Charting The Platinum Age Of Television with critic David Bianculli

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Charting The Platinum Age Of Television with critic David Bianculli

Photo: Barbara Linke
Photo: Barbara Linke

David Bianculli was studying journalism at the University Of Florida and interning at the Gainesville Sun when he persuaded the paper’s editors to let him cover a new, late-night comedy program debuting on NBC. That show, Saturday Night Live, is still on the air today, and Bianculli’s still covering TV, via his website, TV Worth Watching, and as the resident television critic on NPR’s Fresh Air—where he’s also a regular guest host. This fall, he released The Platinum Age Of Television: From I Love Lucy To The Walking Dead, How TV Became Terrific. The book lays out the critic’s “theory of quality television evolution,” presenting the crucial evolutionary steps in multiple TV genres and profiles of the people who helped make them, including HBO’s “three Davids” (Chase, Simon, and Milch), Carol Burnett, and Louis CK. (The CK profile takes an unexpected detour when the comedian brings up Bianculli’s negative review of Lucky Louie.) The A.V. Club spoke to Bianculli about The Platinum Age, the pitfalls of writing a book whose subjects might be canceled at a moment’s notice, and the role of TV books at a time when most TV criticism has migrated to the internet.

David Bianculli: I’m such an old fart that I started buying books on film and TV and radio and music when, for television, the entire shelf of books was only a couple of them. You go into the ’70s before you start getting books on TV that you start wanting to collect. And by the time that you get to something like the Brooks and Marsh book [The Complete Directory To Prime Time Network And Cable TV Shows], it’s invaluable. I’ll tell you something that shows you the importance of that book, at one time, to TV critics: My house got hit by lightning in 1989 and burned down. And I got more than a half dozen Brooks and Marsh books sent to me by friends immediately, as though that’s what you need more than clothes or food. That’s how treasured that book was.

The A.V. Club: And at that point, Brooks and Marsh were probably the only source for information on some of the shows in that book.

DB: Vincent Terrace, who is still writing books, came out with The Complete Encyclopedia Of Television Programs, which was the first time that I ever saw credits for individual TV shows listed in a compendium. So it didn’t really used to be treasured that much. And to argue about TV as an art form—you’ve got people who were doing it in the first generation: Horace Newcomb, who went on to run the Peabodys for a while, but he was doing that sort of stuff in the ’70s, when few people were. Les Brown wrote a book called The Business Behind The Box, which was one of the first times a reporter did the behind-the-scenes “how the sausage of TV gets made.” And those were all influential to me.

And I wrote my own first book about the defense of television as an art form in 1992. It was harder to make the argument then. Now it seems absolutely a given. You can argue about when the Platinum Age Of Television begins, but I don’t think that anybody can argue that it’s not here.

AVC: To paraphrase a question you ask all of the interview subjects in The Platinum Age Of Television about their early TV memories, what was the first TV book that grabbed you?

DB: Well, the first TV book that grabbed me was TV Guide! [Laughs.] And I’ve had conversations with more people about this that really surprise me. Randy Newman, for example, was as addicted to the fall preview issue of TV Guide as I was! Why Randy Newman? I have no idea. But the idea that you waited for that particular issue to come out, but then you planned your TV viewing for the coming season, it was a completely different world. And I grew up in Fort Lauderdale, so there was a TV critic writing for the Miami Herald, Jack Anderson, that was very influential. Just to read, every morning, somebody who cared about TV as much as I did—they were an adult, and they were clearly being paid for it. That was an “a ha!” moment for me before I was even 10.

AVC: Things can change so quickly in TV. When you’re writing a book on the subject and you’re covering shows that are still on the air, is there any worry that those shows might be canceled by the time the book comes out?

DB: It happened to me! It happened with The Nightly Show With Larry Wilmore. I think that Comedy Central was fairly stupid to let that show go, but it proved my point, because it was in the chapter on satirical comedy and topical humor, and the point of that chapter was that those shows, in some senses, are precarious creatures. They may not last long, no matter how good they are, if they get too close to the sun. That was a mixed metaphor, but you get what I mean.

AVC: When that happened, what did you do?

DB: I was able to catch that one and write an additional page—purely because, in terms of the mechanics of publishing books, that chapter happened to end four of five lines into a fresh page. So I had the rest of the page to play with, as long as I did it quickly enough.

The only other thing I had to do at the last minute had nothing to do with the change of TV, but one of my interview subjects died shortly after I had talked to him, and that was Garry Shandling. I was able to at least put a note in at the beginning of the profile—which had a lot of other people admiring him, talking about how influential he was—and making it clear that all of the people who I spoke to about Garry Shandling, I spoke to before he died. So it wasn’t just posthumous complimenting like you might do at somebody’s funeral.

AVC: As you set out to trace the history of the medium, is there any concern that, because of where you live, where you’re from, what you’ve been able to see, that the scope of the project will be somewhat limited?

DB: By definition, it has to be. To me any program was fair game no matter where it originated if it was eventually televised or streamed in the U.S. I can deal with Fawlty Towers and The Singing Detective, even though they didn’t begin here. I would not even attempt to do a history of world television. I did a half dozen years where I was a juror at the Banff World Media Festival, and you get the best TV in the world there, and I was astounded at my ignorance. I would be watching a documentary made in Japan, and it was astounding, and I would never have heard of that otherwise. We’re seeing more and more [imports] in the last five years, and my dream for the next generation of TV is that somehow we get to tap into all of that. Rather than just get BBC America, I would love to watch what the BBC is showing now on some sort of satellite.

AVC: Were there any shows that you really, really wanted to include as one of the “evolutionary steps” of a genre, but had to cut at the last minute? Were there any tough calls along those lines?

DB: I can tell you what happens, because it breaks my heart. The very last minute, I took out Homicide, which was one of my very favorite shows of the ’90s. And I still have a big chunk about Homicide, but in terms of crime TV, I took it out and substituted The Shield—because The Shield, what it did in the very first episode, and carried through to the very last episode, was more significant in terms of pointing to it as an obvious evolutionary step.

The truth of the matter is I would be happier with the book if it were twice as big, but it’s already pretty ridiculously big. I would want to have another dozen categories and talk to another dozen people. There were a half dozen people who I talked to that I folded in throughout the book but didn’t do individual profiles of, mostly because of the book getting too large and too late. But as you know, TV is a big subject. There’s no one bite that can swallow it all.

AVC: Do you see the book as a way to extend the college courses you teach to a wider audience?

DB: There’s definitely giant chunks of the class that are in there. The difference is when I teach the class, instead of describing something, I show it. Which is always preferable. Even though I’m a writer and I love books and writing books is my favorite thing to do, when you teach, and you can go through the history of children’s television, and I show certain things, the students’ jaws just drop. You’re never going to hit the hammer quite as hard in print.

Excerpted courtesy Penguin Random House Audio, from The Platinum Age Of Television, written and narrated by David Bianculli

There may be technology in the future that allows this to be a multimedia book. I read the entire thing as an audiobook, which I’ve never done before. I’m reading the voices of people whose voices I record to write the book. It’s like, “This seems dumb.” But I didn’t get the rights to have Louis CK talk for himself.

AVC: But the book is somewhat analogous to the second-screen experience. Readers can watch these shows with the book in their lap and compare their takes to yours.

DB: I had a friend that I gave the bound galleys to, and he came to me a couple of weeks later, saying, “I’m having so much fun watching your book.” “What do you mean ‘watching my book’?” And he said, “Well, I sit there by my computer, and anytime you mention something, I find it on YouTube or somewhere. It takes me longer to read the book that way, but I got to watch the Your Show Of Shows sketches that you were describing, and they made me laugh out loud.”

AVC: Of the people who’ve read the book, have you had any back and forth about your picks?

DB: Not so much yet. Except when I was writing the book, and I was engaged in conversations, I sought out some arguments to make sure I was on the right track. I was talking to Terry Gross, and she made such a strong argument in favor of Rawhide that I went back and rewatched a bunch of Rawhides. And damn if she wasn’t right! But most of this was me arguing with myself, going back and seeing with fresh eyes the things I had some sort of idea about, over the decades.

I’m a TV critic, and I love giving my opinion and defending my opinion, but I also love other people’s opinions. And as long as this book is read and entertains people—if it starts arguments, rather than settles them, I’m fine with that.

Excerpted courtesy Penguin Random House Audio, from The Platinum Age Of Television, written and narrated by David Bianculli

AVC: Do you feel like a book like this is a way to keep the conversation about a show alive when that show isn’t readily accessible to viewers—it’s not streaming, the DVD’s out of print, it’s not in syndication, etc.?

DB: I hope so. There are things like The Days And Nights Of Molly Dodd, which isn’t out there at all, and really should be. I would love to see the archiving and presentation that Turner Classic Movies does with film. Where is that with television? To really take it seriously, to interview people, to showcase works by different people—I think it’s coming. I hope that my book suggests some ways that it might be done.

Just because most things are out there doesn’t mean that they’re seen and perpetuated and shared. I always ask my students, “How many of you have seen an episode of The Honeymooners, I Love Lucy, Twilight Zone, Andy Griffith,” and it used to be 100 percent. Now, in some cases, it’s 30 percent. And why is that? It’s because syndication used to force-feed it. Now that doesn’t happen anymore.

AVC: What do you think is keeping that “TCM for TV” concept from coming forth?

DB: I’m sure it’s commerce, or some people not having enough faith in it. I don’t know. I would love to be involved in it, but I would just love to watch it. It really seems to me, as a TV critic, to be an obvious no-brainer, but I’m on the side of the spectrum that’s pre-sold on this. I keep writing books about why TV is good. There’s nothing more fun to me than steering people toward something that I really loved that I think they might not otherwise see. That’s the reason I do what I do.

AVC: There has been this recent rise of classic-TV broadcasters like MeTV, Retro Television Network, Antenna TV. Nick At Nite and TV Land have moved on from the older shows they used to program, but now there’s five or six Nick At Nites in any given cable package.

DB: But when Nick At Nite is showing George Lopez, it’s not doing what I’m thinking. But yes, I even write in the book about how MeTV went to Vince Gilligan and had him present an evening of his favorite television. So it can be done, but I think it can be done on a really large scale. The television of Dennis Potter, most of it hasn’t been seen in this country. You could present that as a year-long series that could run on one night with explanations. And that’s just one example—it’s a very obscure example. There’s plenty of great TV out there. There’s more crap—but there’s great TV, too.

AVC: But isn’t identifying the great TV and keeping it vital a service these books provide?

DB: Yes, it is. But books, how quaint: “Here, have a book with your buggy whip.” I keep trying.

AVC: But a book means something. It’s more than words on a computer screen or a Wikipedia entry. Not to make the critic out to be the final distributor of opinions or anything, but it does mean so much more to get this information from an acknowledged expert in the subject.

DB: I grew up thinking that, too, but I have to admit, like the stuff I do for Fresh Air, it goes out on the radio, and it’s gone. Or it’s on a website, so it’s still sort of there. I run my own website, which has a lot of critics on it doing stuff. You look at your website and it’s doing really significant work—not just about today’s TV, but going back to classic shows and writing about those, too. That’s all valuable.

I’m trying to accept the idea that there’s a different definition of what matters now. The rating for James Corden at 12:30 at night doesn’t matter as much as the number of hits he gets on YouTube when he goes driving around with Adele. I love the fact that Jerry Seinfeld has a show that bypasses television entirely—and it’s a really good show. There are old dogs out there doing new tricks, and I got to recognize them.

I got into television criticism because I thought it would be easier than film criticism. Film, you had to know 100 years of history, and TV you only had to know 40 when I started. And I thought, “Well, that’s going to be so much easier.” But film stayed pretty much the same. And television has changed so many times that my head hurts. So I made the wrong call there.

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