - I mean, how do I get into it? But I was - it was a purification ritual for me.
STERN: What do you mean?
SPRINGSTEEN: Well, I grew up in a Catholic church. And so you grew up with a lot of sin and original sin. And and life is - life and ritual is all about rituals of purification, of cleaning out your soul and your mind. And a certain amount of that is good for you, you know. If you take it to an extreme, it's like anything else. You know, it becomes your master. So my interest with my work was I wanted my work to be my work and my pleasure. I did not want it to be my master.
BIANCULLI: This hybrid radio and TV format, "The Howard Stern Interview," should be replicated next year and beyond, maybe on a quarterly basis. He can attract the guests worth listening to, whether they're artists or in some other field, and in such a lengthy, unstructured format can get them to reveal an awful lot. "The Howard Stern Interview: Bruce Springsteen" was this year's TV treasure, and I want more.
GROSS: David Bianculli is a professor of television studies at Rowan University. Tomorrow on FRESH AIR, my guest will be Rachel Maddow. We'll talk about her new podcast series, "Ultra," which reports on the little-known story of plots to overthrow the American government, aided by Hitler's government, in the days leading up to World War II. The story involves a Nazi agent in the U.S. who colluded with members of Congress, including ghostwriting their speeches. I hope you'll join us. I'm Terry Gross.
(SOUNDBITE OF PATRICK ZIMMERLI, BRAD MEHLDAU AND KEVIN HAYS' "GENERATRIX") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.