This was a good year for TV, says critic David Bianculli, and that had a lot to do with two new shows from Netflix: House of Cards, the American adaptation of the BBC political thriller series, and Orange Is the New Black, a dramatic comedy which takes place in a women's federal prison. "I was very impressed with the overall quality of what Netflix gave us," Bianculli tells Fresh Air's Terry Gross. "... That was quite a string of good shows."
So, without further ado, here's Bianculli's top-10 TV list for 2013:
1. Breaking Bad (AMC) "ended as brilliantly as it began. I'm so grateful for that series."
2. The Good Wife (CBS) "has sort of done what Homeland did its first season, which by splitting up its law firm and having people you liked be adversaries, you had equal weight given to what would be the antagonist and the protagonist, and you sort of liked them both."
3. Mad Men (AMC) "didn't have the best year for me, but had the best single moment I think Mad Men has had in a long time."
4. Justified (FX) "had one of its very best years, so well-written and directed. It may be my favorite show of next year. I don't know if it's going to keep building, but I have expectations like that for it."
5. The Colbert Report (Comedy Central) "did too much good stuff this year to not make the list again."
6. The Walking Dead (AMC): "I'll never forget when I came in here to review The Walking Dead and I said, 'Oh no, it's a zombie show, but it's good.' ... It really is an amazing show."
7. House of Cards (Netflix) "blew Netflix wide open."
8. Masters of Sex (Showtime) "is the first show since AMC's Mad Men to do a period drama really well and it's because of how clearly it's delineating these characters."
9. Downton Abbey (PBS) "kept up its quality and was noticed for all the right reasons."
10. Orange Is the New Black (Netflix) "was basically a female Oz, which was HBO's first big prison drama, but done really well."
On the year overall
[It was] a good year if for no other reason than Netflix changed everything again by bringing in House of Cards and Orange Is the New Black. It changed things not only for them and for the Emmys and for the competition, but everybody else started to say, "Hey, that's a new way to do stuff." So in 2014, we're going to have other people swinging for the fences and putting money behind quality shows that haven't been getting on the networks lately, and maybe the networks will finally wise up.
On binge watching
It denies the chance for people to have a communal experience. I think Arrested Development would have gotten so much more press had it been shown one episode a week. It's sort of like everybody wants to get the maximum output right away, and there's no thought of long-range planning, so whatever big hit they get for the first big week, that's all they're interested in. ...
Netflix also still is very protective of its numbers, so we don't really know how many people are watching, how many people see the first episode, binge immediately and go back. But I want to praise Netflix for going to quality programmers, coming up with quality programs. I just would beg them to release one or two a week, double it if you have to, but keep that sense of anticipation coming.
On the evolving definition of a TV "season"
Part of the logic is that sometimes the producers just don't feel they can do quality by turning it out faster than that. David Chase on The Sopranos was one of the first to say "I gotta slow down a little bit." And when shows such as Breaking Bad split seasons, and they were rewarded — Walking Dead, same thing — they had more people when they came back, rather than fewer people. ...
It's getting closer to the British model, [they'd] do six episodes and that would be a season, and then they would come back a year or two later and do more. It's a sensible way of doing it, but only if you have enough of them that when one show goes away, another one you like is taking its place. That's the problem with the networks — they don't have that. ...
The season used to be [called] the fall TV season; that began because the U.S. auto manufacturers wanted to push their new models. The cars came out in September, so they wanted to have all the eyeballs in front of the TV sets and they wanted to sell lots of ads. ... But now that's totally ridiculous. ... It's an antiquated set of rules that people are still playing by.
On the biggest successes and what they mean for the future of TV
Among the biggest successes of 2013 were a cable show — [AMC's] The Walking Dead, which got 12-13 million viewers, more than network television was getting, for a zombie drama — and something that was televised this month, Sound of Music Live on NBC, which got that level of viewership. ... So it shows that if you give people reasons to watch live TV, or TV at the same time, they still will. ...
Otherwise, what I think network television is doing as it's marching toward its own grave is not giving people reasons to watch programs as they show them. They can catch them a day later, week later, a season later, a DVD box set later. When I talk to my students at Rowan University and I ask them, "What are you watching?" they're not watching a lot. They're catching [it] after the fact, catching it on Hulu, catching it viral, or grabbing it from a friend or BitTorrent [file-sharing it] illegally ... and that's going to change the game completely.
TERRY GROSS, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. Our TV critic David Bianculli is here to talk about the year in television. We'll see what made it onto his 10 best lists.
Welcome, David. It's good to talk about the year again with you. I love these end of the year shows.
DAVID BIANCULLI, BYLINE: Oh, me too.
GROSS: So let's start with your diagnosis of the year.
BIANCULLI: Actually, a good year - if for other reason - than Netflix changed everything again by bringing in "House of Cards" and "Orange is the New Black." It changed things not only for them and for the Emmys and for the competition, but everybody else started to say, hey, that's a new way to do stuff. And so in 2014, we're going to have other people swinging for the fences and putting money behind quality shows that haven't been getting on the networks lately and maybe the networks will finally wise up.
GROSS: Well, let's see how Netflix does in your 10 best of the year list.
BIANCULLI: Oh, OK.
GROSS: You want to count us down for 10 to number one?
BIANCULLI: Number 10 - I'll go through them quickly - is "Orange is the New Black," which is from Netflix and was basically a female "Oz," which was HBO's first big prison drama, but done really well. Number nine, "Downton Abbey," on PBS. I think it kept up its quality and was noticed for all the right reasons. Number eight, a new show from Showtime, "Masters of Sex," which is sort of like the first show since AMC's "Mad Men" to do a period drama really well, and it's because of how clear it's delineating these characters.
Number seven, "House of Cards," on Netflix - that's the Kevin Spacey one that sort of blew Netflix wide open. Number six is "The Walking Dead" on AMC. And I'll never forget, when I came in here to review "The Walking Dead" and I said, oh no, it's a zombie show, but it's good and you guys let me do it anyway.
BIANCULLI: It's like, but no, really. It really is an amazing show. And then number five, "The Colbert Report" on Comedy Central, did too much good stuff this year to not make the list again. Number four, "Justified "on FX, I think had one of its very best years, so well written, so well directed. Number three is "Mad Men," which didn't have the best year for me but have the best single moment I think it "Mad Men" has had in a long time.
GROSS: Which was?
BIANCULLI: When his daughter came in on him when he was with someone else. I want to be as vague as possible for people who haven't gotten to it yet. But that was so unexpected and so dramatic and you felt it instantly from the point of view of every character in that arc. I was so impressed by that.
And the number two, a network program, CBS's "The Good Wife," which has been fantastic this year, and has sort of done what "Homeland" did its first season which by splitting up its law firm and having people that you liked now be adversaries, you had equal weight given to what would be the antagonist and protagonist and you sort of liked them both. It's a fascinating year for "Good Wife."
And then number one, "Breaking Bad," which just ended and ended as brilliantly as it began. And I'm so grateful for that series. It's such a wonderful show.
GROSS: You mentioned the ending of "Breaking Bad." There's actually like an alternate ending, like a comic alternate ending. And I've heard about it but I haven't heard it. David, would you tell us about it?
BIANCULLI: Yes. Well, it's available in the complete DVD box set of "Breaking Bad" and I have brought it along as my favorite moment of the year.
GROSS: Oh great - even though it wasn't actually on TV.
BIANCULLI: Well, to me, if I see it on TV, that counts for me. It was made and it harkens back to television. And it's just, it's my favorite moment.
GROSS: So you want to set it up for us?
BIANCULLI: All right. This is, you have to go all the way back to the ending of "Newhart," which is my favorite TV ending of all time. And it had Bob Newhart waking up in his old bedroom from "The Bob Newhart Show" next to his wife from that show played by Suzanne Pleshette. And he was explaining everything that had happened on "Newhart" as being a bizarre dream, and the more he described it, the more absolutely unreal it sounded. Well, for the end, the alternate ending of "Breaking Bad" they have Bryan Cranston wake up in his bedroom and sleeping next to him is Jane Kaczmarek, who played his wife on "Malcolm in the Middle."
And he describes all of "Breaking Bad" as being a bad dream, and brilliantly. Brilliantly. And it reminds you, because you've forgotten how good a comic actor he is, how ridiculous "Breaking Bad" was out of context, but how superbly it all fits together. It's a brilliant parody. It would be, I thought the real ending of "Breaking Bad" was the best ending possible, but this comes really close.
GROSS: OK. So this is Bryan Cranston and Jane Kaczmarek.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "BREAKING BAD")
BRYAN CRANSTON: (as Hal) Wake up. Honey. Honey. Wake up. Wake up.
JANE KACZMAREK: (as Lois) For the love of crimony, what is it? What's the matter?
CRANSTON: (as Hal) Oh, I just had the scariest dream.
KACZMAREK: (as Lois) I told you not to eat the deep-fried Twinkies.
CRANSTON: (as Hal) No, you don't understand. You don't understand. I was - oh, I was this meth dealer.
KACZMAREK: (as Lois) What?
CRANSTON: (as Hal) Yeah. I was this world class chemist and I cooked and I sold this ultra pure methamphetamine.
KACZMAREK: (as Lois) You cooking anything?
CRANSTON: (as Hal) There was a guy who never spoke. He just, he just rang a bell the whole time. And there was this other guy who was a policeman or a DEA agent and I think it was my brother or something. He looked like the guy from "The Shield." And then there was this other little guy who was a waif - a man child kid who always looked like he was wearing his older brother's clothes. And he would always say things like hey - the B word. He would use the B word a lot. He would say, yo, B word. Yeah, science B word.
KACZMAREK: (as Lois) OK. OK. Calm down, honey. Just calm down. Calm down.
CRANSTON: (as Hal) And then there was me and I had a shaved head and a goatee, and I wore a black hat. And the only thing that made sense in the whole dream is I still walked around in my underwear.
KACZMAREK: (as Lois) If you think this nightmare is going to keep you from driving the kids to school this morning, you have another thing coming.
CRANSTON: (as Hal) Oh, I haven't told you the scariest part yet.
KACZMAREK: (as Lois) OK. What? You've got two minutes.
CRANSTON: (as Hal) I made bombs and poison and I killed people.
KACZMAREK: (as Lois) Oh come one. You could not kill somebody.
CRANSTON: (as Hal) I know.
KACZMAREK: (as Lois) Now, I knew this was going to happen. You grow a beard and suddenly you think you're Osama bin Laden. Wasn't I there to tell you to knock it off?
CRANSTON: (as Hal) No. Some other woman did that. Ooh right, I was married to this tall beautiful blond.
KACZMAREK: Yeah. Well, keep dreaming, pal.
GROSS: That's really hysterical.
BIANCULLI: Isn't it brilliant? I know. I know. There are so many good things in there.
GROSS: I think my favorite line is, in talking about Hank on "Breaking Bad"
GROSS: Bryan Cranston says he looked like the guy from "The Shield."
GROSS: That's so hysterical.
BIANCULLI: Yeah. No. It's clearly, you know, the whole series was done by a team that loved television, loved what it was doing, put a lot of care into everything. And to have a little extra on a DVD thing that's that good, you know, that's almost showing off. That's talent to spare.
GROSS: David, I know you brought with you a scene from one of the programs on your 10 best list and that's "Masters of Sex."
GROSS: What do you want to play from that show?
BIANCULLI: Well, it doesn't, the show is essentially about Masters and Johnson and that pioneering sex study. But what fascinates me most about the show are the supporting characters. And so I've brought a scene that doesn't feature either one of the stars, but it features a couple of the supporting stars, Beau Bridges and Allison Janney.
Now both of them are on CBS sitcoms this year - new ones - that aren't very good but here in this drama they're wonderful. He plays Masters's boss at the University Hospital and Allison Janney plays his wife. They've been married for 30 years and she discovers over the course of this first season that he has been unfaithful to her and going to prostitutes. What we know as viewers at the time of this scene but she does not know is that those prostitutes are male prostitutes. But she's just confronting him about the initial betrayal. And, you know, in a show that is supposed to be about sex and discovery and awakening, it's such an interesting layer of subtext and so well acted.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "MASTERS OF SEX")
BEAU BRIDGES: (as Barton Scully) We didn't have a drive-ins in our day.
ALLISON JANNEY: (as Margaret Scully) We didn't need them. We were married when we first slept together.
BRIDGES: (as Barton Scully) We were out of our time.
JANNEY: (as Margaret Scully) That's not why we waited. I have spent the day racking my brain, pacing, wondering maybe I should light his clothes on fire. Maybe I should drive his car into the pool. Maybe I should tell him all about the man I've been seeing. Who, by the way, wanted me in his bed...
BRIDGES: (as Barton Scully) Margaret. Margret.
JANNEY: (as Margaret Scully) ...though he didn't love me. I don't say this to punish you, although, God knows, you deserve to be punished. I mean prostitutes? That is so insulting to me and so far beneath you.
BRIDGES: (as Barton Scully) I will never do it again, ever. I swear to you.
JANNEY: (as Margaret Scully) Even if you never laid a hand on a hooker again, that wouldn't change what is so impossible to understand. This morning when you came in my room I was practically naked and you didn't look at my body once. Not once. And yet your face was filled with such love.
BRIDGES: (as Barton Scully) Because I love you. You know that.
JANNEY: (as Margaret Scully) We didn't sleep together before we were married because you weren't interested in sleeping with me and I excused it away by saying passion is for teenagers and nymphomaniacs. Passion is not what makes a good marriage. This is a perfect, beautiful man who loves me, who doesn't care that I'm tall and athletic, who doesn't want me to act stupider than I am. This is a man who understands me.
BRIDGES: (as Barton Scully) And 30 years later we're still the best of friends. How many people can say that?
JANNEY: (as Margaret Scully) That's not enough.
GROSS: Nice scene.
BIANCULLI: Yeah. Isn't that something? I mean even if you had never seen the series, you get into those two people instantly. And no one, no matter which point of view they're coming from, is taken for granted or written superficially.
GROSS: And that was Beau Bridges and Allison Janney in a scene from the Showtime series "Masters of Sex." And with me is David Bianculli, our TV critic, and we're talking about the year in television. And "Masters of Sex" is one of the shows on his top 10 list.
BIANCULLI: Number eight.
GROSS: David, let's take a short break.
GROSS: Then we'll talk some more. This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. My guest is our TV critic David Bianculli. So let's get back to your year in review. You started about talking about the importance of Netflix this year. There were two Netflix series on your 10 best list, "Orange is the New Black" and "House of Cards." "Arrested Development" did not show up on the list.
BIANCULLI: Mm-hmm. It made honorable mention, though.
BIANCULLI: Which you have to trust me on that.
GROSS: But in talking about how Netflix is changing television, you know, one of the things it's really doing is creating this wave of binge watching.
GROSS: And I'm just wondering how viable you think that is, whether you think that's the wave of the future...
GROSS: Or whether you think people are going to become tired of it. Can I tell you my thing about binge watching?
BIANCULLI: Yes. Yes.
GROSS: It's great while you have time for the binge. But the problem with it is, then when you get tired of it or you feel like I don't have time anymore, speaking for myself, I never get back to it.
BIANCULLI: The momentum ends.
GROSS: The momentum ends. Because it's not like you're going to accidentally turn on the TV and there it's going to be or, oh, it's Wednesday night, I might as well put it on.
BIANCULLI: Yeah. The other - I agree with you completely. And the other thing that bothers me about it is that let's say that I am a real good binge watcher and the day that it becomes available, I'll watch all of the episodes. Well, if people that I know - even if they are looking forward to the series haven't seen it yet, I can't talk to them. You know, I've got to wait till they catch up. You know, all of this sort of stuff, it denies the chance for people to have a communal experience.
GROSS: I also wonder too, once binge watching becomes more commonplace and like lots of people are releasing all the episodes at one time, it's not going to be a novelty anymore so it won't get attention because it's a new delivery system...
BIANCULLI: Right. You know, that's true. And then the other thing is they are not all going to be this good. And one Netflix series that we haven't mentioned is "Hemlock Grove," which was sort of like a Twilight thing in between and it was terrible. And so nobody's talking about that while they're talking about Netflix. And Netflix also still is very, very protective of its numbers. So we don't really know how many people are watching. We don't know unless they tell us how they're watching, how many people who see the first episode binge immediately or go back. But I want to praise Netflix for going to quality programmers, coming up with quality programs. I just would beg them - so just release one or two new episodes a week. Double it if you have to, but keep that sense of anticipation coming.
GROSS: You talked earlier about how Netflix is really changing things and how a lot of, you know, production companies and broadcast entities...
GROSS: ...are trying to replicate Netflix's success. What are some of the other big maybe surprising successes of the year on TV that you think might create some kind of trend?
BIANCULLI: Well, the two biggest successes, or among the biggest successes of 2013 were a cable show, "The Walking Dead," which got 12, 13 million viewers. I mean more than network television was getting for a zombie drama. And something that was just televised this month, "The Sound of Music: Live" on NBC, which got that level of viewership.
I mean, in the week "The Sound of Music" was done live the only program that was more popular all week was the Sunday night sports football show. It shows that if you give people reasons to watch live TV or TV at the same time, they still will. With "The Sound of Music" it was the novelty of it being live. With "Walking Dead" it was the promise of delivering so many surprises that people wanted them as soon as they could get them.
But otherwise, what I think network television is doing as it's marching towards its own grave is not giving people reasons to watch programs as they show them. They can catch them a day later, a week later, a season later, a DVD box set later. And when I talk to my students at Rowan University when I'm teaching college, and I ask them what are you watching? They're not watching a lot. You know, they're catching after the fact.
GROSS: The moments that go viral.
BIANCULLI: Yeah. And so the idea of...
GROSS: Or watching on Hulu or...
BIANCULLI: Yeah. I mean, who's going to watch an hour of late night television show?
GROSS: Am I right? Watch it on Hulu or something else?
BIANCULLI: Yes. Yeah, catching it either on Hulu or catching it viral or grabbing it from a friend or Bit Torrent illegally or whatever they're doing.
GROSS: Mm-hmm. With every year that goes by, your students are more and more children of the Internet and children of the post-television era. So what are some of the things your students are finding most surprising about the history of television when you teach?
BIANCULLI: They're most surprised to find cynicism early in television. Or surprising things that they consider dark that they would never have believed could've happened in a black and white television era. Since it's the holiday time of year, I always show the "Jack Benny Christmas" show as part of showing them why Jack Benny would lead to "Seinfeld" and everything else.
And in the "Jack Benny Christmas" show, Mel Blanc plays a salesperson who constantly has to deal with Benny, you know, changing orders and doing things. And so much so that at the end of this Christmas episode, Mel Blanc pulls out a gun and then walks off camera and kills himself.
And these current day 20-year-olds are so stunned by that in a holiday special. And we talk about, all right, do you think CBS could show that, you know, in a Chuck Lorre sitcom today? And they don't think so. So that sort of stuff is fun because they think that, you know, old times are black and white and dusty and don't have any life to them. And it's fun to prove that differently.
GROSS: Let's look at this year's news coverage. There are always horrible breaking news events that TV and cable...
GROSS: ...that broadcast and cable cover. What do you think is something outstandingly good or bad that happened this year in terms of news coverage of breaking stories or live events?
BIANCULLI: Well, the Boston Marathon bombing is the big story of the year as far as I'm concerned, and it showed both what television could do really well and the excesses and the problems with going live all at the same time. It was getting the information out but it was also getting misinformation out and that was exacerbated by, you know, the Twitter universe and everything else.
And it certainly, I think, help to spread the word instantly and to show that even in these times of the Internet people will still go to television for news, at least in 2013. And then, it was the 50th anniversary of the first time this had really happened with the JFK assassination. But the best thing I saw was on the Internet and that surprised me.
GROSS: What was it?
BIANCULLI: "CBS News." On its website "CBS News" ran the entire four days of coverage from the second Kennedy was shot. And when CBS, the network, went dark in 1963, so did the website. When it was on, there it was. And I kept going back to that over that four days. And I was seeing so many things that I had never seen before that weren't part of the usual coverage packages.
GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is our TV critic David Bianculli. We're talking about the year in television. David, let's take a short break.
GROSS: Then we'll talk some more. This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR, and if you're just joining us, my guest is our TV critic David Bianculli. We're looking at the year in television. What are you looking forward to next year?
BIANCULLI: I'm actually looking forward to a resurgence of miniseries and live television. And maybe, maybe even the one I keep holding out hope for - the variety special. I think that as television decides that - broadcast TV - that it's got to have event TV - back in the '50s they were called spectaculars, you know, by NBC. Specials and then spectaculars.
Like really big reasons to tune in. You know, you give Justin Timberlake a variety show every six months and that would be a spectacular. You do - and they're starting to talk about mounting really big miniseries again. TV can still do good things. It just doesn't seem to want to spend the money or take the risk.
GROSS: So I have a question for you about what does season mean anymore on television?
BIANCULLI: Oh, man.
GROSS: Because, like, seasons used to be, you know, like, half a year or a whole year or something, right?
GROSS: And then it was like 16 and then 12 episodes. But now with "Mad Men" and "Breaking Bad" it looks like the new season is eight episodes.
GROSS: Because for both of the series' finales for those shows, the last season has been divided into two parts.
GROSS: I personally find that frustrating because just as momentum is really building, then you have to wait a year or so until it continues.
GROSS: And I'd like to know what the logic is behind that and if you think that's going to continue.
BIANCULLI: Well, part of the logic is that sometimes the producers just don't feel like they could do quality by turning it out faster than that. David Chase on "The Sopranos" was one of the first to say I've got to slow down a little bit. And when shows such as "Breaking Bad" split seasons and they were rewarded - "Walking Dead" same thing - they had more people when they came back rather than fewer people.
So it was like, oh, OK. So it's a sensible way of doing it but only if you have enough of them that when one show goes away another one that you like is taking its place. That's the problem with the networks, is they don't have that.
GROSS: It's also just really relying on your loyalty to the show, that you're going to care about the plot you saw and the characters you saw.
GROSS: A year or more ago.
BIANCULLI: And that can backfire.
GROSS: Which of course, I usually do. But, you know, with shows like "Breaking Bad" and "Mad Men" but it's still - it's asking a lot.
BIANCULLI: And the season, it used to be the fall TV season because that began because the U.S. auto manufacturers wanted to push their new models. So...
GROSS: Seriously? That's why?
BIANCULLI: Yes. So that's why. So the cars came out in September so they wanted to have all the eyeballs in front of the TV sets and they wanted to sell lots of ads. And so that's how it began.
GROSS: Gee, I should've learned that on "Mad Men."
BIANCULLI: They should've pointed that out on "Mad Men." That's true. But now that's totally ridiculous in terms of a 2013 reason for a season. So it's an antiquated set of rules that people are still playing by.
GROSS: And those rules are being broken anyways.
GROSS: Because so many shows don't premier in the fall anymore.
BIANCULLI: Right. Or they now call them - these shows that are going away for the rest of December and will show up early in January are now saying our fall finale. It's like rather than say we're going to show nothing for three weeks and go into - our fall finale. It's just a joke.
GROSS: David, thank you so much for doing this end-of-the-year retrospective.
BIANCULLI: No thanks. I love this.
GROSS: I always enjoy it. I wish you a very Happy New Year.
BIANCULLI: Thanks. And I wish us all a better year of a television.
GROSS: Yes. And Merry Christmas.
BIANCULLI: Thanks a lot. You too.
GROSS: David Bianculli is FRESH AIR's TV critic and the founder and editor of tvworthwatching.com. He teaches TV and film history at Rowan University in New Jersey. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.