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'Better Call Saul' Tops Critic David Bianculli's Picks For The Best TV Of 2017


This is FRESH AIR. Our TV critic David Bianculli is going to talk with us about the year in television and tell us what's on his 10 Best list. Well, David, I want to hear your 10 Best list. But first, was this a good year for TV?

DAVID BIANCULLI, BYLINE: Yes, except it was an overwhelming year. I think this is the year I finally gave up saying, I've got to watch everything. I can't.

GROSS: Between streaming and all the cable channels.

BIANCULLI: Between streaming and TV and so much good stuff and then the news, which is its own job. But as a TV critic, I not only have to keep track of the news. But to be fair, as I see it, I have to watch the news from various outlets.

GROSS: Well, let's get to your 10 Best list. I'm anxious to hear what's on it.

BIANCULLI: OK. Can I make one complaint about my own 10 Best list before we start? I wish it were 20 or 30. Television is so good. And so here they go.


BIANCULLI: Tied for 10 - "Big Little Lies" on HBO, which is sort of like David Kelley's comeback or part of his comeback, "The Deuce" on HBO, which is a new David Simon program that's looking at Times Square in the '70s and the porno industry and then "Handmaid's Tale" on Hulu, which I think almost prefigured a zeitgeist of female empowerment and was really a good adaptation. So that's my 10.

No. 9 is "The Good Place" on NBC. It's a comedy with a very clever premise. And it's the only broadcast show in my top 10 among the old broadcast networks. They've basically given up. No. 8 is "The Americans" on FX. No. 7 is "Black Mirror," which drops its new season just a couple of days before the end of the year this year. But to me, that's still the year 2017. And I've seen them all. And then No. 6 is "Mindhunter" on Netflix, which was a wonderful show.

No. 5 five is "Legion," programmed by Noah Hawley, who sort of came out of nowhere a few years ago when he started redoing "Fargo." And then No. 4 is "Fargo," the third season. And No. 3 is the return of Larry David's "Curb Your Enthusiasm." No. 2 another Netflix show, a Western from Scott Frank. I wasn't familiar with his work before. But "Godless" is the best western since "Deadwood." And then No. 1, repeating in my top spot, is AMC's "Better Call Saul."

GROSS: Well, since "Better Call Saul" has been your No. 1 spot a couple of years in a row, why don't we talk about that a little bit? Actually, I think you brought a clip with you about it.

BIANCULLI: I did. And I brought also - this is one of the things - as a TV critic, I think this may be the smartest thing I've ever come up with in terms of why a show is good and how good it is and a secret thing. Here's - let me test this out on you.



GROSS: Yeah.

BIANCULLI: I think that - "Better Call Saul," of course, comes from "Breaking Bad." I think "Breaking Bad" is one of the best drama series ever. And I think that "Better Call Saul" is, like, the best spin-off of the best drama series. Now, think of what the best spinoff from a comedy series might be - from a good comedy series. And I go to "Frasier," spun off from "Cheers."

And here's my big a-ha - is that both shows took supporting characters, you know, either Kelsey Grammer as Frasier or Bob Odenkirk as Saul, spun them off into their own show and gave them previously unknown brothers. And the whole new series is a brother dynamic.

GROSS: That's a really interesting point.

BIANCULLI: And with "Better Call Saul," it's played more for drama than for comedy. And it builds. And the most important thing about that show is the relationship between these two brothers - Jimmy, who is going to turn into Saul, and Chuck, who's the older brother who disapproves of Jimmy because he thinks he's going to turn it to no good. And we know because this is a prequel that he's right. So this clip just has the two of them in a room, just talking at the end of a couple of seasons.


MICHAEL MCKEAN: (As Chuck) But what's the point of all the sad faces and the gnashing of teeth? If you're not going to change your behavior - and you won't...

BOB ODENKIRK: (As Jimmy) I can...

MCKEAN: (As Chuck) ...Why don't you skip the whole exercise? In the end, you're going to hurt everyone around you. You can't help it. So stop apologizing and accept it. Embrace it. Frankly, I'd have more respect for you if you did.

ODENKIRK: (As Jimmy) What about you, Chuck? You didn't do anything wrong? You're just an innocent victim?

MCKEAN: (As Chuck) Let me put your mind at ease, Jimmy. You don't have to make up with me. We don't have to understand each other. Things are fine the way they are. Hey. I don't want to hurt your feelings, but the truth is you've never mattered all that much to me.

BIANCULLI: Now, if you follow that show, that's such a hurtful scene. But even if you're listening to it for the first time, I hope you get a sense of the dynamics of these two guys, which are basically - they're comic actors or character actors doing a great job.

GROSS: I know I've never thought of Michael McKean in the same way again ever since seeing him in "Better Call Saul" because I'm used to him in comedy.


GROSS: And I love seeing actors who are so perfectly cast in surprising ways.

BIANCULLI: Yeah. And Odenkirk is the same way.

GROSS: Yeah.

BIANCULLI: I mean, he's carrying the show, although there are - it's a marvelously cast program and a brilliantly written one, too.

GROSS: So No. 2 on your top ten list is "Godless," a Western series I really love, too.

BIANCULLI: I love, too.

GROSS: And I had a chance to talk to the creator of the series, Scott Frank, about what I love about the series. I'm interested in hearing what you love about it.

BIANCULLI: Well, I loved "Deadwood." And this not only is an homage to "Deadwood" in certain scenes, in certain ways but also all spaghetti Westerns, anything that Clint Eastwood has done more recently. And it's also kind of like the fugitive on the prairie because it has a determined lawman chasing a one-armed man. The one-armed man is played by Jeff Daniels. And he's a brilliantly nasty villain. And the sheriff is played by Scoot McNairy. And I brought a clip where the two of them first meet up and - all you have to do is listen to it.


JEFF DANIELS: (As Frank Griffin) While I admire your ginger, sir, sometimes men want me to kill them so they can die attached to some purpose. Is that what you want? You want me to kill you, turn you into a bedtime story?

SCOOT MCNAIRY: (As Bill Mcnue) I'd prefer to kill you first.

DANIELS: (As Frank Griffin) You won't kill me, friend.

MCNAIRY: (As Bill Mcnue) Not today, I won't.

DANIELS: (As Frank Griffin) Not ever. I've seen how it happens. It ain't going to be the law that blows out my spark.

MCNAIRY: (As Bill Mcnue) Well, if you say so.

DANIELS: (As Frank Griffin) I know so. Now you do, too.

GROSS: OK. So that was a scene from "Godless," David Bianculli's No. 2 pick of the best TV shows of the year. So, David, earlier when you ran through your top-10 list of the year, you expressed some regret that you only had room for 10 - 13 if you count the runners-up.

BIANCULLI: (Laughter).

GROSS: But let me give you the chance here to name some other TV shows that you loved a lot that just couldn't be fit.

BIANCULLI: Oh, absolutely. In terms of nonfiction, there's one - Ken Burns's "Vietnam," which I thought was absolutely wonderful. And then - it made me cry like five or six times watching it. And then in terms of the shows that just missed my top-10, 12, 13, whatever it was, they would include "Game Of Thrones," "Stranger Things 2."

And there were lots of shows that I really liked during the year like "GLOW" and "Master Of None" and "Episodes" and "The Crown" and "Orphan Black." And even a old "Fued," Bette versus Joan, I thought was a really nice miniseries, the whole idea about Bette Davis and Joan Crawford. And "Twin Peaks," although it infuriated me, I still watched it every single week. And I still remember parts of it. So I didn't love it like I loved the original, but the fact that I could see it again, I really liked that.

GROSS: So let's take a short break here, and then we'll be back and talk more about the year in TV with our TV critic, David Bianculli. This is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: This is FRESH AIR, and we're talking about the year in television with our TV critic, David Bianculli. This was an incredible year for late-night comedy.

BIANCULLI: Absolutely.

GROSS: What have been, like, some of your favorite shows or highlights of the year in late-night comedy?

BIANCULLI: Well, my very favorite, if you can call it late night - it's lumped in with the same thing - is John Oliver, "Last Week Tonight" on HBO. I think he's done the most magnificent job of anyone. But it hasn't only been John Oliver because you have the monologues of Jimmy Kimmel, the real sharp satire of Seth Meyers. You have "Saturday Night Live," what it's brought to the mix.

GROSS: Colbert, of course.

BIANCULLI: And I was saving him to get there because he's so, I mean, he's sort of reclaimed that territory too. And certainly, he's taken from his old show, taken from everything else. And Stephen Colbert has been wonderful.

GROSS: Well, since you love John Oliver's show so much, is there a favorite moment you'd like to play for us?

BIANCULLI: Yes, it's from his last show of the season before his hiatus. The whole setup is that on "Fox & Friends" in the Washington, D.C., area, there is an actual advertisement by a guy who's dressed like a cowboy and drawls and sells catheters. So John Oliver has cast a look-alike as the Catheter Cowboy, bought time on "Fox & Friends" in that local market and has the actor start off by selling catheters and then address the most famous viewer in chief, President Donald Trump, directly. It's hilarious.

GROSS: Let's hear it.


JOHN OLIVER: But if Trump is going to keep watching that show, we are going to spend a hiatus sneaking information through our Catheter Cowboy. So a number of commercials are going to be airing on Fox News over the next few months. He is the first one.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Attention, catheter patients.

THOMAS KOPACHE: (As Catheter Cowboy) I'm a professional cowboy. I use catheters, and there's two things I know. I don't like pain when I cath. And the term clean coal doesn't refer to the physical act of cleaning coal. That would be impossible. Coal is coal. Clean coal is a marketing term the coal industry came up with for stuff like carbon capture and sequestration, an expensive process that's shown limited results at best. Also, Frederick Douglass is dead. See you tomorrow. Bye-bye.


OLIVER: That's good information for him to know. That will be on Fox in the D.C. area later this week. And keep an eye out for more of them because that cowboy has got a bunch up his sleeve.

GROSS: (Laughter) That's really hilarious. And the fact that he actually bought time for this satirical commercial on "Fox & Friends" is such a kind of remarkable comic invention.

BIANCULLI: It's a macro. It's like Pat Paulsen running for president in 1968, and all these things happening where you go out of the TV arena. And it's this giant sort of major thing because you know he has to see those.

GROSS: One of the things John Oliver did the first - in his first season - early in his first season was a big thing on net neutrality. David, can you talk about what he did - how that affected the issue of net neutrality in the Obama administration?


GROSS: And what's happening...

BIANCULLI: Oh, sure. He...

GROSS: Yeah.

BIANCULLI: Yeah. He brought that to life and sort of mobilized to preserve the idea of net neutrality and get people to writing to the FCC and writing to their representatives. And I'm a TV critic, and I learned about net neutrality. I mean, I learned more about it through this comedy program. That's how well researched his pieces are. And now we're at a point where it's been reversed. It's being challenged. It will be one of the biggest news stories, I suspect, in terms of television in 2018.

GROSS: David, last year at this time, you talked about how the Trump candidacy - how his campaign had certain similarities to his reality show "The Apprentice." So now that President Trump has been in the White House for nearly a year, are there ways in which you think he's turned the White House into a reality show?

BIANCULLI: Oh, there's one way absolutely. And that - "The Apprentice" was built as an ongoing storyline that was supposed to get you more and more involved each week. And it is not an accident, it is not a coincidence the way President Trump is always saying things like, I'll let you know this in a few days or we're coming up with something next week or always filling if he perceives a vacuum in the news - Saturday tweets, things like that. He's always out there to try and dominate the news cycle. It has increased the news cycle, you know, exponentially. To me - and I'm pretty sure everybody's like that - it's exhausting.

GROSS: You've always had a lot of TVs in your home and...

BIANCULLI: (Laughter).

GROSS: ...Have a history of watching several channels at once. Since it's not even exclusively about channels anymore - it's about, you know, streaming sites - you have to give up on the idea of keeping up. I mean, it's just - you can't be watching everything that's out there at the same time because...

BIANCULLI: I have given up. And it's - I feel like I just did as much as I could, and Sisyphus finally let the rock just roll all over him. You know, I don't even have my 12-TV wall anymore. I just watch one at a time as much as I can. But you're right. There is - between the entertainment and the news, there is just too much. You know, I'm covering everything that I can. But it's amazing the quantity that's out there.

GROSS: Yeah. Well, David, I wish you a wonderful 2018.

BIANCULLI: Oh, thanks. I really love these end-of-year talks. TV is getting harder. But you always make this easy, so thanks.

GROSS: Thank you. And thank you for being our TV critic and for giving me some new shows that I haven't watched to catch up on.

BIANCULLI: Yeah, in all your spare time.

GROSS: In all my spare time, yeah.


GROSS: OK, thank you again.


GROSS: David Bianculli is FRESH AIR's TV critic and author of "The Platinum Age Of Television." He teaches TV and film history at Rowan University. If you'd like to catch up on FRESH AIR interviews you missed - like our recent interview with Scott Frank, who created the Netflix series "Godless," which is on David's 10 best list or our interview with Spike Lee who has a new 10-part Netflix adaptation of his film "She's Gotta Have It," check out our podcast. You'll find lots of our interviews.


JUNIOR BROWN: (Singing) You drink one, drink two, drink three Long Island iced teas. But your buddy's worse off, and he throws his car keys. Blue lights are blinking 4 o'clock in the morning. State trooper makes you wish that you'd never been born. Better call Saul. Better call Saul. You want to tell the world you're in love with a girl named Fran. So you find an overpass, and you say it with a spray paint can. Blue lights start a blinking. Those handcuffs click. You know who to call and you better call quick. Saul, Saul, you better call Saul. He'll fight for your you rights when your back's to the wall. Stick it to the man. Justice for all. You better call Saul.

GROSS: FRESH AIR'S executive producer is Danny Miller. Our interviews and reviews are produced and edited by Amy Salit, Phyllis Myers, Roberta Shorrock, Sam Briger, Lauren Krenzel, Heidi Saman, Therese Madden, Mooj Zadie, Thea Chaloner and Seth Kelley. John Sheehan directed today's show. I'm Terry Gross.


BROWN: (Singing) Shopping at the Walmart, short just a couple of beans. There's a George Foreman grill down the back of your blue jeans. They caught you at the checkout. The blue lights blink. Only one got a call 'cause the others all stink. Better call Saul. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

David Bianculli is a guest host and TV critic on NPR's Fresh Air with Terry Gross. A contributor to the show since its inception, he has been a TV critic since 1975.