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The Revolution Was Televised: The Conversation

Indiewire By Matt Zoller Seitz and Alan Sepinwall | Indiewire November 30, 2012 at 8:34AM

I worked with HitFix.com television critic Alan Sepinwall at the Star-Ledger of Newark for nine years, 1997-2006. We shared the TV beat together throughout that period, writing reviews and features, and collaborating on a daily column of news and notes titled "All TV."
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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 2
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.

This article is related to: Alan Sepinwall, Matt Zoller Seitz, Television

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