2012, Books, Non-Fiction, TV

The Revolution Was Televised: The Cops, Crooks, Slingers and Slayers Who Changed TV Forever [Updated] (2012) by Alan Sepinwall

Sometime while I was making my way through The Wire and Deadwood for the first time, I had an idea for a book. It would be about how a bunch of HBO shows, and a few other select shows, altered the nature of fictional TV series (drama but also comedy) forever, finally bringing TV to level of film. I never wrote that book, in part because I hadn’t seen enough of the shows I figured I should cover in the book and, at some point, because TV criticism exploded on the internet, and I suddenly felt out-matched. One day, my girlfriend told me about The Revolution was Televised and I dropped the idea forever because, well, Sepinwall wrote the book I wanted to write.

Sepinwall and I disagree a bit about which shows should be considered trailblazing, both in terms of the turn-of-the-millennium shows and the shows which helped set the stage for them. (There is, for example, barely a mention of The Prisoner, which I would have thought was a key moment in TV history for ambitious TV, though it’s British and Sepinwall’s book is exclusively focused on American TV.) But I still think this is much better than anything I could have written for many reasons, such as Sepinwall’s access to the creators and because he literally does this for a living, whereas I just dream of writing for a living. So, to the book…

I am with Sepinwall entirely when he talks about the importance of Oz, The Sopranos, The Wire and Deadwood. These shows, more than any others, completely altered the TV landscape and the American television world (and, really, the television world at large) forever. Sepinwall has a slightly different take on Deadwood than I’ve heard before, which I also appreciate.

Where I start to disagree with Sepinwall is in the shows I haven’t seen entirely, which is probably why I disagree. I have yet to make it to Buffy, though I can certainly understand why it’s viewed as important. But Sepinwall feels particularly fan-boy worshipful of Whedon in this chapter in a way that I cannot fully understand. I find the chapter to be as much about Whedon as Buffy, which makes it harder for me to care about watching Buffy.

But where Sepinwall really starts to lose me is with The Shield, 24 and Lost, three shows that were undeniably trailblazing but which are also deeply, deeply flawed in ways I feel like the aforementioned shows were not. I couldn’t handle 24‘s conceit and haven’t watched more than a few scattered minutes, so maybe I’m being a little unfair, but I watched 2/3 to 3/4 of The Shield and have a hard time getting as excited as Sepinwall. The ending, which I didn’t make it to, sounds fantastic, but I couldn’t make it there because of things inherent in the show, which Sepinwall seems to view as virtues, or to skip over. (Every season Vic is about to get caught, then he isn’t. Wash, rinse, repeat.) I feel like Six Feet Under or even something less successful, but early, like Carnivale  could have been explored instead. (Carnivale as an inspiration for Lost feels like an unexplored area.) The problems I had with The Shield are nothing compared to the problems I had with Lost, among the most frustrating things I have ever viewed in my life. I acknowledge some level of importance in all of these shows, but Sepinwall’s praise of these three shows feels too uniformly positive to me.

But I think he is right about Battlestar Galatica, Mad Men and Breaking Bad, and I’m glad I read the new edition, where he finished those latter two shows – and his chapter on Breaking Bad in particular caused me to see that show in a new light.

The book is far too American-centric (imagine that!) and does not really inform us at all as to what has happened in the realm of TV comedy (which has undergone a similar transformation) but, on the whole, this is the most authoritative account I know of for the massive transition from TV being mostly mediocre and mostly something to ignore to TV being as important as film (sometimes more important) and as good. Sepinwall acknowledges this himself, but given the huge changes that are ongoing, he could spend ages constantly updating this book as TV continues to change. As it stands though, it’s a good way of understanding how we got here (well, to 2015 or so).

And to those who doubt the book’s thesis, I suggest you watch some ’80s and ’90s American dramatic television at random. It’s mostly pretty awful.


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