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Bookshelf: "The Revolution Was Televised"

By Rich Heldenfels Published: November 28, 2012

My friend  and colleague Alan Sepinwall has written a terrific new book, “The Revolution Was Televised,” an up-close look at the making of major and rules-breaking drama series from the last 15 years, including “Oz,” “The Sopranos,” “The Wire,” “The Shield,” “Buffy the Vampire Slayer,” “Battlestar Galactica,” “Lost,” “24,” “Deadwood,” “Mad Men,” “Breaking Bad” and “Friday Night Lights” –  all of which get chapter-length treatment, with shorter side trips to some other programs.

The creation and making of each is examined in detail, based not only on Alan’s careful viewing but his extensive interviews over the years with the makers of the show, as well as newer discussions with most of them.

It’s also a book that made me wish that roughly every five years all networks would be required to stop whatever they have been doing and reinvent themselves entirely. More about that in a bit.

While it is bracingly readable and full of Alan’s passion about these shows, it is also a valuable reference work for anyone pondering how these shows came to pass; I would put it any public library, and especially in the library of any school or college which has even a passing commitment to popular culture. Not only is it solidly reported, it is more than willing to look closely at the flaws Alan sees in the shows, such as the murder-coverup episodes of “FNL,” and at the controversial creative decisions in the finales of “The Sopranos” and “Lost.” So don’t come to this expecting to hear that every episode is brilliant, and every creator divinely inspired; this is really about the ups and downs of the creative process.

Flaws? Well, there’s no index. And I am less enthused about, say, “BSG” than Alan is. But even that latter point is one of honest critical disagreement  -- the kind two colleagues might have about any show -- rather than a flaw per se. At some points, I thought, “Now, Alan …” but never did I want to snarl “Come on” and toss the book across the room.

That said, “The Revolution Was Televised” is at once an optimistic and pessimistic book. Optimistic because it demonstrates yet again what creative people can do with television, that there was not just the Golden Age of the ‘50s or the “second Golden Age” of the ‘80s and ‘90s, but a still-in-progress period of still more fascinating work in television comedy and drama. Pessimistic because the opportunities for changing the rules diminish in part because of the success of the dramas Alan talks about.

As the book notes, these dramas discussed basically grew from one of two situations. The first is an upstart network, or one attempting to establish a new identity, and which is willing to take a chance on something bold that will get it noticed. HBO, beginning with “Oz,” is an example, as are FX with “The Shield” and AMC with “Mad Men.” In each case, the networks had no template that shows had to fit, and no significant ratings benchmark (achieved by a previous show) that had to be met. Instead, all it took was an idea that sounded intriguing, and the creative people to make that idea happen.

The other situation is a network that is so deeply in trouble that it will try anything to get out. Look at the description of how “Lost” came to be, and how much it depended on an ABC executive – Lloyd Braun – who was on the verge of being fired.  And before the period Alan covers, you can look at, say, NBC in the late ‘70s and early ‘80s as another example of a network willing to listen to almost anything if it might bring some viewers to the set.

But when those shows break through, then the programs that follow suddenly have something to be measured against – and the chances of another completely daring show getting on the air diminish, because now risk-taking has a cost. And then networks become, well, CBS.

I am not blaming CBS, which has plenty of shows I like on the air, and which has a successful financial model.(The same could be said of USA or TNT, similarly careful networks.) But it is also a model that is largely conservative; you can watch something like “Elementary” or “Blue Bloods” or “Big Bang Theory” or “The Good Wife” and you know what it is. (Sherlock Holmes, cop show, sitcom, prime-time soap.) You have a general sense of the TV rules being honored. You may go “what the --?” at a plot twist, but not at the concept or execution as a whole. “How I Met Your Mother” does some nifty things with narrative and time-shifting, but it does so within a recognizable comedy framework; shows that once seemed unusual like “CSI” (which I keep watching through all the cast changes) and “Survivor” are now a dozen years old – and even “CSI,” while it had a cool look in the beginning, was still serving the familiar: the police procedural.

Then you may well look at something like “Vegas,” a show I desperately want to like, and think that there’s something missing. I keep wishing the show was on FX or HBO, somewhere that would let Michael Chiklis go balls-out and give Dennis Quaid more to do than slouch and scowl – if, that is, FX or HBO was open to such an idea.

I know, I have veered away from Alan’s book. But the fact is, his book got me thinking about all this – and other matters besides, as you will see when you sit down with this book. As I said not long ago on Facebook, my plan after getting it was to read a chapter a night. Then I would look up, three chapters later, and realize he was costing me sleep. These days I prize my sleep. But I prized the time spent with Alan’s book even more.

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