Thursday, December 6, 2012

The Revolution Was Televised: Alan Sepinwall Takes On TV’s New Golden Age

It has become almost cliché in some circles to proclaim that television – American television in particular – has never been better. Quality television is no longer, as it was for decades, confined to BBC adaptations of Jane Austen or Masterpiece Theatre on PBS. In the past fifteen years, television has grown into a genuinely popular art form, finally embracing all of its strengths as a medium: the ability to tell long, complicated stories rich in complex characters, compelling writing, and morally and narratively risky storylines. With new technological innovations (DVDs, Netflix, DirecTV) and the rise of the new business models that came with satellite TV and the ever-expanding cable universe, television is no longer a disposable medium. Shows are produced not only to be watched, but to be re-watched. We used to rent the shows we watched, but now we can literally own them. Television series like The Sopranos, Deadwood, The Wire, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, and Breaking Bad actually reward our attention, instead of discouraging it. The more you watch these shows, the richer they become. The impact of these shows successes – both artistically and commercially – is being felt across the whole television universe, and that story is far from over. That television has decidedly entered a new Golden Age is apparent to all of us who love the medium – what is less talked about is that TV criticism has grown up just as much in that same period. This new age of television has been paralleled by the rise of new and exciting forms of writing about television – and Alan Sepinwall is among the best of the new breed.

In his new book, The Revolution Was Televised: The Cops, Crooks, Slingers and Slayers Who Changed TV Drama Forever, Sepinwall takes on the last fifteen years of television, and promises to tell “the story of that transformation in both the medium and how we saw it, through the prism of the best and/or most important shows of the era.” There are few people as perfectly situated to tell that story as Alan Sepinwall, and the book delivers what he promises and more. 

TV critic Alan Sepinwall
There are only a handful of TV critics that I read with any regularity: James Poniewozik of TIME MagazineMaureen Ryan (formerly of the Chicago Tribune, and now the TV columnist for AOL/Huffington Post), and Sepinwall himself. Sepinwall began his writing career with the New Jersey Star-Ledger, but his best and most impactful writing about television has long been online. While employed at The Star-Ledger, he independently maintained an extremely popular blog, What’s Alan Watching?. In 2010, he left The Star-Ledger and went entirely virtual, moving his blog, and his large and invested readership, exclusively to HitFix.com. His HitFix page maintains the same interactive and intimate relationship he has always had with his fans, and true to its online pedigree, the most interesting stuff still happens in the Comments sections of any particular post.

Sepinwall’s online writing is a readable admixture of the enthusiasm of a fan and the thoughtful and unprejudiced eye of a critic. His mandate is determined less by what’s on television, than by what he loves. And like any true fan (whether of a sports team or a TV series), he often reserves his most critical eye for the shows that he loves most dearly. (A long-time fan of How I Met Your Mother, although he continues to write responses to every episode, his disappointment in recent seasons is unconcealed – a frustration he has brought to bear even when interviewing the show’s creators.) Reading Sepinwall often reminds me of an excited conversation with a knowledgeable and open-minded friend about the most recent episode of a beloved series.  Instead of breaking down the objects of his analysis, his critical view unpacks and unlocks it.

Sepinwall brings this same enthusiasm and spontaneity to his book. (Notably, the book is self-published, and that is a big part of what makes it so eminently readable and current. Bypassing the endless delays that come with a traditional press, the book went from completion to publication in only a few weeks – Sepinwall finished the book in late October, and it went on sale the third week of November – and that allowed him to include reflections on shows that premiered just a couple of months ago.) He borrows from the blog form of his online writing with recurring asterisked asides interrupting his main line of thought, but he also takes full advantage of the long form structure of the book, mixing this intimate and conversational tone with original and detailed analyses that draw on almost two decades of careful attention to the best and worst of television. Sepinwall devotes a chapter to each of the twelve shows that he judges to be the most important and groundbreaking series of the last fifteen years (specifically Oz, The Sopranos, The Wire, Deadwood, The Shield, Lost, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, 24, Battlestar Galactica, Friday Night Lights, Mad Men, and finally Breaking Bad), and, with a mixture of critical analysis and interviews with the men and women who created the shows, tells the story behind their stories. Each of these chapters could stand on their own, and the fact is that each of these TV series could each merit a book-length treatment – and many already have inspired more than one! – but Sepinwall weaves them together into a larger tale that is greater than the sum of its parts.

David Milch (left) on the set of Deadwood
Chances are you are a fan of some, but not all of these shows, and I was pleased to find that I was equally engaged by chapters devoted to the shows that I love deeply (Deadwood, The Wire, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Breaking Bad) as I was by chapters on shows that I have never invested much time in (Oz) and even shows that I never much enjoyed at all. (I was surprised, for example, at how fascinating I found the chapter on Lost – a series I have never cared for, either in itself or in the shows it has inspired. But as Sepinwall tells it, the story of Lost becomes an intriguing tale of the birth and lifespan of an unconventional network series.) The revolution his book is devoted to describing didn’t happen overnight – it came as a series of small, often unrelated steps – and it is precisely in those details that its most important moments live. And though the individual chapters can be seen as self-standing biographies of particular shows, Sepinwall regularly breaks that frame to fill in the background required to make sense of them. (The story of Deadwood for example is, in many ways, the story of its writer/creator David Milch – and that story can’t be told without long excursions into Hill Street Blues, NYPD Blue, and the larger-than-life personality of Milch himself. The story of Battlestar Galactica begins years earlier with creator Ronald Moore’s long tenure with Star Trek: The Next Generation and Deep Space Nine.) The richness of these accounts, often told in the voices of the very people who lived them, combined with Sepinwall’s deep and encyclopedic knowledge of the TV universe, means that there is always something to surprise and entertain – even for the most diehard fans.

And drawing on his unprecedented access to the people behind our favourite shows, sprinkled in the mix of every story Sepinwall tells are those juicy background details that every fan loves to hear: John C. Reilly was offered the part of McNulty on The Wire before Dominic West took it? Is that really what David Chase imagined happened to that Russian mobster who disappeared in the classic third season Sopranos’ episode Pine Barrens”?)

Though many of the interviews that pepper the book were done especially with the new project in mind, Sepinwall has been in on-going conversation with these key writers, producers, and executives for over a decade. Often, Sepinwall is part of the story itself: for example, as the diverse and divisive reactions to The Sopranos’ infamous fade to black final scene were beginning to come into focus, Sepinwall sat down with Sopranos’ creator David Chase the morning after the final episode aired, and had the first and perhaps most revealing interview with Chase (who has otherwise been stubbornly close-mouthed about the scene’s meaning). Diehard Sopranos fans are still picking apart Chase’s words from that morning.

The background Sepinwall provides deepens, rather than debunks. And contrary to the popular wisdom that seeing how something is made disenchants, it turns out that great television has little in common with sausages in that respect: with Sepinwall as your guide, your love and respect for these shows will only increase. The best thing I can say about the book is that it was difficult to keep reading: practically every page made me want to put the book down, pull those old DVDs off the shelf, and re-watch my favourite shows.

My only real criticism of The Revolution Was Televised is that Sepinwall chose to limit his attention to dramatic series. Television comedy has undergone a unique and remarkable evolution in recent years, and the story that runs from Seinfeld to How I Met Your Mother to Louie is one I would love to hear Sepinwall tell. Still, I suppose that just leaves material for a second volume – one I eagerly await.

 Mark Clamen is a writer, critic, film programmer and lifelong television enthusiast. He lives in Toronto, where he often lectures on television, film, and popular culture.

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