Let’s all agree on good TV.
In his latest book, prominent TV critic Bianculli (TV and Film/Rowan Univ.; Dangerously Funny: The Uncensored Story of “The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour,” 2010, etc.), the founder and editor of tvworthwatching.com, traces the evolution of TV from its cultural status as a lesser medium to its current lauded “Platinum Age.” The book is arranged by genre, with the author selecting five series that represent the growth of each particular form; for example, he examines the crime show genre by considering the steps taken by Hill Street Blues, NYPD Blue, The Sopranos, and The Shield to get to Breaking Bad. It’s difficult to argue with Bianculli’s assertion that contemporary TV enjoys unprecedented critical and cultural cachet or that today’s series are artistically worthy endeavors. Unfortunately, that’s what makes the book problematic: Bianculli’s premise is so self-evident as to make all of this effort seem a bit pointless, a failing not helped by the author’s adherence to conventional wisdom (his series selections will pop no monocles) and workmanlike style. Performances or creators are described as “wonderful,” and shows are declared “masterpieces” with little explication, and the author fails to meaningfully address the larger technological and social changes that have been instrumental in the growing sophistication and specificity of today’s TV. A series of capsule career biographies of such significant TV creators as Steven Bochco, Ken Burns, David Milch, Judd Apatow, Vince Gilligan, and Norman Lear provide the book’s most useful passages, constituting a concise historical survey of the creative side of the medium. However, the author’s less-than-scintillating wordsmithing lends the proceedings the air of a pro forma exercise.
Bianculli dutifully identifies the best of contemporary TV and its antecedents, but the book lacks the thrill of surprise or the satisfaction of new insight.