When Alan Sepinwall was hired as a TV critic just out of college in 1996, he had no way of knowing he was about to witness “a big bang of sorts,” as he puts it in his new book "The Revolution Was Televised: The Cops, Crooks, Slingers and Slayers Who Changed TV Drama Forever."
"I was about to see television achieve its full potential, and step out from the shadows of cinema," he writes in this spry and intelligent examination of an era that began with the HBO prison drama "Oz." The cable network would continue to lead the charge with "The Sopranos," "The Wire" and "Deadwood." Episodic television was no longer disposable. These shows, with their existential angst and complicated narratives, demanded to be taken seriously — and in many cases, obsessively so.
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Soon enough, the experiments migrated to other networks. Shows such as "Mad Men" and "Breaking Bad" have helped to define the zeitgeist; also "The Shield," "Lost," "Buffy the Vampire Slayer," "24," "Battlestar Galactica" and "Friday Night Lights."
Sepinwall devotes a chapter to each, analyzing the ways in which they influenced one another and changed the face of television. With fresh interviews from show creators, the book is one of the first to investigate the behind-the-scenes business and artistic impulses driving what has been such a fertile period for smart, engrossing television dramas.
If you watch any of these shows, no doubt you've found Sepinwall online. He is among an influential group of TV critics who blog about shows on an episode-by-episode basis. (After several years at the New Jersey Star-Ledger, he now blogs for the entertainment news website HitFix.com.) Television's newfound legitimacy is that much richer thanks to the addictive Web-based conversations led by Sepinwall and others.
With his new book, Sepinwall has ventured into the unknown by choosing to self-publish. He says it has worked out remarkably well so far, thanks to a hefty dose of media coverage.
"Sepinwall got the kind of coverage that most traditionally published authors can only dream of," a piece on Forbes.com noted recently. "This might just be reviewers reviewing another reviewer, a little bit of moral support from your friends, except Sepinwall's friends have very big megaphones." They include TV critics Emily Nussbaum of The New Yorker and James Poniewozik of Time.
This month I talked with Sepinwall about wading into the world of book writing, self-publishing and the television landscape looking forward. Following is an edited transcript.
Q: You write about television in-depth on your blog every day, so why write a book?
A: I wrote one before, years ago, called "Stop Being a Hater and Learn How to Love The O.C." It was a commission job for Penguin — they were looking to cash in on "The O.C." phenomenon (a series that ran on Fox from 2003-07) — and I wrote it in about three weeks and made enough to buy a washer and dryer.
But I always said to myself, I'd like to write a more serious book than that. I'd like to write a book that lasts longer. I've been lucky enough to have this job at a time where I've been witnessing this big transformation in television. I've known all these people (who make TV), and I've written about these shows, and it just seemed like, why haven't I done this already?
Finally, a literary agent reached out to me and said, "You need to write a book."
Q: That implies that you were headed down a traditional publishing route. Why self-publish instead?
A: I wrote a sample chapter about "The Sopranos" and I submitted it along with a proposal to all the major publishers. Most were not interested. One was a little interested and made me an offer, but I could tell that it was half-hearted. And at that point I said to myself, I know enough about self-publishing from some friends who have done it, and I have enough of a platform with social media and traditional media that I might be able to pull this off. Why not try that? So far it has worked out beyond my wildest expectations.
Q: I don't think most writers could do this.
A: I knew at the time that I had 40,000 Twitter followers. I think it's now 50,000. How many of them were going to buy the book? I didn't know, but I knew (the social media presence) was going to be loud. And I figured I could go to (fellow TV critics) and see if they could mention it at the end of a column or something. A bunch of them ended up writing these really complimentary, very long reviews of the book. But I had no idea that The New York Times was going to review it. I literally found out (the day before it ran) from an email from a photo editor saying, "We're running a review of your book tomorrow; do you have an author photo?"
Q: The New York Times doesn't make a practice of reviewing self-published books. Nor does the Tribune.
A: The Star-Ledger, where I was an employee for 14 years, has a very absolute policy against reviewing self-published books, because if they review one, all the features editors would be doing all day is fielding calls from self-published authors demanding that their book be reviewed.
The New York Times is not the only paper to have this policy, so for them to do it and for Michiko Kakutani (the paper's Pulitzer-winning book critic) to do it was amazing. I mean, Kakutani reads my blog!
And what's interesting now is that I'm starting to hear from indie bookstores and college bookstores, whose professors want to use the book in their class.
Q: There's been a big shift in how we talk and write about television. Nowadays we expect carefully considered analysis of each episode rather than a single review that runs before the start of each season. That change seems to have occurred alongside the stylistic revolution that you write about, as shows became better and more complex . Did these two things contribute to each other and feed off each other — or did they just happen at the same time?
A: I think the shows would have happened no matter what. At the same time, they were happening right when the Internet was becoming widespread. Technologically, it was really easy to write about shows that all but demanded to be written about at this length and at this depth.
Q: The shows' quality has clearly legitimized TV, but so has the writing about these shows.
A: Well, this is all happening at the same time when you have the Kardashians and Honey Boo Boo, so you're getting high and low at once. But definitely, I don't get the snobby "I don't watch much television" reaction when I tell people what I do for a living. I used to get that all ... the time when I was at a party or a social event.
Q: David Simon (creator of "The Wire" and "Treme" on HBO) doesn't like it when each episode of his shows is analyzed individually, which is kind of strange considering that's how TV is delivered to us, in weekly installments.
A: What he talks about all the time is that he's not making a TV show, he's making a novel for television, and you can't really appreciate it until you get to the end. And I do see his point to a degree. But you're right: This is the way we experience things.
Q: The irony is that "The Wire" is often described as Dickensian. Many of Dickens' novels were originally published in serial form — as "episodes," you could say. I have to think if the Internet were around at that time, people would have been blogging and posting comments about each chapter as it came out.
A: This is the way we're consuming things, but I want to see what happens with these new Netflix shows (the Kevin Spacey series "House of Cards" and new episodes of "Arrested Development"). They're going to release all the episodes on the same day. And I want to see what the (online) discussion is like in that case, if people are watching them all at once, or one day at a time or one week at a time.
Q: In your book, Tom Fontana (the creator of HBO's "Oz" and more recently "Copper" for BBC America) talks about the idea that the shifting economic environment will have a big impact going forward. What is he referring to?
A: Look at it like this: Film in the '70s had Scorsese and Coppola and Bogdanovich, who were sort of left alone to make these very special movies because the movie business at the time had no idea what it was doing. So it was, "Let's give these Young Turks a shot." And that resulted in one of the great periods of cinema of all time. And then Spielberg makes "Jaws" and Lucas makes "Star Wars," and the movie business says, "Oh yeah, we can make money. Let's do that instead."
I think we may be at that point with cable. You've kind of seen it with what HBO's done with "True Blood" and what AMC's done with "The Walking Dead" and FX with "Sons of Anarchy" — all of which have merit. They do better (in the ratings), but they're not aiming for the same quality. Once these cable networks see how big an audience they can get and how much money there is to be made, I do wonder if the impetus will still be there to experiment. But at the same time, FX is doing "Louie." If I had written this book two years from now, even though technically it's a comedy, "Louie" would probably be in it.
Q: The book became available in November. I read that you made changes to it as late as October. This sounds as close to blogging as book-writing can get.
A: That was one of the best things about doing it this way. If I had gone the traditional route, I would have had to wait about a year between when I finished it and when it was published, and I would have been going crazy for that year. Which isn't to say I wouldn't consider traditional publishing in the future. Since The New York Times review ran, a number of traditional publishers have reached out to me about the idea of acquiring the rights to this book or doing another book. We'll have to see what happens and if I decide to go that route.
Q: Which is the opposite of most authors who are like, "Please give me a book deal!"
A: Everything I've ever done in my career that's taken it to another level has been something I did on my own, just to see if I could do it. In college I created a "NYPD Blue" website, and that wasn't part of an assignment or anything for the school paper. That was just, I really wanted to write about this show. So I did. And that helped me get the job at the Star-Ledger. And the blog I started on the side ("What's Alan Watching?) was not part of my work for the Star-Ledger, that was just on my own.
Because of the blog's reach, I went from being a guy known only in New Jersey to a guy known in a lot more places.
Nina Metz covers film, TV and theater for the Tribune.
"The Revolution Was Televised"
By Alan Sepinwall, What's Alan Watching?, 306 pages, $16.99Copyright © 2015, RedEye