Book Talk: THE REVOLUTION WAS TELEVISED, by Alan Sepinwall


Alan Sepinwall (Blog) (Twitter)
Self-published by What’s Alan Watching? (November 2012), trade paper (ISBN 0615718299 / 9780615718293)
Nonfiction: essays/pop culture, 306 pages
Source: Purchased ebook (Smashwords: ISBN 9781301879960)
Reason for reading: Personal; recommended by Linda Holmes of Pop Culture Happy Hour

Excerpt from an Excerpt (previously published on
“The story of Lost makes no sense.

And by that I don’t mean the story on the show — though this is the point where you can feel free to insert jokes about the numbers, the outrigger shootout, or the reasons why Walt was “special” — but the story of how Lost itself got made.

The creation of Lost defies nearly everything we know about how successful television shows — or great ones — are made. The idea for Lost came not from a writer, but a network executive. The first writer on the project got fired. The replacement creative team had a fraction of the usual time to write, cast, and produce a pilot episode. The executive who had championed the show was himself fired before it ever aired. One of the two creators all but quit the moment the pilot was finished. Nearly every creative decision at the start of the show was made under the assumption that it would never succeed. Everyone believed it was too weird, too dense, too unusual to work. And it may have been. But it worked, anyway.”

Book description: A mob boss in therapy. An experimental, violent prison unit. The death of an American city, as seen through a complex police investigation. A lawless frontier town trying to talk its way into the United States. A corrupt cop who rules his precinct like a warlord. The survivors of a plane crash trying to make sense of their disturbing new island home. A high school girl by day, monster fighter by night. A spy who never sleeps. A space odyssey inspired by 9/11. An embattled high school football coach. A polished ad exec with a secret. A chemistry teacher turned drug lord. 

These are the subjects of 12 shows that started a revolution in TV drama: The Sopranos. Oz. The Wire. Deadwood. The Shield. Lost. Buffy the Vampire Slayer. 24. Battlestar Galactica. Friday Night Lights. Mad Men. Breaking Bad. 

These 12 shows, and the many more they made possible, ushered in a new golden age of television — one that made people take the medium more seriously than ever before. Alan Sepinwall became a TV critic right before this creative revolution began, was there to chronicle this incredible moment in pop culture history, and along the way “changed the nature of television criticism,” according to Slate. The Revolution Was Televised is the story of these 12 shows, as told by Sepinwall and the people who made them, including David Chase, David Simon, David Milch, Damon Lindelof and Carlton Cuse, Vince Gilligan and more.

Comments: I don’t often blog about television, because unless I want to get into the recapping business–and I don’t–I find it difficult to capture thoughts on such time-sensitive things as TV-show episodes. But many of my favorite blogs to read–other than book blogs, of course–and podcasts to listen to are either partly or exclusively TV-related, and the best of them manage to find ways to combine timely recapping with more analytical discussions of series arcs, themes, and characters.

Thought-provoking, insightful commentary on movies has been around for decades, but there’s less history of it with television. However, both television drama and the internet have pushed boundaries during the last 15 years or so, and it seems fitting that thought-provoking, insightful commentary on thought-provoking, insightful television would spring up online. TV critic Alan Sepinwall has been a leading source of this commentary, at his popular blog, What’s Alan Watching?, and on his long-running podcast with fellow writer Dan Fienberg. Drawing on years of background material as well as new interviews, Sepinwall discusses twelve of the most groundbreaking, influential television dramas of recent times in The Revolution Was Televised: The Crooks, Cops, Slingers and Slayers Who Changed TV Drama Forever.

The “crooks” and “cops” Sepinwall’s subtitle alludes to are from series like Oz, The Sopranos, The Wire, The Shield, and Breaking Bad; the “slingers” would be the foul-mouthed Wild West denizens of Deadwood; and, of course, the “slayer” is one Buffy Summers. The book’s thesis, supported by Sepinwall’s examples, reflects the influence and depth of genre conventions in storytelling–in addition to the shows referenced in the subtitle, we have 24, Battlestar Galactica, and Lost–and their expansion well beyond any limits of genre, illustrated via Friday Night Lights and Mad Men. While much of the resource material for the book comes from Sepinwall’s columns and blog, The Revolution Was Televised is by no means a collection of recycled posts. This is deep-diving, detailed discussion of how great television gets made. Sepinwall gets into the production and behind-the-scenes business of each show as well as the analysis of significant episodes and characters. This is writing that takes television as serious art seriously, and if you’re interested in that kind of thing–and granted, I very much am–it’s all thoroughly engaging, engrossing reading. It left me wanting to read more about, and re-watch with new perspective, the shows I love, and got me much more interested in catching up on some of the shows I’ve never watched.

The Revolution Was Televised is also notable for reasons other than its content. Sepinwall opted to self-publish it, but it has since been acquired by one of the publishers who turned down his original book proposal and will be reissued by Simon and Schuster’s Touchstone imprint this coming spring. And while traditional-publisher reprints of self-published works are becoming more common, reviews of self-published works in traditional critical venues are still pretty rare; Sepinwall’s book not only scored a New York Times review, it ended up on NYT book critic Michiko Kakutani’s top-10 list for 2012. I know it’s only January, but I won’t be surprised if The Revolution Was Televised ends up on my own 2013 Books of the Year list, too.

Rating: 4/5

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