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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
  • |
Seventies Movies, Millennial TV
 
Matt: Where do Lost and Battlestar Galactica fit into this era of TV drama? And Buffy the Vampire Slayer? That last one is intriguing because, correct me if I’m wrong, but if you look at the timeline, doesn’t Buffy pre-date The Sopranos?
 

Alan: It predates The Sopranos by two years. I think it even pre-dates Oz by something like four to six months.

Buffy was really an outlier. I had to contort myself this way and that to figure out how to include it in the book, which is so much about the effect of The Sopranos. My rationale was, it was on the air during roughly the same period, and the idea of what was happening on the WB at the time, and to a lesser extent UPN, later, in some ways paralleled what was going on at HBO, namely: Here we have an under-watched channel that wants to make a splash and is thinking, “Let’s do that by finding a creator that wants to something different. Let’s give him more rope than he’d get if he were doing this at NBC or ABC, and encourage him to do something that’s a lot more ambitious or a lot more complicated.” And again, in a genre piece.

Matt: When Vulture did their drama derby, the Buffy the Vampire Slayer contigent came at that contest like one of the armies in Game of Thrones.

Alan: You’re saying a sci-fi/fantasy show did really well in an Internet poll?

Matt: [Laughs] It’s different, though. The remake of Battlestar Galactica was a great and beloved show, but I don’t think it’s had anything like the staying power of Buffy. To listen to the way people talk about Buffy, you would think that it was on the air right this second!

Alan: I think that’s because a lot of people are still angry about how Battlestar ended. People may not have liked some of the later seasons of Buffy as much as the high school ones, but there’s nobody going, “Joss Whedon raped my childhood” or “He took the last seven years of my life.”

There is a kind of petulance that goes along with fandom of some of the genre shows. It’s like, “How dare you give me this thing I really, really enjoyed, until I didn’t?”

It’s important to emphasize that a lot of these shows are genre shows. The Sopranos is a mob show, but there are all these other elements. Buffy is a horror series, but that’s not all that it is. It’s a horror-action-comedy hybrid whose whole is greater than the sum of all of its different parts.

Matt: That point about being under-watched is interesting. In the late ‘90s and early aughts, when a lot of the experimentation was happening in dramas, UPN and the WB were under-watched compared to the other broadcast networks: NBC, ABC, CBS, and Fox. HBO, meanwhile, was big in the world of cable, but its viewership was also a lot smaller than that of the major broadcast networks.

In that sense, what was happening in the 90s in the minor networks and cable channels was very roughly analogous to the conditions at movie studios in the late sixties and early seventies. They desperately needed to make a splash, to matter. So much of their once built-in audience had fled to television. They were sitting there with this gigantic production apparatus, all these people under contract working on fewer and fewer films each year, these enormous sets sitting dormant a lot of the time. Things got so bad that studio bosses were willing to give up autonomy and merge with conglomerates that didn’t have anything to do with entertainment. That’s how you got Paramount hooking up with Gulf + Western and United Artists with TransAmerica.

Alan: Yeah.

Matt: And those conditions are what allowed people like Martin Scorsese and Peter Bogdanovich and Francis Coppola to slip through the door and have so much creative freedom. After a certain point, the bosses looked around, saw their kingdom in ruins, and went, “All right, we clearly don’t know what works anymore, why don’t you young guys give it a shot?”

Alan: There is very much a parallel between this era in American television and the late ‘60s and early ‘70s in American movies, with what was happening in cinema in New York and L.A.

Matt: And yet despite all these changes, vestiges of the old studio mentality remain in movies to this day, and remnants of old-fashioned broadcast network procedures remain in TV to this day. You give an example in your chapter on Lost.

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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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