Sunday, June 23, 2013

A Revolution For Couch Potatoes

The Revolution Was Televised: 
The Cops, Crooks, Slingers and Slayers Who Changed TV Drama Forever
by Alan Sepinwall

4 out 5 stars in HD.

Last Tuesday, I was reading the chapter about The Sopranos in which the author highly praises James Gandolfini’s performance as Tony.  The next day, Galdolfini died.  That’s one of those odd coincidences that I could really do without.

TV critic Alan Sepinwall writes the popular HitFix blog What's Alan Watching? and here he takes a look at a dozen shows that revolutionized television since the late ‘90s.  Oz, The Sopranos, The Wire, Deadwood, The Shield, Lost, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, 24, Battlestar Galactica, Friday Night Lights, Mad Men and Breaking Bad were all groundbreaking in their own ways and proved that there were audiences for well-made shows that pushed boundaries and revolutionized the way TV got made and watched.

Each show gets it’s own chapter in which Sepinwall gives the history of how the show came about, summarizes it’s storylines, relays behind-the-scenes tidbits and anecdotes and then examines the elements that made the show special and how it pushed the medium forward.  Interviews with creators, producers, writers and network executives provide background and thoughts from inside the industry as to how these shows changed the business.

Many of the stories behind the creation of the shows would make for interesting books just by themselves.  Lost came from one ABC executive who figured he was about to be fired and rushed the most expensive pilot in TV history into production, and Mad Men was the result of AMC’s desire to get some kind of critically acclaimed show that would generate buzz on the air because the network feared some cable providers were going to drop them. The universal theme for most of these shows is that creative people who had felt stifled by their experiences in Hollywood delivered when circumstances finally gave them an opportunity to do something different.

Sepinwall keeps his critic’s hat on though and gives frank appraisals of mistakes like the Friday Night Lights train wreck of a second season or 24's frequent lapses into stories involving amnesia, cougars or torture.  He also details how fan dissatisfaction with of some of the finales like Lost, Battlestar Galactica and The Sopranos can affect their feelings towards the series as a whole.

Since he gives the broad story details, and there are plenty of spoilers so if there’s a show you've been meaning to watch but haven’t gotten around to yet, it’d be best to skip those sections, but since each chapter is pretty much self-contained when it comes to those points, it’d still be possible to read around that and not lose the overall theme of what Sepinwall is looking at here.

This isn’t just some dry analysis either.  Sepinwall has a good sense of humor and has been writing about TV long enough to come up with interesting ways to translate what we see on a screen into words.  Here’s what he has to say about one show's breakneck pacing:

"You didn’t so much watch The Shield as get beat up by it for an hour before it went off to grab a few beers and find a pimp to hassle."

If you’ve read Sepinwall’s blog, a lot of these stories and themes will seem somewhat familiar because they’re points he’s touched on when he’s written about these shows before, but this was a chance for him to do an overview on an era of TV that came as many circumstances changed the old model of doing business and helped fuel a wave of creativity.   Sepinwall’s enthusiasm for good TV is contagious and thanks to this book, I’m sure I’ll be cracking open some DVD sets and hitting HBO Go in the near future to revisit a lot of these myself.

Also posted on Goodreads.

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