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.