Few would disagree that, in these multi-channel times of sumptuous possibility, we are living in an unrivalled golden age for American-made TV drama. And few would disagree that it’s about time we had an insightful book on the subject of those great millennial small-screen dramas that have allowed television to step out from the shadow of the cinema.
Alan Sepinwall’s new book does exactly what it says on the tin. The Revolution Was Televised: The Cops, Crooks, Slingers & Slayers Who Changed TV Drama Forever showcases a dozen shows that rewrote the rules and changed forever our expectations of what television could amount to.
As Sepinwall points out in his intro, HBO’s The Sopranos was the first commercial success of this modern TV revolution but credit is due to the ultra-violent prison drama Oz for kicking the doors open in the first place, embracing bold experimentation and creating a vogue for uncompromising anti-hero male leads.
Twelve shows then, each one getting a chapter to itself: The Sopranos. Oz. The Wire. Deadwood. The Shield. Lost. Buffy The Vampire Slayer. 24. Battlestar Galactica. Friday Night Lights. Mad Men. Breaking Bad. In each chapter Sepinewall offers sharp analysis as to how these shows have pushed the boundaries of storytelling, mixed high and low culture, and demonstrated that the small screen could be an ideal medium for writers and directors eager to create complex, challenging narratives with “moral shades of gray.” These appreciations are skillfully interwoven with insider material, mostly from brand new interviews with the shows’ creators and writers.
Quite likely your favourite chapters of this book will involve your favourite shows. So, for me, Sepinwall’s meditations on The Wire, Deadwood and The Sopranos proved the most compulsive reads. Sepinwall is especially good on Sopranos detail and what made the show tick from the first episode to the 86th and final. For instance, David Chase didn’t set out to make a mob drama at all, but a show about his troubled relationship with his own mother. His lead character became a mobster, Sepinwall writes, because Chase needed, “to find a way to make the stakes high enough that viewers would care.” Even then, the show nearly didn’t get off the ground, Chase needing to persuade TV executives that viewers would warm to a show whose central character was “a craven, hypocritical sociopath.”
Another stand-out chapter is the one on Deadwood which effectively reinvented the entire western genre by dispensing with cowboy caricatures and neatly-trimmed morality tales in favour of a biblically dense and completely riveting meditation on power, greed, lust and death.
Best of all is Sepinwall’s passionate celebration of The Wire in which he argues that co-creators David Simon and Ed Burns didn’t believe they were making a TV show at all; their aim was to create the Great American Novel for television. As Sepinwall notes, “No American show had been assembled in this way before. People had to learn a new kind of viewing…It wasn’t really a cop show, but a despairing sociological screed in cop-show drag. There were always cops, and always criminals, but the series used them to make various points about the rotting state of the American city – and, by extension, the broken condition of America itself.”
Sepinwall reminds us that The Wire occupies a league all of its own, that no TV show comes close to the scope of its ambition, its precision casting, its consistency of writing and its immense acting. As Sepinwall writes, “What The Wire could do best of all was punch you in the gut, leaving you simultaneously in tears and begging for more.”
Amen to that.