I remember reading Alan Sepinwall’s NYPD Blue episode-by-episode reviews back when the Internet was young. He’s since gone on to a prominent full-time career as a TV critic, and his book The Revolution Was Televised (2012) is a compelling, entertaining look at some of the medium’s best dramas of the last fifteen years.
This book could serve as an effective companion piece to Brett Martin’s Difficult Men, but it casts a much wider net. Martin sticks to his premise: the Third Golden Age started with The Sopranos, focused on antihero protagonists (and showrunners), and was confined largely to pay and basic cable channels. Sepinwall is more inclusive, both in terms of the period’s influences and its groundbreaking shows. Regarding the former, Martin doesn’t stretch himself much beyond Hill Street Blues and St. Elsewhere, two important formative shows from the Second Golden Age. Sepinwall gives credit to more sources: everything from the unusual-for-the-time character advancement on Cheers, to the visual style of Miami Vice, to the ambitious experimentation of Twin Peaks, and more.
The result is a book that celebrates many of the same shows as Difficult Men, but more. One thing both critics agree on is the central importance of The Sopranos to TV’s recent creative evolution. But where Martin goes on to HBO’s follow-up hit Six Feet Under, Sepinwall goes backwards to Oz, the show he argues paved the way for The Sopranos. He goes on to discuss the usual suspects: The Wire, Deadwood, The Shield, Mad Men, Breaking Bad. But he gives equal time to different kinds of shows, which similarly grew out of the unique circumstances of the era (cable’s new demands for original content, DVD sets, instant streaming, changing viewing habits, the influence of Internet discussion, and more). There are chapters devoted to Battlestar Galactica, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Friday Night Lights, and Lost, shows that were all groundbreaking and important in different ways.
It’s a blazing fast read, and an entertaining time capsule of the TV industry’s creative evolution between 1997-2012. It’s also chock full of spoilers, which didn’t impact me much (although I did have to skip the Breaking Bad chapter – clearly a crucial hole in my viewing). If you’ve watched a lot of these addictive shows and are interested in TV story-telling at all, there’s plenty to enjoy here.