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Any television critic who has done the job long enough certainly has considered writing a book (and, of course, some have), but for those of us too weary or lacking discipline, it’s a busman’s holiday better left to someone else.
That’s why for me, a new book, The Revolution Was Televised: The Cops, Crooks, Slingers and Slayers Who Changed TV Drama Forever, by fellow television critic Alan Sepinwall, is (and makes for) a nice little gift. Now when people say, “You should write a book,” I can just tell them to pick up Sepinwall’s thoroughly detailed and immensely entertaining stroll through the new Renaissance of American television.
It certainly helps that I share many of the same critical beliefs that Sepinwall has and expresses throughout the book. Not only do I agree with the series he chose to emphasize for their role in making television truly great, many of his sentiments and asides also mirror my own. That said, even if you disagree with some of Sepinwall’s conclusions, haven’t seen all of his choices or you’re wanting to nitpick the series he left out, The Revolution Was Televised is still a fantastic read, and there’s enough persuasion and detail in there to perhaps change your views (or at least alter them — particularly when it comes to something like the final scene of The Sopranos).
Anyone who knows Sepinwall — and he and I arrived on the scene as critics at pretty much the same time — aren’t stunned that he wrote this book, only that he didn’t do it far sooner. I have a ton of respect for Sepinwall, not just for his critical sensibilities but his unrivaled passion for television and near-legendary ability to write about it nonstop. Few people are as dedicated as he when it comes to churning out columns, and I’m jealous of his ability to avoid carpal tunnel and repetitive stress injuries that befall so many of us banging out our thoughts for a living.
Beyond that, the man is kind of insane in his dedication to the craft. My running joke with him is that not only does he never seem to take a day off or sleep (I’m convinced he’s one of those annoying people who can live on four hours a night and wake up raring to go), but he’s managed to accomplish this furious output while being married and raising kids, an impressive feat indeed.
So, yes, it’s a wonder that The Revolution Was Televised didn’t come out earlier. But the good news for students of great television is that it’s out now and available in any number of forms, including paperback, Kindle and Nook.
Sepinwall, an early and eager adopter of the Internet, started writing about NYPD Blue while still a student at the University of Pennsylvania (on Usenet — yikes) and later on a website he set up on the university’s server. He was able to parlay his obsession into an internship at his hometown newspaper, The Star-Ledger in New Jersey. He got sent to cover the Television Critics Association press tour when the TV critic there couldn’t make it, and he was offered a job when he returned. Sepinwall developed an excellent reputation at The Star-Ledger and a passionate following online. After years at the newspaper, he switched to HitFix.com — burnishing the reputation and increasing the online following, a nice little trick as critics at newspapers across the country were trying to get off that sinking ship made from dead trees.
He’s brought his experience as a critic and passion for the medium to The Revolution Was Televised, his self-published book that documents “the best and/or most important shows of the era,” starting with HBO’s Oz and running through The Sopranos, The Wire, Deadwood (all HBO); The Shield (FX); Lost (ABC); Buffy the Vampire Slayer (The WB, UPN); 24 (Fox), Battlestar Galactica (Syfy, or SciFi back then); Friday Night Lights (NBC) and Mad Men and Breaking Bad (AMC) — which brings viewers into the present day.
Sepinwall wisely gives due to a number of influential series in his prologue — Hill Street Blues, St. Elsewhere, Cheers, Miami Vice, Wiseguy, Twin Peaks, Homicide: Life on the Street, his beloved NYPD Blue, The X-Files and ER. Those were series that changed the playing field in different ways for television. He makes an astute observation about Hill Street Blues by way of a story from college, where a friend admits she’s never seen Casablanca, “a hole in her cultural memory we aimed to fill as quickly as possible.” But the friend finds Casablanca predictable and clichéd, “our arguments that it had invented most of those clichés falling on deaf ears.” If you’ve experienced all the recent dramas in the Renaissance — or revolution — then looking back on some of the shows mentioned in the prologue might find them lacking, when in fact they were taking the small steps in how dramas are told that helped pave the way for future superior and more ambitious storytelling.
Sepinwall rightly focuses on the latter, more modern bunch of dramas as being where the real (and lasting) revolution kicked off.
In case you’re prone to quibbling, remember that he’s focusing on American television here, so all of the brilliant British dramas of the time are left out. And any list of groundbreaking, important series will — like all lists, even those made on a napkin — elicit fiery rebukes about what was left out. You can bring that up with Alan.
I certainly don’t believe Oz was, beginning to end, a top-tier drama, but Sepinwall does a spot-on job of showing how important the series was to HBO and thus how it opened the door to the premium channel’s future dramas, which in turn spurred development at non-pay-cable models like FX and elsewhere, a nice historical point.
The Revolution Was Televised would be a fine read just on the basis of Sepinwall’s opinions, but his inclusion of insightful interviews with the major players behind certain dramas — executives, series creators, actors — not only adds heft but, for people who don’t cover the industry, the behind-the-scenes stories will be fascinating. The Oz, Sopranos and Wire segments alone are worth the price of the book. I particularly like the Sopranos dissection — not only because Sepinwall and I share the same belief that Tony was not killed in the finale, which was brilliant but how Sepinwall treats the arguments for each ending, expounding on the far bigger issues of the series and truly examining the content of interviews he’s done with creator David Chase. It’s the kind of nuanced discussion good critics can make.
(Sepinwall also scoffs at the notion that some critics would rank Mad Men or Breaking Bad ahead of The Sopranos – which, ahem, I would – but makes a firm case for why that’s wrongheaded.)
One of the reasons a book like this has a shelf life longer than others in the TV category is that these series are the ones that will be pulled from shelves, their DVDs (or whatever technology) watched for years. As a critic, Sepinwall is able to take people from the pilot on through the seasons, getting reaction from important players and detailing where series ebbed and flowed creatively, which is one of the most difficult challenges in making long-lasting, brilliant television. That narrative that Sepinwall employs in examining his selected series always is intriguing, even to people like me who know the details. In fact, though we differ on the value of 24 — I thought the implausibility and ever-increasing ridiculousness marred it not long after season one — I still found that section of the book riveting. I think that might be the standout part of The Revolution Was Televised: Even if you know the backstories, even if you agree or disagree with his choices, the actual telling of the tale is addictive and wipes out any sense that you’ve heard the story before. Well done on that. And there’s plenty more of it throughout the book.
The last thing a TV critic probably wants to do is read a book (from another TV critic, no less) about television. In that sense, Sepinwall pulled off a remarkable feat because reading The Revolution Was Televised was always entertaining and never a chore. For those not lucky enough to have, as he notes in the introduction about becoming a TV critic, one of the greatest jobs ever, then a romp through the historical back alleys of this revolution will be all the more interesting.
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