TV critic, Prof. David Bianculli is the original binge-watcher
By Kevin C. Shelly, the Courier-Post
Terry Gross laughs as soon as David Bianculli’s Cherry Hill home is mentioned. So does Danny Miller, longtime producer of “Fresh Air,” the National Public Radio show hosted by Gross, where Bianculli contributes and routinely guest-hosts. “His house is like this great pop culture museum. You can see his enthusiasm in his house,” says Miller.
The giggles of Gross and Miller turn skeptical — faster, louder — when they hear Bianculli has talked about organizing the space where he’s lived since 1987, perhaps as a prelude to selling and moving to Philadelphia, nearer to WHYY, where the radio show is based.
“I don’t think that is going to happen,” says Gross of what would be a Herculean task.
Their skepticism is understandable: His house is like a randomly organized Blockbuster store frozen in time, where every elevated flat space is crammed with books, CDs, and yes, several rooms filled with videotapes. At least the tapes seem to all be in VHS format.
The pool table has disappeared in piles of packages and projects, much like the dining room table. Bianculli, 60, insists that’s a good thing, cutting down on possible distractions from writing.
Basement steps are littered with items in search of a home, some coming down, others up, most stuck in limbo.
Boxes of tax receipts — some from the year past, some present — clutter a narrow pathway through the basement. At the foot of the steps, unopened mail, including financial statements, spread across the floor.
An unused treadmill — “Shut up!” the blocky Bianculli responds good-naturedly at its mention — is obscured by a pile of boxes. A manic mix of TV show CDs fills the boxes: “Gilmore Girls,’’ “Ponderosa,’’ “Superman’’ and “The Mickey Mouse Club.’’
Nearby, a framed shot of a Sports Illustrated bikini model hangs on a basement wall, the model’s personalized inscription noting the divorced Bianculli is single.
Desks throughout the house are so overflowing that the kitchen table has been pressed into service for his must-do-now writing for the college classroom and the radio.
Bianculli’s nearly out of space even there, just enough space for his laptop and a legal pad.
“Just finding out what’s not findable is tricky,” he admits.
Asked how he juggles his duties — writer, academic, radio personality and Internet publisher — amid the welter, Bianculli breaks into a broad grin.
“I’m still looking for an answer. It’s triage. I wake up and deal with it,” he says.
Watching for the rest of us
Bianculli’s been dealing with finding an answer to deadlines, detritus and overlapping duties for a long time, paid to watch TV for a living for nearly 40 years. His career began while still in college, earning $5 for a story on the premiere of a new show named “Saturday Night Live.”
“I’ve seen a shameful amount of TV,” Bianculli says without a hint of remorse.
The TV critic has contributed pieces about the medium to “Fresh Air” for nearly 30 years, more recently guest-hosting regularly.
He also is a professor of television and film at Rowan University, and the founder and editor of the website “TV Worth Watching,” which he began the day he walked away from daily newspaper journalism, disenchanted.
“I was there at the last glory period. I had a great ride,” he says of his newspapering days.
Bianculli’s at work on his fourth book, tentatively titled “The Best Television Ever Made.”
He’s wondering how many books — and more precisely book contracts — he has left in him.
“Books are like babies. It’s great to have given birth, but the process is nothing but a pain. I do book writing rarely; usually in 18-hour bursts on the weekends. It is like writing the world’s largest term paper,” he says.
Though he hasn’t written for a paper in more than six years, Bianculli is still essentially a newspaper writer — with stints at the Philadelphia Inquirer, and New York’s Post and Daily News. The writing speed and discipline he honed cranking it out for daily papers is now reflexively applied to whatever writing task at hand.
“I’m an old fart. I grew up reading books and newspapers and I like writing for books and newspapers,” he explains. “I write for myself.”
For a moment, he swears a cleanup of his Cherry Hill house is possible — after first admitting his office at Rowan is even morecluttered than his home.
Habitually clad in a Hawaiian shirt — he has more than 30 —Bianculli, who looks like he could be an older brother of Cam on “Modern Family,” says, “I could do it a room at a time. I know where things are, once they are put away.”
There’s a pause.
Wistfully, Bianculli quips, “I’ll probably die before I clean the house. It’s sort of like Pompeii — without the ashes.”
Bianculli’s afraid to throw things out, mistrustful of the unseen and the untouchable, especially the inscrutable data cloud.
The desktop screen of his basement iMac computer, where he works on his books, has dozens and dozens of files tightly lined up across the screen, like so many domino tiles ready to fall. Bianculli has them arrayed on his desktop because he wants to at least seefiles if he can’t actually touch them.
“I’m like the old man of the Internet. I don’t trust technology. I have Luddited my way through the past 20 years,” says the man who still has a bank of analog TVs in his basement, where he simultaneously watched every news channel during the attacks of 9/11.
His technology is more current upstairs, in the living room. A plump recliner faces a giant flat-screen. The TV table to the chair’s right holds 10 separate remotes, plus two flashlights. Up on the roof there are three satellite dishes and a huge conventional antennae.
Bianculli looks at ease in the chair, mission control for his real job: watching TV before analyzing it.
While not an apologist for television, he’s tweaked some pop culture writers for their “laughable ignorance” of television, including one who claimed, “Everybody watches (TV), but no one really likes it.”
Bianculli scathingly responded to that comment in the introduction of one of his earlier books:
“That’s the comment of someone who writes about TV a lot more than he watches it — or, at least, of someone who watches all the wrong things … I’m not saying all TV is good; the majority of it isn’t. I’m arguing that the best of TV is very good indeed, and that the idea of indiscriminately ridiculing or avoiding the medium of television displays no more intelligence than denouncing all movies as fluff or holding a ‘Don’t Open a Book Day.’ ”
That approach leads to the name of his website — “TV Worth Watching” — and its method, which focuses exclusively on good and great TV — no Kardashians, no Honey Boo Boo.
It also explains his “forensic criticism” of television, based on the “evolutionary DNA” of new shows that bridge, build and borrow from their antecedents.
To understand Bianculli’s approach to what truly matters in television, consider some of the shows that most influenced him in his youth: “The Bullwinkle Show,” “The Muppet Show,” “Saturday Night Live,” “The Great American Dream Machine,” and “The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour.”
As different as these shows are, what ties them together is a feel and appreciation for language, wit and cleverness, along with deep-seated irreverence, a bit of anarchy and a tendency to poke authority.
He sees some of those traits springing from Ernie Kovacs’ ground-breaking television shows in the 1950s, the first shows to combine absurdist humor with the sight gags that television makes possible.
Bianculli, who began his teaching career by working with prisoners in his native Florida, is disheartened so few of his Rowan students have seen Kovacs and other early television, let alone understand their significance and influence.
But he takes heart at the “five or six out of 100” students who get fired up by Kovacs’ genius.
Kovacs “hits them hardest,” he says of his best students. Those are the same students who understand that Jimmy Fallon’s riffing on an invisible saxophone with his band is just one clear sign that Kovacs is Fallon’s broadcasting grandfather.
“I enjoy teaching my students as well as learning from them. I get a really up-to-date picture of what they are watching. They are not watching broadcast TV” or the evening news, he says.
His students instead watch Netflix and Hulu on demand and often not on a traditional television. In fact, many don’t watch much television at all.
“I am always surprised at how little TV they watch. They are majoring in TV — but not watching TV,” says Bianculli.
A desire to provide context and explain television history, plus a promise of complete access with no conditions, led to his most recently published book, “Dangerously Funny: The Uncensored Story of the Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour.”
The book details the comedy duo’s meteoric rise and fall at CBS, their show’s influence on music, culture and politics, and the lasting legacy they created through the many careers they kickstarted.
While Bianculli’s not ready to quit any of his day jobs, the 2009 “Smothers Brothers’’ book is under option for a film adaptation by George Clooney’s production company. While few optioned works actually make it to screen, the fact that Clooney’s company filmed “Good Night, and Good Luck,” the story of radio-to-TV pioneer Edward R. Murrow, has Bianculli feeling optimistic.
“It’s an honor that (Clooney) read it and saw enough in it,” to consider making a movie, says Bianculli.
For now, Bianculli remains busy with researching and writing his next book, freshening up his college class plans and writing for and hosting “Fresh Air.”
He began at the NPR show by happenstance, just as the show was transitioning from a local show to national.
The national launch coincided with a strike at the Philadelphia Inquirer, where he was then working. Bianculli got invited to contribute TV pieces as something of a fill-in for the void left by the strike-bound Inquirer. He’s never left “Fresh Air’’ and his role has expanded, with him guest- hosting regularly.
Taking TV seriously
“We’ve always thought of TV as something integral for ‘Fresh Air,’ ’’ says Miller, the show’s producer. “We wanted to cover television as seriously as we do books and movies.”
“He’s really special,” says Gross. “His mind … He can fit it into the whole history of a show. He has a nice presence on air. Such a friendly presence, like a warm family member. ‘Uncle David.’ He writes well and radio-friendly. We’re grateful for the long and happy relationship.”
“He has a really good eye for trends and what will be important,” says Miller, mentioning that reality TV and the rise of cable were two of the trends Bianculli wrote about early.
“And he has abundant enthusiasm for that handful of shows that are truly great,” says Miller.
“He’s totally all heart and enthusiasm,” adds Miller. “This is a relationship that is nearly 30 years old.”
With that sort of review and his longevity, perhaps Bianculli’s plan to declutter his house, sell it, and move nearer to WHYY, will happen after all.
|Date Published:||Wednesday, March 5, 2014 - 13:45|