David Bianculli

David Bianculli is a guest host and TV critic on NPR's Fresh Air with Terry Gross. A contributor to the show since its inception, he has been a TV critic since 1975.

From 1993 to 2007, Bianculli was a TV critic for the New York Daily News.

Bianculli has written three books: Dangerously Funny: The Uncensored Story of 'The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour (Simon & Schuster/Touchstone, 2009), Teleliteracy: Taking Television Seriously (1992), and Dictionary of Teleliteracy (1996).

An associate professor of TV and film at Rowan University in New Jersey, Bianculli is also the founder and editor of the online magazine, TVWorthWatching.com.

This weekend, the AMC cable network begins showing the final episodes of its acclaimed drama series Breaking Bad, and launches a new one: Low Winter Sun. Meanwhile, HBO presents its newest made-for-TV movie — this one a comedy, starring and co-written by Larry David.

So much TV, so little time. Even during the summer — when broadcast TV slows down and leaves mostly cable and satellite TV series, and now Netflix, to watch and review — the TV shows on DVD keep coming. And summertime is the perfect time to dive into some of them.

Netflix's original series Orange Is the New Black has two important TV predecessors. One is HBO's Oz, the 1997 men-in-prison drama from Tom Fontana that paved the way for HBO's The Sopranos. The other is Showtime's Weeds, which in the fourth season put one of its central characters behind bars.

The one major change series creator Aaron Sorkin made to The Newsroom between seasons was a structural one. Instead of having each week's show focus on a separate major storyline, this year's edition of The Newsroom follows a single story over the course of the entire season. And it's a season-long plot line in which anchor Will McAvoy and the other employees of the fictional Atlantic Cable News network get one important news report very wrong.

The FX version of the Scandinavian series The Bridge, like the Showtime version of the Israeli TV series that inspired Homeland, is a major revamp as well as a crucial relocation. With Homeland, the focus became American politics and home-soil terrorism. In The Bridge, premiering July 10, the setting is changed to the U.S.-Mexico border. This allows executive producer Meredith Stiehm, a writer-producer from Homeland, to deal with everything that relocation provides — including the white-hot issues of immigration reform and border security.

For at least as long as there have been Fall Preview issues of TV Guide, there's been a sense of optimistic excitement about the start of new television series. But more recently, producers of long-running TV shows have injected excitement into the ends of their programs' life spans as well. By announcing, in advance, that a show is going into its final season, no matter what, it ups the emotional ante on what to expect — and, with a finite end in sight, what might happen.

When Mitch Hurwitz and his collaborators began making the Fox sitcom Arrested Development 10 years ago, it was loaded with jokes — in-jokes, recurring jokes and just plain bizarre jokes — that rewarded viewers who watched more than once. But even though it won the Emmy for best comedy series one year, not enough viewers bothered to watch it even once, so the show was canceled in 2006 after three seasons. And that would have been it, except for a loyal cult following that built up once the show was released on DVD and the Internet.

Before you see any of Behind the Candelabra -- when you just consider the concept of the TV movie and its casting — this new HBO Films production raises all sorts of questions: How much will be based on verifiable fact, and how much will be fictionalized? On an anything-goes premium-cable network such as HBO, how graphic will the sex scenes be?

And the most important questions involve the drama's two leading men, playing an ultra-flamboyant piano player and the wide-eyed young man who becomes his behind-the-scenes companion for five years. Michael Douglas? Matt Damon?

Christopher Guest, co-creator with Jim Piddock of the new HBO comedy series Family Tree, obviously is having a good time making this show — and it's contagious. It's several shows in one, and every element is a self-assured little delight.

Rectify, a new drama series from the Sundance Channel, wants to stand out from the pack — and it certainly succeeds at that. It's a six-hour limited series, more along the British model of TV than ours here in the States. If these first six installments catch on enough, the story will continue. If not, that's it.

And Rectify is so unusual a show, with its own deliberate pace and premise and approach, that it may not build enough viewership to keep going. But that doesn't mean it's not a worthwhile show, or a memorable one — because it is.

Ken Burns has said that no matter what subjects he tackles in his documentaries — baseball or jazz, Mark Twain or the Civil War — they always seem to boil down to two things: "race and place."

That's certainly true with his latest film, The Central Park Five, which tells of the violent assault and rape of a female jogger in 1989. The place was New York City — and because of citywide racial tensions at the time, the story was seized upon by New York tabloids and national TV newscasts alike.

For decades, when broadcast television called the shots and dominated the TV landscape, the biggest event of the year was "the fall season," when networks would unveil their new shows and return with fresh episodes of old favorites. But now, because of cable and satellite TV, the fall season isn't the only game in town.

The HBO movie Phil Spector is a production that demands attention because of the heavyweight names attached. First, of course, there's the subject of the drama: Spector himself, the man who invented the "wall of sound," and recorded hits for everyone from the Crystals, Darlene Love and Ike & Tina Turner to the Beatles and the Righteous Brothers. Oh, and who also went on trial, in 2007, for the 2003 shooting death of actress Lana Clarkson.

Top of the Lake, a new seven-part miniseries premiering tonight on the Sundance Channel, was co-created and co-directed by Jane Campion, who teamed with Holly Hunter 20 years ago on the movie The Piano. Hunter is back for this new project, playing a mysterious New Agey guru of sorts. She's started a small commune for emotionally damaged women, on a remote strip of land in New Zealand.

This week brings two new high-profile drama series. One is The Americans, premiering Jan. 30 on the FX network; it's about sleeper KGB agents living in the U.S. during the Reagan era. The other is House of Cards, a new series premiering Feb. 1.

In the new Fox TV series The Following, Kevin Bacon plays a former FBI agent asked to help apprehend an escaped serial killer he once put behind bars. The show is from Kevin Williamson, who also created the Scream horror-movie franchise.

Of all the cable comedies returning with new episodes Sunday, Girls is the most ambitious — as well as the most unpredictable, and occasionally unsettling.

When thirtysomething premiered on ABC more than 25 years ago — yes, it's been that long — that drama series was both embraced and attacked for focusing so intently on the problems of self-obsessed people in their 30s. What that drama did for that generation, Girls does for a new one — and for an even younger demographic, by presenting a quartet of young women in their mid-20s.

Downton Abbey, the drama series about the residents and servants at a grand estate in early 20th-century England, has done for PBS what the commercial broadcast networks couldn't achieve last year. It generated a hit show — one with an audience that increased over its run and left fans hungry for more. And that's a lot of hunger because when the second season was televised here in the states, it averaged 7 million viewers, more than most TV shows on any network, cable or broadcast.

On Friday night on PBS, Great Performances presents a documentary about the making of a Beatles TV special from 1967 — Magical Mystery Tour — then shows a restored version of that special. Magical Mystery Tour has the music from the U.S. album of the same name, but it's not the album. It's a musical comedy fantasy about the Beatles and a busload of tourists taking a trip to unknown destinations.

I'm biased, of course, because I'm a television critic — but to me, giving someone a gift of a TV show you yourself enjoyed tremendously is somehow very personal. You're giving something that you love, and that in many cases will occupy many hours, if not days, of their time. And during that time, they'll occasionally be reminded of you.

Right now, as we near the end of the 2012 fall TV premiere week, there's a tendency for a sense of weariness to set in. So many of the new TV series are so bad this year, and not one of them is outstanding. It tends to get a little depressing.

But then you think about the rich bounty of returning series, and how good television drama has gotten lately, and there's cause to rejoice all over again.

Last year, the broadcast networks didn't do well at all when it came to new series development. We got ABC's clever Once Upon a Time, which was about it for the fall crop, until midseason perked things up with NBC's Smash. Otherwise, a year ago, all the exciting new fall series were on cable, thanks to Showtime's brilliant Homeland and FX's audacious American Horror Story.

Johnny Carson walked away from The Tonight Show, after 30 years at the top of the late-night ratings, of his own volition. And except for a few fleeting TV appearances after he retired, he never looked back — and never went back. When filmmaker Peter Jones would send an annual letter to Carson, asking for his cooperation in a TV biography of him, the answer was always no. One year, Carson went so far as to explain why: Let the work, he said, speak for itself.

I, Claudius came to American television, imported from the BBC, in 1977 — the same year as another ambitious long-form production, ABC's Roots, which proved to everyone that miniseries were an exciting and extremely popular new form of television. I, Claudius, shown on the PBS series Masterpiece Theatre, didn't get anything close to the audience that Roots did — but it sure got a lot of attention.

This Sunday, HBO premieres a new comedy series that's written and directed by Lena Dunham, who grabbed the media spotlight in 2010 with her film Tiny Furniture. She's 25 years old now, and stars in this new TV series as well.

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