Co.Create

How Television Got To Be So Damn Good

A brilliant new era in television began with The Sopranos, according to TV critic Alan Sepinwall’s new book The Revolution Was Televised: The Cops, Crooks, Slingers and Slayers Who Changed TV Drama Forever.

"Oh, I don’t watch television."

Remember when your pretentious friends used to say that?

You don’t hear it so much these days. That’s partially due to the accessibility of TV content on different platforms—you don’t literally have to watch TV now to watch a whole lot of TV. But, more to the point, anyone who would make such a proclamation now would sound like a fool because TV has become the seat of entertainment excellence. In fact, we’ve lived through a renaissance that saw the most groundbreaking dramas in the history of television rolling out one after another in the last 15 years or so.

TV critic Alan Sepinwall tells the story of how a dozen of these shows—we’re talking everything from Oz to The Wire to 24 to Breaking Bad—came to be in his new self-published book The Revolution Was Televised: The Cops, Crooks, Slingers and Slayers Who Changed TV Drama Forever.

Co.Create recently talked to Sepinwall, who writes for HitFix.com, about how The Sopranos gave rise to the antihero, why he included Lost in his book (there has been some debate about that choice) and whether the revolution is sustainable.

(In the interest of full disclosure, this writer first met Sepinwall at the Television Critics Association Press Tour when he was beginning his career as a TV critic at The Star-Ledger and fully agrees with his decision to include Lost in the book despite the fact that the writers never did make any sense of the show’s mythology.)

Co.Create: While the HBO prison drama Oz came before it and was unlike anything we’d ever seen on television, you credit The Sopranos for actually igniting the revolution in television drama. What was it about The Sopranos that made it so groundbreaking?

Sepinwall: There had always been these rules that TV had to live by, and one of the big ones was that the main character had to be likeable. They had to ultimately be a good guy because viewers are not going to come back week after week to watch a villain or a sociopath or whatever. The Sopranos—a show about a mobster who strangled people with his bare hands—proved them wrong.

The show was also telling stories about dreams and the state of American life at the turn of the century and really challenging people and doing things that we were told couldn’t be done on TV, and it was a huge hit.

You would think it would be fresh faces behind these shows that broke so much new ground. But many of the showrunners were TV veterans. Look at Oz creator Tom Fontana. He first made a name for himself in the ’80s with St. Elsewhere and then in the ’90s with Homicide: Life on the Street. Deadwood’s David Milch, who began his career in the ’80s with Hill Street Blues, also comes to mind. How were these writers and producers able reach new creative heights?

The shows in the ’80s and ’90s—Hill Street Blues, St. Elsewhere, NYPD Blue, Homicide, ER—were great, but there was always a certain level of compromise. They were being made for a mass audience, and the idea was, okay, you have to have a case a week. You have to hold the viewer’s hand and explain what this terminology means. You have to make it palatable to the viewer who is going to drop in randomly and see this one episode, and you have to answer to standards and practices. Those rules went away with The Sopranos and the cable shows that followed. You didn’t have to follow a formula. It was just whatever served the story, so there was greater freedom as a result. Even though you had Fontana and Milch, who were prominent in the ’80s and ’90s, the work they were doing on these shows for HBO was more special because it was exactly what they wanted to do as opposed to them compromising with a network.

Given that Lost disappointed a lot of fans by never clearly explaining its mythology and concluding in a way that a lot of people didn’t find at all satisfying, have you gotten any blowback over your decision to celebrate the show in your book? And why did you include it?

I may have gotten some but not a lot. For the most part, even the people who are really angry about the way the show ended seem to understand its importance in terms of what it did and how groundbreaking it was and the fact that it was on a broadcast network. It’s not just about the greatness of the shows, although I love all of these shows to varying degrees. It’s also about them doing things that have never been done before, and that’s why Lost is there.

And I wanted there to be some broadcast shows in this book. I didn’t want it just to be about cable because there was some special stuff going on at the networks during this period. Lost was an amazing example of a show being made in a restrictive network environment where all the restrictions were taken away because it was made under these ridiculous circumstances in this really compressed period where the executives had no choice but to give J.J. Abrams and Damon Lindelof freedom because there was nothing else to be done.

Most of the shows in the book were developed over a year or more. David Chase was first thinking about the idea behind The Sopranos in the ’80s, and the show didn’t get on the air until 1999. Lost was basically written and went to pilot within six weeks. It’s one of the great pilots of all time, and they sort of had to figure out everything else as they went.

I got to go back and watch old episodes of all of the shows while I was writing the book, and Lost really holds up. Obviously, you’re watching it, and in hindsight you know, okay, this isn’t going to be answered, and that’s not going to be answered. But the character stuff and the action stuff and the suspense and the comedy and the tragedy, it’s really good.

The inability to string together a coherent mythology aside, Lost certainly isn’t the only show you write about to disappoint fans with its series finale. The Sopranos and Battlestar Galactica also took a lot of heat for the way they wrapped up.

It’s certainly better if it ends satisfactorily. The Shield goes up a few notches in the all-time rankings just because the ending was that good. But at the same time, these shows are great in the first place because [The Sopranos creator] David Chase and David Milch and David Simon [the mastermind behind The Wire and Treme] and everybody else followed their instincts. They didn’t think, well, what’s the greatest number of people going to like?

Seeing how it goes for showrunners who don’t satisfy their fans, Vince Gilligan has got to be feeling a lot of pressure as Breaking Bad comes to a close.

He talked about that with me quite a bit for the book. He’s got a harder road than Matt Weiner’s going to have when Mad Men ends because Mad Men is a character show. If it doesn’t end well, I think we’ll all live because we will remember all of the good stuff leading up to it. Breaking Bad is a character show, but it’s also very plot driven, and if the story doesn’t work in the end, that could turn discussion of the show. There are certain fans of Lost who have decided they wasted six years of their lives and fans of Battlestar Galactica who are angry at the whole series in retrospect just because of how it ended.

Breaking Bad, at least in my mind, is one of the most consistently entertaining dramas we’ve seen in years. I can’t think of a time when I’ve gotten to the end of an episode and felt disappointed or let down in any way.

That show kind of snuck up on me. I really didn’t know what to think of it for most of its first season. I knew that Bryan Cranston was great, and I knew that it had really interesting images. I just wasn’t used to the tone or the pace. It was becoming its own thing, and it was telling a story in a new kind of way. It wasn’t exactly a comedy, it wasn’t exactly a drama, and it didn’t necessarily want you to like this guy, who was ultimately a really bad guy. It’s very creative and very confident, and it’s got one of the great performers of all time with all that Bryan Cranston’s doing and great work from Aaron Paul, and it’s shot so gorgeously. There are just so many things that go into why Breaking Bad is great.

Did social media facilitate the revolution in television that you explore in the book, or was it in any way a hindrance? Lost happened to debut at a time when social media was on the rise and gave voice to potentially millions of critics.

I think Lost would have been a hit no matter what, but the fact that it was coming on as social media was becoming a thing, and it became easy for people to go online and discuss the show and debate theories, that really added to how excited everyone was about it. At the same time, it also made it much easier for people to figure stuff out. As I talk about in the book, a lot of the mysteries, things the producers expected the audience not to figure out for years, they would figure out in about a week, and that made their job harder. But I think overall it was positive and made the level of engagement much higher. Maybe you could have done a show like Lost in the ’80s or the ’90s, but it would have been much harder. I think a lot of people would have just thrown up their hands and said, "This is too weird. I can’t follow it."

Most of the series you write about in your book were or are on pay cable or basic cable. Will cable remain the dominant force when it comes to groundbreaking drama, or is it possible that the other broadcast networks are going to catch up?

They might, but there have been attempts in recent years that for the most part haven’t work. Fox did that show Lone Star a couple of years ago, and the creator of that show basically said, "This is my attempt to do an AMC kind of show on FOX. Let’s see what happens." And it got cancelled after two weeks. Unless you’re doing something that is massive in its appeal, you’re not going to get enough viewers for it to be able to survive on broadcast whereas the cable networks can deal with a much smaller audience.

Do you see online outlets like Hulu and Netflix producing shows that could compete with the high-quality dramas we have seen on television in recent years?

I think Netflix is the next frontier. They already did one show [Lilyhammer] with Steve Van Zandt, but they’re really getting into it next year with House of Cards, the Kevin Spacey show that David Fincher’s producing, with the Arrested Development sequel and all that. It sounds a lot like the environment at HBO at the turn of the century, like the environment at AMC five years ago.

So where do you we stand right now in the revolution? Is it still being televised?

You can’t put the genie back in the bottle. There are enough networks now that have been doing this for a while and know what they’re doing and how to keep putting out these kinds of shows so that we are not going to just go back to straight, dry procedurals and all that and nothing else. Whether or not we will have a show on the level of The Sopranos or The Wire or Deadwood, I don’t know. But I’m an optimist, so I like to think that eventually they’re going to come down the line.

And I want to see what happens with Netflix.

I don’t know that the current shows airing right now, other than Mad Men and Breaking Bad, which are in the book, are contenders for the best of all time. But there are a lot of really good shows. You’ve got Justified, you’ve got Boardwalk Empire and Game of Thrones and Louie and Homeland and Girls and so many other different kinds of shows that are interesting in their own ways.

You’ve been writing about TV for a long time, but did you learn anything particularly interesting or surprising when you were writing this book?

I definitely learned some surprising things along the way. One of the best anecdotes, which was completely unexpected, was the idea that after Oz ended HBO had to decide, all right, what are we going to do next? And they had two pitches. One was The Sopranos, and one was the show from Winnie Holzman, who created My So-Called Life, and it was going to be about a female business executive running a toy company. I am sure it would have been a great show, but I feel like TV would be a really different place if that had been the next show on HBO as opposed to this mega mob hit.

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5 Comments

  • Elizabeth Leila L'Abate

    Instead of calling the main characters in the shows mentioned in the article "anti-heros," they all more accurately could be described as sociopaths, which really got their start with Dallas in the 1980's, a show the CIA used to export to other countries to instill capitalistic and sociopathic values... Most of the shows the critics rave about are so narcissistic, heartless, and soul-less, with way too much violence, corruption, and drugs.   They shred any sense of morals or ethics...None confront the most important issues of our time, our Climate Crisis, and the huge concentration of wealth at the top, with huge losses of homes and jobs.... yet through the very callousness of these tv shows, they promote the ethics and morals that will dig us deeper into an economic, political, and ecological quagmire...As amazing technically and visually that Battlestar Galactica was, with beautiful and brilliant cinematography, great scripts and characters, (and  Breaking Bad, and  Mad Men too), all leave my heart cold and desicated...Most influential TV critics seem to be men, who don't care about shows that nurture the heart,  or that carry any sense of wisdom, or encourage a sense of community  and morality.   The last show critics liked that did this to some degree was Friday Night Lights.   No mention of  "woman and family shows" like "Bunheads, " with heartful characters, rapid-fire, intelligent, and very humorous dialogue.  "Dead Like Me' is another show that managed to be intelligent, moving and often funny, raising acute psychological and existential questions, with a moral center, and great soundtrack...."Pushing Daisies" wasn't nearly as good, but had the same quirkiness, by the same writer and director, and got a bit more notice...."Boston Legal" was genuinely funny, with great acting, and confronted topical ethical issues with heart..."Eli Stone" and "Wonderfalls" both tried to show what a life lead by spiritual values might look like, with humor, and intelligence....None of the above shows had too much violence... 

  • Christopher Kelly

    Exactly. Was going to point out the same thing. I love good drama, but why does every "great drama" on TV, save Mad Men, have to feature graphic violence at its core? The last show I gave a damn about on any channel was The West Wing. Sitcoms bore me. And, the dramas are all Sopranos/Rescue Me/Walking Dead/etc. Death and pain constantly. Other than horrible tragedies, most people's lives are not filled with constant violent acts. But, our TV is.

  • Elizabeth Leila L'Abate

    West Wing had intelligence, heart, a sense of morality and ethics, and a mythos of politicians as we would like them to be, with an actual moral center. ---Instead of sociopaths who depose foreign heads of state, most recently in Honduras and Libya;  who kill and terrorize innocent people with drones; and who are starving innocent people in Syria and Iran with economic sanctions in an effort to force regime change....

  • Ramubay

    All one has to do is point to Sandy Hook to show Christine Champagne and Alan Sepinwall are clueless to how the age of shows about mobsters who strangle people has changed our culture for the worst.