'A Lot Going On': Critic David Bianculli Picks The Best TV Of 2016

Dec 22, 2016

TV critic David Bianculli says that 2016 wasn't a great year for broadcast TV — but that's OK, because audiences had a lot of streaming, cable and Web options to make up for it.

"The things we're getting out of Amazon and out of Netflix and out of Hulu, it's increasing our options and they're trying some pretty good stuff," Bianculli tells Fresh Air's Terry Gross.

Bianculli notes that mini-series and anthology shows are expanding the types of stories that can be told on the small screen. "U.S. television is ... adopting the British model more aggressively and doing shorter things that are self-contained, and the benefits to this are huge," he says.

Looking ahead, Bianculli is optimistic about the future of TV. "There's always a lot going on," he says. As for this year, here are Bianculli's picks for the best TV of 2016. You can click each list item below to learn more about the show.

1. Better Call Saul (AMC)

2. Black Mirror (Netflix)

3. The Night Of (HBO)

Tied for 4 and 5: The People v. O.J. Simpson (FX) and O.J.: Made in America (ESPN)

6. The Night Manager (AMC)

7. Last Week Tonight with John Oliver (HBO)

8. Shameless (Showtime)

9. Game of Thrones (HBO)

10. Horace and Pete (Louis C.K. website)

11. Veep (HBO)

Click the audio link above to hear Bianculli talk about his 2016 TV picks — as well as the the parallels between this year's presidential election and the first season of Survivor.

Copyright 2018 Fresh Air. To see more, visit Fresh Air.


This is FRESH AIR. Our TV critic David Bianculli is here with his 10 best list and a look back at the year in television. David is also the author of the new book "The Platinum Age Of Television." Hi, David. Thank you for bringing your 10 best list with us. Before we talk about some of the larger trends of the year, could you just, like, read through your top 10?

DAVID BIANCULLI, BYLINE: OK. We'll go bottom up - like number 10 and then work our way up because it - I guess it's more dramatic that way. Number 10 is "Veep" on HBO. Number nine is "Horace And Pete" which is not on TV at all, but you can get it on Louis C.K.'s website - Then next is "Game Of Thrones" on HBO. Next is "Shameless" on Showtime. Next is "Last Week Tonight With John Oliver" on HBO. I thought he had a remarkable year. And then a trio of miniseries There's "The Night Manager" on AMC. That was the one with Tom Hiddleston and Hugh Laurie. And then the "People V. O.J. Simpson" on FX which I put in a tie with a miniseries nonfiction documentary series on ESPN, "O.J. Made In America." Both of those were so much less exploitive and so much more informative and entertainment than I imagined going in. And then the top three - number three is "The Night Of" on HBO with John Turturro as a sort of down on his luck lawyer. Number two was "Black Mirror" which came back on Netflix, number one - "Better Call Saul" on AMC.

GROSS: Yeah. I love "Better Call Saul." When is it coming back? What happened?

BIANCULLI: It's coming back February, I think.

GROSS: Oh, good.

BIANCULLI: It's coming back in just a couple of months.

GROSS: Oh, OK, very good, very good. Have you brought any clips from any of these you'd like to play for us?

BIANCULLI: Yes, I have. I brought one from "The Night Of" which is a miniseries, and John Turturro stars as a lawyer who's not only down and out and down on his luck, but he's got eczema, I mean, to a seriously debilitating degree. You know, he wears gloves. He can't wear shoes, you know, and he's struggling through. And he's usually dealing with the only sort of clients that would accept him. And here he's got a guy named Naz, and while going through most of the miniseries, not even getting to argue the case, he ends up having to do the closing summation. And it's just very touching.

GROSS: So here's John Turturro.


JOHN TURTURRO: (As John Stone) What I normally do is plea my clients out because 95 percent of the time, they did what they were charged with. They sold that dope, they solicited that guy, they stole that iPhone. It's clear to me just looking at them, so I tell them don't be stupid. Take the deal.

The first time I saw Naz, he was sitting alone in a holding cell at the 21st precinct. He'd just been arrested. I walked past him, out of the station and then stopped, turned around and went back. Why? Because I didn't see what I see in my other clients. And I still don't after all this time.

GROSS: So that was John Turturro on "The Night Of." So James Gandolfini was initially supposed to play that role, but he died before the series was shot.

BIANCULLI: Yes. Well, actually, the pilot was shot, except that that character is only in it for the very last scene, the scene that was described in the clip that we heard. And so there is that footage somewhere of Gandolfini acting in that one scene. I don't know whether they're going to release it on the DVD or not, but that was why they were able to have Turturro take it over, even though the rest of the pilot had already been shot.

GROSS: I'd like to see that. So this was a good year for the miniseries. Three miniseries are on your top 10 list. So what does that say to you about the miniseries?

BIANCULLI: It says a lot. It says that what's happening to U.S. television is that it's adopting the British model more aggressively and doing shorter things that are self-contained, and the benefits to this are huge. You can get better actors, better writers, better directors that won't commit to a five or seven-year series. For viewers, you can get something that's more self-contained, that has an ending as well as a beginning.

The only downside is that they can be hard to promote because they're just individual entities that show up and then they're gone. But in this way, it's how television began with the Golden Age of TV and the anthology shows. Each week, you didn't know if you were going to get a "Patterns" or "A Requiem For A Heavyweight," but you just trusted.

GROSS: My guest is FRESH AIR's TV critic David Bianculli. We'll talk more about the year in television, and David will offer an insight into how reality TV shows like "The Apprentice" and "Survivor" can help us understand politics today after we take a short break. I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross back with our TV critic David Bianculli. We're looking back on the year in television. So running through your top 10, you mentioned that "The People V. O.J. Simpson" was so much better than you'd thought it would be.


GROSS: What were you expecting?

BIANCULLI: I was expecting a lot more exploitation, a lot more everything we already knew and sort of like an O.J. Simpson's greatest hits, as grisly as that sounds. Like let's remember this and let's remember this. And let's go just into this part of the testimony and you'll get to Kato Kaelin and you'll get to Mark Fuhrman. But it did so much behind-the-scenes stuff, so much research that it was fascinating.

GROSS: Sarah Paulson's performance was so well received for that.

BIANCULLI: Yes. That was a remarkable performance and quite a revelation in terms of the way she played it and the things that we learned about her. And even the public scenes, where people who followed the case at the time might remember, have so much resonance. I brought a clip where - it's a press conference immediately after the verdict is announced. And as shaken as she is and a lot of people were at the time, she finds a way to make a stronger point.

GROSS: OK. Here's Sarah Paulson.


SARAH PAULSON: (As Marcia Clark) I first want to extend my deepest thanks to the families of the victims, to the Goldmans and to the Browns. Their strength, their dignity and their support throughout this trial has been a tremendous source of inspiration and strength to all of us. This case was fought as a battle for victims of domestic violence. We hope this verdict does not discourage the victims who are out there throughout this country from seeking help. I know there are women who are at this very moment living in fear, living in violence. Please, don't let this make you lose faith in our system.

GROSS: That was Sarah Paulson in "The People Versus O.J. Simpson." With me is our TV critic David Bianculli, and we're talking about the best TV of the year.

So one of the things on your 10 Best List, David, "Horace And Pete," is a Louis C.K. series that he did just for his website.

BIANCULLI: I know (laughter).

GROSS: And - what was it? - a 10-part series maybe.

BIANCULLI: I think it was eight. But...

GROSS: But who's counting?

BIANCULLI: Yes, I know. But it...

GROSS: (Laughter) I mean, it was such a big risk for him. I think he put up a lot of his own money.

BIANCULLI: And he dropped it like a Beyonce album. It's like - suddenly, here it is. I loved the ambition of it. And when you watch it, it's like OK. Yes, it's a comedy, but parts of it are very dark. It's like you're watching an O'Neill drama rolling out on a weekly basis. And I just think as much as his TV series "Louie" on FX, which has been gone now for a couple of years, where he was an auteur, he's - you know, in this one, he's one of the co-stars. He's writing it. It really has a vision attached. And even the comic bits have an undercurrent. I was very satisfied with it and then blown away by the delivery system. This is like, you know - hey kids, let's put on a show for real.

GROSS: Well, really dominating this year in television was politics. In so many ways - I mean, the debates, the constant coverage of the campaign and then the post-campaign. And because Donald Trump is from the world of reality television, he's certainly known how to use, like, TV and Twitter. So David, since you've had to watch reality TV as part of your job as a TV critic, let's talk about "The Apprentice" for a moment, which not all of us have seen, even though it's been on a really long time and really popular.

First of all, Donald Trump is going to continue to be executive producer of...

BIANCULLI: Apparently...

GROSS: ...The latest - of the new edition.

BIANCULLI: Apparently, yes, he is - the one that is now going to be hosted by Arnold Schwarzenegger.

GROSS: So what does that mean just in terms of television? Like, leaving the ethics of this aside for a moment, do you have any idea what his role is going to be? And - he works with Mark Burnett...

BIANCULLI: Mark Burnett, who is...

GROSS: ...Right? Describe that whole thing for us.

BIANCULLI: OK. Mark Burnett is the executive producer who hit the holy grail with reality TV with "Survivor." He's got a show I like very much that's on right now with "The Voice." And he did make - you know, he's got all of these other ones all going at the same time. And he went into business early on with Donald Trump on "The Apprentice," and it was successful for NBC for several seasons. And for those who haven't seen it or didn't ever look at it for a long time, as the series went on, you know, there would always be celebrity contestants, semi-celebrity contestants, who-the-hell-are-these-people contestants all put together.

And every week, one of them would get eliminated by Donald Trump whose word and decision were final. And - but he always had one or two people sitting at his right or left that were advising him. And in later seasons, these would include his son and his daughter. So we have seen them in a managerial or advisory capacity already. They would be sent out to check and see how the celebrities were doing building their lemonade stands on Park Avenue or whatever the stunt was for the week. And that would keep going.

But, you know, I go back to "Survivor," the one that really kicked off the reality trend in this century. And what Mark Burnett did there is, to me, very instructive to what happened to us politically and how Donald Trump may have played himself as a candidate because the first "Survivor" had Richard Hatch who was sort of, like, the villain of the piece because he was manipulating the rules as they were laid out in order to win. And he kept winning - outlast, out - you know. The way that he was doing it was because he was more entertaining to people watching, so he was kept on while other people were not.

GROSS: Even though he was breaking the rules.

BIANCULLI: He was either breaking the rules, or he was just being more abrasive. He was not being a team player. He was not the ideal candidate. He was not the person to whom you would want to win the million dollars. But he got all the way to the final. And then when you figure that's when he's going to lose and right is going to triumph, instead, the people who had the vote to decide who the winner was going to be decided that he had worked the rules better than anybody else and he deserved the win.

So Richard Hatch won the first "Survivor." And so if you think of this last election as any sort of reality TV because of one of the candidates coming from there, we got pretty much the same thing. I'm not saying Donald Trump is evil. I'm saying that he got so much media attention early on and throughout because he was more entertaining. The mainstream media gave him so much free press to express his opinions and to stoke the fires of publicity or outrage or anything else that they kept him in the game, even though this wasn't a game.

GROSS: If you're just joining us, I'm talking to our TV critic David Bianculli about the year in television. We're going to take a short break, and we'll be right back. This is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: This is FRESH AIR, and if you're just joining us, I'm with our TV critic David Bianculli. And we're talking about the year in television. So, David, you have a new book out called "The Platinum Age Of Television" which is a kind of genre by genre history of TV. You teach TV history, and, you know, TV has, you know, years ago started to partially become a museum of itself with channels like, you know, Nick at Nite back then and then like other channels now that just show reruns and stuff. So in terms of TV becoming - like opening the door to its past and bringing things out from the vaults and showing those what's happened that was interesting this year.

BIANCULLI: Well, you're right that there's a lot of these, like, cozy TV and retro TV kind of channels...

GROSS: Antenna TV.

BIANCULLI: Yes. But, I mean, they're showing "Voyage To The Bottom Of The Sea." This is not what I consider, you know, to be let's redo the best of the best. The most exciting thing that happened in 2016 that I hope carries on and is used as an example - just recently Turner Classic Movies showed "The Glass Menagerie," a production of the Tennessee Williams' play that was televised exactly 50 years prior to when they put it on television on Turner Classic Movies. So it was back in 1966 - Shirley Booth, Hal Holbrook - and they had to find the old camera tapes of this and put them all together like a jigsaw puzzle and then restore it.

And it's a wonderful thing. And I actually brought a piece of it, if you'd like to hear it. This is Hal Holbrook's introduction. And it's also interesting just to hear in 2016 about civil unrest in the '30s as written about in a play in the '60s, so there's a through line here.

GROSS: And is this the introduction that Tennessee Williams wrote for the play...


GROSS: ...Or is this something new...


GROSS: ...For television?

BIANCULLI: No. This was for the play.



HAL HOLBROOK: (As Her Son) I have tricks in my pocket. I have things up my sleeve, but I'm the opposite of the stage magician. He gives you illusion that has the appearance of truth. I give you truth in a pleasant disguise of illusion. I take you back to an alley in St. Louis, the time that quaint period, the '30s, when the huge middle class of America was matriculating in a school for the blind. Their eyes had failed them or they had failed their eyes and so they were having their fingers pressed forcibly down on the fiery Braille alphabet of the dissolving economy. In Spain, there was revolution. Here, there was only shouting and confusion and labor disturbances, sometimes violent, in otherwise peaceful cities such as Cleveland, Chicago, St. Louis. That is the social background of the play.

GROSS: So that's Hal Holbrook in "The Glass Menagerie," originally broadcast on TV 50 years ago restored this year by TCM. Well, now that we've looked at television's past...

BIANCULLI: (Laughter).

GROSS: ...Let's look ahead. What are some of the shows you're most looking forward to next year?

BIANCULLI: Oh, there's one.


BIANCULLI: And it's looking in TVs past. I'm such - but it is the future. It is - Showtime is doing a revival sequel - whatever they're going to call it - to "Twin Peaks" with David Lynch, with Mark Frost, with the composer Angelo Badalamenti, with most of the characters and actors from the first series. And I don't even know how good it's going to be or how bad it's going to be. But I do know there's nothing else I'm looking forward to as much 'cause the original series back in 1990 still hasn't been matched for audacity and originality.

GROSS: David, part of this year was pretty rough for you because you were in the hospital for a while, you needed surgery. So the germane part of this for our talk today is what did you watch on TV while you were in the hospital?

BIANCULLI: I was in there for a month, and I would have watched - my default station is usually Turner Classic Movies, and it would have been perfect in the hospital, except the hospital at which I stayed didn't have TCM. I'm going to have to check in the emergency room from now on. That's going to be...

GROSS: Call them up.

BIANCULLI: Yeah - one of the questions - it's like, all right. I don't care about MTV. Do you have TCM?

GROSS: So what did you watch?

BIANCULLI: I watched - the show that gave me the most comfort was reruns wherever I could find them of "The Andy Griffith Show" and actually gave me solace when I was in pain.

GROSS: Because that show meant a lot to you when you were a kid...


GROSS: ...When you were growing up, and we talked about that the last time you were on.

BIANCULLI: Yeah, and - but there's something about it. It was - it made me happy. And I guess it was the TV equivalent of comfort food, and, otherwise, I just wanted to watch things that would take a long time to be over, so they would distract me. So I watched a lot of baseball, I watched a lot of politics and just kept going.

GROSS: How was watching politics when you weren't feeling well?

BIANCULLI: Well, there was one thing - this is absolutely true. When I was really not feeling well and I was on some substantial pain meds, I called the nurse over to ask her if I was actually seeing what I thought I was seeing during the Republican National Convention because I swore that I saw Chachi up there giving a speech.

GROSS: (Laughter).

BIANCULLI: And I couldn't make any sense out of that except all right, it's got to be the Dilaudid.

GROSS: So you really called over a nurse to see if you were hallucinating or not?

BIANCULLI: Yes. And she said, no, no, that's Chachi. That's Scott Baio. You're seeing it, honey.

GROSS: You mentioned how much you wished your hospital had Turner Classic Movies.


GROSS: So when my mother-in-law, before she died, was in the hospital and was in kind of a coma - you know how a lot of people say sometimes people in a coma can actually hear what's being said, though they can't acknowledge it? The nurse suggested that when we weren't there with her that we put on Turner Classic Movies, and that a lot of those movies were from, you know, my mother-in-law's era.


GROSS: And that maybe she'd hear them and enjoy what she was hearing, or just, like, it would reach her in some emotional way and she'd find something to connect to in the actual world. And I thought, what a wise and beautiful idea. So that's what we did.

BIANCULLI: That is a great idea. I mean, hospitals, nursing homes, I hope you're listening.

GROSS: Yeah, really (laughter). So that's the year.

BIANCULLI: That's the year. There's always a lot going on in television. And I remain optimistic. It wasn't a great year for broadcast TV, but, you know, we got such interesting - so much more stuff out of streaming sites. I mean, the things that we're getting out of Amazon and out of Netflix and out of Hulu, it's increasing our options. And they're trying some pretty good stuff.

GROSS: Have you changed your forecast for who gets to survive all of this? Because there's just, like, so many options now between cable and broadcasting and more and more streaming sites, independent web series.

BIANCULLI: I don't know what's going to happen next. I visited my daughter down in Florida and they've cut the cord, so they're just watching Hulu. And so they'll grab network stuff the next day. They wait a day. Her father's a TV critic, and I have to wait a day for TV when I go see her? I take this personally. But I also see it doesn't affect her life at all. So the future may be different than my past was.

GROSS: Well, David, I wish you a great 2017.

BIANCULLI: Oh, thanks. You as well.

GROSS: Thank you very much. It's always fun to talk with you.

BIANCULLI: I love this end-of-year debriefing.

GROSS: David Bianculli is FRESH AIR's TV critic. He teaches TV and film history at Rowan University in New Jersey and is the founder and editor of the website TV Worth Watching. He's also the author of the new book "The Platinum Age Of Television." Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.