TV Book Review: The Revolution Was Televised

In the hierarchy of the television-obsessed, TV critics are esteemed, valued like the clever, precious gems they are. That is, unless they hate the show you love, totally diss your fave character, interpret symbolism differently from you, accidentally type the wrong word…the list goes on. TV nerds have tumultuous relationships with critics. Even in the oasis of nerdery that is the AV Club’s TV Club, there are still plenty of reader/critic disagreements and tiffs, some of them even understandable. (Except for disagreements with Todd VanDerWerff. Todd is always right. He is a genius, and I will die protecting his vision.)

There’s a critic who’s been in the biz for a while and has garnered a great level of respect and esteem from many TV creators and watchers. And that man, King of the Critics, Guru of the “Guide,” Seer of the Series, is Alan Sepinwall, and he’s published a book that, for me at least, might as well have been a Schedule II controlled substance(*), that’s how quickly I got hooked on it.

(*I hate when people describe things as “crack.” E.g. “This cupcake is so good, it’s like CRACK!” or “This new cereal is like crack for toddlers.” No, you do not want anything in your life to be like crack. Crack is a seriously damaging substance. However, after reading about three pages of this book, I knew it was going to be an addictive experience for me…and I was mad at myself that I couldn’t think of any other adjectives. Also, this asterisk formatting is a nod to Sepinwall’s sweet writing style.)

“The Revolution Was Televised: The Cops, Crooks, Slingers and Slayers who Changed TV Drama Forever” was, in a word, awesome. It’s organized as a history of the modern TV drama: Sepinwall covers the rise of great cable and network dramas, starting with the cornerstones of this golden age: Oz and The Sopranos and ending with the youngest success: Breaking Bad. Honestly, I’m not a huge fan of dramas; I’ve only recently started getting into them. Of the shows covered in the book, I’ve only seen two of them in full (Mad Men and Breaking Bad) and four of them in part (24, Lost, Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Battlestar Galactica). In spite of all that, the book was still intriguing to read. And by the way, all of the chapters contain spoilers, so if that’s an issue for you, don’t read the chapters of shows you want to watch one day.

Sepinwall has a wealth of inside knowledge about these shows, and his writing style makes the book all the more enjoyable to read. For the most part, there’s a strong thread connecting each series in the evolution of the modern TV drama, though each chapter reads like an individual essay, and could easily be distributed as such. (I would say the exception to the the “thread” is the chapter about Buffy the Vampire Slayer, which I enjoyed immensely, but felt a bit like an opportunity to celebrate Joss Whedon’s success and less like a part of the drama revolution).

Now that I’ve completed the book and had time to let my observations sink in, I’ve realized a few things:

1) I have to watch The Wire — I once went to a lecture by Jason Reitman at Wake Forest University where, in the Q&A session, someone asked if he’d watched The Wire. When Reitman said no, the student said “Dude, it will change your life,” and then he walked out of the auditorium. He literally walked in just to ask that question.

After reading this chapter, I think I finally get that guy. People who love The Wire LOVE The Wire. The show did a lot of creative things with storytelling and characterization, and it created an obsessive, passionate following that only grows with every fan that forces a buddy to watch the show … and soon I shall be one of them.

2) David Milch is a wildcard — Learning about the creative process behind Milch’s show Deadwood was eye-opening. There would be days when they would start filming without a script. Milch would walk in that morning and start spouting off dialogue that the actors would have to memorize on the spot, without context. You’ve definitely got to have a certain personality type to thrive in (or even just handle) that kind of environment. I am not one of those people.

3) It’s a friggin’ miracle that Lost was ever made — In the Lost chapter (my favorite in the book by far), Sepinwall breaks down the creation of the drama that proved there was a place for awesome sci-fi on network TV … and the story is insane. It’s so complicated that I don’t think I can succinctly break it down here, but I’ll say this: Imagine that you’re the landlord for a bakery. You have an idea for a new cake recipe, but you don’t have any baking skills. So, you get one of the bakers to come up with it, but he doesn’t do it quite the way you imagined, and then the owner of the bakery isn’t really feeling the cake and he gets rid of that baker. Not to mention, it’s November, and your recipe is a Christmas cake, so the clock’s ticking on making the recipe in enough time for it to be profitable in the holiday season. And then, like a flash in the night, JJ Abrams comes in and creates Lost … just in time for Christmas … and Damon Lindelof and Carlton Cuse are there, and they’re really good at adding frosting and sprinkles … or something.

So my analogy wasn’t perfect. Sepinwall explains it really well, and I just recommend you buy the book and read it.

4) Joss Whedon was once like you and me! — Okay, no, he wasn’t, Joss Whedon has always been extraordinarily awesome. But, there was a time before he brought us The Avengers, and it was nice to learn in the Buffy chapter that he was once young, inexperienced and still honing his skills. Though, even then, he was mystifying the people around him with his sheer genius.

5) Sepinwall is a really cool guy — Alan Sepinwall has been able to review the best shows of the past two decades and interview some of TV and film’s most talented writers, directors and producers. I’m totally jealous. I’m so glad he’s lent his talents to TV criticism; for people like me, reviews and books like his are essential to the viewing experience. Thanks, Alan, for writing a spectacular book.

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