Click to Skip Ad
Closing in...

The Revolution Was Televised: The Conversation

Blogs
by Matt Zoller Seitz and Alan Sepinwall
November 30, 2012 8:34 AM
10 Comments
  • |
 

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.

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.

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.

Free Indie Movies and Documentaries    

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."

Follow Us

Latest Tweets

Follow us

Most "Liked"

  • VIDEO ESSAY: From SLACKER to BOYHOOD: ...
  • What if Time Travel Destroys the Future? ...