It's been a good year for cable television, says Fresh Air's TV critic David Bianculli. In his annual roundup of the year's best and worst TV shows, Bianculli applauds the cable networks for "trying a lot of things" in 2010.
Broadcast television, on the other hand, proved something of a disappointment.
"It was kind of timid this year," he tells Fresh Air's Terry Gross. "Last year, we got Glee and Modern Family. This year, they tried a lot of things which didn't actually work."
That's not to say the broadcast networks completely fell flat; Bianculli includes several of their shows on his top picks for 2010. But broadcast TV may be losing its edge.
Bianculli has been a TV critic since 1975 and a Fresh Air contributor since the show's inception. From 1993 to 2007, he was a staff critic for the New York Daily News. An associate professor of TV and film at Rowan University in New Jersey, Bianculli is also the founder and editor of the online magazine TVWorthWatching.com.
David Bianculli's Top
1213 TV Shows of 2010 (In No Particular Order)
Breaking Bad (AMC) Vince Gilligan's drama stars Bryan Cranston as Walter White, a high school science teacher turned crystal-meth manufacturer -- not a character with whom you'd normally empathize. But Cranston, as Bianculli said in a review that aired originally on March 19, 2010, "commits so highly to [his] role that [he] not only wins our sympathy, but disappears within the part [he's] playing."
The Choir (BBC) Most people haven't heard of The Choir, which aired on BBC America. Bianculli says he "fell in love" with the show, which revolves around a young choirmaster in his 20s who worked to put together a giant ensemble made up of schoolchildren and regular folks in a blue-collar English community, eventually bringing them to sing at London's Royal Albert Hall. "You get how these students and community members and parents were transformed by the simple power of music," he says. "It was a reality show where no one was trying to hog time just to get on the air or become a star."
The Daily Show with Jon Stewart (Comedy Central) "I am fascinated by how valuable it is and how entertaining it is," says Bianculli. "That I not only laugh at it, but I learn from it. When he does media criticism, he does it smarter than most people who are doing it out there -- and even when he has guests on and does interviews, he does a good job with those too."
Dexter (Showtime) Michael C. Hall, who played the uptight gay undertaker on HBO's Six Feet Under, stars as Dexter Morgan, a forensics expert whose specialty is blood-spatter analysis. He helps solve murders as a member of the Miami Police Department. In a review that originally aired on Sept. 24, 2010, Bianculli said the show is "one of the most inventive and exciting shows on TV," one that explores "twists with breathtaking imagination."
Friday Night Lights (NBC) The TV series, based on Buzz Bissinger's nonfiction book about a Texas high school team, came on the heels of a 2004 movie starring Billy Bob Thornton as the high school coach. It began on NBC and almost got canceled -- that is, until DirecTV stepped in and offered to share production costs with the network. "It's a wonderful show," says Bianculli. "It's not only one of the best family dramas on television now; it's one of the best family dramas that's ever been on television."
Glee (Fox) "It tried a few too many Very Special Episodes in its second year," says Bianculli -- "or just using the music of Very Special People. You had a Madonna episode; you had a Lady Gaga episode. You had all these sorts of things. But I still really like the show, and I love its uniqueness and I love what it says -- it's probably the best show television has ever presented in terms of gay characters. And I think that's valuable."
The Good Wife (CBS) Bianculli says both the acting and writing really work on this CBS legal drama, which stars Julianna Margulies as a litigator attempting to rebuild her reputation after her husband lands in jail on corruption charges. "But why I really want to support it is because this is old-style network television," says Bianculli. "One of the thoughts that's out there is that one of the reasons [cable] networks are succeeding is that they can spend so much more money, and they have so much more freedom to say things and to show things, that there's no way to do a compelling drama under the financial and editorial restrictions of broadcast network TV. But then you say 'Well, look at The Good Wife. It does it just fine.' "
Mad Men (AMC) Matthew Weiner's show about the people of '60s ad firm Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce doesn't have the raw audience numbers of Walking Dead or American Idol, but it continues to work because it's "in the conversation," says Bianculli. "If you turn to the Internet and you're reading Huffington Post, it's on there. If you're reading national magazines, it's on there. If you're on network television and the morning shows, it's on there." Why has it had such an effect on our cultural zeitgeist? Because when it premiered four seasons ago, it was like nothing else on television. "But for it to succeed and thrive, it has to say something. Mad Men is saying something about that period, but it's also saying something about us, in every episode."
Modern Family (ABC) Every September, Bianculli says he's asked what TV shows are must-sees. And for the past few years, his answer on Wednesday nights has been Modern Family. In a review that originally aired on Sept. 20, 2010, Bianculli applauded a sense of "risky creativity" that ended up being rewarded -- both with solid ratings and at the Emmys.
Rescue Me (FX) The Denis Leary drama about New York firefighters dealing with personal and professional issues in the aftermath of Sept. 11 is ending after this season, partially because it didn't "get the attention it deserves," says Bianculli. The show "has done some really strong stories" and featured some "spectacular acting" this year, including a great guest appearance by Michael J. Fox.
True Blood (HBO) True Blood, the HBO vampire series created by Alan Ball, is a soap opera, pure and simple, said Bianculli in a review that aired originally on June 9, 2010. "Or more accurately it's a soap opera, impure and complicated." The show's rococo plot twists -- and the regular introduction of new characters -- keep Bianculli hooked.
30 Rock (NBC) Tina Fey's sitcom is still as funny and clever as ever, says Bianculli. "There's so much to love about 30 Rock and I've gushed about this show from the very start, so I won't repeat myself," he says. "But the more you get to know this rich collection of characters, the more you'll adore them all. And I also love the writing on this show, which very smartly surprises you just when you think you know where things are going."
Having bent the rules by bringing 12 shows to talk with Terry Gross about -- and riled the host by still not listing The Colbert Report, one of her favorites -- Bianculli admits he'd slot it in at No. 13. Other honorable mentions include The Walking Dead on AMC, Showtime's Nurse Jackie and United States of Tara, and HBO's Treme and Boardwalk Empire.
Bonus Round: The 3 Biggest Messes On The Small Screen
Jersey Shore (MTV) The reality show is "by far the worst" show on television. "I just cannot tell you how despicable this show is," says Bianculli. "It makes me want to shower."
Bleep My Dad Says (CBS) Based on a Twitter feed that was called something ruder, the William Shatner sitcom is "horrendous" and "so unfunny." Because it follows the successful CBS sitcom The Big Bang Theory, Bleep still has an audience -- but "if taste had anything to do with it, it would be gone."
Outlaw (NBC) Jimmy Smits played a Supreme Court justice who stepped down in order to achieve real justice by taking on cases one at a time. "You're on the Supreme Court and you're going to step down so that you can make a difference? It was such a mind-numbingly bad idea that there was no getting past that."