Thursday, December 27, 2012

The Power of Television

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

I love TV.  If you gave me a choice between TV and film, I will pick TV almost every time.  I love the way a series spins out over time, deepening characters and plots and often confronting some major themes or subject matter through story.  It's the closest visual equivalent we have to literature.  I follow a handful of TV series, and I own quite a few series on DVD.  I also follow a lot of TV critics, including Alan Sepinwall, who writes TV reviews and recaps for HitFlix. 

A month or so ago, Sepinwall self-published the ebook, The Revolution Was Televised, which takes the common knowledge that TV has been its best in the last decade or so and then spins that idea out further.  Sepinwall focuses on twelve drama series from the last fifteen years, using his own ideas about the shows, the words of their creators, and lots background stories, to talk about exactly why TV has been so good lately.  I used this book as the carrot at the end of the stick that was finals week, rewarding myself with it only after I finished all my papers and projects and settled back in at home for winter break.  It was completely worth it.  This is probably the best nonfiction book I read this year, and it's definitely the best (okay, maybe only) book I've read about contemporary television.

The book starts off on the premise that the drama revolution didn't start with The Sopranos, as most people think.  Rather, Sepinwall argues that it was actually the HBO prison drama Oz, created by Tom Fontana in 1997, that actually set off a chain reaction.  This strangely mirrors my own development as a TV fan, going from someone who casually enjoyed television, to a complete fanatic once I saw all the seasons of Oz in a one-month period as a college junior.  Despite how flat-out weird that show could be, especially by its last few years, Oz made me realize that television was wholly capable of spinning out long, strange, occasionally beautiful, deep stories over a period of years rather than hours.  I like movies but rarely feel emotionally involved in them.  TV gets me emotionally involved.  Oz was revolutionary because it had both the ability to create interesting characters and the benefit of premium cable, without language or nudity barriers, to actually make those characters more realistic and interesting.  It was the first in what would become a long tradition of great cable television.

From there, Sepinwall concentrates on eleven other shows, in chronological order: The Sopranos, The Wire, Deadwood, The Shield, Lost, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, 24, Battlestar Galactica, Friday Night Lights, Mad Men, and Breaking Bad.  I've only seen 5 of these shows, and I only closely follow two of them (Mad Men and Friday Night Lights).  But even the chapters on shows I've never seen are fascinating, making an argument for the way television has built upon its successes to reach ever-greater heights.  Sepinwall proves himself a good journalist, as he gets a lot of juicy and fascinating information out of the show's creators, producers, and stars through interviews done for the book.  Sepinwall clearly loves television, but he's not afraid to show how often shows seem to come together almost accidentally or how the divisions between creative and business personalities often sink great shows.

My only criticism of The Revolution Was Televised is that it mostly concentrates on shows that worship at the foot of the anti-hero.  Obviously, it's the development of the anti-hero as protagonist that has single-handedly changed television the most in the last two decades.  Sepinwall mentions anti-heroes without really making them part of his argument.  In a way, the book doesn't have a clear thesis that argues for any particular reason why these TV shows all belong together in one book (except, possibly, an argument about the importance of a strong-willed, talented showrunner as the single most necessary ingredient in good TV).  For this reason, some chapters seem a little out of place.  Despite the fact that it is my single favorite TV show of all time and features some lovely insights from Sepinwall, the Friday Night Lights chapter is the most glaring example of a show that doesn't quite fit the pattern here.  FNL is one of the best shows of the last decade, and Sepinwall makes a strong argument that its production and airing was certainly revolutionary (NBC and DirecTV split costs in exchange for rights to air at different times, effectively saving the show after season two).  But as a show simply about realistic people trying to make good choices and coming up against social and economic barriers that force them into lives different from the ones they expected, it feels a bit out of place in this list of oft-violent TV series.

That being said, I still think this is a delightful and insightful book.  Sepinwall self-published it, but within a couple weeks it was reviewed by the New York Times and made Michiko Kakutani's Top 10 year-end list.  It's a book that anyone with a passing interesting in contemporary television absolutely must buy and read. 

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