'The Platinum Age of Television' sees 'The Sopranos' as the start of a new era

NPR television critic Bianculli traces the evolution of 18 genres and subcategories of TV shows while tracking the revolution that began with 'The Sopranos.'

The Platinum Age of Television By David Bianculli Doubleday 576 pp.

David Bianculli dissects television with Darwinian precision. Need proof? Look no further than his encyclopedic history, The Platinum Age of Television.

In his hefty but brisk analysis of pop culture’s most powerful medium, Bianculli traces the evolution of 18 genres and subcategories while tracking the revolution of the contemporary embarrassment of riches that began with "The Sopranos." Some categories examined are obvious – legal and medical shows, crime and variety/sketch — and others are less so. Examples of the latter include the author’s picks categorized as “splitcoms,” defined as comedies that toggle between work and home ("The Bob Newhart Show" and "Seinfeld," among others), and comedies about single working women, exemplified by influential hits including "The Mary Tyler Moore Show," "Murphy Brown," and "Girls."

Even shows not singled out for more in-depth consideration find a way into the book through side trips and digressions filled with asides and nuggets such as how David Milch fell into TV writing through a former college classmate while teaching literature at Yale. Milch’s first job was on "Hill Street Blues," where he worked for Steven Bochco and with actor Dennis Franz, who would all later collaborate on another influential cop show, "NYPD Blue." From there, Milch went on to create "Deadwood," a groundbreaking Western that ran three seasons on HBO.

"Deadwood" starred Timothy Olyphant, who, of course, went on to play Raylan Givens in the black humor crime drama "Justified" on FX, another show revered for sharp, edgy writing.... Analysis abounds, from the evolutionary line connecting "Hill Street Blues" with the MTV-drenched crime show "Miami Vice" and the romantic comedy "Moonlighting." And those are just the police and detective shows from the mid-1980s.

Don’t forget, either, that the "Hill Street Blues" writing staff included future "Twin Peaks" creator Mark Frost and "Law & Order" executive producer and creator Dick Wolf.

And on it goes, with “The Platinum Age” sweeping this reader from one era to another, turning the subject of so much binge watching into binge-reading. Who knew, for instance, that "Simpsons" creator Matt Groening was inspired to spawn an entire town of coming and going characters from watching "The Andy Griffith Show"?

Shonda Rhimes’ recent run of hit shows is considered here, as are James Garner’s “more cowardly than heroic” characters James Rockford and Brett Maverick. Larry Wilmore, the former "Daily Show" correspondent, observes of "All in the Family" that the 70s sitcom was laced with dialogue that would likely be banned today. Speaking of "The Daily Show," Jon Stewart’s lauded 16-year run as host is explored, along with related shows "The Colbert Report" and "Last Week Tonight" with John Oliver.

Bianculli has been a TV critic for 40 years. NPR listeners know him for his reviews and guest-hosting spots on "Fresh Air." Those experiences, along with various sideline academic gigs, add up to a perfect combination for studying and explaining TV with a learned and accessible approach.

His title plays on the familiar description of the 1950s as TV’s “Golden Age,” populated by groundbreaking shows such as "I Love Lucy" and "The Honeymooners" as well as a slew of anthologies, including "Playhouse 90," "Kraft Television Theater," and "Alfred Hitchcock Presents."

Bianculli’s premise – indisputable, in this reviewer’s opinion – is that the 1999 arrival of "The Sopranos" on HBO ushered in a new and unparalleled TV era. Tony Soprano, played by James Gandolfini, was a New Jersey mob boss whose personal and family problems forced him into therapy and made him relatable despite his violent, illegal day job.

Or, as Bianculli writes, “The Sopranos freed up TV writer-producers of other shows to put not just flawed heroes but flawed antiheroes and villains at the center of their own subsequent drama series.” In other words, "The Sopranos," in many ways, begat "Breaking Bad," "Mad Men," "The Wire," "The Shield," "The Walking Dead," and "Game of Thrones," among the many other superb shows that have followed since. The way stories are told on TV, the asymmetric length of seasons and the narrative complexity all took quantum leaps once HBO’s New Jersey mobsters became both critical and popular darlings.

Sprinkled throughout the book – which is divided into 18 show categories – are interviews with TV innovators. Interview subjects include Mel Brooks, Carol Burnett, Ken Burns, Norman Lear, Bob Newhart, Amy Schumer, and Aaron Sorkin, offering insight on their own work and major influences. Brooks spans the entire history of TV, including his writing for "Your Show of Shows" in the 1950s to co-creating the spy spoof "Get Smart" in the mid-1960s. Brooks went on to write and direct a few movies you may have heard of, including "Blazing Saddles," "Young Frankenstein," and "The Producers."

“We never wrote for the public,” Brooks tells Bianculli by way of explaining the approach of the writers on "Your Show of Shows." (His colleagues there included Sid Caesar and Carl Reiner.) “We wrote for us, and we prayed to God that the public would get it.”

Bianculli’s conversations include an interview with Garry Shandling, who died in March 2016. Shandling’s "Larry Sanders Show" in the 1990s depicted the ceaseless insecurity, infighting, and insincerity of a late-night talk-show host, his co-workers and the celebrities populating a fictional talk show. Over the span of a few pages, Bianculli shares an interesting career overview. Shandling spent his youth as a ham radio operator, majored in engineering in college and later shifted toward TV, including a writing job on the mid-70s sitcom "Sanford and Son."

Shandling told Bianculli that his Larry Sanders character benefited from real-life insights shared by Peter Lassally, a former producer for Johnny Carson and David Letterman. “I would tell him the story we were working on, and he’d say, ‘Oh, that would cause this or that to happen.’”

Bianculli loves TV and his passion shines throughout these pages. Again and again, he displays genuine enthusiasm for what’s current and what’s ahead.

Or, as he puts it, “I’m an old dog pointing out that the new tricks are even better.”

There are bound to be missteps in a book this comprehensive and this one is no different. Bianculli tends to repeat himself in the interview sections by re-stating what made particular shows important and influential even after having already offered similar thoughts in various genre chapters. And, yes, his attachment to "The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour" and "The Twilight Zone," among other favorites, can be a little much.

Those are minor complaints, though, in a book that is always thoughtful and comprehensive. From "L.A. Law" to "The Good Wife," "M*A*S*H" to "ER," "Gunsmoke" to "Lonesome Dove," and many, many more, Bianculli manages to hit on just about every conceivable aspect of TV. Joss Whedon, the revered show runner of "Buffy the Vampire Slayer," who has gone on to direct blockbuster superhero movies, reveals his love of serial novel-style story arcs that give the viewer “accumulated knowledge.”

Bianculli also writes a nuanced, honest assessment of "The Cosby Show" and how its legacy has been affected by sexual assault and rape allegations against Bill Cosby.

“What Bill Cosby accomplished on, and with, The Cosby Show was remarkable,” he writes. “What he’s accused of doing in his private life, by scores of women, is reprehensible, and the pall it casts upon his career body of work, unless it is refuted or diluted, may very well end up erasing his best accomplishments from popular culture and memory.”

Anyone even casually acquainted with beloved TV series – and that covers just above everyone – will want to read Bianculli to see what he thinks of their favorites while also learning about other shows to sample.

For those who have forgotten, or never knew, the likes of "Columbo" and "The Fugitive," here is a reminder-primer. Many, including this reader, may have overlooked a show such as the late-1980s entry "China Beach." If so, it’s Bianculli to the rescue. "Star Trek" and "The X-Files," "Saturday Night Live" and "In Living Color," "Dallas" and "Desperate Housewives": the range here is all but endless.

Both versions of "The Office" come in for their evaluations, while Bianculli reminds his readers that one of the biggest comedy hits in TV history – "Cheers" – finished 74th among 99 shows during its debut season. In 73rd place that year? "Taxi," one of many seminal creations by writer-producer James L. Brooks, whose other credits include "The Simpsons" with Matt Groening.

And it is Groening who tells the author in simple, optimistic terms how lucky so many viewers are at the moment.

“It’s absolutely an amazing time in TV, and I never would have predicted that TV would get this good,” he said. Bianculli makes Groening’s case, and then some.

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