Constant Reader June 2024 (Adult) The Revolution Was Televised By Alan Sepinwall

David B Morris
13 min readJun 19, 2024

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The Story of How TV Changed Forever Told By The Rare Critic Who Loves His Job

Alan Sepinwall.

For the last year I’m seen so many notices how the Golden Age of Television has ended I’m honestly surprised I haven’t seen an obituary printed in the Arts & Leisure Section of The New York Times by now. People have been writing books about it as if it were so, the TV critics never miss a chance to tell us this, even the people who made a fortune in this genre are pouring one out for it.

I’ve written a lot about this before and I doubtless will again. I could say that that the logic as to why all these critics believed this is based entirely on how they view all mediums as an art rather than a business. I could argue that even while the Golden Age was going on, there was just as much crap everywhere as there was before it started; they just chose to pretend it didn’t exist. I could even argue that, in fact, they are as much to blame for Peak TV becoming what it was considering that they chose to consider the fracturing of the TV audience as a blessing for people like them and cheerfully ignoring the fact that the bill was going to eventually come due.

I could do that, and I will at a certain point. The thing is this time of year is my happy place when it comes to TV. The next three months are the summer of my content. I’ve already begun writing my predictions and hopes for this year’s Emmys based on what I think it deserves it. I will inevitably be proven wrong when the nominations do come out, but during this period I will spend a lot of time exploring the potential nominees and winners. As a result I will frequently encounter series that I might not have watched and enjoyed otherwise and most of the time, they remind me of why I love my job in the first place. I’ve already experienced the joy of Slow Horses and Ripley; I have begun to treasure the sublime new seasons of Hacks and the second season of The Bear and I’m looking forward to seeing if Walton Goggins gets the Emmy love he deserves for Fallout.

And considering how much of my job as a critic and indeed as a writer by design involves dealing with so much of the negativity and unpleasantness in the air, I don’t want it to overshadow what is always the highlight of my year as a critic. So I’ve decided to use one of my entries in this month’s Constant Reader to pay tribute to one my favorite books about the medium in written by what is almost certainly a unicorn among critics.

I believe that I ended up purchasing Alan Sepinwall’s The Revolution Was Televised and Brett Martin’s Difficult Men within months of each other in 2013. (Sepinwall’s work was written in May 2012; I purchased the paperback version the following year.) Both books claim to tell the story of the revolution: Martin’s claims to take you behind the scenes in his subtitles. The subtitle of Sepinwall’s book takes a similar approach: “The Cops, Crooks, Slingers, and Slayers Who Changed TV Drama Forever.” I’ve owned both books for more than a decade, both are dog-eared and I’ve used both volumes as reference works for my blog ever since I began writing about TV seriously — well, not much after these books were published.

Now if you’ve read one of my articles on David Chase, I made it clear that I thought Difficult Men is a very bad book when it comes to television and I hinted that Sepinwall’s was an excellent one. I was not speaking out of school on the subject: both men essentially are covering the same material and era, both men have spent a lot of time talking to all of the same creative forces and writers (with the sole exception of Alan Ball, who Martin spends a lot of time with and Sepinwall ignores). Indeed, I actually said I would get to why I thought Sepinwall’s book was the better one.

Martin’s approach in Difficult Men seems to be that of showing us how the sausage got made. And if you want to see how it did and to talk with the butchers, Difficult Men might be a worthy book. But for a book that claims to be about the ‘Creative Revolution’, he doesn’t seem to care much about the actual art that was produced. He gives some details about certain high points of The Sopranos or The Wire but barely seems interested in why they mattered so much to audience. He goes into great detail as to how hard David Chase had to fight to get the revolutionary ‘College’ episode on the air but has no real interest in explaining the aftereffects. He’s interested in the men rather than the art, and he barely bothers to explain why the art was so groundbreaking. He’ll tell you why David Simon and Shawn Ryan hated each other’s work, but as to what made The Wire and The Shield so groundbreaking, Martin doesn’t seem to care that much.

Perhaps that is because Martin is an investigative reporter and not a TV critic. For that reason the few descriptions we get even when we’re inside the writer’s rooms — as we do when we’re in Breaking Bad — give us no insight as to why anyone would watch these shows in the first place. Anyone who was hoping to learn the secrets of Mad Men and Breaking Bad when they were still on the air (as they both were when both volumes were published) would be incredibly disappointed by Difficult Men.

Sepinwall by contrast is a TV critic. He’d already been writing about television for twenty years when The Revolution Was Televised was published, taking an episode-by-episode guide for his blog What’s Alan Watching? He still writes regularly for various magazines, most famously Rolling Stone. He’s since written companion volumes to Breaking Bad and The Sopranos and I’m counting the days until Saul Goodman V. Jimmy McGill, his companion to Better Call Saul hits shelves next year. In 2016, he and his fellow critics Matt Zoller Seitz published TV (the Book): Two Experts Pick The Greatest American Shows of All Time and I got that book the day it came out. (I doubt it’s a surprise or a spoiler that Breaking Bad and The Sopranos are two of the five shows he and Zeitz consider perfect in every way.)

What strikes me the most every time I reread The Revolution is how much love for both his job and the medium he watches is clear in Sepinwall’s prose. I’ve written over the years how almost every major film critic these days seems to hate movies in general, and while that usually isn’t true for TV critics, there’s frequently a snobbish attitude to it that I sensed over the years. Marvin Kitman, the first TV critic I remember reading on a regular basis (and whom I corresponded with) was a brilliant writer, but he seemed to hate TV far more than he liked it and that was true even during the final years of his career in journalism. I remember in the last column he published that he thought that in truth TV had been horrible for a while and as bad as it was now, it was only going to get worse from here. (As I recall he wrote this in the spring of 2005, well before the debuts of many of the shows that we consider among the greatest.)

Sepinwall, by contrast, takes the attitude of a fanboy in almost every page in of Revolution. It’s not that he thinks every single moment of every single series was perfect: he’s more than willing to tell you where he thought so many great TV series went wrong over the years. He has no illusions about the final season of The Wire, he admits there are issues with so much of Lost and he fully acknowledges what a disaster the second season of Friday Night Lights was. And he doesn’t shy away from some of the most controversial endings of all time: the series finales of The Sopranos, Lost and Battlestar Galactica among them.

But he balances all of this with a sense of brilliant humor and joy that is absent from most critics I’ve read. So many critics in their articles treat their disdain for their subject by laughing at anyone who would be stupid enough to like this stuff. Sepinwall, by contrast, acknowledges that a lot of this led the viewer into a difficult place, but you get the sense that’s he laughing with us.

By the way, one of my favorite anecdotes about television is in regard to so many of the series finales I listed. In his interview with Tom Fontana in regard to OZ, he mentions the deeply polarizing series finale of St. Elsewhere in which everything that happened in the series seemed to be the figment of an autistic child’s imagination. According to Sepinwall:

While Fontana hadn’t meant to anger his fans with the St. Elsewhere ending, he was relieved by the reactions to these other conclusions: ‘I was like ‘Oh Thank God there’s some other people in the room with me now! It’s so lonely in there being the guy who had somehow infuriated half our audience!”

(This book was published before the series finale of Mad Men and Game Of Thrones had yet to become the phenomena it was by the time Sepinwall finished writing.)

Sepinwall for the record clearly interviews all of the people that Martin had access to his when he was writing Difficult Men considering that both covered The Sopranos, The Wire, Deadwood, The Shield, Mad Men and Breaking Bad. In addition to Lost, Battlestar Galactica and Friday Night Lights, Sepinwall also gives full credit to OZ, spends a lot of time with Buffy The Vampire Slayer and devotes a chapter to 24. Like Martin he omits Damages, but I don’t hold that against him.

Sepinwall starts his book with a prologue dealing with so many of the dramas that started the revolution. He pays tribute to some of the obvious ones — Hill Street Blues, St. Elsewhere, — but also hits ones you might not have thought of. He puts up a strong argument that Cheers deserves to be a precursor to so many of the great dramas of today, touches on some of the bigger hits of the 1990s — ER and The X-Files among them — and got me onboard when he credited Homicide and Twin Peaks.

Then he gives a chapter to each one of these series. Each opens with a catchphrase that we associate with the series: “All due respect”, “All the pieces matter,” “I’m a different kind of cop”, they are so iconically associated with the show, the average viewer probably doesn’t even need me to tell them which series I’m talking about. Sepinwall also then goes so far as to interview the showrunner behind each series as well as his own interviews with so many of the performers both for the book and over the years. Many of these stories he will highlight with an asterisk and relate them in italics in greater detail. He does this at great length when it comes to the Members Only Guy in the series finale of The Sopranos, deals with how so many of the characters in The Wire who viewers considered corrupt cops were just examples of being stuck in a broken system and the moment that I’ve never forgotten in the past fifteen years — the 40 second pause in the penultimate episode of The Shield Vic Mackey takes as he prepares himself to confess to everything he’s done over the run of the entire series. If there is a moment during the first fifteen years of the revolution that you haven’t forgotten all this time later, from the famous scene where McNulty and Bunk use only variations of the F-word to figure out how a murder was committed to Walter White’s telling Skyler “I am the danger!” Sepinwall was right there with you and he loved it as much as you did.

During this period, you learn secrets that you might not have about TV history. You’ll learn about the other pilot by Winnie Holzman that HBO was considered before they greenlit The Sopranos instead. You’ll learn how FX nearly chose a show that featured Jason Priestley in Traffic rather than The Shield as the first original program that they created. You’ll learn about the manifesto Ronald D. Moore wrote that managed to get his remake of Battlestar Galactica greenlit. And you’ll learn just how much work it took for Vince Gilligan to get the original pilot for Breaking Bad made anywhere on TV. There are some details that are still vague to Sepinwall — why Deadwood was cancelled after three seasons; how Mad Men ended up at AMC rather than HBO — but Sepinwall is less interested in the details as to how as to what these shows were like to watch.

Sepinwall also discusses, in far greater length than Martin even comes close to, of the ripple effects of HBO. He believes The Shield was far more critical to the revolution because it led to so many other networks trying their own experiments. He name checks other network’s attempts to build in this fashion, though he never dwells on it. He deals with Showtime’s moving forward with shows like Brotherhood and Sleeper Cell before coming up with Dexter. He mentions how USA’s Monk might have been as important to the revolution as The Shield was, And unlike Martin who basically chose to ignore network TV altogether, Sepinwall goes out of his way to praise network TV effort’s not only in the chapters I mentioned above but such ambitious failures as Profit which he humorously describes as ‘in hindsight seems to have been sent back in time from an FX development season circa 2006.’ (If that isn’t an argument for a reboot, I don’t know what is.) He also mentions such intriguing ones as Boomtown and Wonderland, which I never forgot even if history has.

Because Sepinwall is a critic and not a journalist there are for obvious reasons sections that may not flow as well as before. He heaps praise on both Buffy the Vampire Slayer and the work of Joss Whedon and now given everything we know about him, it’s hard to look at it with the same innocence we did ten years ago. (To be fair to Sepinwall, Whedon declined to be interview for Sepinwall’s book). He writes about the flaws Lost had creatively (which to be fair, are legion) rather than the behind the scenes trauma that happened that we now know about it. And while he doesn’t laud so many of the problematic writers the way Martin does, there is a sense of hero worship that writers like Chase and Whedon are not worthy of.

But that’s to be expected because Revolution is a love letter to the era of Peak TV as opposed to Martin who wants to lay bare the secrets of these men. Honestly, he comes across more of a fanboy of some of the writers than Sepinwall does and considering he’s reporting how monstrous Chase is, that’s aged worse than anything in Sepinwall’s book. And indeed that reason is why I love Sepinwall’s book more than so many other books about TV or critics: Sepinwall is far from an innocent, but there’s a part of him whose never forgotten being the 22 year old kid who went to his first TCA tour in 1996 and has never forgotten the experience or how Diane Werts, a veteran critic, took him under his wing. (He uses this as a lead in how he ended up screening The Shield in January of 2002, another thing we owe Werts a debt of gratitude for.) There’s still a part of him that’s a fan-boy, emphasis on both parts of the word. And as someone who really believes a critic should never forget why he got into the job in the first place, I truly admire Sepinwall.

That doesn’t mean that he isn’t victim to the same blind-spots of his colleagues when it comes to the business of television. He appreciates how the fragmentation of the audience that led to this success but doesn’t seem to realize the bill that was starting to come due when he finished his book in 2012. He mourns the demise of the WB, justifiably, but doesn’t seem to understand why it and the UPN had to merge into the CW as a result, nor why the Sci-Fi channel had to stop producing shows like Galactica and make more audience friendly shows. And he mocks the enormous ratings of The Walking Dead compared to the boutique hits that Breaking Bad and Mad Men were for AMC, ignoring the fact that all networks are business and they need hits like The Walking Dead to keep the lights on.

But I do forgive Sepinwall of these sins far easier than I do so many the critics working today in television, mainly because even three decades later its clear Sepinwall still loves his job. The business of television has changed but Sepinwall keeps on trucking. Even now he publishes episode by episode guides for Rolling Stone that explained the utter brilliance of the final seasons of Barry and Succession. I don’t know if like so many of his colleagues, he agrees with the belief that the revolution has ended and Peak TV is dead. Perhaps some day he will write about it in a longer, more detailed book. I just hope it doesn’t come soon.

The Revolution Was Televised reminds us what it is like to be a fan. Every time I start to watch a new series even on streaming, I have the same optimism Sepinwall did at a much younger age. The idea that I’m going to see something I’ve never seen before, something that made me glad I chose my job. I have found it with such diverse dramas as The Gilded Age and Yellowjackets, such radically different comedies as Reservation Dogs and Dead To Me and so many of the incredible limited series that come to us every year. When I do I’m reminded of how lucky I am to do this and I get a glimmer of the feeling that people like Sepinwall must have gotten when they first watched The Sopranos or Breaking Bad for the first time. Holding on to these joys are hard and get harder as we get older but as critics in particular it’s important we do. Reading Revolution I’m reminded of that feeling, and I hope I never lose it.

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David B Morris

After years of laboring for love in my blog on TV, I have decided to expand my horizons by blogging about my great love to a new and hopefully wider field.