Author Alan Sepinwall on 'The Revolution was Televised'
Posted November 27, 2012
TV fans have a new must-read for this holiday season: The Revolution Was Televised: The Cops, Crooks Slingers and Slayers Who Changed TV Drama Forever by Alan Sepinwall.
It's an in-depth look at 12 TV dramas from the past 15 years (deep breath: They're Oz, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, The Sopranos, The Shield, 24, The Wire, Deadwood, Battlestar Galactica, Lost, Friday Night Lights, Mad Men and Breaking Bad) that changed the way we watch TV — and features not only a look back at the unique styles and storytelling of those shows, but in-depth interviews with the writers, creators and stars.
It's got some candid stuff, from how Season 1 of Mad Men nearly ended to the revelation of how you almost found out what happened to that Russian from the "Pine Barrens" episode of The Sopranos to Damon Lindelof's thoughts on what Lost did and didn't do well (even he concedes they wasted John Hawkes, who even I forgot was one of the Temple guys in Season 6). It's a perfect way to relieve your favorite shows or get an introduction to shows you've read about but not personally experienced.
The self-published book is available in paperback and e-book format, and you can get more information about it (and links to the format ofyour choice), on Sepinwall's website — and you can check out this review from The New Yorker.
Sepinwall, who currently writes for Hitfix.com in the "What's Alan Watching?" blog, is one of my favorite TV critics for his in-depth episode-by-episode recaps of shows and interviews with their makers. Check out his old site for his detailed recaps of The Wire, Freaks & Geeks and much more. He also does the "Firewall and Iceberg" TV podcast with Dan Fienberg, which is a great and often hilarious weekly discussion of recent and upcoming TV shows.
I got Sepinwall on he phone to talk about his new book. Here's some highlights of our conversation.
What made you want to write this book?
I wrote a book years and years ago called Stop Being a Hater and Learn to Love The O.C.(laughs), and that was kind of a quickie written on commission — I think I bought a washer and dryer with it.
People kept asking me, "When are you going to write a book?"or, more accurately, "When are you going to write a real book?" And finally a book agent reached out to me and said, "You should write a book," and for some reason, this spurred me on more than anything else.
Given the arc of my career and these shows, this seemed like the most appropriate subject! From there, it was just a matter of getting interviews and finding time to write this with everything else.
In the chapters for each of the shows you examine, you also look at the shows that led up to them — for example, NYPD Blue and Homicide: Life on the Street, which are still well-regarded, but not examined as deeply as many shows that are acclaimed today. Why do you feel like, say, Steven Bochco's shows aren't as rerun as much or aren't held up as critical touchstones like Breaking Bad or The Sopranos?
It's a few things — it's funny, because I got started by writing about NYPD Blue and Homicide for my fan website, and said to myself, "TV will never be better than this!" And then these new shows came along and made a liar out of me.
As I talk about in the chapter on Deadwood, I went back and watched some NYPD Blue episodes to get reacquainted with Sipowicz, and NYPD Blue is still a great show … but it's not as great as Deadwood. And Hill Street Blues is not as great as NYPD Blue.
For the most part, TV drama has gotten better and better over time, and each show has gotten better than the ones before them. I think there's a demarcating line around when Tom Fontana did Oz when the range of what people were trying to do on television and the ambition level and power and depth of it changed so significantly that they become timeless in a way that Hill Street Blues is not.
Do you feel TV is at a level that has overtaken movies in terms of quality and critical analysis?
I will say in my original planning, the book was going to be more about that. The subtitle I had when I was first floating it was something like, "How Tony Soprano, Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Stringer Bell Made TV Matter More than Movies."
There's tremendous work being done in TV, and I'm happier to be writing about that than movies, but there's still great movies being made. It's just, and people mention this in the book, there were certain kinds of movies that used to be made, and TV shows have filled that hole.
Something like Rain Man, for instance. I don't know if that would be made today. It might be an HBO series about the slick brother and his autistic brother going on a road trip for four or five seasons.
…and now someone's going to steal that idea thanks to this interview.
But what I'm saying is you've got your blockbusters, and your prestige pictures, and then there's the middle-level movie that adults are going to see, and that's what Mad Men and The Sopranos took the place of.
One of the things liked about the book is in the chapters on Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Mad Men, you weren't able to get new interviews with Joss Whedon and Matthew Weiner, but you were able to use material from older interviews so well that it didn't feel like there were any lingering questions about their visions for those shows.
I'm glad to hear you say that! I was nervous about those. When I was writing this, Joss Whedon was finishing The Avengers and going on to be King of Hollywood, and Matt Weiner went from producing a season of Mad Men to directing his first feature film to another season of Mad Men almost immediately.
I worried those two chapters would lag behind, but I had a ton of archival material with Weiner from Mad Men interviews I'd done, and I had the access to a ton of people who worked with Joss like David Greenwalt and Jane Espenson who were kind of able to tell Joss' story for him. It wasn't the same as getting to sit down with David Milch for a few hours, but it was still great.
What were some of the biggest surprises you came across while doing these interviews?
I don't know about surprises, but I got a lot of details. Talking with David Chase about The Sopranos, I knew he wouldn't want to talk about the finale, but there were plenty of tales about making the show. Some tales I found out about literally as I was writing the chapter. I was working on the chapter on The Shield when Shawn Ryan randomly mentioned on Twitter that Eric Stoltz was almost cast as Vic Mackey!
Between that and Marty McFly, he's had some near-misses, Eric Stoltz has.
(laughs) As with Back to the Future, I think this is a case where everyone was better off with him not playing the part.
Why did you go the self-publishing route? I would imagine there'd be a market for a book with in-depth interviews with David Chase and David Milch and David Simon and other creative geniuses not named "David."
Well, I did pitch it to publishers about a year and a half ago, and there wasn't a lot of interest — there was some concern for the mass appeal of a TV book. So I decided to work on it on my own and then pitch it to publishers again…
…but you know what? I realized that everything I've done in my career that's taken that career to another level is something I've done on my own. I started that NYPD Blue site in college because I wanted to do it, and I did my original blog because I felt like doing it, not as part of The Star-Ledger's website, though it became part of it eventually.
The mechanism for self-publishing was there, I had total control, and I could publish almost immediately. And I could update when I wanted. There was a line in the epilogue about how Battlestar Galactica: Blood & Chrome was trapped in development hell, and then right as it was ready to go to publisher, all of the sudden it came out of development hell and came out on YouTube, and I was able to change that line at the last second.
I'm happy with the book. I don't know if I'll make as much money as I would have if I'd pitched it via the traditional route, but I had complete control and wrote the book I wanted to write. And I'm happy about that.
Thanks for talking with us, Alan. As I said, you can check out more from the book and links to where you can order it at www.alansepinwall.com.
Do you have any favorite shows from this book or TV dramas you'd like to see more written about? Speak up in the comments!
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