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)