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.