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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
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“Aw, they’re just making this up as they go along.”

Matt: It’s illuminating to discover in your chapters on Lost—and really, in some of the chapters on other shows, such as Breaking Bad—just how much of the plots of these shows are being driven by things that are happening behind the scenes, at the production level. Like what happened on Lost with Mr. Eko. Can you summarize that for us?

Alan: Mr. Eko, played by Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje, was one of the most popular new characters on that show, and the actor just didn’t want to live in Hawaii anymore. He said, “I want to go back to England, and please kill me off.” And then they did! And the producers told everyone that’s why they did it. And because of that, it becomes part of the whole “ah, they’re just making this up as they go along, there’s no plan” thing.

Certainly there’s an amount of improvisation in everything on television. You can’t plan for it. Nancy Marchand died in the second season of The Sopranos, and they had to deal with that.

Matt: That’s frustrating for me as a television critic, trying to communicate this to people who watch TV but don’t really know how it’s made. To say “they’re just making it up as they go” is thought of as a pejorative way to describe television, but really, it’s just a statement of fact. Every show is just making it up as they go. Mad Men, even though it had something like eighteen months off between seasons four and five, was still just making it up, in a sense. Even if they have a rough roadmap of where they want to go from episode to episode within a season—

Alan: I’m sure [Mad Men creator] Matt Weiner was responding to certain things that the actors were doing, certain things that he felt were working or not working, and that’s a form of improv.

Matt: And when you’re writing or directing anything, you might go in thinking the character is going to do “A”, but then you have an inspiration and think, “What if they do ‘B’ instead?” Maybe that’s a better idea, but once you make that decision, everything that comes after “B” has to change.

Alan: What happened in Breaking Bad, Season Three, is a classic example of that. Season Two was very meticulously plotted-out. They were working backward from the plane crash. Not everybody liked the plane crash, even though they liked Season Two as a whole. In Season Three, it was more like, “Let’s fly by the seat of our pants, and these cousins will be the big bad guys.”

Midway through the season they decided, “The cousins need to die. They’re more trouble than they’re worth. We’ll make Gus Fring the big bad.” Season Three is everyone’s favorite season of the show.

Matt: Yes! That’s part of the appeal of television to me. I like to say that it’s not just an artistic endeavor. It’s also an athletic event.

Alan: Yes.

Matt: They have ten or 12 or 22 episodes to tell a story, and they have an outline going in, but beyond that, they have no idea where things will go. And they have to wing it.

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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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