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The Revolution Was Televised: The Conversation

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by Matt Zoller Seitz and Alan Sepinwall
November 30, 2012 8:34 AM
10 Comments
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I worked with HitFix.com television critic Alan Sepinwall at the Star-Ledger of Newark for nine years, 1997-2006. We shared the TV beat together throughout that period, writing reviews and features, and collaborating on a daily column of news and notes titled "All TV." The column was topped with a dual mugshot, photoshopped in a way that made it look as though two heads were growing from the same neck. Some colleagues and a few readers referred to that image as "The Two-Headed Beast," and as it turned out, the description referred to more than the mugshot. We truly were a team, and we yakked so much across our cubicle desks that we got shushed by everyone in the newsroom at one point or another. Most of the conversations were about the innovative things we were seeing on television during that fertile period, which brought forth The Sopranos (filmed right there in the Garden State!) as well as Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Oz, Lost, Deadwood, The Wire, and other dramas that are now recognized as milestones in the medium's artistic development. 

Alan has chronicled that heady era in his new book The Revolution Was Televised: The Cops, Crooks, Slingers and Slayers Who Changed TV Drama Forever. It's an impressive piece of work, and I'd think so even if I didn't know and like the author. A combination critical exegesis and oral history of the late '90s and early 21st century, it puts a frame around an era whose aesthetic aftershocks are still being felt and understood. 
 

I originally set out to do a brief Q&A with Alan, but as anybody who's ever had the misfortune of sitting next to us in a newsroom can tell you, we're a couple of Chatty Cathies. The conversation ran nearly an hour. It has many digressions and tales-out-of-school, and a bit of playful teasing, yet somehow it managed to touch on the main themes and subjects of his book. I've reproduced our talk below, with some minor edits and omissions for clarity. -- Matt Zoller Seitz

Matt: What are the factors that contributed to the existence of the dramas you describe in this book?

Alan: Cable was a big part of it—the fact that cable started looking to do more original programming. You remember when you were on the TV beat with me at the Star-Ledger, there were the major broadcast networks. There were UPN and the WB, sort of. And that was it.

And then HBO decided, “All right, we’re gonna get serious about this, and not just do one or two comedies a year.” And they became successful at it, and then others started imitating that. And at the same time, the audience started to really splinter, because there were so many viewing options, and it became easier to justify a show that does three or four million viewers a week.

Matt: How did it become easier for programmers to justify that? How did the economics work for them?

Alan: The idea is, if every show on the network is being watched by twenty million people or more, and you do a few shows that are only drawing three million, that’s harder [to justify], whereas that’s a good number for a cable network if the show is cheaper. A show like The Shield cost a lot less than, say, Nash Bridges did. That was part of it.

But there was also the fact that, as viewership overall started coming down, having three to six million viewers started to look a lot better than it might have in the days of Dallas.

Matt: Speaking of the days of Dallas, I’ve recently been revisiting some of the great shows, particularly dramas, from the ‘80s, such as Hill Street Blues and St. Elsewhere and Moonlighting, which was a show that, week to week, was as deeply nuts as Glee or American Horror Story. You never knew what you were going to get when you tuned in.

But something did happen. Something changed. Maybe it was the concept you discuss in your chapter on David Simon’s The Wire, the concept of "a novel for television." The idea that shows could be designed to be viewed in totality, at least on the back end. And there was not as much paralyzing fear that everything had to have a beginning, a middle and an end, tying up neatly within the course of any given hour.

Alan: That was definitely a big part of it. It was something David Chase was fighting against on The Sopranos. You can list all the different Sopranos storylines that began and then didn’t end, or didn’t end in the way we expected them to. A lot of it is just that you’ve got all these people like David Chase and David Simon and Tom Fontana and David Milch, who worked on these [network] shows in the ‘70s and ‘80s and ‘90s that were great shows. However, at the same time, their ambitions could only go so far, because they were beholden to a broadcast network model that aimed to draw as large an audience as possible. The thinking was, "You have to spoon-feed audiences to a degree. You have to give them case-of-the-week stuff.’

I love Hill Street Blues. I love St. Elsewhere. I wouldn’t say a bad thing about them. But there is a compromised nature to them that isn’t there in, say, Oz and Deadwood.

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10 Comments

  • Plashy | December 11, 2012 3:04 PMReply

    Love the book, Alan! People who read it might also be interested in this article that gets into why cable dramas since the "golden age" (Sopranos, Wire, et. al) haven't quite been able to live up to the greatness that pre-dated them.

    Interesting read: http://ahorizontalmyth.wordpress.com/2012/12/11/bad-lessons-learned-from-great-television-pt-1/

  • Halloran | November 30, 2012 9:10 PMReply

    Also, regarding current shows -- Alan you really hit the sweet spot with this book, because nothing on the air now compares with The Sopranos and The Wire. Mad Men is the only thing that comes remotely close, but its central conceit is so poor -- the self-made, artificial man who sells artifice LITERALLY has a secret identity! Homeland has the same problem -- the agent who personifies post-9/11 American paranoia and self-doubt is LITERALLY crazy! Homeland has also already resorted to the kind of insane, ridiculous plot contortions that only Breaking Bad has ever pulled off with any dexterity and in-the-moment believability.

    Seriously, when did subtext and text become the same thing with these shows? That was part of The Sopranos' genius -- leaving much under the surface to be initially misunderstood, endlessly debated, and extracted years later by smart folks like you guys.

  • Mos | November 30, 2012 9:38 PM

    Very true although I do love Mad Men and do think it's in the same class as the Sopranos. I have grown wary of some of the more ridiculous plot contortions in Breaking Bad. It's funny, someone commented on my site that I should explain the ending of Lost. I have maybe seen 2 episodes and it just didn't connect. The Sopranos has really spoiled me for other shows. They just can't touch it.

  • Mos | November 30, 2012 8:53 PMReply

    Again, without telling him anything else about my piece except the title, his first reaction was to jokingly comment about its length. Unless there is another well known, gigantic essay on the ending, I stand by my belief that he read it. In 2008, I was also was able to get a smaller version of it (which I originally wrote on a popular but now mostly inactive sopranos fan site) to him through his good friend Allen Rucker who had previously wrote a hbo sopranos tie in book. In any event I suppose it's possible he was joking about some other mammoth essay but it's also possible he didn't want to get into talking about explaining the final scene with you.

    In any event, he wouldn't comment one way or the other about whether I was correct. Without prompting though he was quick to tell me it wasn't an f-u to the fans. To me that really showed me how much the fan reaction bothered him.

    By the way I bought the book on iBooks. Thanks for the shout out about my site. I'm really digging the book so far. It's very thorough.

  • Mos | November 30, 2012 8:53 PMReply

    Again, without telling him anything else about my piece except the title, his first reaction was to jokingly comment about its length. Unless there is another well known, gigantic essay on the ending, I stand by my belief that he read it. In 2008, I was also was able to get a smaller version of it (which I originally wrote on a popular but now mostly inactive sopranos fan site) to him through his good friend Allen Rucker who had previously wrote a hbo sopranos tie in book. In any event I suppose it's possible he was joking about some other mammoth essay but it's also possible he didn't want to get into talking about explaining the final scene with you.

    In any event, he wouldn't comment one way or the other about whether I was correct. Without prompting though he was quick to tell me it wasn't an f-u to the fans. To me that really showed me how much the fan reaction bothered him.

    By the way I bought the book on iBooks. Thanks for the shout out about my site. I'm really digging the book so far. It's very thorough.

  • John | November 30, 2012 6:41 PMReply

    Um, sorry, but Skyler *was* a weak character in the first couple of seasons. She's gotten significantly better in the later seasons, but not liking her at first is not an indication of misogyny or any other such nonsense. It's an indication that she wasn't an appealing character (she still isn't very appealing, though she is more interesting now). Having "no patience" with people who don't care for her is an indication of a lack of actual logic to make your case. If you can't see the case against Skyler (not saying you have to agree with the case, just recognize its validity), you're either biased or not paying attention. And she's not the conscience of the show. That's just asinine. That role is very clearly served by Hank and/or Jesse.

  • MOS | November 30, 2012 4:17 PMReply

    Alan,

    I am the writer of the Master of Sopranos blog. You don't have to believe me, but I met Mr. Chase while he was in Manhattan filming "Not Fade Away" (the scene was filmed on West 26th st. between 6th and Broadway). I walked up to him and introduced myself as the writer of the the essay Definitive Explanation of the End. Chase shook my hand and playfully joked "that's the one that's like 40 pages." I'm sure you know my piece is partly famous for it's length so I do figure my site is what he was talking about. He would not discuss the ending more than "I just want people to know it wasn't a F-you". He nicely introduced me to a couple of members of his crew and said goodbye. So yes, I think he read it.

  • Mos | November 30, 2012 9:04 PM

    Thanks halloran. By the way, sorry for posting twice. I also can't post directly under the discussion thread. Very frustrating.

  • Halloran | November 30, 2012 8:47 PM

    I'm sure Chase has at some point or another at least heard of the MOS essay, whether or not he's "read" it start to finish. I don't remember whether that essay was the first place that popularized the POV / "never hear it when it happens" argument, but it's certainly the most famous and the most effective piece on the topic, so kudos for writing it, whether Chase acknowledges it outright or not. In my opinion he's smarter not to telegraph it and be at least a little coy on his intentions even years later, because it maintains an element of ambiguity that in hindsight makes the ending even more revolutionary and compelling.

    My own view has always been that the scene is clearly a metaphorical "death" scene; whether Tony's death literally happens is irrelevant, because the show is over. That scene is like a metaphysical coda that exists outside the narrative. It's an encapsulation of Tony's paranoid existence and, to the extent that Chase was commenting on post-9/11 U.S. life and putting the viewer in Tony's head, the existence of every American. At the same time I dispute Chase's retcon that the scene "wasn't a F-you" -- it clearly was, based on Chase's post-airing comments about not wanting to give the audience the payoff they expected. Chase is a brilliant guy -- he knew the viewers would be flipping out in anger and confusion. He gave intelligent viewers a lot of credit by telling a very difficult, layered, complex narrative, but he also had blatant contempt for the more casual viewers that craved easy answers and "payoffs." Steven Van Zandt likened the ending to Chase smashing his guitar at the end of a rock show. Apt description and more power to Chase -- nothing in TV before or since will match the mystery, dread, and sheer brilliance of that scene.

    Finally, Alan and Matt, I've been reading you guys for years -- great discussion, keep up the great work. I very much look forward to reading the book.

  • Alan Sepinwall | November 30, 2012 8:09 PM

    I was very specific in describing the thesis of your essay, the length, the arguments, etc., before asking if he had read it. He said, and I quote, "I have not read that."

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