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David Bianculli's Top 10 TV Shows Of 2008

The year in television started with a bust — or to be more precise, a writer's strike — but Fresh Air's TV critic says there were plenty of TiVo-worthy programs in 2008. Prominent among them: AMC's Mad Men.


Other segments from the episode on December 24, 2008

Fresh Air with Terry Gross, December 24, 2008: Review of the best television shows of 2008; Commentary on language.


Fresh Air
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David Bianculli's Top 10 TV Shows Of 2008


This is Fresh Air. I'm Terry Gross. Merry Christmas. It is been quite a year, and we are going to take a look at how that's been reflected in television, news and entertainment programming. My guest is the man who has watched more TV than anyone I know, our TV critic David Bianculli. He has been writing about television since 1976, teaches TV history at Rowan University, and is now a TV critic for Hi, David. Let us start with the presidential election. Do you think TV played a different role this year in the election than it's done in previous ones?

DAVID BIANCULLI: I do. I don't think they played a great part in terms of the debates, which is where I always hope that TV is going to do great in terms of elections. I don't think the debates were really wonderful or were designed fabulously, but there were some key news-coverage things that mattered. And then TV, in terms of satire, really mattered, so there's two different avenues. I think Kathy Couric's interview with Sarah Palin really made a difference, and I think that Steve Kroft's multiple interviews with the Obamas on "60 Minutes" arguably made a difference.

GROSS: What do you think was the impact of the satirical shows? And we'll include in, you know, "The Daily Show," "Colbert," "Saturday Night Live," "Olbermann," "Rachel Maddow," the late shows, you know, "Letterman," "Conan O'Brien..."

BIANCULLI: Yeah, it is - I mean, there are going to be, in four or five years, the number of doctoral theses that are going to be written about this, trying to quantify it, are probably going to be in the dozens. I think that the very first time that Tina Fey did Sarah Palin, she nailed the essence of Sarah Palin to everyone who was still trying to figure it out, fairly or unfairly. It was sort of cast at that moment. You think of David Letterman, who hasn't been that germane in the last couple of years, all of a sudden getting irritated by a non-appearance by John McCain throws that whole thing right into the middle and becomes very important. And then, what Colbert and Stewart were doing on Comedy Central I think was brilliant. I mean, I give "Daily Show" my best show of the year because of it is work in 2008. And yeah, I don't even think you had to watch those shows to feel their impact because of YouTube and because even regular TV was picking everything up. So, it was all over the place.

GROSS: And what about the entrance of Rachel Maddow, getting her own show during the campaign?

BIANCULLI: Well, if you watched her during the campaign, she was a different kind of voice of reason, and she wasn't angry and she wasn't pontificating and she wasn't goofy; she was just sort of real and sensible. I don't mean sensible in a way that I'm revealing any sort of political bent, but I mean, her arguments just sort of made sense. I was really glad to see her ascendancy, because, you know, on a panel next to the people that she was next to, she's shown pretty quickly.

GROSS: Now, the satirical shows have - particularly, like, Jon Stewart - have given a new model for the political interview that's different than, say, the "Meet the Press" model. And I was wondering if you had an example of that sticks in your mind of a new style of political interview and on television.

BIANCULLI: Yeah, I have a very recent one that I brought in partly because it's post-election, because it's very easy to give Jon Stewart credit for stuff that he did during the election. But it's like, well, why bother to watch him now? And this, I think, is a great example. It's an interview that he was doing with Mike Huckabee, and Mike Huckabee was promoting a book, but Stewart was more interested in talking to him about his political stance. And this was - usually the Jon Stewart segments - the interviews are one segment and a few minutes long. This one was a double segment and monopolized most of the show and went many minutes without even trying to go for a laugh. This is supposed to be a comedy news show, and Jon Stewart is probing Mike Huckabee on his stand against gay marriage. And Mike Huckabee is saying that, well, these are the laws that we have; we have to respect the laws; we have to respect tradition.

GROSS: Yeah, that marriage is a union between one man and one woman.

BIANCULLI: Yes, you know, and he's quoting the bible, and he's quoting law, and Jon Stewart is not letting him go. And listen, I'm fascinated by the probing questions that this comedian is asking and not letting Mike Huckabee wriggle out. Listen.

(Soundbite of TV show "The Daily Show with Jon Stewart," December 9, 2008)

Mr. JON STEWART (Host, "The Daily Show with Jon Stewart"): You know, segregation used to be the law until the courts intervened.

Former Governor MIKE HUCKABEE (Republican, Arkansas): There's a big difference between a person being...

(Soundbite of applause)

Gov. HUCKABEE: Black and a person practicing a lifestyle and engaging in a marital relationship.


Gov. HUCKABEE: You know, interestingly...

Mr. STEWART: Actually, this is helpful. This gets to the crux of it. I think it's the difference between what you believe gay people are and what I do. And I live in New York City, so I'm just going to...

Gov. HUCKABEE: Yeah.

Mr. STEWART: Make a supposition that I have more experience being around them.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. STEWART: And I'll tell you this.

(Soundbite of applause)

Gov. HUCKABEE: Yeah.

Mr. STEWART: Religion is far more of a choice than homosexuality. And people that you - and the protections that...

(Soundbite of applause)

Mr. STEWART: We have for religion...

Gov. HUCKABEE: Yeah.

Mr. STEWART: We protect religion, and talk about a lifestyle choice. That is absolutely a choice.

Gov. HUCKABEE: But religious people...

Mr. STEWART: Gay people don't choose to be gay. At what age did you choose to not be gay?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Gov. HUCKABEE: But Jon, religious people don't have the right...

Mr. STEWART: I mean, it's not...

Gov. HUCKABEE: Religious people don't have the right to burn others at the stake. They don't have the right to do anything they wish to do. It still comes down to...

Mr. STEWART: You're not being asked to marry a guy. They're asking to marry the person they love. They're not...

Gov. HUCKABEE: They're asking to redefine the word. And frankly, we're probably not going to come to terms, but if the American people are not convinced that we should overturn the definition of marriage, then I would say that those who support the idea of same-sex marriage have a lot of work to do to convince the rest of us. And as I said, 68 percent of the...

Mr. STEWART: Here's what I think. I think it's what...

Gov. HUCKABEE: Have made that decision.

Mr. STEWART: You know, you talk about the pro-life movement being one of the great shames of our nation.

Gov. HUCKABEE: Yeah.

Mr. STEWART: I think if you want number two, I think it's that. I think it's an absolute. It's a travesty that people have forced someone who is gay to have to make their case that they deserve the same basic rights...

(Soundbite of applause)

Gov. HUCKABEE: Jon, Jon, excuse...

BIANCULLI: Is it that wonderful? I mean, that's a political debate better than any political debate we heard on the political debates.

GROSS: And you know, you said, David, I just have to - I feel like I should correct you on one thing. You said this was just two minutes...

BIANCULLI: Oh, sure. Go ahead.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: No, you said this is just two minutes of Jon Stewart not going for laughs, just asking questions, and of course, he gets laughs because he's so funny no matter what he does. But one of the things I love about his interviews is that even when he's asking really tough challenging questions and when he's basically debating somebody, like he's done - does with Huckabee - he's respecting Huckabee at the same time. He's not trying to make fun of Huckabee as a human being. He's not - he's satirical on some of the points he makes, but he's not making fun of Huckabee. He's respecting Huckabee, and they're just going person to person, sharing their views and disagreeing with each other, and I just think it's a pleasure to listen to.

BIANCULLI: Yeah, it is. It's not going for a gotcha. It's like trying to go to the essence, and I think you're absolutely right. He respects Huckabee. He's had him on the show a bunch of times. And it's sort of, like, here's this nice guy, this funny guy, this politician who's done a lot of good things. And like, but why, why is he here on this issue? And he's really trying to understand it.

GROSS: He - yeah, he's trying to understand Huckabee, and he's also saying, but you know what? I don't get it, and I think you're really wrong. We're just talking about the success of the satirical news shows. Jay Leno is starting, in 2009, a primetime 10 o'clock show that, from what I've read, sounds like it's going to be largely political in content? You know more than I do about that.

BIANCULLI: I think it's going to be largely as close to "The Tonight Show" as they can get without doing "The Tonight Show."

GROSS: Well, that means a couple of minutes of politics at the top and then...

BIANCULLI: And then Jay walking and reading headlines, and yes...

GROSS: Right. So, what does that say about where television is heading?

BIANCULLI: It's very depressing to me, even though I understand in a business sense it makes perfect sense, because it's so cheap to do talk and because they don't have to get hardly anybody to watch this show at all in primetime for it to make oodles of money for NBC. And it takes them out of the problem with having to make scripted shows or to produce other programs to fill probably - we're talking about five hours a week of primetime. And it's almost a third of their schedule that they no longer have to do.

So, now, NBC is sort of, like, saying, well, for the most part, we're like FOX or UPN. We'll program - or CW now - we'll program just two hours a night. And it's depressing to me because it's hard enough these days, with reality shows growing all over the place, for a good scripted program to make it. And even if you make one, like "Pushing Daisies," for it to succeed, when it succeeds artistically beyond any question, for it to make it in primetime; to have fewer of these slots, it drives me mad. And it's NBC saying, well, OK, maybe we're more of a cable network than a broadcast network, and maybe we can't do things the way we used to and we're in fourth place anyway. So, we give up. And I think they're giving up real estate when they should be, you know, gentrifying and cleaning things up.

GROSS: I can't but wonder what impact Leno at 10 o'clock is going to have on the satire boom. I mean, we're in a situation now where there are so many satirists, political satirists, with their own shows on TV satirizing the same political material every day.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: And so, you get to see what does Olbermann have to say; what does Rachel Maddow have to say; what does Jon Stewart have to say; what Colbert have to say; what does Leno have to say; what does Letterman have to say; and then, is Conan O'Brien making jokes about it, too? And the later you are on at night, the more jokes that have already been made on the event of the day.

BIANCULLI: Right. And the more you rely either on the early new shows to bring you the previous night's jokes, or you'll just go get them on YouTube. There's not a TV-watching mandate anymore. And also, "Saturday Night Live" this season, because politics was so hot, actually became must-see TV, which it hadn't been in a long time. I can't imagine a world in which Jay Leno at 10 o'clock is must-see TV, like, let me catch the first few minutes of his monologue, and then I'll go to whatever shows are on opposite. You know, he's not Johnny Carson.

GROSS: Let me just ask you about Leno. Did they - did NBC give Leno his own show because they think he's really strong and he'll really strengthen that 10-o'clock spot? Was there some kind of contractual thing where they had to agree on something? Like, I'm not sure whether...

BIANCULLI: You know, they were - the contract was - the big contract done years in advanced was to give Conan "The Tonight Show" and sort of say, OK, Jay, thanks for all your service in 2009; we're through with you and "The Tonight Show." But they always tried to find something for him to do because they didn't want him going to a competitor, especially going to a competitor opposite Conan and "Tonight" and maybe ruining "The Tonight Show" franchise. And it wasn't too long ago that Jeff Zucker, only a year or two ago, was talking about giving away the 8-o'clock hour of primetime on NBC to unscripted, cheaper programming because it was no longer viable to do a whole network thing. So, all he did was just change 8 o'clock to 10 o'clock and give it to Leno.

GROSS: David, let's take a short break here and then we'll get back to 2008 in TV.


GROSS: This is Fresh Air.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: Well, if you're just joining us, my guest is our TV critic, David Bianculli. We're looking back on the year 2008 in television. Last year, at this time, when you were looking back at 2007...


GROSS: In television, you were speculating about what impact the writers' strike would have on 2008. Now that we're - we've reached the end of 2008, we can look back and say, what impact did it have?

BIANCULLI: Well, I don't have a clue. I don't know what I said.

GROSS: Oh, and we're not going to play it back...

(Soundbite of laughter)

BIANCULLI: Oh, good!

(Soundbite of laughter)

BIANCULLI: I thought if you have a clip of me saying, where we will be? It will be fine, and nothing will happen. It'll have no impact. I think that I thought...


BIANCULLI: Actually, I sort of remember what I said, that it's, like - it's probably going to lose 10 percent of the overall audience as a result of this. And they did, and even more than that, like, 20 percent in some shows. "Pushing Daisies," which was doing fine before the strike; ABC, in its infinite lack of wisdom, decided rather than re-boot it as quickly as it could and have new episodes up for spring, it'd just re-launch it in the fall. And its launch sort of, like, fizzled. I mean, and nobody's watching it, and now it's canceled, and there's only an episode or two left. And it's gone, gone, gone.

GROSS: How do you think HBO did this year?

BIANCULLI: Not as well as Showtime - and I think that may continue next year as well - is that Showtime seems to have a real good roster, but they're both at least trying things. I don't think HBO - HBO did well with its miniseries. I mean, you had "John Adams," and you had "Generation Kill," two very interesting...

GROSS: You're not including "House of Saddam" in this.

(Soundbite of laughter)

BIANCULLI: No, I'm not. No. "House of Saddam," no, I'm not. But HBO didn't have the new series to replace the old great ones, although I'm still watching "Entourage" and that sort of stuff. They need, they need new blood. They had "True Blood," which I liked.

GROSS: I liked that a lot.

BIANCULLI: Yes. You know, so that was - that's their one triumph in the series area, is "True Blood," just was fun.

GROSS: It was. It was some terrific actors in it.


GROSS: And I'm looking forward to the return of "Flight of the Concords."


GROSS: And the return of...

BIANCULLI: "Curb Your Enthusiasm"?

GROSS: And "Big Love."

BIANCULLI: And "Big Love." OK. So, they're not bereft. We have just listed, in sort of the things of HBO not being the glorious network of old, more good shows than NBC has in its entire arsenal.

GROSS: Is there, like, going to be an actors' strike next month?

BIANCULLI: I really don't think so. The people that I've asked - when there was a potential writers' strike a year ago, everybody I asked, no one knew. So, it was like, gee, it could happen. But no one is saying to me, yes, the actors are going to be stupid enough to strike. In this economy, actors don't deserve to strike. I'm sorry if they're not getting a good deal, but I think that most Americans are going to say, OK, we don't really feel sorry for you right now, because we're losing so many jobs that the fact that you don't get a higher percentage of DVD rights with your job isn't something I'm really prepared to get behind.

GROSS: Last year this time, you were talking about how the writers' strike was giving a boost to reality shows because the writers on reality shows weren't unionized and weren't therefore part of the strike. So, how did reality shows do this year? Are they still surging?

BIANCULLI: They're not surging so much, but the networks are still addicted to them. And they're still putting them on, and what happened is because of the strike, there were fewer scripted shows this fall. And then - but the networks aren't backing up from the same game plan they've had the last couple of years, which is at mid-season, when fewer people are looking, is when they cram all the reality stuff on. And so, what's coming up in the next two, three, four weeks is just a litany of shows that make me cringe to even consider them.

GROSS: Oh, name some.

BIANCULLI: Oh, well, I mean, you've got "Howie Do It" with Howie Mandel doing a, you know, sort of a "Candid Camera" kind of thing. You've got, you know, "Homeland Security," which is following people who check our purses at airports.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: Really, that's a show?

BIANCULLI: Yes. Yes. These are all actual shows. You've got - the worst one - it's already on the air. The first episode has just premiered, as we're talking, is "Momma's Boys." Do you know about "Momma's Boys"?


BIANCULLI: Twenty-eight women, or something like that, 23 women, three guys, a dating show, except the guys have brought along their mothers and the mothers live with the women.

(Soundbite of laughter)

BIANCULLI: And it's so irreprehensible. It's so bad. And they've got a Jewish mother; they've got a mother from Iraq who doesn't like any race that isn't, like, her own, just about. I can't describe it to make it as bad as it is, but I watched the premiere on the air. I avoided it in advance, watched it on the air, and I had an epiphany from which I have yet to recover. And that's that, you know, as long as I'm a TV critic or as long as I'm teaching about television, whatever I'm doing, I'm going to have to watch these bad shows. I can't not see them and be up on pop culture. Whereas if I just retired, I wouldn't have to see "Momma's Boys," except I can't afford to retire until I'm dead because of the economy, so I'm going to be watching "Momma's Boys" and "Homeland Security" the rest of my life.

GROSS: You're making this sound like a great existential novel of despair.

(Soundbite of laughter)

BIANCULLI: I don't know how great it is and I don't know how existential it is, but you hit the despair right on the head.

GROSS: David Bianculli will be back in the second half of the show. He's Fresh Air's TV critic, TV critic for, and he teaches TV history at Rowan University. I'm Terry Gross, and this is Fresh Air. Here's a Christmas song from BB King.

(Soundbite of song "Christmas Comes but Once a Year")

Mr. BB KING: (Singing)
Christmas time comes but once a year.

I'm happy and the kids are happy too.
It'll take the next six months to pay these bills.
When I think about, folks, it gives me the chills.
But I don't care, 'cause Christmas comes but once a year.

I'm getting ready, people. Have my (unintelligible) at the phone.
I'm going out partying, gonna dance 'til they recall.
I'm gonna think about New Year's, baby. I don't care what I have to pay.
Let the good times roll, 'cause Christmas comes but once a year.

GROSS: Coming up, the word of the year, as chosen by our linguist Geoff Nunberg. Also, the musical written by the creator of "Buffy the Vampire Slayer" that made it onto critic David Bianculli's best list, but wasn't on television.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: This is Fresh Air. I'm Terry Gross. Back with our TV critic, David Bianculli, to continue our look at some of the best and worst developments in TV during the past year. More people are downloading TV shows from the Internet and watching it that way, or they're, like, you know, recording it through their TiVo or whatever and watching it when they want, if they get around to it.

(Soundbite of laughter)

BIANCULLI: Right. Yes. Yeah.

GROSS: So, how are the networks trying to respond to competition from their own shows, if you know what I mean? Like, they're scheduling things, trying to be strategic, and a lot of people aren't watching it according to the network's strategy anymore.

BIANCULLI: Oh, it's definitely - one of the weirdest things to think about is that when a network is programming at 10 o'clock, which is when NBC is going to put on Jay Leno next year...

GROSS: Yeah.

BIANCULLI: Is that one of the biggest competitors in that time slot are people with DVRs recording back shows they've seen at other times. So, they've got to factor that in. With TiVo and those sorts of recording devices, networks more and more are putting product placement into shows in order to keep advertisers with them, because they know people are zipping through the advertising. On the Internet, they force you to watch ads before you even get to see the show you want to see.

GROSS: That's right. You cannot stop the ad on the start...

BIANCULLI: Right. You can't stop the ad, but eventually the question that nobody's answered yet is, why make entertainment? If people more and more are not watching David Letterman on the air - they're watching, you know, the best parts of him on the Internet - who pays for that? You know, because people that are watching the Internet don't want to pay for anything. And so, it's a model - nobody has figured out how to make money off the Internet, and until they do, everybody is going to just try everything because they're not sure of what's going to work.

GROSS: Yeah, who wants to pay for anything anymore? I mean, I just - this is another conversation, but with everybody expecting to get everything for free...

BIANCULLI: Yeah, it's the conversation. You know, when I teach college and I ask, you know, 20, 21, 22 year olds, they feel they have a divine right to everything that's out there. You know, they'll download all the music they can, but pay for it? No. You know, same thing with television.

GROSS: I guess I'm from the mindset that I don't understand why it's perfectly acceptable to buy the television or buy the computer, but, like, a recording that took, you know, weeks or months or a year to make, or a TV show that took, you know, all this time to conceive and write and then act and everything, that should be for free. I don't...

BIANCULLI: Yeah, I know, I know. But it's - and I don't think that's a thing - I don't think it's generational; I think that they just haven't confronted it, and I think we need enough of the new generation to make their own art and then say, oh, wait a minute, I can't afford to do this just for the ego. I've got to get paid. But it's one of those questions that no one has answered yet, is how do you make the Internet viable, you know? But everybody wants to be there.

GROSS: What were some of the best and worst examples of how television and the Internet related to each other this year?

BIANCULLI: The very best for me was - the best thing that I saw on the Internet all year long is something that hasn't crossed over to TV yet. I almost expected it to become a one-hour TV special almost instantly. Joss Whedon, who, you know, did "Buffy" and "Angel," and you know, has done terrific television, did "Dr. Horrible's Sing-Along Blog," three about 15-minute chapters of a self-contained superhero musical starring Neal Patrick Harris, and brilliant! I mean, it's so good that I can't believe that television hasn't found it - and found a way to show it. This should be a series, it's so good.

GROSS: Did you bring any of it with you?

BIANCULLI: Yeah, the song that I brought is Neal Patrick Harris as Dr. Horrible. You know, he wants to be a super villain in the worst way, but he also is in love with this girl at the local laundromat, and you know, maybe he thinks that being a super villain will impress her; maybe not. But he's got a freeze ray that may push him into the big times and get him accepted by the other villains. So, he's singing about this.

(Soundbite of musical "Dr. Horrible")

Laundry day, see you there,
Underthings tumbling.
Wanna say, love your hair.
Here I go mumbling.

With my freeze ray I will stop the world.
With my freeze ray I will find the time to find the words

To tell you how, how you make
Make me feel, what's the phrase?
Like a fool, kinda sick,
Special needs, anyways.

With my freeze ray I will stop the pain
It's not a death ray or an icebeam; that's all Johnny Snow
I just think you need time to know

That I'm the guy to make it real
The feelings you don't dare to feel
I'll bend the world to our will
And we'll make time stand still...

BIANCULLI: Isn't that wonderful?

GROSS: Yeah, that's Neil Patrick Harris in an Internet series. It's still on the Internet?

BIANCULLI: No. It was done in three little chunks that were all sort of uploaded in a single week on a special Web site. And you can now buy it on iTunes, you know, all three episodes together for, like, under five bucks. And there isn't a better deal out there, and I get no commission from this.

(Soundbite of laughter)

BIANCULLI: This is just - and Joss Whedon, who not only wrote the story, but wrote the lyrics, wrote the music, he is to me - this is where you really get to make fun of me - I think we've found the next Sondheim in Joss Whedon, of all places. Everything that he's done - he did a musical episode of "Buffy;" it is so good that every time that someone is called the new Sondheim, and I go and I listen - no, not even close. And I'm talking lyrically more than musically. But Joss Whedon, lyrically, delights me.

GROSS: We should say that Neil Patrick Harris was also one of the stars of another great, short Internet musical, very recently. You know, it's probably still on the Internet, someplace. The "Prop 8" musical, and it was a lot of actors, including John C. Reilly, Neil Patrick Harris, satirizing Proposition 8 in California that makes gay marriage illegal.

BIANCULLI: And I should also complete the Sondheim connection by saying that Neil Patrick Harris starred in "Assassins" and was fabulous.

GROSS: And also played Toby in a TV...

BIANCULLI: Concert, yes.

GROSS: A production that was televised on PBS of "Sweeney Todd."

BIANCULLI: "Sweeney Todd." Yep. So, he's got the credentials.

GROSS: We're reviewing the year in television with our TV critic, David Bianculli. We'll be back after a break. This is Fresh Air.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is our TV critic, David Bianculli, and we're looking back on the year 2008 in television. So, we should look at your 10-best list of 2008. Which did you think were the best shows? And I assume you're choosing here from broadcast and cable...


GROSS: But limiting to that and not Internet only.

BIANCULLI: Well, I did put in - I did squeeze in "Dr. Horrible" as my number 10.


BIANCULLI: Just because - what I'm trying to do is...

GROSS: It's that good.

BIANCULLI: What gave me the most delight, the most joy and "Dr. Horrible" did. So, we have one Internet. Here's my 10 - and what I will preface this with is to say there's another ten shows beyond this, so if I'm not naming your favorite ten up here that doesn't mean that I have no taste necessarily. Given the strike, given everything that's wrong with television, there is a lot of television being made. It's just that percentage wise, it's still less than, like, five percent because there's so much TV.

GROSS: Let me just stop you. Are these the best new shows of 2008 or the best shows period?

BIANCULLI: The best overall.

GROSS: Overall. OK.

BIANCULLI: Best shows period. The best new shows, I can tell you, I thought that "In Treatment" and "True Blood" from HBO were really good, and "Breaking Bad" from AMC, "The Mentalist" and "Fringe" on regular TV. Those are good ones that I like from this year. But here's the top 10 of 2008: "The Daily Show;" I think nothing, nothing was as important, nothing was as entertaining in the whole year. "Mad Men;" I loved the singular stuff that it gave us. No other show had us thinking about that time, those things. And there are probably four or five different characters that I would love to see in his or her - mostly her - own series from that show that I was so involved in them. "30 Rock," I think, is the best sitcom on the air right now. "Pushing Daisies," I think, is delightful, and I'm so angry at ABC for not sticking with it just because stuff like that does not come around often at all. "The Shield;" great show with a brilliant final episode.

GROSS: That series had probably the best opening and closing episode in TV history.

(Soundbite of laughter)

BIANCULLI: You know, it really is one of the best of both. And what I loved is that - the show just beneath it for me is "Boston Legal" which also, I think, had a great final episode. And the final episode of "Boston Legal" was all words. And the final episode of "The Shield" was all silence. You know, I mean, there was a close up of just Michael Chiklis' eyes as Vic Mackey. I mean, his eyes filled the screen and he was acting, you know?

GROSS: It was so silent, you could hear the ducts from the air-conditioning system in the horrible office (unintelligible) the hell that he was in.

BIANCULLI: You're so good. You know, I actually, I stopped the TiVo...

GROSS: Yeah.

BIANCULLI: To make sure that that's what I was hearing, and that's all that you were hearing. It was like, yes, I thought - I thought my heater had kicked on or something...

(Soundbite of laughter)

BIANCULLI: But it was, and it was a great ending. And I love TV series - that's one of the most ambitious cable series, and it sort of pushed for a lot more. But the idea that you could tell a story like a complete novel - what he did in the first episode is why things happened to him in the last episode, and there were, like, five years of great shows in between. That, to me, is a satisfying TV experience.

(Pretending to cry) Thanks for getting me happy about TV, again.

GROSS: Well, I'm going to get you sad now because now I'm going to ask you about the worst shows of 2008.

BIANCULLI: Oh, OK. I've got - but let me finish the top 10 of the good.

GROSS: Oh, you're not done. OK, OK.

BIANCULLI: OK. "Dexter," I adore "Dexter." "Dexter" is just so dark and creepy and wonderful. "Friday Night Lights," which I'm seeing now and I realize very few people are watching it on - it's only on DirecTV 101 for its new season. But starting in January, NBC is replaying those shows, and those are very good. And then, "60 Minutes," I've really kicked up my appreciation of "60 Minutes" this year.

(Whispering) Except for Andy Rooney.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: OK, bring us down from this exhilaration about television and tell us the worst shows of the year.

BIANCULLI: OK. My new - brand new one to add to this is "Momma's Boys" which makes me want to shower, but I've said enough about "Momma's Boys." "Rosie Live..."

GROSS: Really?

BIANCULLI: Thanksgiving Eve variety show live on NBC; if variety wasn't dead before that...

(Soundbite of laughter)

BIANCULLI: She killed it for at least a couple of more years. It was the most - I hated that because I love variety, and the right person, you know, could really bring back the variety show.

GROSS: Oh, like Stephen Colbert's satire of the variety show, his Christmas special. That was a great show.

BIANCULLI: Yes, that was a good - yes, but that was a great show. I mean, every time Justin Timberlake is on "Saturday Night Live," I think he's brilliant.

GROSS: Yeah.

BIANCULLI: I think he should do four specials a year, bring back the forum. But Rosie O'Donnell, no, no, 1,000 times no. "Knight Rider" is a big one that I just can't stand. They remade a bad series as a bad movie, NBC did, and then saw this bad movie and said, sure, let's make a bad series. Then they made a bad series, and they saw how bad it was; they said, well, let's retool it. And so, in a couple of weeks we're going to see a new, new "Knight Rider."

(Soundbite of laughter)

BIANCULLI: It's like, no, no, no! So, that's "Knight Rider." And then the rest of them are regular, standard TV junk like "Secret Talents of the Stars," which CBS canceled after one episode.

(Soundbite of laughter)

BIANCULLI: One critic - I didn't write this - one critic said, whatever talents they had are still secret.

GROSS: Who were some of the stars? I missed this.

BIANCULLI: Oh, I think Mya was one of the biggest stars.

GROSS: I don't even know who she is. OK.

BIANCULLI: This is my point exactly, OK?

(Soundbite of laughter)

BIANCULLI: Yes. You know, this is - see, by not having to watch bad TV, this is what you miss, and good for you. "Kath & Kim" on NBC took a decent Australian series and made it a really bad NBC series; "Do Not Disturb," a bad sitcom on Fox. But here's one that isn't entertainment that you probably did see...

GROSS: Yeah.

BIANCULLI: Because you're watching on election night and you saw a CNN hologram interview. Did you see one of these?

GROSS: Ah, yeah. Mm-hmm.

BIANCULLI: What's the point of that?

GROSS: I was going to ask you.

BIANCULLI: You already have - we have this established tradition of, like, 30 years running now, where if you're talking to someone who's in another location, they are on a screen, and you see them on the screen, and they talk back and forth. That works perfectly fine.

(Soundbite of laughter)

BIANCULLI: You don't need "Obi-Wan Kenobi, you're my only hope" right there in the studio. There's no reason for that.

GROSS: Oh, so, that's the end of your list of the worst? I'm sure you could add more, but we'll stop at there.

BIANCULLI: That's the end of my list. Yes.

GROSS: Last year, when we ended our year-end wrap up, I wished you good luck because you were at a kind of turning point.

BIANCULLI: At a crossroads, as they like to say.

GROSS: At a crossroads, yeah. You had just left the continually downsizing New York Daily News.


GROSS: After being a TV critic there for many years, and you were starting up your Web site,, and trying to figure out what else would be coming next. So, what's this year been like for you?

BIANCULLI: It's been a good year, actually. I was, you know, I was essentially thrown out of a plane, but I landed OK. I'm still doing the Web site after a year.

GROSS: How did you put it? You said that they made you an offer...

BIANCULLI: It was a reverse "Godfather;" they made me an offer I couldn't accept.

GROSS: Right.

(Soundbite of laughter)

BIANCULLI: Yeah, I can't tell you how much play that quote got. I understand the news media so much more now. That got picked up everywhere. So, the Web site, TV Worth Watching, is still going, and we got lots of holiday shopping and holiday - where to find your TV stuff going. But the main thing is I'm now teaching television and film at Rowan University and loving teaching.

GROSS: What's it like for you to be teaching people in their...

BIANCULLI: Twenties, yeah.

GROSS: Teens and 20s who didn't grow up - who don't know the shows that you grew up with and that you've watched for decades? You think of TV as being as kind of just, like, inherited gene that we all have, like, we all grow up knowing certain TV shows, and it's not true.

BIANCULLI: Oh, yeah. There...

GROSS: You know, every generation grows up not knowing the TV that came before, but you and I were part of the first TV generation...


GROSS: So, like, we kind of knew everything that had been on it. So, what is that like for you?

BIANCULLI: Well, in some ways it is fabulous because you are showing them - like, when you show them the first kid shows from the '50s, and you show them "Howdy Doody," "Kukla, Fran and Ollie," and you show them "Ding Dong School." One of the things that's a huge hit is "Ding Dong School," where it's just Ms. Francis explaining how to make a sandwich with four ingredients.

(Soundbite of laughter)

BIANCULLI: One of them is bread, you know, and then there is peanut butter and lettuce and bananas. It's like Elvis must have been watching, you know?

(Soundbite of laughter)

BIANCULLI: And they are just amazed that this was television, and "Mr. Wizard." So, I love showing them things and also, pointing out to them that whatever they think they are watching now that's brand new, this genre began 50, 60 years ago. So, it's not new, but it is spooky, and you know, I've had to adjust teaching to understand that they come almost as blank slates. And so, like, for example, when we are teaching TV1, which is about the formation of television and the birth of all these genres, we don't even show them any television for the first month. We show them documentaries and pieces of things to let them understand about the '50s and post-war culture and the flight to the suburbs and McCarthyism and the Red Scare and Little Rock and everything that was going on with civil rights and the burgeoning women's rights. And so, by the time they start seeing TV, they get what all these "Twilight Zones" were about and what the Donna Reed thing was trying to be about, and so, it's much more important as a course.

GROSS: Well, David, I want to thank you for being here today, and I want to wish you happy holidays and a very good new year.

BIANCULLI: All right, right back at you. Thanks for having me.

GROSS: David Bianculli is TV critic for Fresh Air and for He teaches TV history at Rowan University.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: Coming up, our linguist Geoff Nunberg chooses his word of the year. This is Fresh Air.
Fresh Air
12:00-1:00 PM
Geoff Nunberg Nominates 2008's Word of the Year


It is not exactly the Oscars, but early in January, the American Dialect Society will meet in San Francisco to vote for the word of the year. Several dictionaries have already made their own selections. After looking over the field, our linguist Geoff Nunberg has a candidate, too.

GEOFF NUNBERG: People have different takes on this word-of-the-year business. For some, it's just a particularly clever or useful recent coinage. This year, the editors of the Oxford American Dictionary chose "hypermiling," which refers to trying to get maximum mileage out of your car. It hasn't exactly become a household item, but it will be handy to have around the next time gas goes over four bucks a gallon. And Webster's New World Dictionary chose "oversharing," for divulging excessive personal information. That one has actually been around since the early '90s, but then, lexicographers don't get out much.

But I tend to go with those who look for a word that encapsulates some major story of the year. The people at Merriam-Webster chose "bailout," the word which got the biggest spike in lookups on the dictionary's Web site. And you could certainly make an argument for "change" or "post-racial" or "collateral debt obligation," but none of those is particularly interesting as a word.

If it were up to me, I'd fasten on the brief and curious resurgence of "Joe." In 1942, FDR's vice president Henry Wallace made a famous speech where he described the 20th century as the Century of the Common Man, and for most of that period, the common man went by the name of Joe. The generic Joe Blow made his first appearance in the 1920s, to be joined later by Joe Schmo from Cocomo. And by the '30s, Joe had replaced John and Jack as a generic word for a chap or a fellow, as in a good Joe or a regular Joe. Maybe that was because Joe seemed more ethnically inclusive and urban than John. Josephs have always been thicker on the ground in New York than in Arkansas.

G.I. Joe was popularized in 1942 by a comic strip in the Army weekly Yank. It quickly replaced Johnny Doughboy, a holdover from World War I, and since that period, Joe has always suggested blue-collar unpretentiousness. There was Joe Palooka, the good-natured boxing champ from a popular comic strip that went back to the '30s. There was Jackie Gleason's garrulous Joe the Bartender, and Josephine the Plumber, who was featured in long-running ads for Comet Cleanser in the 1960s. Joe Camel slouched onto the scene a few decades later, shooting pool or sitting on his motorcycle in a black leather jacket, always with a cigarette dangling from his split lip. Man or dromedary, you couldn't imagine him as a Jeremy.

And Joe is compulsory for any politician who is called Joseph, particularly if he can claim modest roots. Hey, can I call you Joe? Actually, that's sort of the idea. Joe Lunchpail appeared in the 1960s, and Joe Sixpack goes back to a 1970 Boston congressional race. At the time, some people heard it as a slur on Irish voters, but it caught on as a slightly jocular handle for ordinary, working-class Americans. Homer Simpson embraced the idea and upped the ante when he called himself a regular Joe Twelvepack.

Those are the voters both parties have been wooing since the late 1960s, but usually under oblique labels like silent majority, working Americans or the forgotten middle class. Before Sarah Palin, no national candidates had ever invoked Joe Sixpack by name, much less offered themselves as a representative of what Palin called the normal Joe Sixpack American. And then the constituency was unexpectedly personified in the form of an Ohio man who happened to go by his middle name of Joe and who worked in the canonical, 20th-century, blue-collar job. On top of that, he was also a dead ringer for Peter Boyle in his title role as a hippie-hating factory worker in the 1970 movie "Joe." That was all pure serendipity. You can bet that nobody would have tried to make a campaign mascot out of Wurzelbacher if he had been Dwayne the Drywall Guy.

You'd have to go back to Nixon and Agnew to find Republicans making a populist appeal as direct and explicit as this one. It adrenalized their partisans, who piled into Palin rallies carrying placards bearing their first names and job descriptions, but outside of the Republican base, there was no rush to enlist in the Joe Sixpack Nation. There are lots of reasons why it didn't take: Some people had misgivings about Palin, and Joe the Plumber turned out to be something of a loose spigot. But it isn't likely the Republicans will be trying to resuscitate any of this year's Joes when they make their way back to Ohio and Pennsylvania in 2012.

It is never easy to keep populist rhetoric from slipping over into condescension. Notwithstanding the speeches of Henry Wallace and the fanfares of Aaron Copland, the common man has never been crazy about being referred to as the common man, and with a notable exception of Homer Simpson, most people are not eager to reduce their essence to a beverage preference, whether it's for beer or chardonnay. Americans may still feel a nostalgic affection for the picturesque working-class stereotypes that the name Joe evoked in the last century, but whatever they do for a living, that isn't what they see when they catch a glimpse of themselves in the mirror. Funny, but they don't look Joe-ish.

GROSS: Geoff Nunberg is a linguist who teaches at the school of information at the University of California at Berkeley. You can download podcasts of our show on our Web site, Fresh Air's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our engineer is Bob Perdick. Dorothy Ferebee is our administrative assistant. Sue Spurlin directed the show. All of us at Fresh Air wish you a very Merry Christmas.
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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