For forty years, David Bianculli has been a noted TV critic, perhaps best known for his audio commentaries and interviews on PBS’s radio show, Fresh Air. As he demonstrates on every page of The Platinum Age of Television, Bianculli’s personal wealth of TV knowledge is very deep indeed, going back to the 1950s when the author’s childhood love affair with the small screen began.
One stated purpose for the book is the tracing of the evolution of quality television starting long before TV’s “Platinum Age.” Bianculli claims the age began in 1999 when two important series premiered, The West Wing and The Sopranos. Just what qualifies as quality TV might surprise some readers as the first two chapters deal with children’s shows and animation. Then there’s the chapter on soaps, not the daytime series but the influential ongoing storylines in programs like Peyton Place and Dallas.
Bianculli looks at the full history of television in such chapters devoted to different genres and categories, usually opening with overviews that briefly touch on series he doesn’t spotlight followed by focused discussions of shows he believes are landmarks in TV’s evolution. Despite the book’s title, I Love Lucy isn’t covered until Chapter 8. In many discussions, as with Legal shows, he also mentions radio programs that set the stage for their television descendants. For example, he gives us a detailed history of crime shows before the first series he highlights in that genre, 1981’s Hill St. Blues. Before that groundbreaking show, Bianculli points to the differences between quality and popularity, in this case all the TV detectives who had only one characteristic or another to distinguish themselves from each other in very interchangeable storylines. Then came Hill St. Blues and NYPD Blue and crime shows dramatically evolved into a new era of maturity and creativity all the way up to Breaking Bad.
For each genre, Bianculli offers up these detailed history lessons with no shortage of analytical observations along with often hit-and-run explorations of the shows he spotlights. At the end of most chapters are interviews with and retrospectives of key figures like Mel Brooks, Carol Burnett, Stephen Bochco, Norman Lear, James L. Brooks and many others. Not only is Bianculli a devoted watcher of hundreds of hours of TV—claiming to have seen every broadcast of Saturday Night Live—his interviews add an insider’s point-of-view that shares what performers and creators think about their work, how their shows came to be, their motivations and influences, and often judgements of their respective legacies.
The Platinum Age is a book for anyone who loves television, and who doesn’t that include? As it reaches back to the beginning and includes series up to the present, it should interest all generations of TV watchers. I suppose there are those who would be most curious about specific chapters that deal with the genres they prefer. All readers will learn things they likely haven’t discovered before and should measure their own judgements against Bianculli’s. Fawlty Towers as the first workplace sitcom worthy of a spotlight? Did you know about the 1963 Arrest and Trial, a 90 minute mix of police work and courtroom drama decades before the Law and Order franchise did the same thing? Do you remember The Days and Nights of Molly Dodd and the fact it featured a single mother who had a child on her own a year before Murphy Brown launched an unintentional controversy with the same event? In short, this is a book for pretty much everyone willing to put down the remote and read an engaging book about what they’re watching.
This review first appeared Jan. 21, 2016 at BookPleasures.com: