I’ve believed for a while now that television can be as exciting and artful as a good novel. Like a novel, television draws you in to a place and time and a set of characters that you want to keep returning to. Usually, we consume television one piece at a time, just as we do novels. Binge watches or binge reads are rare treats when you have a life to live. And until relatively recently, binge watches weren’t even feasible because most television shows weren’t available on DVD (or VHS), and those first sets that became available were incomplete or prohibitively expensive. I still remember seeing the first complete DVD set of an early season The X-Files at Blockbuster and yearning to own it. Little did I know that someday the whole series would be available to play on my TV with a simple click of the remote.
In recent years, television has taken what many critics consider a huge leap forward, with shows becoming more complex and creators being more interested in gaining a core of devoted fans than in gaining the largest audience possible. In this book, Alan Sepinwall of Hitfix looks at how television has changed in the last 15 years or so by examining a dozen shows and how trends in cable and network programming and the rise of the Internet enabled these shows to find a place and viewership that might not have been available in the past.
As it turns out, I’ve seen and admired, to varying degrees, all but three of the shows that Sepinwall discusses. The shows I’ve watched are The Sopranos, The Wire, Lost, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Lost, 24 (which I gave up on after about five seasons), Battlestar Galactica, Friday Night Lights, Mad Men, and Breaking Bad. The shows I haven’t watched are Oz, The Shield, and Deadwood. So it’s safe to say that this book sits in my television wheelhouse. It’s about the kind of television I like. Other shows do come up, both in an opening chapter about shows that paved the way for this revolution, which includes my beloved X-Files, as well as in chapters devoted to specific shows. But the book functions as a series of essays about these 12 shows.
I enjoy getting the behind-the-scenes scoop on how art gets made, so I was interested in the back story on why HBO–and then FX and then AMC—decided to get into making original programs and how various pilots and scripts had kicked around for a while before finding the right home at the right time. In most cases, these shows needed a network ready to take a risk. AMC in particular was looking for something that would make it impossible for cable carriers to drop the channel, which before Mad Men was considered the “other” channel for old movies, second fiddle to Turner Classic Movies.
The chapter on Lost was a favorite, mostly because it showed just how quickly that show was put together and how much the writers were figuring it out as they went along. I became more impressed at the writers’ creativity in that first season when I learned how little time they had—and more understanding of the way they had to adjust to those early decisions later on. Lost, like all these shows, was a work in progress throughout its run, but the level of planning involved varied from show to show and from season to season. I’m amazed even now at how little the Breaking Bad writers had planned out in advance. Their approach often involved writing themselves into a corner and then figuring out an escape. At the time this book was written, they still hadn’t worked out how they would end the show and therefore refused to reveal some of their early plans for the first season, just in case they decided to use the idea to close the show.
Sepinwall writes as a journalist and a critic. He interviewed the creators and executives involved in most of these shows for the book or cites interviews from other sources. But he also shares his own opinions—such as his belief that Tony doesn’t die at the end of The Sopranos, although he understands why some would read the ending that way. My own opinions dovetail in most cases with Sepinwall’s, so I enjoyed that aspect of the book. (Although I kind of think Tony died.)
The essays are arranged in a loosely chronological order, although the piece onBuffy appears late in the book, even though it premiered before any of the others. Sepinwall acknowledges this fact and says that he included it because it was so great and its development paralleled that of the other shows in the book. But making the earliest show the subject of the book’s seventh chapter seems to minimize its influence. I don’t imagine that Buffy was much of an influence on the gritty HBO series under discussion, but I would have placed it before Lost.
More disappointing to me was the treatment of Battlestar Galactica, although my disappointment is with the show’s creators as much as with Sepinwall, who just doesn’t question their assertions. Show creator Ronald A. Moore said that it was to be a show that went back “to the roots of science fiction, which pre–Star Wars had frequently been as much about social commentary as about cool spaceships and robots.” It would be atypical of the genre’s recent manifestations and not necessarily appeal to the typical science fiction fans. First, every single person I know who loved BSG is a science fiction fan. I’m sure it had broader appeal than that, but so did Star Wars, which is dismissed as mere space opera. And BSG is far from the only serious science fiction show about ideas after Star Wars. Anyone who has seen Babylon 5 would know that. This seemed to me like a typical dismissal of genre storytelling by those who don’t know the genre and can’t see past the “cool spaceships and robots.”
(I’m actually disappointed that Babylon 5 is never mentioned in the book at all, despite it having a multi-season story arc planned well in advance, therefore making it a show that paved the way for these later shows and worthy of mention in the book’s opening chapter. It seemed like a serious omission to me, but I can’t expect a single TV writer to know about everything, especially a niche science fiction show. )
This book is probably only of interest to people who know and like most of the shows discussed—and who like getting the story behind the story. The chapters on shows I hadn’t seen were worthwhile, particularly the one on Oz, because it explains how HBO began moving toward these sorts of complex, gritty shows. But those chapters were the most difficult to follow because I didn’t know anything about the storylines and characters that come up. But the other essays, even on those rare occasions when I didn’t agree, were interesting reading and reminded me of why I love good television.