Blogging the TV revolution: Alan Sepinwall, the king of the recap

In this exclusive interview, the TV chronicler defends "Lost" and reveals why HBO nearly passed on "The Sopranos"

Published December 16, 2012 9:00PM (EST)

Alan Sepinwall
Alan Sepinwall

Alan Sepinwall's new book, "The Revolution Was Televised" is a must-read for anyone who has ever fallen hard for a TV show. Advancing an argument about how TV since "The Sopranos" has reached another, better level, it explores, chapter by chapter, the specifics of how "The Sopranos" and "The Wire"and "Buffy the Vampire Slayer" to "Friday Night Lights" and "Mad Men," among others, came to be. Sepinwall has been described as the "the acknowledged king of the [recap]"and writes prolifically, insightfully and influentially about an ungodly number of shows at What Alan's Watching. Sepinwall self-published "The Revolution Was Televised" — making his one of the very few self-published books ever to be reviewed, and raved about, by the New York Times — and has always been a bit of DIY guy. In college, he began writing a proto-blog about "NYPD Blue," which got him a job at the Newark Star-Ledger (where he became a reigning expert on 'The Sopranos," among other things), before he struck out on his own, one of the most widely read and astute TV analysts out there. I spoke with Alan about the book, what the men who created these shows have in common, why they're all men, and asked for yet another defense of "Lost."

Your book about television has also become this really astonishing publishing story, because it was self-published. It’s one of the only self-published books ever reviewed by the Times.

I’ve been completely floored by it. I did get one offer from a publisher a year ago, and it wasn’t a great offer, but I would sort of start thinking to myself as I was doing this, “You idiot, you should have taken it. You’re never going to make this kind of money selling the book, even if you’re completely happy with the book, and you’re always going to be sort of annoyed with yourself.” And it’s done a lot better than that offer would have.

So you did pitch it to traditional publishers.

I tried pitching a year ago, and it was a little bit different from the final version. I was not originally going to do as many fresh interviews as I wound up doing. I don’t know if I had pitched the book as finished if there would have been more interest. There was virtually none at the time. There were a lot of people who just sort of didn’t believe there would be an audience for this book. So I got the one tepid offer and I decided, you know I want to try and do it by myself. And later on after I had started doing interviews with David Chase and David Milch and everybody else, I thought maybe I could pitch it to them again. But by then I kind of liked the idea of going for it and seeing what happened. And so far it’s worked out well.

It’s sort of fitting in this way because you’ve always sort of been a DIY guy.

All the different phases of my career started off with me doing something on my own. The NYPD Blue website I did in college, no one told me to do that -- it wasn’t for class or for the school paper or anything. And because I did that for a few years that’s what got me the job at the Star Ledger. And then after a certain point at the Star Leger I decided I kind of missed the internet, I miss writing about shows after they air. Let me try this as an experiment on my own blog, so I don’t have to commit to it. And I did that for a while, and that got a huge audience, it sort of made me known outside of New Jersey. It did feel like, well, this has worked for me before let’s try again.

Your book takes a close look at the dozen-plus shows that really changed the nature of television, pushed it to the next level, starting with “The Sopranos,” but also including “The Wire,” and “Mad Men” and “Buffy,” and so on. All of these shows were created and overseen by really strong creative leaders, or teams in some instance. In talking to all these guys, these TV auteurs, did you find that they have things in common? Are they all characters?

They’re really their sort of own distinct personalities. There is no one in the world who is quite like [“Deadwood” creator] David Milch, for instance. I wouldn’t say there is anyone quite like [“The Sopranos” creator] David Chase. But [“The Shield” creator] Sean Ryan is a really laid back mensch. He’s not Jewish, but that’s how I would describe him. ["Lost’s"] Carlton Cuse is an avuncular uncle type. Definitely some of these guys are characters, but you don’t have to be a character to make a really great show, so it varies. There is a real attention to detail that you find common across these guys. You ask them certain things about the shows and they all have total recall about that, total recall about when things happened and where they happened. And also with the origins of these shows, virtually all of them were made under the assumption that it wouldn’t get made. It was like,  “let’s try something and there’s no way on earth anyone will want to do this,” and then they did. And because the shows were made under that assumption and in a relatively free environment they got to do these amazing things.

As original as “The Sopranos” and “The Wire” and “The Shield” are, they all have this really strong genre underpinnings.

That’s exactly right. These shows were TV with higher aspirations, but they were an organized crime show, a cop show, a western ["Deadwood"], a space opera ["Battlestar Galactica"]. It was something the viewers could understand. It was something that could add a little visual excitement to shows that were otherwise about really big ideas, and at times, really depressing ideas. So when you throw in the cops versus slingers, or mob bosses trying to whack each other, it’s the spoonful of sugar. This is something that [The Wire's] David Simon has not done with “Treme.” And I admire him for that and I love “Treme,” but there are definitely points where I’m like, “Boy wouldn’t this be fun if David Morse’s’ character got assigned some big investigation and we followed that all season?”

Do you think it’s almost impossible to make shows this original in the regular network process?

I think you can do a really good show in the traditional development process, and there are a couple of those in the book. “Friday Night Lights” and “24” were developed relatively traditionally, as these things go. “West Wing” was developed relatively traditionally, but that’s not a show in the book because it’s more of a classic-y kind of TV drama than anything else. But I do think there is something to the idea that if you’re going to do a show that breaks these rules and does something that you haven’t seen before, it has to be made in this kind of weird environment where either you’re saying it’s not going to be made or you’re at a network that for one reason or another doesn’t care about how things have been done before. You know, HBO had never made dramas before. FX was just looking to get noticed. At AMC, Rob Sorcher, who was the executive there, talks in the book about how their goal was just to do a show that got so much attention that a cable system would be afraid to drop them, that’s all that they wanted.

Do you think that it’s harder to find this sort of creative freedom now, because all the networks are aware of what’s at stake and the possibility that one great show can really make a network?

One of the things that people have been asking me quite a bit on this book tour is whether we are coming to the end of this period. My view is that all it takes is one new player in the game for that to change. It seemed like it was going to come to an end at around the time “The Sopranos” was closing down. And then AMC went up a few weeks later with “Mad Men.” I want to see what happens. I kind of hoped Starz might be that, but they haven’t really had the shows yet. Maybe they will down the line. I want to see what happens with Netflix. I mean that’s a huge new thing, and it sounds like Netflix is really looking to make a splash and make people think of them as a place not just to stream shows that they already know, but for their original content. And if that’s the environment and if “House of Cards” is really good, or either that or “Arrested Development” are hits, then you have a whole new pipeline that will sort of force other people to raise their games in response.

What do you think about Netflix’s plan to put all the episodes of its new series online at once, so for example, all the new episodes of “Arrested Development” are released on the same day?

That’s really fascinating to me. From a logistical standpoint, I don’t think I’m going to have time to write reviews of every episode of “House of Cards” certainly on the premiere day. I may just write a large, “I watched the whole season and here’s what I thought about the whole season.” And maybe that will be dissatisfying to me and maybe that will be dissatisfying to other people, or maybe it will really work well. Maybe David Simon and  [“Boardwalk Empire” creator] Terry Winter and other people who are like, “Don’t judge me by week three, wait till the end” will be right. Maybe this is the way the conversation transforms. For 50, 60 years it hasn’t been so much about the story needs and the creative needs, it’s been about the business model. And now the business model is starting to become whatever you want it to be. I remember when “Magic City” premiered Starz made the first three episodes available right away, and I think you may start to see a little more of that, especially with new shows. And a lot of these shows benefit from that. “The Wire” certainly, “Breaking Bad” certainly, are shows that you are much better off watching a handful of when you start rather than just the first hour.

What’s funny to me is that sometimes I’ll post an advanced review of something, a very traditional kind of, here’s a new series or new season, here are my thoughts based on watching the first couple of episodes. And I get responses on Twitter, and occasional blog comments from people going, “Why are you doing this before we’ve had a chance to see it? Aren’t you interfering with our opinions by telling us this?” This is what the whole profession was for most of my lifetime, until the last five years.

One of the things that’s interesting about that is it suggests how much audiences, or a certain dedicated portion of it, really want to be part of the conversation about TV. They seem really keen to participate in identifying what is good and bad, what is the next “great drama,” what belongs in the TV canon. Like, for example, there seemed a real, palpable eagerness to anoint “Homeland” the next great drama — until recently anyway.

I don’t know that any show right now is contender for greatest of all time, other than “Mad Men” and “Breaking Bad.” Maybe “Louie” will be, by the time it’s all said and done. But there was definitely that sense when “Homeland” came along that this is the next great thing. And maybe if it had started off as a slightly crazier show that would have been our understanding of it all along. Because there are people who feel “Homeland” has led them down the path to crazy, as opposed to starting off with the crazy.

You have this anecdote in your book about how when HBO ordered “The Sopranos,” it was choosing between that and a show from Winnie Holzman, who made “My So-Called Life.” That’s such an amazing detail, because it highlights just how aggressively things went in the other direction, which is that all of the shows in your book are made my white dudes.

I thought about that a lot, I remember when [HBO exec] Carolyn Strauss mentioned that to me in the interview I was just kind of on auto-pilot for a good five to ten minutes, trying to imagine another world where they made that show instead. The thing is, Winnie Holzman is awesome, “My So-Called Life” is fantastic. I certainly could have mentioned that or “Thirtysomething” in the prologue of this book. But I don’t know if a show about a female executive at a toy company would have been the commercial hit that “The Sopranos” was. Because as much as we like to talk about the artistry of “The Sopranos,” and the different smart things it did, a large percentage of the audience liked to see people get whacked. And we can’t run away from that. And because it was a big hit in the way that “Oz” wasn’t, suddenly everyone else was saying “Hey, let’s do something else like that!” Sean Ryan is unapologetic that “The Shield” was inspired by “The Sopranos.” Other people will talk about how they wanted to do something like “The Sopranos,” the “Battlestar Galactica” guys said that.

So, this is definitely a book about white dude shows, about angry, violent, white dudes. I’m well aware of that, I mention it. Part of the reason “Buffy” is in there is because I didn’t want it to just be a book about white dudes— and I also felt like the story of what the WB was doing at the time was feeding in to the larger picture. If I had done the book not specifically about drama, but just about TV of the period, “Sex and the City” would have absolutely been a part of that. “Sex and the City” is a huge part of the HBO story of the time. Believe me, I would have loved for there to have been more diversity in this period. One of the reasons I want “Homeland” to be as great as I want “Homeland” to be is because Clare Danes is at the center of it. There definitely needs to be some more diversity in here, and I’m hopeful that that is something that will be coming in the next wave. One of the things that [“Oz” creator] Tom Fontana said to me when we talked, is that there was his show, and there is “The Wire” and “Treme” as well, but other than that, HBO has pretty much been white throughout this entire period. It’s not like they’ve really diversified.

You talk about “Lost” in your book. Do you think it’s that good?

Yes. One of the best parts of doing this book was not just getting to talk to some of these guys again — this is the first real conversation I’ve had with David Chase in five or six years — the best part was watching these shows. Eleven of the 12 of them were streaming, and I could just break out my iPad and cue up any episode and do a deep dive for a couple hours while fighting writer's block. And admittedly I was watching the good stuff, I’d watched very few of the terrible episodes of these shows. So I was mainly focusing on the great periods of “Lost,” as opposed to watching Jack and his tattoos. But the great parts of “Lost” are so great. It’s such a well-put together show, in terms of the way it tells stories and the way it does action, suspense, and comedy, and sort of mixing all of these ideas together and these big emotions. And maybe a lot of it doesn’t make sense, and I completely understand if you are looking at it on that level, on a, “I want this story to be believable, and I want an answer at the end of it, and I want this to all have been worth it” level. But I feel like the emotions I felt watching it then, and then reliving it now, were so strong, and I was so happy to watch it. For my money it was a great show.

By Willa Paskin

Willa Paskin is Salon's staff TV writer.

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