Published on August 14th, 2014 | by Craig Silliphant0
The Revolution was Televised – Alan Sepinwall
TV critic Alan Sepinwall changed the way people wrote about television; it’s fitting that he wrote a book about the people that changed television itself.
There’s a lot of great (and some not-so-great) critical coverage of television now on sites like Hitfix and The AV Club, but when Alan Sepinwall started writing about NYPD Blue on usenet newsgroups during his time at The University of Pennsylvania, he was on the ground floor of a new way of looking at the boob tube. In 2012, Sepinwall self-published his 2nd book (props to him for making that happen at his own risk!), The Revolution was Televised: The Cops, Crooks, Slingers, and Slayers Who Changed TV Drama Forever. If you’re a person who likes good TV, then it’s an excellent read.
With the rise of HBO, AMC, and other cable networks, some say we’re in a golden age of television, and some say TV has replaced the middle class of movies that seem to have bottomed out. Sepinwall’s book shows that while all this is sort of true, it’s also more complicated than that. It’s still as hard as ever to get a good TV show made, and for every Mad Men, there’s a marketing committee waiting to cobble together a homogenous follower like Pan Am or The Playboy Club.
From The Sopranos to the gritty, post-911 Battlestar Galactica reboot, Sepinwall and the show creators he interviews tell the stories of how some of the best shows of the last decade or two got made. The common factor seems to be, the more groundbreaking the show, the more off the radar the creators were. Sometimes there were studio heads that had nothing to lose by taking a chance on a great idea, and more often, they assumed failure, so didn’t bother to hover over show creators. However, as we reap the televised benefits that creators like David Chase have sewn, the reputation of TV continues to rise, and the marketing department pays more and more attention, paving the way for more homogenization. It’s still just as hard to get a good TV show made as it always was. The nature of the beast is that studio drones want shows to appeal to the widest possible audiences so they can make more money, but the best shows are often niche programming that express difficult ideas or take chances that not every viewer is going to like.
The book itself breaks up the action by chapters, looking at several big shows that were all groundbreaking for one reason or another. Some of the shows are more credible than the others, but it’s all still nice and democratic; shows like The Wire, Oz, The Sopranos, and Breaking Bad share the book with arguably lesser fare like 24 and Friday Night Lights. While there are shows I’d disagree on the quality of, each one has a good reason for being included, because you’re in good hands with Sepinwall as your TV guide (pun intended). He’s quick to note the faults of any show that has faults to be named; 24 might be a pretty silly and unrealistic show considering its subject matter, but it also proved to major networks that you could do darker themes and have non-episodal shows that follow a linear storyline from week-to-week.
Some of the information in the book are things any self-respecting TV junkie already knows, but there are some really interesting bits in there. David Milch, creator of NYPD Blue and Deadwood, is particularly interesting. Deadwood was a brilliant, but all over the place show, which is explained by Milch’s insane methods of working.
The only part of the book I found strange and distracting were asterixed asides that became a distracting hindrance. Most of them could have been written right into the text, or been footnotes. In some cases, there are so many italicized asides on a page, that it trades paragraphs with the actual text.
But that’s a minor niggle; The Revolution was Televised is an exceptionally good read — approachable in the extreme for those that don’t know much about TV production, but also in-the-know for those of us that do. Sepinwall is an easy writer, not pretentious in the least, and his love of television makes the book that much more of a pleasure to read. You can also read Sepinwall on Hitfix, where he has a regular column called ‘What’s Alan Watching.’