I’ve always thought it would be a great job to watch TV and write about it. I tried my hand at it in college with a couple of freelance articles for the college paper, but it didn’t take. So when I was introduced to the writing of Alan Sepinwall, I was not only interested in his book, but also Extremely. Jealous.
Sepinwall wrote for the Newark Star-Ledger and now he writes on hitfix.com. He spends his time doing exactly what so many of us want to be doing–watching and reporting on television. And it is a great era in television. The Wire. The Sopranos. Breaking Bad. Deadwood. House of Cards. West Wing. Friday Night Lights.
In fact, today was a banner day in TV history. Netflix’s TV programs, led by House of Cards, received 14 Emmy nominations. The entire season of the political thriller, starring Kevin Spacey, was released in one drop–in a way that acknowledged that people watch TV completely differently today than they did back when I was a kid. I remember growing up and waiting each year to see the new opening sequence for The Cosby Show. Thursday at 8pm was appointment television. The only way to tape a show was with the clunky VCR with the irritating timer function. Half the time it didn’t work. Now, we’re post-DVR, and we can watch an entire season in one Saturday. It’s glorious.
Sepinwall looks at twelve of the best shows of the past 10 or 15 years. Each chapter is about one of the shows that he says “changed TV drama forever.” I’d seen about half of the shows featured–the ones listed above with the exception of West Wing and House of Cards. The others were shows that dear friends have pushed on me over the years, and await me in my Netflix queue. Shows like Battlestar Galactica, 24, Mad Men, Lost and 24. (At this point, I know that many of you are going “WHAT??? You never watched Mad Men/24/Lost??? You would LOVE it.”) All of these shows feature meaningful and powerful stories.
There’s great stuff in this book–original and eye-opening reporting with showrunners, writers, directors, etc. The three Davids are undeniably stars: David Chase, David Simon, David Milch. The people who create these shows are admirable–in nearly all cases they fought for a creative vision and a style of television that was unique. And time and time again they demonstrated that a program didn’t need a massive network audience–a niche audience could make for a successful show. That’s the story of how TV was revolutionized. Ultimately, many of the shows were underdogs that made it big, and that made for a great read.
It was striking that nearly all of the people responsible for these shows were men. Only a couple of women were featured in the book–and I’m not blaming Sepinwall–it’s just clear that the industry is dominated by men.
Sepinwall did a fine job not ruining the shows that I hadn’t yet watched. Indeed, the book made me wish I had watched several shows I didn’t–perhaps most surprising was the chapter about Buffy the Vampire Slayer. I am stuck considering the idea I may have liked that show. (Please tell me it’s not on Netflix. I’m too busy right now.)
But the best part about each chapter was his attention to the series finale. Defining moments for any television show, but with these shows the finales are especially controversial and compelling. The most obvious example was The Sopranos (for the record, I LOVED that ending). Sepinwall did a great job looking at all of the angles of how and why a show ended.
We are lucky to be living in an era of great TV. I’d watch any of these shows before trekking to see most movies in the theater. Plop down in front of the boob tube and don’t feel guilty at all. You’re watching some great drama.
I’m grateful that my friend Luke recommended this book to me. It’s a worthy accompaniment to these TV programs. Sepinwall is witty and attentive to what makes the shows work and and how to connect to audiences. It’s a solid book about solid shows. I’d encourage you to check it out and check out Alan Sepinwall’s blog over at Hit Fix.
Thanks for reading.