I have a small shelf full of histories of the television industry, none of them as complete, sharp-witted, and entertaining as David Bianculli’s new book, titled (take a deep breath now) The Platinum Age of Television: From I Love Lucy to The Walking Dead, How TV Became Terrific (Doubleday). Bianculli’s title raises the stakes in TV-era quality. A television critic for more than 40 years, he knows that it was the 1950s and early ’60s that were considered the “Golden Age of Television,” ushering in the first wave of great live dramas and groundbreaking comedy series ranging from Sid Caesar’s revolutionary sketch show Your Show of Shows and, yes, I Love Lucy. The author says his title “plays off the recording-industry standards awarding platinum records to indicate sales even higher than those of gold record sales winners,” and he sets the date for the platinum era as commencing in 1999: “the eve of the new century,” Bianculli writes, “when television gave us one of the last great dramas on broadcast TV, NBC’s The West Wing, as well as one of the first great cable dramas, HBO’s The Sopranos.” In other words, Bianculli implies that as broadcast quality was dimming, cable (and later streaming) would commence a new era of excellence and innovation.
The book isn’t structured like your usual plod through chronological history. Bianculli’s way of navigating the reader is to break up TV evolution by genre, choosing what he considers the top five shows in a variety of categories, including “Crime,” “Variety/Sketch,” “Children’s Programs,” and “Workplace Sitcoms.” These categories are broken down even further with interviews Bianculli has conducted with key TV creators — often-illuminating chats with figures ranging from Mel Brooks (an early Sid Caesar writer as well as performer), producer Steven Bochco (Hill Street Blues, L.A. Law), Vince Gilligan (Breaking Bad, The X-Files), Matthew Weiner (Mad Men), and Louis C.K.
Each interviewee discusses not only his or her own work but shows that shaped their childhoods. For instance, David Simon, creator of The Wire, confesses to being a kid who was obsessed with Jackie Gleason’s great sitcom The Honeymooners: “To this day, I can’t walk out on a Honeymooners episode.” (No surprise: Weiner says, “I wasn’t allowed to watch TV as a kid.”) Gilligan traces his casting of Bryan Cranston in Breaking Bad to an appearance the actor made in an episode of The X-Files that Gilligan had written called “Drive,” in which Cranston played a man whose intense head pain can be alleviated only by driving nonstop — so he kidnaps David Duchovny’s Mulder to do so, at gunpoint.
Bianculli, who has worked as a TV critic for the Philadelphia Inquirer, the New York Daily News, and National Public Radio’s “Fresh Air,” adds his personal two cents when appropriate, telling fond tales of watching The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour with his father, and citing the layered puns and absurdism of Rocky and Bullwinkle as a deep influence on his own sense of humor. (Look at the amazingly literate yet wacky “Fractured Fairy Tale” version of “Rapunzel” that appeared on the debut episode of Bullwinkle embedded here.)
As I said, I have a lot of TV histories on my shelf, but it’s most likely Bianculli’s I’ll pull down when I want to not only get a fact correct but also obtain a terse critical perspective. And once you open it up to read about, say, the origins of The Mary Tyler Moore Show, you’re liable to get irresistibly pulled into other areas you hadn’t come to explore, such as Bianculli’s take on M*A*S*H or why Buffy the Vampire Slayer is “the most-studied TV show in history, written about and pored over even more than The Sopranos or The Wire or Breaking Bad.” In other words, this is history to get happily lost in.
The Platinum Age of Television by David Bianculli is on sale now.