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The Revolution Was Televised: The Conversation

Blogs
by Matt Zoller Seitz and Alan Sepinwall
November 30, 2012 8:34 AM
10 Comments
  • |
A White Man’s Game
 
Matt: You talk in the Deadwood chapter about Milch’s work on Hill Street Blues, which seems like the Big Bang from which all these other stars and planets came.
 

Alan: It’s the Citizen Kane of TV drama.

Matt: It probably is, and not just in the sense of being influential. There was not a single thing about Citizen Kane that had not been done somewhere else before, but the genius lay in the fact that it had never before been done all in one film, guided by one sensibility.

Alan: What [executive producers] Steven Bochco and Michael Kozoll were doing on Hill Street was lifting things from soap operas and putting them in the context of a police drama.

Matt: The open-ended, ongoing stories, the ensemble nature of it, the way the community itself was the focus. 

Alan: Yes.

Matt: It’s also interesting that so many of the so-called “quality dramas,” the dramas that are descended from Hill Street and that critics think of as recappable, are extremely male in their focus. They may or may not have strong female characters built in as well, but often they’re male-focused. And more often than not they’re built around crime or violence.  

David Morse Treme
Alan: True. A major difference between Treme and The Wire is that Treme doesn’t have a murder investigation every season pulling everything together. Well, there’s a little bit of that, in the scenes involving David Morse. But you might have expected them to go whole-hog on that, and they didn’t, really. Morse’s policeman is no more important on Treme than anybody else.

Matt: Is there a bias within television towards male-centered stories with crime and violence?

Alan: There very clearly is. When Carolyn Strauss told me that HBO’s decision of what to do as their first show after Oz came down to The Sopranos or something by Winnie Holzman, the creator of My So-Called Life, about a female business executive at a toy company, I immediately stopped paying attention to the interview for a good five minutes, because all I was thinking about was an alternate timeline where this Winnie Holzman show was the next big HBO show. I was asking myself, would the other show have spawned imitators? Or would it not have, because “Female business executive at a toy company” is not as inherently cool as “New Jersey wiseguy in therapy”?

Matt: Maybe not as “cool,” but potentially as interesting.

Alan: Oh, I think it could have been great. But commercially—and in terms of the interests of network executives, most of whom are men—the crime shows, the antihero shows, tend to be more appealing in the abstract.

Matt: And also, let’s be honest here, there is this thing known as “escapism.” Escapism doesn’t just mean you tune in each week and get to ride the unicorn to Magicland and kill the dragon. It means you get to experience situations and emotions that maybe could happen, but that you the viewer probably could not experience in daily life. In that programming scenario that you recount, one of those proposed HBO shows clearly is more escapist than the other.

I remember reading an interview with the filmmaker Paul Schrader from about 1982. He said, and I’m paraphrasing, “To make an impact internationally, your film has to be seen by millions of people, and with some exceptions, the only kinds of films that have a chance of reaching an audience of that size are ones that have sex, violence, or both.” And that’s why so many of Schrader’s films had sex, violence, or both. It wasn’t only because those were the kinds of stories Schrader liked to tell. There were commercial considerations, too. He wanted his films to be seen and discussed. He needed eyeballs.

Alan: That totally makes sense.

I remember when you and I split the Sopranos beat at the Star-Ledger—the kinds of letters we used to get. Certainly there were people who watched the show for its Fellini-esque aspects and the other odd things Chase was doing, but there were a lot more people who were tuning in to see somebody get whacked.

Matt: And they were upset when an episode didn’t give them that.

Alan: Exactly. “What the fuck are these dreams, man? Why are we seeing Tony’s dreams?”

Breaking Bad Skyler
Matt: You see this kind of response to Breaking Bad today.

Alan: Yes. There are viewers who go, “Heisenberg is badass.” That’s the level at which they watch.

Matt: The negative reaction to Skyler—

Alan: Yeah, I know!

Matt: I don’t have any patience for people who insist that Skyler is a bad, boring, or unpleasant character. What she’s doing is throwing cold water on the macho fantasies of people who dig Heisenberg. Even now that she’s morally compromised, she’s still the conscience of that show, more so than any other major character.

Alan: She has unfortunately become an emblem of the misogynistic backlash that some of these shows get.

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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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