On July 12, 1997, the television programming landscape was changed forever, and for the better. Looking to revamp their company's model, HBO executives debuted an uncompromising, and impressively performed drama called Oz, a brutal examination of life inside a correctional facility. Less than two years later, in January 1999, the network premiered its next original effort, a Jersey-set mob show called The Sopranos, created by David Chase, a former writer for The Rockford Files. And nothing was the same.
HBO's one-two punch of groundbreaking dramas handled small-screen storytelling with the kind of elegance, patience, and panache previously only seen in prestigious motion pictures. Oz and The Sopranos went on to inspire the heads of fledgling networks like FX and AMC, as well as showrunners like Shawn Ryan (The Shield), Damon Lindelof (Lost), and Matthew Weiner (Mad Men). Old rules were broken, new standards of excellence became the norm, and, today, 16 years after Oz's premiere, TV has arguably eclipsed film in terms of being a go-to medium for Hollywood's biggest and brightest.
Since day one, renown TV critic/blogger Alan Sepinwall has been covering this phenomenon, popularizing the per-episode recap format that's currently in vogue and conducting exclusive interviews with the likes of Chase, Lindelof, David Simon (The Wire). His years of expertise have all led to the new book The Revolution Was Televised (available now), Sepinwall's dissection of the 12 drama programs most responsible for this sea change: Oz, The Sopranos, The Wire, The Shield, Deadwood, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Battlestar Galactica, Friday Night Lights, 24, Lost, Mad Men, and Breaking Bad.
The Revolution was Televised was initially self-published in November 2012, creating a groundswell of online support that resulted in a glowing New York Times review and a formal deal with the Touchstone publishing company, and it's easy to understand why. Through a mixture of archival quotes, fresh interviews with network executives and the aforementioned showrunners, and in-depth research and analysis, Sepinwall's book is a vivid, fast-paced, and highly entertaining read. It's also essential for anyone whose DVR gets constantly worked out.
Complex recently spoke to the Morris County, NJ, native—who's day job is writing the "What's Alan Watching?" blog for HitFix—about The Revolution Was Televised, how today's non-cable dramas are slacking off, what the emergence of Netflix could bring forth, and how John C. Reilly almost starred on The Wire. Seriously.
Interview by Matt Barone (@MBarone)
On the book's "Acknowledgements" page, you thank your literary agent for suggesting The Revolution Was Televised as a way to have Stop Being a Hater and Learn to Love the O.C. not be your only book-writing legacy. Is there any truth to that, or were you just kidding?
[Laughs.] Well, a few different things happened. One, I heard Bill Simmons and Chris Connelly, on one of Bill Simmons' podcasts, start talking about this particular period and Bill saying he wished that someone would write a book about it. And two, a literary agent reached out me and started actively pushing me, saying, "Hey, you should really write something. I think you're terrific."
So those two things happened around the same time that I also wound up at a party with Ted Griffin, who co-created Terriers, and he also asked if I was going to write a book. I said, "Well, here's my idea, but I'm not sure about it," and he basically spent the rest of the party insisting to me that I had to do it and he wouldn't rest until I got it done. He was also the one who came up with the name, The Revolution Was Televised. It was a lot of things all happening within a compressed period that made me say, "OK, it's time to get off my butt and do this."
Covering 12 shows as in-depth as you do in this book seems like a daunting task. Did the book's scope intimidate you at first?
Yeah, it was. Initially it wasn't even going to feature any fresh interviews. My initial thought process was, it just wasn't going to be possible, considering my workload, to go around and do fresh interviews with all of these people. I initially wrote a sample chapter on The Sopranos, which was not too dissimilar to what's in the actual book, but it was just archival quotes that I'd gotten over the years from David Chase and a bit more commentary. So I thought that was what I was going to do, and that I would figure out the other shows after I had pitched it around.
I pitched that version of the book around to some publishers, and they really weren't interested. I don't know if they had necessarily would have been if I had said, "OK, this is going to have all new interviews with David Chase, and David Milch, and all of these people." Certainly at the time, though, there was not a lot of interest.
So I went back and decided to go the self-publishing route and started working on my own. Through that process, I would email a question to one of the respective show's creators, just to fill in some blanks, and then eventually, after the third or fourth exchange, it became, "You know what? Let's just get on the phone and do something new." Even though I really didn't have the time, I somehow made the time to talk to all of them again, and the book was much better for it.
How long of a process was it to put the book together?
I started working on it more than a year before it came out in November 2012. More than a year-and-a-half or so that I'd been working on various versions for it. The vast majority of what's in the book was written from August through October of 2012, because that's when I had a window of time in which I found myself able to do it. My wife basically consented to not see me on the weekends, and I left her with the kids, came to my office, and wrote and wrote and wrote.
It's interesting to hear that publishers weren't initially interested in the book. It directly taps into one of the biggest pop culture phenomenon's of the new millennium: how television is eclipsing film, in terms of dynamic storytelling and Hollywood appeal. Did those initial rejections surprise you?
It was definitely disappointing, but if I had pitched the actual book that was ultimately written, as opposed to the other version, maybe there would have been a lot more interest. I don't want to necessarily dismiss the publishers' judgment of it, because I was trying to sell them something that was ultimately different than what wound up being in the printed version.
It was certainly disappointing, though. And then it was gratifying that the day after the New York Times ran that review of it, I started hearing from all these publishers, including some that had rejected me a year earlier. That was nice to see. I knew this was a good book, and I knew that a lot of people were going to be interested in reading it. It was nice to have that validation in the end.
How do you think the book benefited from your decision to go the self-publishing route?
I think it benefited it in a few ways. One, I was able to do it very quickly—not in terms of the writing, because ideally I would have spent more time writing it, but just in terms of the turnaround time. I finished the manuscript in late October of 2012, and the book was published before Thanksgiving.
With the traditional publishing process, you could turn your manuscript in and it could be a year or more before the book comes out. It wound up being fairly timely for certain things. Me talking about the final season of Breaking Bad, for instance, I was able to include some very up-to-the-minute stuff about some of the follow-up projects that people in the book mentioned that they're working on. I was able to keep tinkering until the end.
Also, I did have an editor, Sarah Bunting, who went through all my stuff and looked for not only typos but also told me when I was getting way off track. Because she was someone who I had brought in… I've never written a book through the traditional publishing process, so I don't know how it works. But it certainly felt, to me, that it benefited me to have Sarah there. She trusted my judgment because she knew I knew what I was doing.
And I will say this: The [Michiko] Kakutani review was amazing, and certainly the book would not have been picked up if that review hadn't happened. I wonder, though, if she would have written that review and if she would have put me on her top ten for the year if the book had been traditionally published. I do think there was some appeal in the idea of picking out this rebel thing that had been done outside the traditional process to do it. I do think it's a good book beyond that, but I also think that became part of the story, and part of the hook. I had people interviewing me only about self-publishing, on top of people who wanted to interview me about the content of the book. It became part of the marketing.
In general, no one asked me, while I was doing an interview, who was publishing it. I just said, "I'm doing a book, do you want to take part in it?" Pretty much everybody other than Matt Weiner and Joss Whedon [citing busy work schedules] said, "Sure."
Only a couple of times in interviews did it even come up, who was publishing it. I remember one time I was speaking with a TV executive and he did ask that question, and I said, "I am," and there was sort of this awkward moment where you could see him saying, "Oh, God, why did I do this?" [Laughs.] But everyone else understood it and got that the world was changing, and that it was possible for me to do this.
How much did the book change once you started doing fresh interviews?
It was just better for having done the interviews. I feel like it would have just been a rehash of what I'd written in column form if I went the original route. A lot of writers do that, just collecting their greatest hits, putting them in between two hardcovers, and selling it that way, and I think that would have been a good book, but it's a much more satisfying book now that I not only had archival stuff, but I have David Chase reflecting on The Sopranos finale five years later, and sort of thinking about the reaction to it.
The book has [Damon] Lindelof being relatively removed from the ending of Lost and mostly, though not entirely, at peace with how people have reacted to it. I got a lot more candor than when I interviewed these people when the shows were still on. The Lost guys were never that open before about the origins of the show as they were in that chapter.
That Lost chapter is definitely one of the book's highlights. It really does show just how Damon Lindelof and Carlton Cuse struggled to map out the show's overarching mythology during the first season. There's the really fascinating quote from Lindelof where he says that he was terrified once Lost's big ratings came in, since he then realized that they were actually going to have to find a way to sustain the show over a longer period of time. It puts these guys, who some hardcore fans love to either idolize or tear apart, into a much more human form, if that makes sense.
It definitely does. During the course of making that show, or making any of these shows, there are certain things you have to say publicly for the sake of the show and creative integrity and all of that, but now that these shows, except for Breaking Bad and Mad Men, they don't have to worry about that as much. For the most part, they're willing to be more open about some of the nitty-gritty and what they knew and when they knew it.
The book has much new information in it. For instance, I had no idea that when HBO green-lit The Sopranos, they were choosing between that project and a new show from the creator of My So-Called Life, about a female business executive. It's crazy to think how much different television as we know it would be if they'd gone for that other show back then.
Yeah, that's the first I'd ever heard of that, too. That had never come up before, and it was just, wow, the world would be a very different place, TV wise, if that had happened. There were a few casting stories I had never heard before. I had never heard that Eric Stoltz was being considered to lead The Shield. I had never heard that John C. Reilly was being considered for McNulty [on The Wire]; I had always been under the assumption that they had deliberately gone after unknowns for The Wire, when, as it turns out, they just couldn't get a more recognizable actor to do it.
While reading the book, it dawns on you just how differently things work today, as a result of all these shows hitting it big. But back when they were being made, executives weren't breathing down the showrunners' backs with notes and demands—the execs at channels like HBO, FX, and AMC didn't know if any of these shows would actually work, and just let the people who created them run wild. Is it sad to see how that model really doesn't exist anymore?
It does and it doesn't. I don't know that there's a cluster of shows as great as The Sopranos, The Wire, and Deadwood, but you have a lot of really good shows right now. Basically, all it ever takes for things to change is for a new player to enter the arena. The so-called "golden age" had started to already settle down when AMC showed up, and not only was AMC wide open, they forced HBO and Showtime to step up their games.
Now, we have Netflix, and I haven't necessarily any of the output that Netflix has put out so far, but I also haven't seen the new Arrested Development yet. They're approaching things in a new and different way that it could force the traditional TV networks to revisit and reevaluate how it is they present content. So that could be great. I hope Arrested Development is good. I hope that season 2 of House of Cards is great.
I don't know that I feel sad—the Wild West has settled, and it feels like, with the Internet and broadband, there are new frontiers to open up, whether or not you consider them to be quote-unquote "TV."
Does this new Netflix model remind you of how it used to be done? It didn't seem like they were bothering David Fincher too much while he was making House of Cards.
Yeah, my understanding is that Fincher had a lot of autonomy on House of Cards and that Mitch Hurwitz has a lot of autonomy on Arrested Development. That seems to be the way that Netflix wants it, at least for now. If Netflix becomes a huge success, or if the Amazon sitcoms suddenly become a success, maybe things become codified like how they did at HBO, AMC, and other places, but at least, for now, there's a chance for something new to happen. If House of Cards goes in and sweeps the Emmys, HBO and AMC are going to have to react to that. So we'll see what happens.
Another big difference between today's TV culture and how it was back when something like The Sopranos was in its prime is the widespread advent of online episode recaps. Since you're, in many ways, the godfather of TV recaps, is your job tougher these days, considering the amount of recaps popping up everyday? Does that water your stuff down at all?
It's only made it more challenging in that… Two things distinguished me early on. One, I was doing it, and, two, I was doing it on my own. AV Club has lots and lots of recappers—I have me. Even now that I'm at HitFix, and HitFix covers other shows, in terms of what appears on my blog, it's me doing it. I think one of the things I've learned over the last few years is that less is more. I'm probably not writing about as many shows as I used to, but I'm going more in-depth with most of the shows.
If you go back and look ay my blog on Blogspot, a lot of those reviews were a paragraph, or two paragraphs, or, "Here are five shows talked about in the same post," and now I'm really trying to go in-depth on episodes, whether it's sitcoms or dramas, and that takes up more time. That means I can write about fewer shows. And the other challenge is that there is simply more TV now than there was back then. There are so many channels doing stuff on top of things like Netflix. It's impossible to keep up with it all. I'm sure I'm missing a lot of really good shows that I would have written about back in the day, but there's just not enough time.
That was really good. I've always prided myself on being someone who can always write really well and really quickly, but it was nice to be able to just come into my office on a Saturday, with nobody else here, and say, "OK, I'm going to spend all day today thinking about The Sopranos and writing about The Sopranos, and that's all I'll have to deal with. If I get two pages done, I get two pages done; if I get more done, that's great." I had tentative deadlines for each chapter, but the writing process was more relaxed than it is when I'm, say, writing a Mad Men recap at 11 o'clock at night on Sunday.
That's the thing about writing recaps that can be frustrating. You've just finished watching an episode, but you can't just sit back and let it sink in, because you're trying to write the recap and have it get out there before so many others are posted. You have to almost immediately jump behind a computer and start formulating thoughts that, ideally, and otherwise, would be developed over a longer period of time.
Yeah, and that's why it's always nice when I get screeners of things. I think my Mad Men reviews, the last few years, have still been good, but it's always been easier for me to get the DVD, watch it once, think about what I just saw, watch it again, take some notes, and then start writing, as opposed to watching it once while taking notes and immediately have to start writing because I know that I can't stay up forever, but I also know I won't be able to go to sleep until it's done. That's a different kind of muscle than what I was exercising when writing the book.
Was it difficult narrowing the book's inclusions down to these final 12, knowing that you would have to leave off shows like, say, The West Wing?
It's interesting, people always bring up The West Wing, and the thing I always respond with is, this is not a book about the greatest dramas in the history of television. It's about a specific era and a specific movement. The West Wing and The Sopranos overlapped a lot, in terms of the period they were on, but The West Wing was a traditional, classic network drama. It was a great show, especially during those first couple of years, but it was more belonging to the past than the period I was writing about.
And I suppose I could have mentioned it in the prologue, but my feeling was that everything ER had introduced a few years earlier, The West Wing was picking up on what ER, St. Elsewhere, and Hill Street Blues had done before it, as opposed to going in a bold, new direction like the shows I included in the book. It's not a knock on The West Wing—it was just not a part of the revolution.
And then there's a show like Six Feet Under. Did you keep that show out to not turn the book into an all-HBO project?
That's exactly what it was. I realized that if I included Six Feet Under, it was going to be too many HBO shows. At a certain point, I had to decide, "What do I want to spend the most amount of my time focusing on?" Six Feet Under is a really interesting part of the story, and in terms of giving a bigger picture to the revolution, it would have been really interesting, but I never liked it as much as some of the other ones. There came a time when I said to myself, "I would rather write about Deadwood than Six Feet Under."
There's an interesting essay in this week's Entertainment Weekly, written by Mark Harris, where he discusses the idea of "disappointment watching," in regards to The Following. It brings to mind a lot of the "hate-watch" discussions that centered around The Newsroom last summer. In this age of social media, it seems that people voluntarily watch shows that they don't like just so they can then go on Twitter and/or Facebook to make fun of the shows, instead of just not watching.
I do some of that, too. I watched Smash for awhile. [Laughs.] I watched the first season of The Newsroom, and will continue to do so. It can be fun for a few minutes to go on Twitter and make fun of these shows, but for the most part I try to stick to shows I care about deeply on some level. With The Newsroom, there are those moments where Aaron Sorkin reminds you why he's awesome, and then it's also fascinating to see the many ways in which Aaron Sorkin reminds you that he can terrible. I enjoy the mix of those two things, and it's enjoyable to write about that.
Back when I was doing all of these episode-by-episode recapping, there was a much greater mix of shows I liked and shows I didn't, and over the years, as I've done triage, I've mostly cut it down to the shows I think are great. But I think you can say a lot of stuff about why a show isn't working just as well as you can say things about why a show is good.
The book reminded me about the disparity between the quality of cable dramas and network dramas. I look at my DVR these days and I notice that the majority of what's in there are cable dramas, save for NBC's Hannibal, which is interesting because it doesn't feel like a network show. Do you see a lessening of that gap on the horizon?
The thing is, the networks, other than CBS, are slowly sinking down the ratings level of being cable. [Laughs.] There's a point where the distinction is not going to matter, but right now the distinction is still there. Therefore, when the networks do shows like Hannibal, or Awake, or Lone Star, they're trying to be a bit quote-unquote "cable-like," and they get ratings that are terrible and they get cancelled. Hannibal isn't a dire place, because it's cheap and the critics like it, but the ratings aren't very good.
I know that there's this generation that's grown up on shows like The Sopranos, The Shield, and even newer shows like Homeland, where they're inherently distrustful of network dramas. If a drama is on a network, something must be wrong with it. I hard a lot of that in regards to Hannibal, and then when NBC decided not to run that fourth episode after the Boston incident, people were like, "I knew it! This is why I never watch anything on the networks!" So it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy where there's a small potential audience for this show to begin with, and then, on top of that, you have that audience being skeptical of anything that's on NBC, ABC, CBS, or Fox.
That speaks to a lot of the discussions that centered around Fox's The Following, a show that would clearly benefit from being on cable and being allowed to fully go for it.
I can't imagine Hannibal going for it anymore than it already does, though. [Laughs.] But, yeah, for the most part, there are definitely comprises that have to be made. The Good Wife probably does as good of a job as you'll find of balancing the needs of a network show and a cable show, but I'm definitely much more interested in the cable-y aspects of the show, like the morality issues and character development, than I am in the cases of the week.
You've always covered both dramas and sitcoms on your blogs. Do you think there could be a sitcom counterpart to The Revolution was Televised? It seems tougher because there's not a clear through-line with sitcoms like there is with these drama shows.
I've thought a lot about doing a sitcom companion to the book, and you're exactly right. There's not as much of a cohesive line, "This led to this, led to this, led to this." The difference is, while my book isn't about the greatest dramas in the history of TV, you could make an argument for that.
You could pick 10 shows from the book and say to someone, "These are the 10 best dramas in the history of TV," and no one's going to look at you like you're insane for leaving off Hill Street Blues or The Rockford Files or whatever else came before. If you were to do a list of sitcoms and start with Seinfeld, or only start with Arrested Development, people are going to look at you like you're an idiot. You're leaving out I Love Lucy, and Cheers, and The Dick Van Dyke Show and All in the Family, and Newhart, and M.A.S.H..
There are so many great comedies from so many different eras of TV, that it's a different kind of story. I could still tell the story of some of these niche show that have popped up in the last 10 or so years, and maybe I'll end up doing that—I haven't decided yet. It's just a very different kind of book, and it's not as clear of a story as what Oz and The Sopranos led into for us.
Interview by Matt Barone (@MBarone)