In his first session with Dr. Jennifer Melfi, Tony Soprano says: "It's good to be in something from the ground floor. I came too late for that, I know. But lately, I'm getting the feeling that I came in at the end. The best is over."
But as television critic Alan Sepinwall points out in his incisive new book, the joke was on Tony. "The show that told his story represented not the end of something, but the thrilling ground floor." Though other series such as "NYPD Blue," "Twin Peaks" and "Oz" made the revolution possible, "The Sopranos" was "the one that made the world realize something special was happening on television," the author says. "It rewrote the rules and made TV a ... place for thinking viewers, even as it was telling the story of a bunch of stubborn, ignorant, miserable excuses for human beings."
In "The Revolution Was Televised," Sepinwall -- who writes the Hitfix.com blog What's Alan Watching?, known for its observant episode-by-episode commentary -- analyzes a dozen "great 21st-century dramas" that have forged a new golden age in TV, including some challenging narratives with "moral shades of gray."
Series such as "The Sopranos," "The Wire," "24," "Friday Night Lights," "Mad Men" and "Breaking Bad," Sepinwall argues, have allowed TV to "step out from the shadow of the cinema." The book, self-published by Sepinwall, has all the immediacy and attention to detail that has won his blog so many
—'The Wire' believes that any innate goodness within people eventually gets ground down by the institutions that they serve," the author writes. Like "The Sopranos," he adds, it is a show "about the end of the American dream." By contrast, David Milch's period western "Deadwood," set in a lawless mining camp in the Dakota Territory in the 1870s, is about the birth of that dream.
Readers may quibble with Sepinwall's selection of shows -- no "West Wing," no "Freaks and Geeks," no "Homeland." And they will doubtless contest some of his interpretations. But whether the reader agrees with Sepinwall is beside the point. Like his blog, his book throws out smart, fair-minded assessments meant to provoke discussion.
He deconstructs the underlying mythology of shows such as "Lost" and "Battlestar Galactica" and assesses the crucial role that casting -- of, say, Michael Chiklis as Vic Mackey in "The Shield," Kiefer Sutherland as Jack Bauer in "24" or Bryan Cranston as Walter White in "Breaking Bad" -- played in defining characters. Sepinwall also interviews the writers, directors, producers and executives involved with these series to explore their evolution.
Before becoming a critic at Hitfix (and prior to that, at the Star-Ledger in New Jersey), Sepinwall was writing about television as an informed fan. But his fanboy history hasn't clouded his critical eye. He writes astutely here about, say, the flaws of Season 4 of "The Sopranos" and the confusing, unfocused pilot of "The Wire." But he is most compelling in explaining the magnetic pull of certain shows and their emotional power, articulating just why we fell in love with the characters in "Friday Night Lights," or why we find stone-cold killers like Walter White so "relatable."
Sepinwall's reporting opens a breezy window on the creative process behind these shows. He tells about the long, winding road that "Mad Men" took to the screen, noting the one significant suggestion that an AMC executive reportedly gave the show's creator Matt Weiner was: "Don Draper needs to have a secret."
Sepinwall also conveys the demands on writers working on breakneck series such as "24." As Howard Gordon, an executive producer of that show, observed, "It's like driving at 65 miles per hour on the highway, and you're building the highway as you're driving."
According to Sepinwall, shifts in the television business and changes in the ways in which people watched TV helped pave the way for the new golden age in drama. The proliferation of cable channels and the fracturing of network television's big-tent audience, he writes, made smart executives realize that "they could do very well making shows those smaller audiences would care passionately about."
As "the middle-class movie" -- which couldn't "be made on the cheap or guarantee an opening weekend of $50 million or more" -- became increasingly difficult to get greenlighted, artists who before had gravitated to the big screen moved to the little one. And all this happened, Sepinwall notes, at "the perfect technological time," as DVRs, video on demand, DVD boxed sets and video streaming made it easier for people to catch up with "that great-but-complicated new show they'd heard so much about."
By Alan Sepinwall
$16.99, 388 pages