TV Revolution - Alan Sepinwall

May 25, 2014

From The Sopranos and Friday Night Lights to The Wire and Breaking Bad, we're living through a TV revolution.  TV critic Alan Sepinwall gives the backstory of this explosion of great shows.



It's fun to think that criticism is consequential.

Mr Sepinwall's premise is that substantially better television - its production quality and its creativity - took a discontinuous step with HBO's "Oz" (a program I think was interesting but overrated), the signal for this being its featured "dark", morally ambiguous characters.

I would offer that the characters portrayed by Dennis Franz (in Bay City Blues, Hill Street Blues and NYPD Blue etc.), while possessing a degree of sameness - still well presage the morally compromised characters on the HBO dramas Sepinwall mentions. Contrary to his point, these cable productions had the REAL, ACTUAL, VERIFIABLE advantages of liberal language restriction, liberal content restriction and continuity (no commercial breaks).

Another example of artistically presented ambiguity in a drama (more so than in the also overrated critical darling, Homicide: Life on the Street) would be Shaun Cassidy's and Sam Raimi's excellent American Gothic (1996; on broadcast TV a year before Oz), with the young Lucas Black and a startling performance by Gary Cole.

Whether the recent Cable-channel-produced productions (very good ones, I agree) mentioned represent a substantial improvement in absolute artistic quality over those once presented and then smothered - as for instance the work of Rod Serling, if one allows fora the difference between short form and long form - isn't at all clear.

Mr. Sepinwall's premise is faulty.

I'm so glad you brought this up. While network TV has largely dropped the ball in producing engaging, complex dramas, the series and character prototypes for the so-called '2nd Golden Age of TV' definitely originated on the networks. And there's no denying a huge part of the appeal of cable/pay TV series is lots and lots and LOTS of sex, violence and profanity. Network TV is on the public airwaves and its content greatly restricted by the FCC. On that level it can't compete with cable, and is at a distinct disadvantage. That in itself is worthy of an entire show. I've also noticed that even the best of the cable series are simply carbon copies of each other. 'The Sopranos' was initially promoted as a drama about a very conflicted man, who happened to be a mob boss, seeing a psychiatrist about his troubled life, particularly his family life. Then there was 'Weeds', about a suburban mom-turned-pot dealer trying to support her family, followed by 'Breaking Bad', about a dying high school teacher who turns to making meth to create a nest egg for HIS family to live on upon his death. The formula seems to be: take a normal family situation, give it an unbelieveable twist, hire top-notch producing, writing and acting talent, and add lots of sex and violence. You can't go wrong!

Great points, though I don't think Sepinwall would totally disagree. In fact, in the fleshed out argument that his book offers, he spends quite a bit of time discussing the precursors (NYPD Blue, Homicide, the XFiles, even Hill Street Blues) to this Golden Age. He also traces in great detail the relative freedom that cable shows when distanced from the commercial structure that drives the network. And I think you're right - we should/could do a whole show on economics and art/quality.

And, yes, the "Golden Age" definitely went the direction of the antihero. Sepinwall discusses how this emphasis could have been different, had HBO gone a different direction than the Sopranos.

That said, there does seem to be a shift in narrative structure, post Oz. Maybe we could call it the post-procedural? Or the move away from an episodic format to the long narrative form that is much more common now? Earlier shows had elements of this, but maintained the episodic format for the most part. Is the shift away from that form beter? It's arguable, but it does seem different to me.