Tuesday, April 12, 2016

The Golden Age of TV

The Revolution Was Televised: The Cops, Crooks, Slingers, and Slayers Who Changed TV Drama Forever by Alan Sepinwall

Difficult Men: Behind the Scenes of a Creative Revolution: From The Sopranos and The Wire to Mad Men and Breaking Bad by Brett Martin

          The Wire. The Sopranos. Mad Men. Deadwood. The Shield. Breaking Bad. These shows and many others have redefined television in the last fifteen years. They have offered increasingly damaged, flawed, or downright evil protagonists for audiences to watch. They have done this to critical acclaim. Not since Lost in 2006 has a show from a major network won the Emmy Award for Best Drama. Bryan Cranston, who before Breaking Bad was most famous for his role as the frequently pants-less Hal on Malcolm in the Middle, won multiple Emmys for best actor in a drama series. 

This creative renaissance in television serves as the subject of two recently released books that reflect their authors’ approaches to television. The Revolution Was Televised, by television critic Alan Sepinwall, details the transformation in television storytelling from HBO’s Oz to Breaking Bad. Sepinwall casts a wide net, including network shows like 24, Friday Night Lights, and Lost alongside HBO staples like The Wire, The Sopranos, and Deadwood. He also tracks the emergence of networks like FX with The Shield and AMC with Mad Men and Breaking Bad. Sepinwall devotes a chapter to the development of each show, proceeding in chronological order apart from a small diversion to include Buffy: The Vampire Slayer.  Most importantly he offers a detailed critical analysis of each program. Sepinwall interviews the major players: showrunners, producers, network executives, etc. They tell the story of what drove them to create their shows and talk about important episodes or themes. The showrunners of Battlestar Galactica detail their decision making process in briefly turning the show into an allegory on the Iraq War. Then Sepinwall sets the show in the context of television at the time and generally how it relates to the shows that preceded it. The chapters work as part of a larger story, but can also stand alone or be read in any order.  

Martin, the reporter, adopts a more narrow focus on cable television and its role in the transformation of television. Difficult Men employs a more linear narrative approach. Martin first outlines the broader history of television and advancements in technology that made television production cheaper and opened up new revenue streams that encouraged networks to enter the realm of scripted television. Martin relates a humorous story of Breaking Bad cinematographer John Toll berating an Albuquerque, New Mexico Circuit City employee about the proper picture settings on flat screen televisions. Difficult Men also provides more of an inside baseball prospective into the development of these TV shows. He includes anecdotes about James Gandolfi’s increasing struggles with the character of Tony Soprano. Gandolfi once disappeared from the set for four days only to call from a Brooklyn beauty salon and ask for a car come pick him up. Martin also relates the creative freedom and difficulties of working in writer’s rooms with the new all-powerful showrunners. David Chase and Matthew Weiner gather special attention for their near fanatical control over the writing process and ascribing writing credits.

The defining moment of The Sopranos 

          Despite their different approaches, Sepinwall and Martin agree on the key moments in the birth of new Golden Age of Television. They pay close attention to fifth episode of the first season of The Sopranos: College. In College, Tony Soprano strangles a mob informer, Febby Petrulio, with a length of wire while taking his daughter, Meadow, on a tour of colleges in Maine. The scene stays with Tony as he chokes the life out of Petrulio. He, then, drives to pick Meadow up from her interview. Initially HBO objected to the idea of Tony strangling Petrulio, arguing that viewers would turn against Tony. David Chase argued that viewers would turn against Tony if he didn’t kill Petrulio. Chase won the argument. They similarly identify the casting of the brooding and emotionally raw Gandolfi over the more relaxed and humorous Michael Rispoli as essential for the show’s dramatic development. Sepinwall and Martin also stress the entry of networks like AMC and FX onto the scripted drama landscape. After HBO passed on Mad Men, AMC, a network that had next to nothing in terms of original programming, picked up the show. Since then AMC has premiered Breaking Bad and the commercially successful Walking Dead. FX gambled on The Shield and since has premiered Justified, The Americans, and a range dramas and comedies. While taking different approaches, Martin and Sepinwall agree on the important television touchstones along the way.

          Sepinwall’s passion and critical insight shine through in his writing. Martin displays a strong command of his material, guiding the reader through the book and never failing to include an amusing anecdote or factoid. The Revolution Was Televised is the work of a critic, introspective and thoughtful. Difficult Men is the work of a reporter, always telling a story and bringing the reader inside the world of television. They both succeed in explaining how we have entered a new Golden Age of Television. 

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