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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
  • |

Welcome to Deadwood!

Matt:  The Deadwood chapter of your book, more so than any other, is built around the personality of one man, David Milch, the show’s creator. Interestingly, that chapter feels like a character portrait in a book where the chapters are otherwise process-driven.

Milch small
Alan: A couple of things drove that. One, I’ll admit that, in the arc of my career, Milch has been present so much that it was hard to resist putting him at the center of the Deadwood chapter. But the other is, I wanted every chapter to feel not quite like every other chapter—to find a different way into each of the shows—and Milch is his shows, and his shows are Milch, in the same way that The Sopranos is David Chase and The Wire is David Simon, but on a more elemental level, I guess.

Matt: You and I both visited the set of Deadwood when it still existed. I really felt as if I had stepped into the mind of David Milch when I was on that set.

Alan: Yes.

Matt: Just the way they’d constructed it, so that the writers’ bungalows, and the costume place, and the stable and the props department, all of that was in the same place, and the town was a working town. The interiors and the exteriors were in the same buildings. It was like that set was actually Deadwood, the real place, except there were lights hanging from rafters in the ceilings of the rooms and cameras and cables in the streets. I can’t really think of another show that did that. Maybe Lost was that way, because they were shooting on location in Hawaii?

Alan: Not quite, because on Lost, the writers were in L.A., so that was a much more split-up thing.

I felt like a portrait of Milch was the best way to illustrate HBO in that period as a place of absolute freedom. He took advantage of that even more than Chase did, even more than Simon did. He just kind of—not “went crazy,” but kind of went to town with, “I can do all of these things, and I don’t have the checks and balances that I’ve had to deal with throughout my career. Whatever I want to do, and in whatever process that makes sense to me, that’s what I’m going to do.”

Al Swearengen in "Deadwood."
Al Swearengen in "Deadwood."
Matt: My first insight into the controlled chaos of David Milch was when I spoke to Ian McShane, aka Al Swearengen, after the Television Critics Awards ceremony in the summer of 2004, after he’d been given an award for outstanding individual achievement in drama for his performance on Deadwood. I went up to him at the bar, made some small talk, then asked, “So, what’s it like delivering those long monologues? Did your experience in legitimate theater help with that?”

Then he took a drink, and he laughed.

Then he went on, “Let me tell you about Mr. Milch’s monologues. They are one or two pages long, and they are often one long sentence, if you study them, which would make them difficult to memorize and deliver anyway, simply because of that. But on top of this, Mr. Milch will never let you simply deliver a monologue. You have to be addressing a severed Indian head in a box or receiving a blowjob from a prostitute under a table.”

Alan: [Laughs]

Matt: And he goes on, “Added to which, often these monologues are rewritten up to the very last possible second, to the point where they’re handing you the pages five minutes before they call ‘action’, and the pages are still hot from the fucking printer!”

And I realized, as he was telling me this story, that McShane had absorbed the writerly rhythms of David Milch—a man who McShane speaks very highly of, by the way—even as he felt emboldened to bust the guy’s chops while talking to a journalist.

Alan: Well, that speaks to how each person who works with David Milch has to find his or her way of dealing with the controlled chaos of a David Milch production. Some people who’ve worked with Milch speak of him very highly and would work with him again in a second. Others just couldn’t handle it and wanted to get out of there as fast as possible, understandably.

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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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