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J.J. Abrams is a master of crack-addiction television. I’m hoping Alcatraz hooks me like LOST… maybe I should lower my expectations a bit? My hopes might be too high.


Fresh Air TV critic David Bianculli says there’s a talk show we should be watching that’s not broadcast by CBS, NBC or ABC, or even Comedy Central. It’s The Graham Norton Show imported by BBC America and shown on Saturday nights. And though it and the host have been around for years, David says it’s never been better. Matt Damon even said “This is the best time I’ve ever had on a talk show." 

Hear the review:

Why did Damon enjoy himself so much? Well, he got to swap stories with fellow guests Bill Murray and Hugh Bonneville while swigging champagne, and even knock an audience member off his chair in a specially rigged ejector seat. One secret ingredient of Norton’s show is that, most of the time, the guests all come out at once, sitting and interacting together the way they used to on the old Merv Griffin Show. The other secret ingredient is that Norton, like Craig Ferguson, isn’t so much interested in what a celebrity is there to plug as almost anything else.



BET, 7:30 p.m. ET; 8/15/2012

There are lots of reasons to watch this 1997 TV musical, starring Brandy Norwood in the title role. First, its impressive cast includes the late Whitney Houston (pictured, with Brandy) as the Fairy Godmother. Second, other co-stars include Bernadette Peters, Jason Alexander, Whoopi Goldberg and Victor Garber. Third, it’s a new version of the Rodgers and Hammerstein musical written especially for television 40 years earlier, originally starring Julie Andrews in 1957 – the same musical being readied now for a new production on Broadway. And finally, its executive producers include the talented Craig Zadan and Neil Meron, two of the executive producers behind NBC’s Smash.

-David Bianculli

NPR (fresh air) interview w/ David Bianculli

Holy Crikey!. I mean. I just listened to the radio interview of Michael C. Hall, by David Bianculli (much much more than the print article). And this.. this! is maybe my favorite interview EVER!!!!!!! Go listen!!! MY GOD that man is sharp. And intelligent. F******CK!!!! :).

I have been pondering for a while on David Simon’s (The Wire) comments re Dexter, and here we have a reply from MCH on that, and so much more. Awesome interview. Go Bianculli!! (who did a beautiful job interviewing).

TV critic David Bianculli wants to steer you towards the good and the obscure: the Starz miniseries “Dancing on the Edge,” about a 1930s jazz band struggling to make it big in the face of prejudice:

Dancing on the Edge will please TV fans who are eagerly awaiting the next round of Downton Abbey – and music fans as well. This isn’t period music they’re playing and singing in this miniseries – it’s just made to sound that way, written by Adrian Johnston. It’s a beautiful job. The music has to be good enough to make you root for the Louis Lester Jazz Band to make it big –and as the core of this new TV import, it works.  Dancing on the Edge is as much fun to hear as it is to watch.

Indulge your craving for period-piece drama and hear some excellent music while you’re at it. You can read the full review here.

By now you’ve probably heard the theme to the Netflix original series Orange Is the New Black. The song was written and performed by Regina Spektor who spoke about writing the theme:

It was mostly … thinking about the idea of what it must be like to be in prison and the different states of mind. One of the things she told me when we had lunch that first time was that it might be really cool to use ideas that obviously come to your mind if you’re thinking of somebody in prison.

If you haven’t already, check out our interview with Regina Spektor

Also, David Bianculli’s review of Orange Is the New Black

In 1981, NBC presented a new police series called Hill Street Bluesa pivotal show in the history of quality television. It’s just been released on DVD, in its entirety, for the first time – and our TV critic, David Bianculli, says the show was a game changer – 

“Before NBC televised Hill Street, most continuing drama series were presented as stand-alone, interchangeable hours, starring the same characters. Every week, Mannix or Kojak or Baretta would investigate a crime, catch the villains, and wait for next week to do it again. Hill Street borrowed from daytime soap operas, and presented sequential story lines, which carried over from week to week.

There were other innovations, too. Instead of one or two central stars, Hill Street featured a large ensemble cast. Camerawork was often hand-held and frantic, more like a documentary. Dialogue overlapped and sounded natural, as in a Robert Altman movie. Scenes of intense drama sometimes were followed by moments of broad humor. And the crimes themselves, and the solving of them, usually took a back seat to the private lives of the cops, officers and lawyers who populated the show.”

Photo of the Hill Street Blues cast via Fanpix

This isn’t a Halloween trick, just a TV treat: On Halloween night, at 9 p.m. ET, Sundance Channel presents the premiere of an eight-part miniseries that’s unusual and intelligent and interesting enough to deserve notice – even if it is subtitled, slow-moving and very, very subtle in revealing its secrets.

It’s called The Returned, and it’s an eight-part 2012 French miniseries shown on Canal Plus as Les Revenants. Sundance is showing it in prime time, subtitled, and Halloween is the perfect night to unveil it, for reasons I’m reluctant to reveal.

I’m reluctant because this is the type of moody, creepy, cerebral drama that is best enjoyed by those who come to it knowing as little as possible about what they’re about to say. So all I want to do, here, is to steer you in its direction. Every episode of The Returned haunted me long after I saw it – and I expect, and hope, it provides you with the same singular, lasting experience. It premieres Thursday, Oct. 31, at 9 p.m. ET on Sundance Channel.

        –  Fresh Air TV critic, David Bianculli

David Bianculli reviews the new FXX series, “Man Seeking Woman.”

‘Man Seeking Woman’ Examines How It Feels To Be Single, Dating And Rejected

“On the one hand, it’s pretty straightforward: In the opening moments, a young man named Josh, played by Jay Baruchel from Undeclared, is sent packing by his now ex-girlfriend. The rest of the episode, and presumably the series, has him weaving his way through the tricky currents of dating in the 21st century – enduring blind dates, attempting pick-up lines and checking out dating websites and phone apps for potential new acquaintances and experiences.

But on the other hand, Man Seeking Woman is as devoted to examining how it feels to be single and dating and rejected as to what actually occurs. This very unusual new TV series is inspired by The Last Girlfriend on Earth, a collection of darkly comic, and proudly bizarre, short stories by Simon Rich, who’s one of the show’s writers. So while portions of Man Seeking Woman tell a literal narrative, other parts are more impressionistic, even surrealistic.”

“Louis C.K., by writing, acting and directing in this series, is taking on more than just about any TV auteurs this side of South Park. And he keeps doing amazing work, pulling off the most unexpected twists and turns, anchored by his under-appreciated acting ability and his eagerness to go where few comics have gone before.”

David Bianculli reviews The Comedians and the new season of Louie.

Fresh Air’s TV critic David Bianculli reviews the new series  Fargo, based on the 1996 Coen Brothers cult classic. Here’s what he says: 

When the news arrives that FX has a new series called Fargo, the expectation is that it will be either a sequel to, or expansion of, that 18-year-old movie. And certainly, the previews have done nothing to discourage that.

But no. The TV version of Fargo tells a completely different story, with completely different characters. Only the snow remains the same. Yet based on the first four episodes, this new Fargo is a worthy companion piece to the film. The Coen brothers are on board as two of the executive producers, so they clearly approve – though that’s pretty much the extent of their involvement. Instead, FX’s Fargo is written and concocted by Noah Hawley, whose previous credits include working on Bones, and not much else. This is his step up to the major leagues – and in his first at-bat in the bigs, he swings hard, and hits a home run.

His Fargo – this first season, anyway – is envisioned as a stand-alone 10-part story. If it continues to a Season 2, it will be with a completely different plot, characters, and cast. That’s the way True Detective launched itself this season on HBO, and you know how brilliantly that turned out. By designing TV shows this way – longer and deeper than a feature film but not running for years – networks can get A-list movie talent to commit, and writers can craft stories with the end in sight from the start.

FX’s Fargo benefits from that, greatly.

Hear the full review HERE.


image via FX 

David Bianculli on Sid Caesar, a pioneer of sketch comedy:

Sid Caesar, who died Wednesday at age 91, was the driving engine behind NBC’s original “Saturday night live’’ – a show that had as great an impact on popular culture as the current SNL…

That series was Your Show of Shows, which ran on NBC from 1950-1954. It was broadcast in prime time, but other than that, everything about it sported the same template as Saturday Night Live, which would appear a TV generation later. Your Show of Shows, like the much later SNL, was 90 minutes long. It featured a guest host each week, and musical guests. And it was driven by a brilliant staff of performers and writers, the former led by Sid Caesar, with very able assistance from Imogene Coca, Carl Reiner and Howard Morris.

That wasn’t Caesar’s only TV showcase series from the early days of television. Your Show of Shows had grown out of Admiral Broadway Revue the year before, which had been simulcast by NBC and DuMont the year before. And after the talent on Your Show of Shows opted to divide and conquer, Caesar went on to Caesar’s Hour, maintaining some of the Your Show of Show writers, and adding others – including Larry Gelbart and Woody Allen, just to name two.

And if you want to name the writers on Your Show of Shows, you can start with Caesar, Reiner, Mel Brooks, Neil Simon,  Danny Simon, Lucille Kallen, Max Liebman, and Mel Tolkin. Follow the resumes of all those writers, and you’ve got a legacy of 20th-century comedy every bit as impressive as that to spring from SNL or The Daily Show with Jon Stewart.

I teach Your Show of Shows in my TV History & Appreciation classes at New Jersey’s Rowan University – and every term, the comedy brilliance and antic energy of This Is Your Story (an extended spoof of the ambush biography show This Is Your Life) and the mostly wordless segment “The Clock” work as well as they must have in the early Fifties.

In 2001, Sid Caesar appeared during the Television Critics Association press tour to accept a Lifetime Achievement Award. He was in his late 70s then, and looked frail as he waited his turn to take his tentative tiny steps to the podium. As soon as he started to talk, though, the showman in him shaved decades off his demeanor.

Instead of delivering the expected thank-you speech, Caesar launched into one of his patented nonsense-language riffs. The usually hard-to-please crowd of TCA TV critics howled with laughter, because we were not only familiar with, but weaned on, Caesar’s gift for gobbledygook. He finished doing his “speech,” in what sounded like almost passable German, to a loud ovation. Then he picked another language to skewer, and did it again. And again.

Then, after his real thank-you speech, Caesar received a standing ovation so long that he was able to negotiate his way down the steps from the stage and towards his front-row table – at which point, still relishing the spotlight, he mimed remembering one more thing, and worked his way back to the stage and the podium, just as slowly.

The laughter, and the applause, stayed with him all the way. It was a grand bit of live comedy, from a guy who first provided them more than 50 years earlier.

That same year, I interviewed Caesar about his guest appearance on ABC’s Whose Line Is It Anyway?, an ABC improv series appearance perfectly suited to Caesar’s comedy skills – and taped, as it turned out, on his 79th birthday. I asked if he had been nervous, taking the stage in front of a live studio audience after so many years away.

“The nervousness I have now,” he said, “is, ‘Will they remember me? Will they know who I am?’”

Caesar said he told Carey, before the taping began, “These kids don’t know me. Two generations now, they never heard of me. Maybe their fathers, probably their grandfathers.”

Caesar then picked up the story of what happened next.

“Then when I get out there,” he told me, both astonished and proud, “I walk out onstage and get a 15-minute standing ovation. Really – I was so shocked. It was so nice. I looked around and said, ‘Who came in?’

“That really got me.”

That story really got me, too. There aren’t many TV icons from the salad days of television that were as original as Sid Caesar, as influential, or as monumentally talented. He was smart enough to surround himself with the best, on stage and off, and push them all, and himself, to do things on television that had never been done before, and seldom have been done as well since.

Sid Caesar will be missed.

He will not, however, be replaced.

photo of Sid Caesar and Imogene Coca on Your Show of Shows.

David Bianculli on Orange Is The New Black:

When Piper goes through her first day — meeting her bunkmates, going to the cafeteria — every step is tricky. If she befriends the wrong person or says the wrong thing (which she does, a lot), the consequences can be severe. We, as the audience, are taken along, experiencing the same steep learning curve.

By the third episode, we’re as familiar with the nightly head-count routine as Piper is — and by the end of these 13 episodes, we not only know all the characters in this very large, very diverse ensemble comedy-drama, we feel for them, too. And that’s quite an achievement.

Fresh Air TV critic David Bianculli reviews two new miniseries, HBO’s True Detective and IFC’s The Spoils of Babylon:

The Spoils Of Babylon isn’t a drama, and isn’t even must-see — but it’s fun. Starting Thursday on IFC, it’s a multi-part production from Will Ferrell’s outlet with a very meta concept.

It pretends to be a lost period miniseries from a previous era — the era of such overblown, decade-spanning romances as The Thorn Birds — and stars Kristen Wiig, Tobey Maguire, Tim Robbins, Jessica Alba and others, with a theme song sung by Steve Lawrence.

It’s acted, staged, written and directed like an intentionally bad Ed Wood movie. And for this pretend “lost masterpiece” unveiling, each episode is introduced by its alleged auteur, played by Will Ferrell in all-out Orson Welles-gone-to-seed mode. The costumes and tacky direction made me laugh — and so did Ferrell as writer-director-producer Eric Jonrosh, whose intros are filmed at an old-school Hollywood restaurant.

photo of Tobey Maguire and Kristen Wiig in The Spoils of Babylon via the New York Post