“The Sopranos,” “Mad Men,” And “24”: TV Critic Alan Sepinwall Breaks Down TV Dramas

Sepinwall’s new book, The Revolution Was Televised, looks back at the (very recent) golden age of the television drama. Let’s grill him!

Tony Soprano.

Alan Sepinwall — the prolific TV critic, even-keeled Twitter presence and saver of Chuck — has written a book about the ongoing golden age of television dramas called The Revolution Was Televised: The Cops, Crooks, Slingers and Slayers Who Changed TV Drama Forever. Read it and you get the backstory of era-defining shows such as Lost, Oz, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, The Shield, and, of course, The Sopranos, which Sepinwall wrote about weekly at the Star-Ledger. (He now writes for Hitfix.) It’s a fast yet exhaustive read — TV fans will love it. The book is self-published, and you can buy it at Amazon and Barnes & Noble, and through iTunes.

Sepinwall — who’s been a friendly acquaintance for years — and I e-mailed extensively about The Revolution Was Televised this week. We discussed endings and antiheroes, and I pressed him particularly on why he left out certain shows (you’ll see which ones below) that would have defined this revolutionary time in television differently, perhaps — and more diversely. Our e-mail exchange is below.

KA: How did you pick which shows to focus on? What was your taste and shows you really know and cover, versus what other people might consider to be revolutionary dramas?

AS: Some of them were obvious, particularly the four HBO shows that start the book. (And I left out Six Feet Under in part because I didn’t want to do HBO overload, but also because I never liked that show as much as the others, though it was certainly capable of greatness at times.) After that, I tried as best I could to pick shows that I both loved — because I really didn’t want to be spending a lot of time poring over ones I didn’t care for — and that reflected some larger part of the story of this period. So The Shield chapter is a lot about how HBO’s monopoly on this kind of show ended, the Buffy chapter is about the WB (and, to a lesser extent, UPN) as an alternative place where creators were getting a bit more freedom to experiment, and the chapters on Friday Night Lights, Lost, and 24 all in different ways deal with the changes in technology and distribution systems that were cropping up during this period. I tried to not just make it “the best dramas ever,” or even “the best dramas of this period” — you’ll notice that West Wing (which was a great but very traditional network-y show) is barely mentioned at all in the book — but to be about this specific movement. There was even a period when Mad Men and Breaking Bad were going to be squeezed into a single chapter, because I wanted to include Breaking Bad but worried there wasn’t enough of a different angle from Mad Men (and the rise of AMC) to justify its own chapter.

The inscrutable Don Draper gaze. Courtesy of AMC.

KA: Let’s get to Six Feet Under in a little bit. Tell me about how you define the “movement” — there’s certainly an antihero thread that runs through a lot of these shows that could be called derivative.

AS: Well, certainly there’s a lot of middle-aged white male antiheroism going on in there. The Sopranos was the first big hit of the movement, and even rule-breaking TV takes inspiration from those who came before. (As I note in The Sopranos chapter, HBO’s choice to follow Oz came down to Sopranos vs. a Winnie Holzman show about a female business exec at a toy company, which would have made the next decade in TV very different, whether it succeeded or failed.) But I think the antihero thing also comes out of a sense of collective frustration most of these creators had with the traditional rules of TV drama (where the worst any protagonist could be was “crusty but benign”) and then the sense of freedom they had during this Wild West period. When there are no laws for a while, suddenly everyone’s an outlaw, which translates not just into shows about criminals, but shows that don’t behave the way we’d been conditioned to expect from decades of TV before it. So you could have a show like Sopranos where the narrative took frequent detours or deliberately went down dead ends, and you could have another like The Wire where each season was one big, interwoven story where the whole was much better than the sum of the individual episodes. You could have both an action show (24) and a space opera (Battlestar Galactica) dealing with hot-button political issues like religious fundamentalism and torture, or even a high school drama like Friday Night Lights that was matter-of-fact in its depiction of teen drinking and sexuality, which had previously required Very Special Episodes to deal with.

KA: The thing about the antihero shows is how few people watch them. Other than The Sopranos, which was actually a huge, popular hit, as you point out in the book, the closest runner-up, ratings-wise, would be The Shield — and House, which isn’t in the book, was massive for awhile. Is it just a case of angry middle-aged male executives loving stories about angry middle-aged male characters? Or is there something about this area of storytelling that lends itself to unique stories?

AS: Well, it depends on how you view a show like Lost (where Jack was the unquestioned hero but also kind of a self-destructive, bullying jackass) or 24 (another Jack who violated various rules and social conventions, albeit in a direction the creators meant as more purely heroic), which were both big commercial hits. But no, most of these shows did not have huge ratings, but they tended to do well with critics (who were — and are — still predominantly middle-aged white guys) and Emmy voters, so there was a level of prestige to them (particularly at a network like AMC, where attention-seeking was really the only motive for the creation of Mad Men). And though money remains by far the primary motivator among TV executives, most of the ones I’ve met over the years are in the business because on some level, they really do like television and want to make good shows. (Preferably with American Idol–level ratings, but you can’t have everything.) There was definitely a sense in talking to Chris Albrecht, Kevin Reilly, Rob Sorcher, and some of the other execs from this period that they were really just happy at first to be trying something new. That many of these shows wound up being similar thematically wasn’t really apparent until later in the decade.

We both hate Jack. Courtesy of ABC.

KA: You hate Jack on Lost! So do I. You get into this question in the book with some of the individual shows that had disappointing endings, but I want to ask about your personal feelings: How much do you as both a fan and critic care about how a show ends? (I will say that I’ve found that terrible conclusions very much affect my memories of loving a show: I retrofit that love. And never want to re-watch them.)

AS: As someone who went back and re-watched large chunks of these shows in order to write the book, I really didn’t find my experience affected by knowing how things ended, whether well or poorly. Those early Lost episodes are still amazing. My favorite Sopranos episodes aren’t ruined because I’m thinking of the scene at the ice cream parlor (which I’ve kind of grown to like, anyway). For me, I think the opposite becomes much more true: that a great ending is more likely to retroactively raise my opinion of a show than a bad ending is to diminish it. The Shield was an excellent show throughout its run, but I think the thing that elevates it into the discussion with the HBO and AMC shows for a place in the all-time pantheon are those last two episodes. That’s a case of a serialized drama doing everything we’ve said throughout this era that we wanted them to do: paying off almost every major story thread, and in the most emotionally powerful way possible. And when I was looking back over old Shield episodes, I found my interest raised even over some periods I found patchier at the time.

The divisive final scene of The Sopranos.

KA: I liked that you credited The Shield for its consistency; I felt that at the time, and think it’s an art of its own to end things well. (Along with Buffy, it’s my favorite show ever.) A show like 24 — it was actively bad for long stretches, and I found the final two seasons to be literally unwatchable, though I watched the very end. Do you agree? Did you include it because of its experiment with form?

AS: I actually watched more of those last two 24 seasons when researching that chapter than I think I did at the time. (I remember bailing on the final season around the time Herc from The Wire turned up as a stupid cop who was going to keep Jack as a prisoner for an episode or two just because that’s what the story needed at the time; I never saw the ending until this summer.) I think it’s a show that definitely exhausted its concept well before the end, but the construction also led to wild quality swings even in the good seasons, like amnesia or the cougar. It’s not remotely as consistent, or as deep, as the best of the cable shows, and I would often throw up my hands at some dumb plot twist or other, but I do think that at its best it was an incredible piece of pulp fiction. I wanted it in the book because of the way it grappled with the challenges of telling serialized stories under a broadcast network production/scheduling/content model and because of how it inadvertently became the show of the moment thanks to 9/11 (an event that resonated through a lot of the shows in the book).

KA: You interviewed most of the shows’ creators and show runners — everyone except Buffy’s Joss Whedon and Mad Men’s Matthew Weiner, I think, both of whom cited busy-ness. Were there things you would have been more critical of with any of the shows without that access?

AS: Whedon, Weiner, and Peter Berg (who did create the Friday Night Lights show, even if he ceded control almost immediately to Jason Katims) were the three I couldn’t land due to scheduling. I’d have had to start working on the book, like, three years ago to get out from around the way Avengers took over Whedon’s life, and I had the bad timing to write this thing in a year where Weiner went straight from making a season of Mad Men to directing his first movie and then right back to another season of Mad Men.

But nobody had any conditions for access, even though I’d written critical things about all of their shows in the past, and even though I repeated some of those complaints in the book. My original plan for the book was to do it as a straight-up piece of television criticism, without needing access at all (other than what I already knew from years of covering the business and these shows), but then I would start e-mailing guys with questions to clarify a detail, and that would turn into a new story, and eventually I recognized that the book was going to be a lot more interesting if they were telling the story right along with me. And in most cases, they were much more candid and reflective now than they were at the time they were making the shows.

Alan Sepinwall

KA: That’s so interesting about the candidness. What are some examples?

AS: This is definitely the most open I remember Damon Lindelof and Carlton Cuse ever being (and certainly with me) about what they knew about the Lost mythology and when they knew it. And though the versions of what brought about the end of Deadwood conflict, they’re still in more detail than anyone seemed willing to say at the time. (Though that may be a case of the years giving everyone time to get their respective stories straight.)

KA: You’re not muckraking, though: There are plenty of things you could have written about on-set strife or network interference that you didn’t.

AS: That stuff just didn’t interest me, to be honest. I was mainly focused on the origin stories and then analyzing various creative decisions from the life of the show. Occasionally, strife or notes led to those decisions, but not as often. And ultimately I didn’t want any chapter to go on too long, so I had to pick and choose what I dealt with. I believe Lindelof and Cuse have spoken publicly in the past about dealing with budget cuts in the later season, for instance, but I ultimately didn’t have time to bring that up with them when there were so many other things to ask.

KA: I’m going to name a few shows and ask why you didn’t include them. I’ll make the argument for, and you respond.

AS: Go.

KA: You mentioned Six Feet Under. The case for: It set loose wonderful writers and actors onto the world (or gave familiar faces different things to do); its multiple Emmy nominations; the rise of Alan Ball as a show runner and important television figure; it was popular; and it ended more beautifully than any show before or since — no one can compete, forget it, it’s done. For your purposes, it would have been different from most of these antihero shows that dominant the era, with lots of strong women characters, and Alan Ball is a gay man: also adding some variety. Fight me!

AS: Many of these things you say are true, though personally I was more emotionally affected by the end of The Shield, even though the Six Feet final montage is amazing. And it absolutely would have added some variety, subject-wise.

What it ultimately came down to was a desire to not do too many HBO shows, because it wasn’t just an HBO-driven era, even though things started there, and me liking the other four more. When Six Feet Under was good, it was great, but it could go so wildly off the rails for such long periods. And it seemed to take pleasure in tormenting its characters (I’m thinking specifically of David trapped in the van with Michael Weston), and I really grew to hate Nate Fisher long before they killed him off. It’s a better overall show than 24, whose quality swings we already talked about, but when we’re talking turn-of-the-century HBO shows, I was much happier spending a lot of time watching, talking about, and writing about Oz, Sopranos, The Wire, and Deadwood.

Six Feet Under’s final scene; I just cried while embedding it.

KA: The West Wing. Yes, it was more in line with traditional network dramas in many ways. But Aaron Sorkin brought a singular voice to the show, and the visual style (the walk-and-talk, but also the richness of how it looked) was unique. I’ve also never read a great account of what led to Sorkin’s ouster, and since it’s in the past, maybe people would tell that story. Fight me!

AS: I will not fight you on the quality of the show, particularly in first two seasons (and again in the last, though that was essentially a spin-off). Great show. But it also feels like, along with ER (which also had John Wells), the David E. Kelley shows of the time, etc., like the conclusion of a great 20-year stretch of broadcast network dramas that were ground-breaking for their times, but much more traditional in comparison to what Sopranos and company were about to do. If I was doing “Best Dramas Ever” book, West Wing is there, absolutely. But it ultimately didn’t feel like it fit the thesis of the book.

KA: One more: Grey’s Anatomy. While I realize that this show is my most controversial choice, here’s the argument. Grey’s and House were the last network drama phenomena among young adults; Grey’s has not only outlasted House, but it has stayed popular much longer (House sort of fell off a cliff, ratings-wise). Not only was Grey’s the last truly popular zeitgeist show, and that is over forever, but it and Desperate Housewives exposed one of the real truths about television: that women are the audience for hits. Men, particularly young men, do not watch TV en masse. Grey’s also had to deal with the explosion of celebrity, gossip, and controversy like no show ever (the Isaiah Washington catastrophe, everything that came out of Katherine Heigl’s mouth). And creator Shonda Rhimes, an African-American woman, showed that a diverse cast (and putting women directors behind the camera) is not only important, but seemingly easy. Rhimes is obviously an important figure in television, and will continue to be for years. Go, Alan, go!

AS: Longtime Grey’s fan, enough to tough it out through some of the lower moments like ghost sex, George and Izzie, etc. Shonda’s a very important (and talented) producer, and what she’s done in terms of diversity is huge, though there’s a good amount of diversity in some of the other shows in the book. One quote that didn’t make it into the Oz chapter was Tom Fontana noting that other than that show and The Wire, HBO was a pretty white network over that period. But Lost was very diverse, Friday Night Lights (particularly in the later seasons) too, and 24 had a black president (and a great villain in Sherry Palmer), etc.

Grey’s, like West Wing, feels like a show that belongs more to a previous movement rather than the one I’m writing about in my book. It’s part of the lineage of St. Elsewhere and ER, and you could certainly argue that the way it mashes in bits of Friends and Sex and the City made it into something wholly new. But overall, it felt like another well executed but more traditionally structured show.

Game of Thrones’ Jon Snow. Courtesy of HBO.

KA: Well done. If you were writing this book three years from now instead of when you did, are there any shows currently on that you can imagine you’d include? Speculate wildly!

AS: I thought about that a lot. Ideally, I would’ve waited until Mad Men and Breaking Bad were over before writing this (and will probably do an updated edition down the road dealing with their conclusions), but my fear was that by the time they were done, I would feel the need to squeeze in a Homeland, a Game of Thrones, a Justified, or a Boardwalk Empire — shows that are too young and/or still a little too uneven to be considered as part of the pantheon, but might have a strong enough track record by then — and eventually it would become a never-ending thing. But at the same time, as I’ve said a bunch of times when talking about the shows I left out already, this isn’t a “Best Dramas Ever” book. It’s about a specific story, and a specific period in television, when the rules were being rewritten, then broken, and then rewritten again. Those shows, much as I like them all to different degrees, came about in an era where the new rules were already well-established.

(The only exception might be Louie, where Louis C.K. has made an end-run even around the new rules with this deal where he takes a lower paycheck in exchange for the kind of freedom that even the HBO guys didn’t have at the turn of the century. But then you raise the question of whether Louie is a comedy or a drama, but it’s the one current show that feels like it might fit into the narrative of the book, and not just because it’s great.)

Howard Gordon, who ran 24 for a long time and is one of the producers on Homeland, says that the former show was set in something of a post-9/11 universe, while the latter exists in a post-post-9/11 universe. The Shield and Mad Men were created in a post-Sopranos TV universe; Homeland and Justified in a post-post-Sopranos one, if that makes sense. I might like to tell their stories sometime, but it would be a different overall story.

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