Sunday, November 18, 2012

Book Review: "The Revolution Was Televised"

Book reviews aren’t something we’ve done here at MTVP before, but in this particular case, I felt it was especially appropriate.  Alan Sepinwall has definitely been a major influence on the development of MTVP, although I can’t remember the exact order in which things happened.  Either I thought it would be fun to review television episodes, then saw Sepinwall’s blog and though “oh cool, people actually do that,” or I read some of Sepinwall’s blog and thought “that looks like fun and I want to do that too.”  While Sepinwall and I don’t really have the same taste in television (he tends much more towards cable/serious dramas than I do), I always respect his opinion because there is always a lot of thought behind it.  I also appreciate the length to which he has gone to cultivate an equally thoughtful community of commenters on his blog.  If we are ever fortunate enough to get any semblance of a readership here at MTVP, I’d really like for the community to be as smart and respectful as the readers of What’s Alan Watching.  So I was exited a week or so ago to see in the MTVP Twitter feed that Sepinwall had written and published a book.  It’s called The Revolution Was Televised: The Cops, Crooks, Slingers, and Slayers Who Changed TV Drama Forever. 

 The book contains chapters on twelve very influential dramas, and they are “Oz,” “The Sopranos,” “The Wire,” “Deadwood,” “The Shield,” “Lost,” “Buffy the Vampire Slayer,” “24,” “Battlestar Galactica,” “Friday Night Lights,” “Mad Men,” and “Breaking Bad.”  Each chapter tells the origin story of the show in question and hits the highlights of the major characters and plot points, using the HBO-led revolution in TV drama as the framing device to hold it all together.  The book also includes numerous interviews with the creative folks who brought these shows into our living rooms.  Some of the quotes are culled from Sepinwall’s past interviews and interviews individuals have given to other publications, but there is also a significant amount of new material.  There are new interviews with David Milch, Damon Lindeloff, Carlton Cuse, David Chase, David Simon, Jane Espenson, and David Greenwalt, just to name a few.  There is also a prologue chapter which names and briefly discusses some shows of the 1980’s and 1990’s.  These dramas, while they aren’t quite on the same level as the shows given the full chapter treatment in terms of how they apply the concept of “television as novel,” represent steps towards the serialized/anti-hero driven dramas we now know. A favorite of mine among the numerous shows Sepinwall cites in this chapter would be “The X Files.”

 As loyal readers of his blog know, Sepinwall has an engaging writing style and an infectious enthusiasm for television, and he was lucky enough to come up in the journalism business just as television was beginning to become something worthy of study that could be taken seriously as art.  His writing style, enthusiasm, and somewhat academic bent are all present in The Revolution Was Televised.  I read the entire book, despite having only watched four of the shows profiled in their entirety (plus one and change seasons of “Mad Men”), and I got something out of every chapter.  I was more drawn into chapters about shows I had already seen  (“The Wire,” “Lost,” “Buffy,” and “Friday Night Lights”), but even with the other chapters, it was fun to learn about how people who are passionate about what they do made their television writing/producing dreams a reality.  Of all the shows profiled, “Lost” has one of the more interesting origin stories (J.J. Abrams and Damon Lindeloff sold the show, based on an idea from ABC exec Lloyd Braun, with only an outline), and while I had heard the story before, Sepinwall’s telling of it was still entertaining to read.

 Really the only caveat I found with the book, and it’s fairly minor in the grand scheme of things, is the amount of time Sepinwall spends talking about eccentric TV auteur David Milch.  Several of the shows discussed in the prologue chapters are Milch shows (including “Hill Street Blues” and “NYPD Blue”), and the detailing of Milch’s career history in the “Deadwood” chapter feels more extensive than the comparable section of the other chapters.  I understand why this is the case; Sepinwall has been a huge fan of Milch’s work for decades and first made a name for himself writing about “NYPD Blue” online while a student at Penn in the early years of the Internet.  I suppose if I was writing a book about TV dramas myself I would be tempted to focus heavily on Joss Whedon and Bryan Fuller, two writers I hold in the regard that Sepinwall does Milch.  Plus, Milch is an eccentric character, which does make for interesting writing.  Milch’s work just isn’t my taste, though, so the amount of words devoted to him just seemed a bit more than what I would personally prefer.

 What’s really a credit to Sepinwall’s approach to TV criticism is that the book got me thinking about why I like the TV I like and don’t like some of the TV that “real” critics seem to devote most of their words to.  “The Sopranos” began a trend of heavily serialized shows centered on a male anti-hero protagonist.  While I like serialization in my television, a broody male anti-hero isn’t a character with which I identify.  I’ve really started gravitating towards shows like “New Girl” and “The Mindy Project” that speak to where I am in life right now.  If you notice, in the list of shows featured in the book that I have watched, some of those shows actually aren’t focused on a male anti-hero (“Buffy,” “Friday Night Lights”), or in the case of “The Wire” and “Lost,” while male anti-heroes are quite prominent, there are a multitude of other themes and characters in the show to hold my attention.  I love “The Wire” mostly because I love Baltimore, and I appreciate the care Simon and Burns took to depict my adopted city, even if it’s not always depicted in the most flattering light.  As someone who has also devoted much of the past ten years of my life to studying and working in various aspects of social policy and poverty law, I also appreciate that the show is an exploration of what has gone wrong in American cities and the failure of institutions to improve conditions.  With regards to “Lost,” even though I hate Jack rather passionately (he’s an emotionally abusive scumbag), there are enough other endearing and/or interesting even if troubled characters to make watching worthwhile.

 Overall, The Revolution Was Televised is a worthwhile, entertaining read for anyone who enjoys television, especially dramas.  It is a well thought-out exploration of how and why drama transformed over the past fifteen years and provides an in-depth look at the major players in that transformation.  Sepinwall’s writing is engaging enough that it inspired me to try some different television.  I watched the “Deadwood” pilot, and while I decided it wasn’t for me and I won’t be watching more (I’m just not a fan of Westerns), I’m glad I was finally motivated to see what the critics I read have been talking about.  I’m also going to give “Battlestar Galactica” a try once I’m done re-watching the first season of “The X Files.”  While the fact that BSG has been described as serious and morose almost to a fault (not by Sepinwall, but in message board discussions I have read), I’m thinking the sci-fi element might be enough to keep me interested in watching.  So kudos to Sepinwall for getting me to think more about modern television in general and motivating me to give some other shows a try.

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