TERRY GROSS, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. It's best of the year time. My guest is our TV critic David Bianculli, who has made his choices for the best and worst TV shows of the year, and as you'll hear later, this year has ended with some big news for David. Hi, David, happy holidays.
DAVID BIANCULLI, BYLINE: Hi, hi, I'm so glad to be here.
GROSS: So let's start with your top 10. You want to just start by running through the list?
BIANCULLI: OK, except I always have to have a caveat. I know this irritates you...
GROSS: It's always something, isn't it?
BIANCULLI: But I did limit it to just 10, but there are so many good shows this year that I had to do it by saying all right, I'm only going to do scripted comedy dramas, and I want to put the documentaries over in another spot, and I want to put a couple other shows in another spot so they don't take up my top 10.
GROSS: OK, so let's go with the top 10, and then we'll move on.
BIANCULLI: OK, all right, the official top 10 of 2011. Number one, "Breaking Bad" on AMC.
GROSS: Yay, OK.
BIANCULLI: OK. Oh, this is good. You want to do - no, it's all right. I can run through the whole list. You don't have to...
GROSS: Hold your applause, ladies and gentlemen.
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
BIANCULLI: Yes, I know, hold your applause until the end, or we'll never get through this list. It's such a good list. Number two is "Homeland" on Showtime, that's a first-year show. Number three is "The Good Wife" on CBS. That's a network show, broadcast television.
So is number four, "Modern Family" on ABC. It's not that I'm rooting for broadcast television, necessarily, but they're not on this list as much as cable. And then number five is "Justified" on FX. Number six is "Dexter" on Showtime. Number seven is another first-year show, "American Horror Story" on FX. Number eight is "Curb Your Enthusiasm" on HBO. Number nine is "Louie" on FX, and number 10 is "True Blood" on HBO.
GROSS: Did you bring any clips with you to show us how good any of these shows are?
BIANCULLI: I brought one, from "Homeland," and it's not from the most recent, you know, season ending or even the one before that. So it's a perfect little clip to show how intense this program is and why I like it so much. So if you want to hear it...
GROSS: Yeah, yeah, set it up for us.
BIANCULLI: OK, it's - Claire Danes plays Carrie, a CIA agent who thinks that the other star of the show, Damian Lewis as Brodie, is actually a prisoner of war that has come back that's been flipped by al-Qaida and that he may have some designs about U.S.-based terrorism.
So she thought that, and then she didn't think that, and now she thinks it again, but she's been in an explosion. She's in the hospital and she's off her meds, and we already know that she's bipolar. And so she's trying to explain to her boss, Saul, who is played by Mandy Patinkin, what her theory is. And when you listen to her explain it, it's not just the drama of what she knows or what she fears but of what's happening to her as a character.
(SOUNDBITE OF TELEVISION PROGRAM, "HOMELAND")
CLAIRE DANES: (As Carrie Mathison) The thing is, Saul, the avenues here have methods and patterns and priorities. A single sniper? No, Abu Nazir doesn't do that. He never has. He never will. He goes big. He explodes. He maims en masse. We know that.
MANDY PATINKIN: (As Saul Berenson) Slow down.
DANES: (As Carrie) The fact is that we have about a week, maybe less, to figure out the real target, not this single shot to the president, spy novel 101 (beep).
PATINKIN: (As Saul) Well, actually, that's the working theory.
DANES: (As Carrie) Well, it's wrong. It's incomplete. Walker's not even critical. He's just a part, a piece, a pixel, a pawn of no importance. There is a bigger, pernicious, Abu Nazir-worthy fly out there, and we have little time. We have to code it, collide it, collapse it, contain it.
PATINKIN: (As Saul) Lie down, Carrie, the doctor's coming.
BIANCULLI: Isn't that amazing? I mean, it sets up the drama of what's to come about the terrorist threat, but you're so worried about her, and he's so worried about her, it's so rooted in character that I love this show.
GROSS: So David, every end of year, when we have this kind of year-end review chat, we kind of do this measurement of how good the networks are doing compared to, you know, the broadcast networks compared to cable. So when you look at the overview, what's the score?
BIANCULLI: Networks down, cable up. It's sad to me that for the second year in a row, the broadcast networks for the most part seem to be underestimating the audience, whereas...
GROSS: You mean the intelligence of the...
BIANCULLI: The intelligence of the audience, yes, and therefore they're getting an underestimated audience from the Neilsens. It's just you don't have to - "Charlie's Angels," which is on my worst list this year...
GROSS: And we'll get to that list soon.
BIANCULLI: It's just a perfect example of even if you're going to redo that show, why redo it stupidly? You know, or why do "The Playboy Club," or why do so many of the shows this year, the only two that I was excited about in advance from the whole fall crop were cable programs. There wasn't a single thing.
Now there are some things coming up in the first part of next year. So I have some hopes for 2012. But they just seem to be timid.
GROSS: So let's get your worst list.
BIANCULLI: OK, worst list, I'll do it from number five to number one. So we'll build in some exciting suspense. The number five is "Charlie's Angels," the remake on ABC. And the second that you had a buff Bosley, you knew you were in trouble with that show.
GROSS: Who's Bosley?
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
BIANCULLI: See, you're just upping your cred. Bosley in the original "Charlie's Angels" was like the sort of Pillsbury Doughboy guy who hung around and was the non-sexual buddy who would drive the car and do things. Well, now he's, you know, a matinee idol kind of player, and it's like that's just really dumb. But to dissect "Charlie's Angels" on that level is to give it too much time. We've already given it too much time. "Charlie's Angels," here, gone, gone.
Number four, "Kim's Fairytale Wedding: A Kardashian Event." I don't think I have to explain - but this TV show on E! was two parts. It was four hours long, and Kim's marriage to Kris Humphries was 72 days. So I don't know how you do the math on that, but it's like you take 72 and then divide it again by six, and this TV show lasted maybe 1/300 as much as the marriage. I'm not sure about the math, but a waste of time, I'm talking about the TV show now, a waste of time.
Number three, a new CW show that has already been canceled, started in the fall, called "H8R," except it's not spelled H-A-T-E-R, it's spelled H-8-R.
BIANCULLI: Do you know the idea of this one?
GROSS: No, no, I don't.
BIANCULLI: OK, see I worry when I describe new ones that you think that I'm joking, but this is the premise: You take people on the Internet who have written snarky things about celebrities, and then you take those celebrities and a camera crew, and you ambush the snarky person, and you have the celebrity try to charm them while the cameras are rolling so that they will like them.
GROSS: Wow, who dreams this stuff up?
BIANCULLI: I don't know.
GROSS: So name one celebrity or...
BIANCULLI: Oh gladly because the one in the pilot was Snooki.
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
BIANCULLI: So Snooki - yeah.
GROSS: It's perfect, someone who this kind of show created becomes a celebrity in it.
BIANCULLI: Exactly, so - and to jump ahead to number two...
GROSS: And, like, Snooki is really unfamiliar with people being snarky?
BIANCULLI: And so good at being charming, too. It's just a trifecta with this show.
GROSS: We're spending too much time on this one, too.
BIANCULLI: I know. But the thing is the number two show, the number two worst show is "Jersey Shore," so Snooki, by being in "Jersey Shore" and in the pilot of "H8R" is actually in - let me do the math correctly - what, 40 percent of my worst shows of 2011.
GROSS: And number one?
BIANCULLI: Number one just came back this month after a hiatus. I think of it like locusts. Like it went underground for several years, and now it's emerged: "Fear Factor" on NBC. It was a horrible show the first time. It's a horrible show now. I mean, it's a more horrible show now because they're spending more money, and they're upping the gross factor to try to get attention on the Internet.
GROSS: And I think to prove your point, you've brought a clip with you?
BIANCULLI: Yeah, this is host Joe Rogan explaining the rules, and all you have to do is just imagine a giant, clear, see-through glass vat with a red liquid in it, and here we go.
(SOUNDBITE OF TELEVISION PROGRAM, "FEAR FACTOR")
JOE ROGAN: Inside this tank is over 3,000 gallons of cows' blood.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: I just got chills.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
ROGAN: You and your partner will be bound together by the wrists, and you will alternate dunking into that tank to retrieve these cow hearts.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Ew. Oh my God.
ROGAN: One at a time, you will alternate dunking down into that tank, retrieving a cow heart and then stuffing it in to your partner's mouth, who will them attempt to spit it into that box. The team that transfers the least amount of cow hearts in three minutes will be eliminated today.
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
GROSS: I'm sorry.
BIANCULLI: No, no, I'm going to let this run.
GROSS: Oh God, that's so ridiculous.
BIANCULLI: Sometimes my job is pretty easy, don't you think?
GROSS: And is it part of your job to make sure you watch these shows?
BIANCULLI: I had to watch the first two hours to see what they had done to "Fear Factor" in the interim. If suddenly it had somehow turned into "Omnibus," you know, I wanted to be prepared. But now that I've seen those first two hours, I think that I can move on to other things. I'm so glad of your reaction to that.
GROSS: For anyone tuning in wondering what is happening to FRESH AIR, we're talking about the best and worst television shows of the year. That was an example of the worst. And with me is our TV critic David Bianculli. David, let's take a short break here, and then we'll talk some more.
GROSS: OK. This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
GROSS: Well, if you're just joining us, with me is David Bianculli, FRESH AIR's TV critic, and he's reviewing the year in television. So let's move on. Your 10 best list was all scripted television. So what about news? What's happening in news this year? What do you think were some of the high points in terms of coverage and regular programs?
BIANCULLI: Well, there's interesting stuff in news both in terms of - the networks seem to be deciding, not all of them, but that people want serious news, and so they're making more choices. "CBS Evening News," now that Katie Couric is gone, is trying to be a little bit more serious. In January, they launch a morning show, where they're taking Charlie Rose as a new host and Gayle King.
GROSS: Oprah's good friend.
BIANCULLI: Yes, Oprah's good friend. I don't know that that's a really good fit, it doesn't seem to make sense to me, but I'll wait and see if that works. It looks to me as though Charlie Rose will get all the serious things, and Gayle will get the rest, and I don't know if that's the way they plan it. But they're at least saying for the morning show audience, "Today" is light and fluffy with a mix of news, "Good Morning America" is the same thing. So they're going to go more serious. So there's a try for that sort of thing.
But still I find the best analysis of news to be on a comedy program. You know, I mean, I still think "60 Minutes" is a great program, and were I to have a top 10 that included news programs, "60 Minutes" would probably be on it. But also vying for my top 10 would be "The Colbert Report" and "Daily Show with Jon Stewart," and that's 30 percent of my top 10.
So I'm just shoving the news things over to the side, if you'll let me, but they're all great.
GROSS: So Colbert and Stewart belong in your top 10, and you're just subdividing it.
BIANCULLI: Yes, I'm just saying OK, those guys, and it's a different sort of thing that those programs do, so I will put them over to the side. But I'm not saying that they just do the best comedy take on the news. Many times, they do the best take on the news, and I actually have an example, if you want to hear it.
GROSS: Oh play it, absolutely, yeah.
BIANCULLI: This is Jon Stewart on "The Daily Show" right as the Penn State scandal was breaking, and he started off giving his opinion about what should have happened at the time of the alleged event occurred. Then he played a clip of Penn State students taking to the streets to defend, you know, Coach Joe Paterno.
And then he comes back with really what is an editorial.
(SOUNDBITE OF TELEVISION PROGRAM, "THE DAILY SHOW")
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: (Unintelligible) is a part of JoePa. We think it's absolutely ridiculous that he got fired over this sort of situation.
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
JON STEWART: I don't want to jump to conclusions here, but it appears the street riot is in response to Coach Paterno's firing. See, I get that it's probably hard for you to believe that this guy you think is infallible and this program you think is sacred could hide such heinous activities, but there is some precedent for that, yeah.
And just like with the Catholic Church, no one's trying to take away your religion, in this case football. They're just trying to bring some accountability to a pope and some of his cardinals who (beep). So don't worry, on Saturday you'll still get to go to services against Nebraska. No one's going to take that away because obviously you're young, and that would be a traumatic experience, and we wouldn't want that memory to scar you for life. We'll be right back.
BIANCULLI: Isn't that wonderful? You know, I'm a student of Mark Twain, and there are times - and I do not want to over-inflate Jon Stewart - but when he's saying something really strong, even though it's humor, that you can hear where his heart is and where his anger is.
GROSS: It's also so hard to take, you know, a child sex abuse story and find any humor in it. He knows where the humor is and how to find it without being...
GROSS: Thank you.
BIANCULLI: Yeah, but also he knows when not to go for the laugh. You know, I mean, at the end of that particular program, he actually apologized, he said, because maybe it wasn't that funny a show, but it isn't that funny a topic. And I'm paraphrasing. But there are so many days where I will watch Colbert, or I will watch Stewart, and it's not only a half hour and then an hour well-spent, but I feel like thank goodness somebody is watching television and politics and reality the same way I am.
GROSS: David, in terms of talking about what's happened in news this year on television, the Republican debates, I mean, everybody's saying this, it's become this ongoing, you know, like reality series. And I don't know if you saw the debate in Iowa Saturday night on ABC.
BIANCULLI: Oh yes. Oh yes.
GROSS: There was the opening, the opening announcement credit sequence, and it struck me like they did it in the style of the opening of a reality show.
BIANCULLI: Yeah, it's "Survivor," you know, and that's what it's turned out to be, and they're even playing and planning that way. I mean, debates have always been, since they figured them out in terms of political debates, who's going to score the soundbites, who's going to be talked about the next day. And what you try to avoid is making the mistake that's going to make you talked about the next day.
Well, there's been enough of both of those this time, you know, with Rick Perry being the perfect example: You make one mistake that's an oops of that magnitude, and you're pretty much done. So it's actually a good service what's happening.
These debates, most of them which are on cable, but some are on broadcast TV, are out-drawing just about anything except for football games on cable. I mean, they're the most popular shows on cable. These are Republican debates just for the candidates. So they are engaging people.
Now, what if they're only engaging people because they're watching them like a reality show? I don't know if that's bad because you're still getting the information, eventually.
GROSS: You know, David, let's share a conversation we often have in the FRESH AIR office with our listeners, when a series has ended and we want you to review the season finale.
BIANCULLI: Oh yeah.
GROSS: We always have this, like, long debate internally like: Is it fair to say what the ending was because a lot of people have just recorded it, and they're going to watch it later, or they're going to watch it in six months or a year when the DVD comes out?
And is it fair to them to spoil the ending? Should we say spoiler alert and give them a chance to tune out? Should we not talk about it at all? And, you know, if you've watched the finale, then I would really want to hear what do you have to say about it. So what's your take on how to deal with reviews and actually talking about what everybody who saw the show wants to hear you talk about when you know other people haven't seen it yet?
BIANCULLI: It drives me crazy. They used to call this water-cooler conversation. If you had a TV show that was water-cooler, you know, then people were talking about it the next morning: You know, who shot J.R.? Did you see what happened over here?
Well, now, if there are water coolers, and if there are offices, you know, one person goes up and said did you see "Dexter"? Like no, shut up, I didn't see it. I don't want to know about it. Come tell me in a year. I'll be thirsty again in 2014. This is not the way to have a conversation.
And my job, I feel once it's broadcast, once it's out there, I should be free to talk about it. You should be free to avoid my discussion of it or my articles on it if you want to keep it that way. And I have to tell you television has gotten so good that I can't watch it fast enough.
So that I have to do the same things that I'm requiring other people to do. As we're talking right now, I'm four days behind on television that I really am dying to see. But it's so good, my rule about great TV: if it's that good, I don't want to multitask. I just want to sit and watch it and reward myself and reward the show with full attention.
Well, I don't have that many hours in the day to do that, you know, or a week. So they start piling up.
GROSS: So David, you were just saying that you don't have time to watch all the good TV, and that's exactly the dilemma that viewers who aren't TV critics are in, and that's why they're recording it or, you know, watching it on demand or waiting for the DVDs. There just isn't enough time, and that's why we worry so much about talking about what happened in the season finale, knowing so many people didn't have time to watch it.
BIANCULLI: But when is - when is it long enough? When is it OK? You know, maybe people record sporting events because they're out doing something or can't see it. Nobody expects sports scores not to be thrown out there and highlights not to be out there. You just avoid them. Besides, I don't think most people are as busy as I am.
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
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. Here's some music that was used on his number one show "Breaking Bad" and is on the "Breaking Bad" soundtrack album. I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross, back with our TV critic David Bianculli. We're talking about the best TV shows of the year.
So David, you've already given us your top 10 scripted TV shows.
GROSS: But there's so much TV you like this year, you have 10 runner-ups.
BIANCULLI: Yeah. This is I think a perfect example of how good television is in 2011. If I just read this list, which I will, very quickly. And so this is my other top 10 list. It sounds good enough to be right up there. So, but this is actually my 11 through 20. "Rescue Me" on FX. "Walking Dead" on AMC. "Episodes" on Showtime - not too many people saw it but really good comedy. "Boardwalk Empire" on HBO. "Friday Night Lights," which ended, you know, DirecTV and NBC, its final season. "30 Rock" on NBC, slipped down from my top 10 but it's still a good show. "Men of A Certain Age," which TNT should've renewed but didn't. "Treme" on HBO. "Damages" now on DirecTV once FX let it go. And "The Killing" on AMC. Those are good programs.
And I also pushed off like five documentaries or nonfiction shows and I want to list those if I can.
GROSS: Yeah, go ahead.
BIANCULLI: I realize this is just a lot of titles, but for people who care about these things I want them to know I care about them too. "George Harrison: Living in the Material World," an HBO documentary by Martin Scorsese. Brilliant. "Prohibition" by Ken Burns on PBS. "America in Prime Time," the best study of television I've seen in 20 years. That was on PBS. "American Masters," a Woody Allen, biography on PBS. And then a real strange one, "An Idiot Abroad" on the Science Channel, which took Karl Pilkington, who is the guy that Ricky Gervais and Stephen Merchant discovered, has him going around the world. It's the only travel series I've ever seen where the guy doesn't want to travel and doesn't like much of what he sees, so that makes it different. But it was very entertaining, very informative and really unpredictable.
GROSS: What are you looking forward to in 2012 on television?
BIANCULLI: There's a new show called "Smash" that's a musical drama. I've seen the pilot. I don't know why NBC held it back until midseason. They had it ready. It could have gone in the fall. But they're going to launch it a day after the Super Bowl so it's going to get lots of promotion. And it's really good. It's kind of "Fame-ish." It's more like "Fame" was than "Glee" is. But if I interpret the pilot correctly the whole season is going to be about casting and writing and rehearsing and staging a new musical based on Marilyn Monroe. And then who knows, at the end of the season they may actually present it as a TV special. But it's produced by the producers who have done almost every good musical theater special on TV for the last 10 or 15 years, and also were behind the film version of "Chicago." It's just, it's just really good. I'm excited about that.
GROSS: And this is scripted. It's not a reality show.
BIANCULLI: This is scripted. It's totally scripted. And then there's another show by Howard Gordon who is doing "Homeland" right now called "Awake," which is going to be on NBC in a couple of months which looks really good also. So there are two broadcast shows coming in midseason that I can't wait to see and that's two more than there were in the fall of 2011. It's true.
GROSS: Well, with me is David Bianculli, FRESH AIR's TV critic, and we're looking at the year in television. David, did you have a favorite TV moment of the year?
BIANCULLI: Oh, I do. But I don't think this is going to be anybody else's TV moment. Now I'm used to liking obscure things but this is just so personal. This is my favorite moment of 2011. I don't expect it to be anybody else's. I didn't know it was coming. So imagine you are me - as horrifying as that may be.
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
BIANCULLI: And you're watching television live and this scene comes up on "Parks and Recreation." It is set in a public radio control room where Dan Castellaneta is playing a public radio host interviewing Amy Poehler, who plays Leslie Knope on "Parks and Recreation," about her new book.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "PARKS AND RECREATION")
DAN CASTELLANETA, ACTOR: (as radio host) Leslie, could one say that a book is nothing more than a painting of words which are the notes on the tapestry of the greatest film ever sculpted?
AMY POEHLER: (as Leslie Knope) One could say that. But should one?
ACTOR: (as radio host) Join us next week when David Bianculli will be filling in for Richard Chang-Jefferson who will be filling in for me. Leslie, would you like to take us out?
POEHLER: (as Leslie Knope) OK. Please enjoy a song from the lesbian, Afro, Norwegian funk duo Nefertiti's Fjord.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
POEHLER: (as Leslie Knope) Oh wow, they are terrible.
ACTOR: (as radio host) Oh yes, they're quite awful. But they are lesbians so...
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
GROSS: So David, what was your reaction when you heard that the first time?
BIANCULLI: I was, well, I was stunned in hearing my own name but then it just kept getting funnier. I mean as public radio parodies go that was pretty much spot on in my critical eye. So I just loved that scene.
GROSS: Oh, it's great. So that was not the only thing that made this an especially interesting year for you. Can we break the news to anybody who hasn't heard it yet?
BIANCULLI: Oh, yes.
GROSS: It was just a couple of years ago that at the end of the year we were talking about David's book about the Smothers Brothers.
GROSS: Was that two years ago?
BIANCULLI: Two years ago, "Dangerously Funny," December 2009.
GROSS: And now it's been optioned by...
BIANCULLI: By Smokehouse Pictures, which is George Clooney and Grant Heslov.
GROSS: So George Clooney we hope will be making this into a movie.
BIANCULLI: Well, yes, we do hope this. But I feel like I've won the lottery even just by getting the book optioned. You know, I feel like I'm Sally Field, George Clooney is the Oscar and she's saying, you like me, you really like me...
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
BIANCULLI: ...just because he sees the potential of the story of the Smothers Brothers and their, you know, fight against censorship back in the 1960s. So to me I've already won. Very unexpected. I don't know how to handle good news. I'm not used to it but even I recognize this is good news. Very happy.
GROSS: It's really exciting news. And I hope he actually chooses himself to direct it.
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
BIANCULLI: Well, the great thing is is that, you know, I teach TV and film at college and I teach his stuff. I teach "Good Night and Good Luck."
GROSS: Oh that's such a good film. That's the film about Edward R. Morrow. Yeah.
BIANCULLI: Edward R. Morrow going against McCarthy. And I show the film after I show the entire 30 minute episode of the real Edward R. Morrow going against McCarthy and it holds up. And the students are always impressed by the fidelity of tone to the actual words. And not many people who saw "Good Night and Good Luck" are actually going back and seeing, you know, the 1954 episode of "See It Now." But it's a wonderful comparison and that's why I couldn't think of a better person to make it if it does get made.
GROSS: I always wish that I could have been a student in one of your classes.
BIANCULLI: Yes, because you've never been in one of my classes.
GROSS: No, you show such great like clips that, you know, like old clips from television and movies. Your students who are, you know, what, in their late teens or early 20s...
GROSS: ...for the most part are probably not familiar with a lot of like the actors and the newscasters in the programs and movies that you're showing.
GROSS: What surprises you most about what they do and they don't respond to?
BIANCULLI: Well, it's funny. It's this sort of thing where I try to put together lectures where I will show them things knowing they don't know some of this and I've got to set this up. And I'm always putting in new things and I don't know how these new students - I teach a Rowan University but I think that this would happen at any university - don't know how they're going to respond.
And just a couple of weeks ago I showed some new stuff from "Second City TV," when I was showing clips from the first years of "Saturday Night Live" and I was showing early "Monty Python," to me that's fun. That's not college. But it's a real course. And out of all the clips that I showed the two things to which they responded the most both vocally and emotionally and really liked were things I would not have expected. One was Randy Newman singing "Short People" which they had not heard most of them and really thought was, you know, outrageous. And the other thing was an "SCTV" skit making fun of Perry Como by having him sing disco hits while he's so laid back he's almost comatose. I mean literally lying on the floor.
GROSS: I remember that.
BIANCULLI: Yeah. And, but I wanted to show that because I thought it was hilarious 20, 30 years - whenever it ran, but they don't. I tell them Perry Como, very laid back entertainer doing this and they're singing disco songs so I don't know what connection 18, 20-year-olds have did that. They roared. I wish I had run a recorder to hear. It was like an episode of "Married with Children," that was what the soundtrack was like from the students. They loved Perry Como being made fun of on "Second City," so who knew? I don't know.
GROSS: Well, all right. So...
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
GROSS: That's great. I do envy them.
BIANCULLI: Well, no, because you can't really envy them. What good is that knowledge, actually?
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
BIANCULLI: This is the trick that I have to keep dancing. I teach with two other teachers. We teach TV of the '50s and were teaching so much about the '50s that makes sense. '60s and '70s, what I want to teach is the pivot point between TV being very sedate and not at all controversial and then going to court controversy with "All in the Family" and everything else and "Saturday Night Live" and the pivot point, hurray, turns out to be "The Smothers Brothers." So, you know, I'm loving that.
GROSS: Well, David, it's been great to talk about the year in television with you.
BIANCULLI: All right. Thanks. You know how much I love being here and how proud I am to be associated with FRESH AIR, so thanks.
GROSS: Oh David, we love having you. Thank you so much.
BIANCULLI: Thanks a lot.
GROSS: And happy New Year.
BIANCULLI: You too.
GROSS: David Bianculli is the founder and editor of tvworthwatching.com and teaches TV and film history at Rowan University in New Jersey. You'll find links to all our TV coverage from the year, interviews and reviews, on our website, freshair.npr.org.
Coming up, our rock critic Ken Tucker has his list of the best of the year. This is FRESH AIR.
TERRY GROSS, HOST:
Our rock critic, Ken Tucker, has been listening and re-listening to a lot of the music he's reviewed for FRESH AIR over the past year and he's come up with a best-of list that mixes both albums, individual songs, as well as a book. He's included some music he thinks he underrated the first time around, as well is a music he never reviewed for us.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "ROLLING IN THE DEEP")
ADELE: (Singing) There's a fire starting in my heart, reaching a fever pitch, it's bringing me out the dark. Finally I can see you crystal clear. Go ahead and sell me out and I'll lay your shit bare. See how I leave with every piece of you. Don't underestimate the things that I will do. There's a fire starting in my heart, reaching a fever pitch and it's bringing me out the dark.
KEN TUCKER, BYLINE: If any one musician held center stage in pop music this year, it was probably Adele, the English singer whose album "21" was one of the bestselling collections of the year, one of the most highly praised by critics, and I would daresay reached the widest range of listeners.
That last element has increasingly become less unimportant in compiling a year-end best list. Sales figures and broad demographics don't mean much quality-wise in a music industry that's become so splintered into genres and cults. You may say you love popular music, but someone who likes, say, Beyonce may never listen to Deer Tick, and Deer Tick fans would likely think that Paul Simon is way uncool. Yet Simon's album "So Beautiful or So What" is an album that I underrated when I first reviewed it here. The more I listened to it, the richer its rewards became.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "REWRITE")
PAUL SIMON: (Singing) I've been working on my rewrite, that's right. I'm gonna change the ending. Gonna throw away my title and toss it in the trash. Every minute after midnight, all the time I'm spending, it's just for working on my rewrite, that's right and I'm gonna turn it into cash. I've been working at the carwash...
TUCKER: This was a very strong year in country music, with fine albums from a veteran performer such as Dolly Parton to a new act like the Pistol Annies. The Annies are a trio whose guardian angel is Miranda Lambert - she's one of its three singers in this side project. I reviewed Miranda Lambert's album, "Four the Record", for FRESH AIR, but only recently got into the Pistol Annies album "Hell on Heels," and I think it's as good as any country album out there.
There's also another, definitely non-country act that I didn't get around to reviewing, tUnE-yArDs and the intricate pop-rock clatter tUnE-yArDs founder Merrill Garbus makes on the band's album "whokill." It kept coming back around on my playlist so often that it worked its way into my Top 10.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "YOU YES YOU")
MERRILL GARBUS: (Singing) Now that everything is going to be OK, now that everything is going to be all right, what if, baby, I cannot see the sound. What if, baby, I cannot hear the light? Now that everything is going to be OK, now that everything is going to be all right, what if, baby, I cannot see the sound. What if, baby, I cannot hear the light?
(Singing) What's that about? What's that about? What's that about? What's that about? Now that everything is going to be OK, now that everything is going to be all right, what if, baby, I cannot see the sound. What if, baby, I cannot hear the light? Now that everything is going to be OK, now that everything is going to be all right, what if, baby, I cannot see the sound? What if, baby, I cannot the light?
(Singing) I was born to do it. My daddy had enough so I put my back into it. That man was born to do it too. We didn't have enough so we cannot sing for you. Ha!
TUCKER: I wouldn't say there were any big, obvious trends in 2011 pop. It was a Lady Gaga/Adele kind of year. But working within an R&B tradition proved very fruitful, not only for Adele, but also for a singer such as Anthony Hamilton on his rich new album "Back to Love," and on Raphael Saadiq's continually amazing revitalizations of soul music on "Stone Rollin'."
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "STONE ROLLING")
RAPHAEL SAADIQ: (Singing) Listen, fat lady, shaking, backbone breaking. Come on, this girl of mine. Everything she's got is moving hot. Come on, this girl of mine. I was just some friend but she took me in. Just come on, this girl of mine.
TUCKER: If one voice defined the year for me, it was that of John McCauley, singer for the band Deer Tick and part of a small-time supergroup called Middle Brother. Both the Middle Brother album and Deer Tick's "Divine Providence" were examples of rock 'n' roll powered by McCauley's raw, jagged, yet sensitive and soulful vocals.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC "MAIN STREET")
JOHN MCCAULEY: (Singing) I can't sleep, I can't close my eyes. Blink for one second and the whole world pass you by. Yeah, I guess I'm in. All the days you spent. I cannot eat...
TUCKER: My Top 10 list also includes a book: "Everything Is an Afterthought: The Life and Writings of Paul Nelson," by Kevin Avery. Nelson, who died in 2006 at age 69, was part of the first generation of rock critics, instrumental in bringing attention to musicians including Bob Dylan, Jackson Browne, the New York Dolls, and Warren Zevon. The book is both an anthology of his best writing and a tragic recounting of a life that shut down too soon.
Like you, I find my music in various ways: on albums, on the Internet, through books. It was a challenge and a pleasure to pick through such a ripe year as this one proved to be.
GROSS: Ken Tucker is editor-at-large at Entertainment Weekly. You can listen to a song from each of the albums he reviewed on our website, freshair.npr.org, where you'll also links to all of Ken's reviews from the year. Coming up, our rock historian Ed Ward talks about the Chitlin' Circuit. This is FRESH AIR.
TERRY GROSS, HOST:
During the years before the civil rights movement, a touring circuit known as the Chitlin' Circuit provided venues in segregated cities for hundreds of African-American musicians and eventually helped lead the way to rock 'n' roll. Our rock historian, Ed Ward, has just read two books on the subject, Preston Lauterbach's "The Chitlin' Circuit and the Road to Rock 'n' Roll" and the Susan Whitall's biography of Little Willie John, one of the Chitlin Circuit's last stars.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC )
ED WARD, BYLINE: Bronzeville, some of them recall, or Little Harlem. Others have very specific geographic names like Deep Elm or the Third Ward. And they had one thing in common, besides the fact that they were the black part of town: they all had the stroll. It was the street where the bars were, the chicken and waffles or barbecue restaurants, the barber shops.
Not all the local residents went there, of course, but on a Saturday night you'd see lots of people out on the stroll looking for entertainment. The chances were they'd find it. Where you have a ghetto you usually also have entrepreneurialism, whether it be small time crime or a neighborhood newspaper, or a genius like Madam C.J. Walker, whose hair treatment empire brought millions of dollars into Indianapolis's black community in the first half of the 20th century.
But there aren't many Madam Walkers in any community and the average black entrepreneur in the 1930s was more likely to be thinking in terms of entertainment. And this is the subject of Preston Lauterbach's remarkable book "The Chitlin' Circuit and the Road to Rock 'n' Roll." Lauterbach has resurrected the names and careers of men and women, and yes, some of the toughest of these people were women, who ran bars, booking agencies and clubs where traveling musicians could come into a black community, play, make money and go to the next town. This had been going on forever, of course, but turning it into an organized thing and including smaller jobs in unlikely places like North Dakota and Minnesota was the innovation, as well as providing venues for such forgotten organizations as Dittybo Hill(ph) and his 11 Clouds of Joy or smiling Billy Stewart and his Celery City Serenaders.
Now, the music these bands were playing wasn't giving Duke Ellington sleepless nights, but it was making audiences happy and making money for the bands and the places they played.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
WARD: Lauterbach's book traces the careers of now-forgotten people like Walter Barns, who not only headed a band called the Royal Creolians, who barnstormed through some of black America's obscure backwaters, but wrote a column for the black Chicago Defender newspaper in which he not only hyped his band but also the agents and club owners who were giving them gigs.
He writes about a young man in Houston, Don Robey, who watched the Fergusons and others making mental notes until he made his move with his Bronze Peacock club, Buffalo Booking Agency, and trumping them all, the Duke, Peacock, Backbeat and Songbird record labels, which recorded many of the top post-war Southern blues and rhythm and blues artists.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "TALK TO ME")
LITTLE WILLIE JOHN: (Singing) Talk to me, do, do. Talk to me, do, no. Mm-hmm. I hear everything you say. Talk to me. Talk to me. In your arms, sweet getaway. Let me hear.
WARD: Little Willie John really did have, as the subtitle of Susan Whitall's book has it, a fast life, mysterious death, and the birth of soul all wrapped up in his 30 years. He was born in one of Detroit's worst neighborhoods, and used his ambition and astonishing talent to leave it as quickly as possible, sneaking out of his bedroom to sing in nightclubs at the age of 12.
Before long he was winning talent contests and attracting a couple of local guys, Harry Balk and Dave Usher, who were looking for someone to manage. They cut a novelty Christmas single on him and then took him to New York to get him a record label. As Harry and Dave were relaxing in their hotel room, watching Count Basie on TV, they heard a familiar sound.
Willie had given them the slip and had talked the bandleader, whom he knew from his Detroit appearances, into letting him sing a number. Before he was 18, he had his first hit single, "All Around the World," and for a while he was unstoppable, particularly when, in 1956, he had the song which gives Whitall's book its name.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "FIRE")
JOHN: (Singing) You'll never know how much I love you, never know how much I care. When you put your arms around me, I get a feeling that's so hard bear. You give me fever. When you kiss me, fever when you hold me tight. Fever in the morning and fever all through the night.
WARD: Whitall is a lifelong Detroiter, and this gives her book authority, since she knows who to interview and where they are. She expertly shows Willie interacting with the up-and-coming Motown artists and their circle. She also doesn't flinch in her depiction of Willie's demons taking over as he tried to fit into the new music, soul, which he did so much to pioneer.
And her thorough research tells as much as can be determined at this late date about the night of October 17th to 18th, 1965, when a man named Kendall Roundtree was stabbed to death in a Seattle party house Willie was in. The subsequent events have the feeling of a classic tragedy, with a trial leading to a prison sentence, leading to Willie's death in 1968, the one mystery of his life which, due to inadequate records, Whitall is unable to fully explain.
Both of these books go a long ways towards illuminating the life black performers lived off-stage and the conditions they endured while they worked. Things have changed since then, but the pioneering efforts of the Chitlin' Circuit 's great performers and businesspeople, operating in a time when just being black was dangerous enough, shouldn't be forgotten.
GROSS: Ed Ward lives in France. You can download podcasts of our show on our website, freshair.npr.org.
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