What happened to the Russian?

Matt: If you had to pick three current shows that rank with the shows you cover in this book, what would they be?

Alan: If I had to pick shows that were as consistently good, week in and week out, the second season of Justified would slot in very comfortably with this period. The first season of Homeland would slot in very comfortably with this period. I’m a little concerned with some of the plotting that’s been going on this season; we’ll see. I’d be comfortable slotting in the first season of Game of Thrones, the second season maybe less so.

Those are three shows that, at their best, have the ability to go there. Boardwalk Empire goes there sometimes, but not consistently.

Pine Barrens
Matt: I thought it was very telling that you had this anecdote about the Russian in the “Pine Barrens” episode of The Sopranos, that Terence Winter, now the creator and executive producer of Boardwalk Empire, advocated for a scene where we would see what happened to the Russian.

Alan: Yeah. Winter was always a much more traditional “beginning, middle, end" type of writer. Boardwalk Empire is a fairly traditional gangster show, whereas The Sopranos was a meditation on the state of 21st-century humanity, dressed up as a mob show.

Matt: I sometimes feel as if a meteorite hit The Sopranos, and all these chunks sprayed out and became Sons of Anarchy, Boardwalk Empire, and Mad Men. In a lot of ways, Boardwalk Empire feels like the show that those people who used to write angry letters to the Star-Ledger

Alan: --wanted The Sopranos to be?

Matt: Exactly. “More whackin’, less yakkin’.” Mad Men is all yakkin’.

Alan: Boardwalk is definitely a more traditional drama, and is quite unapologetic about it.

Louie still

You know, I forgot one other: Louie. If I were writing this book a year or two from now, there would probably be a Louie chapter in it.

Matt: And of course, technically, Louie is a comedy.

Alan: Technically.

Matt: That’s a leading comment, of course.

Alan: I know. Technically a comedy. It’s a half-hour show.

But a lot of the things we love about Louie do not, for the most part, have to do with the aspects of it that make us laugh. It’s about the worldview of it, the aesthetic choices that Louis C.K. makes as a filmmaker, and these great dramatic moments, like in the episode where he’s trying to talk his friend out of committing suicide, and the episode where he goes out on the date with Parker Posey and she sort of slowly reveals herself to be mentally ill and yet sort of exciting at the same time.

It’s got that Lost thing that you talked about, where you put it on and you have no idea what you’re gonna get.

Matt: And I can’t really think of another show – maybe certain episodes of The Sopranos, and most of Moonlighting – where you can’t be sure how literally you’re supposed to take anything that you’re seeing.

Alan: It was funny: our colleague Todd VanDerWerff mentioned the book at the AV Club, and he mentioned how David Chase said that he had read exactly one thing on the Internet about the finale of The Sopranos that understood what he was going for. The commenters immediately jumped on the idea that he must be talking about that “Masters of Sopranos” article that purported to prove that Tony died.

And I went into the comments thread and told them, “No, I asked Chase about it, he’s never read that.” And they immediately had to contort themselves. “Well, uh, maybe he has read it, but he doesn’t really know it by that name!”

Matt: I think that’s the greatest achievement of most of the shows you deal with this in this book. Because they reached a somewhat wide audience, and they had that sort of intransigent artistic quality, slowly but surely they got a popular audience accustomed to that post-‘60s European Art Cinema thing that you were alluding to earlier, that mentality that says: You don’t have to understand everything. Not everything has to be wrapped up neatly. You don’t have to like characters and find them sympathetic in order to find them interesting. And ultimately, what you take out of the experience of watching the show is the important thing.

It’s not so much what the piece of art says, exactly. It’s more about you having to chew your own food. The show is not going to chew your food for you, you know? And sometimes the meal will be indigestible, and that’s part of the experience, too.

Alan: Yeah. And that’s one of the things that’s really amazing about these shows, the fact that the experience you get out of them is not what you were expecting, and you have to work for it. When you have to work for something, the rewards are usually greater.

Alan Sepinwall has been writing about television for close to 20 years, first as an online reviewer of NYPD Blue, then as a TV critic for The Star-Ledger (Tony Soprano's hometown paper), now as author of the popular blog What's Alan Watching? on HitFix.com. Sepinwall's episode-by-episode approach to reviewing his favorite TV shows "changed the nature of television criticism," according to Slate, which called him "the acknowledged king of the form." His book The Revolution Was Televised: The Cops, Crooks, Slingers and Slayers Who Changed TV Drama Forever was published this month.

Matt Zoller Seitz is the co-founder of Press Play.