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.
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.