The Revolution Was Televised, Alan Sepinwall
- Okay, so I had some issues with this book that may be too esoteric to count as criticism. Let’s start out with the positive, though: Sepinwall’s writing style is incredibly readable—I read pretty slowly and I still finished this in three days—and the subject matter is compelling, if you’re interested in how these “revolutionary” TV shows were made and how various networks reached their current statuses. Sepinwall does a good job of working quotes from the showrunners and network executives into coherent narratives about each show. But the rest of the content of the book is made up of a) summaries of the shows, which I didn’t mind since I hadn’t actually watched most of them and was curious, but it’s not exactly insightful writing, and b) some weak-ass editorializing.
- First, let’s look at some of my pet peeves with regard to criticism:
- Praising a media form by comparing it to a media form that’s considered a more legitimate form of Art (e.g. Watchmen is really a novel, episodes of The Sopranos are really films, etc.)
- Saying that “[thing that is not a character—usually New York] was almost like another character in [movie/TV show]”
- Huge, sweeping claims like [insert thing here] is The Most Important or The First of Its Kind
1 and 2 are so over-used at this point by shitty critics or that one pretentious friend who considers him/herself a connoisseur of pop culture that they just come across as lazy ways to sound clever rather than real insights; like, do you actually mean something when you say that Baltimore is the main character of The Wire or are you just saying that because it’s the type of observation that smart viewers are expected to make? If it’s the former, then you should actually explain why Baltimore is uniquely significant in The Wire, instead of just resorting to this pithy but ultimately reductive1 line. And okay, The Wire is “a novel for television—one that, by the end of the series, had as good an argument as any printed book for the title of The Great American Novel.” What the fuck does that even mean, Sepinwall? If you’re going to spend a whole book arguing for the artistic elevation of the TV drama, wouldn’t it be more useful to judge shows in terms of how they work within the medium rather than just being like “this TV show is great because it’s essentially not a TV show.”2
And 3, well: for background, I was six years old when The Sopranos premiered3. So the “post-revolution” TV landscape is the only one I’ve known, which isn’t to say that Sepinwall is wrong in claiming that these shows were game-changers, but serialization and middle-aged white male protagonists with drinking problems and woman issues (or “anti-heroes”) certainly don’t feel super revolutionary at this point. I am so, so glad to live in the world of serialized television, but I think a sizable segment of my generation would agree that we’re getting tired of that particular type of anti-hero4. Since I don’t know much about “pre-revolution” TV, I can’t refute any of the grand sweeping claims that Sepinwall makes, but I’m a little dubious of unqualified statements of things Never Having Been Done Before on television, because it seems likely that there were precedents that just happened not to be as successful as the shows he covers. And declaring the current era a Golden Age of Television seems kind of pessimistic and short-sighted, because it implies that TV has already peaked or will soon; why shouldn’t we believe that TV shows would keep building on these improvements and getting better in ways that we haven’t yet imagined?
- Also, this:
…many serious TV fans I know now consider [The Sopranos] at best to be a distant third to its HBO contemporaries The Wire and Deadwood, and I’ve even encountered people who would rank it well below descendants like Mad Men or Breaking Bad.
And that’s just silly, as great as all those shows are.
It’s not just that none of those shows would have been possible without The Sopranos. It’s that The Sopranos, on its own defiant (if at times frustrating) terms, was an incredible piece of work.
Jesus Christ, dude, art is subjective5. What narrow terms are you ranking shows on for you to believe in the existence of a definitive, objective ranking of TV shows?
Select quote (from Ronald D. Moore, because of course):
“It was a fluke,” acknowledges Ron Moore, “but there’s always flukes. If you look back through the whole history of television, you experience moments like that—these golden moments, over and over again—and then they go away. ‘Oh, that was a golden time, and we’re never going back.’ From the ’50s, when you had Playhouse 90 and all those shows. That was ‘the golden age of television.’ Then you had Hill Street Blues, Miami Vice, The Cosby Show in the ’80s, or Seinfeld in the ’90s. There are a lot of flukes and anomalies that then define the television landscape. TV, like film, is scared of change, scared of doing anything different, and fights and fights and fights it. And then one of these shows hits, they’re hailed as classics, and people go ‘Ohmigod, it’s a bright shining moment, and it’ll never happen again.’ And then it happens again.”
(Porno, Persuasion, and Northanger Abbey coming in Part 2.)
1. I mean, I’ve only seen the pilot of The Wire, so maybe anthropomorphic Baltimore does in fact become the main character of the show later on, but probably not? ^
2. Now I’m being reductive. But he did it first! ^
3. Obviously, I didn’t watch it. My favorite show at the time? Animaniacs. ^
4. I do think it’s still possible to write an interesting middle-aged white male protagonist with a drinking problem and woman issues. But I also think a lot of writers treat these types of protagonists as automatically interesting because they’re ~flawed~ when it’s just such a specific version of ~flawed~ that we’ve seen done to death. There are so many other ways in which white middle-aged men (or you know, non-white, non-middle-aged, non-men) can be flawed. And to be fair to Sepinwall, he does cover Buffy, Battlestar Galactica, and other shows with protagonists/ensemble casts that don’t fit that formula. ^
5. Also, if you list any of those shows as your favorite, chances are you’re super boring. They’re great shows (well, Mad Men and Breaking Bad are; I can’t speak for the rest), but come on, that’s like saying Citizen Kane is your favorite movie and The Beatles are your favorite band; it doesn’t imply anything about you, specifically, as a person, other than the fact that you recognize as good things that pretty much the entire fucking population recognizes as good. ^