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Tuesday, October 15

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Author Mon Jun 17 2013

In Case You Missed It: Alan Sepinwall on the Golden Age of Television

Last weekend, Alan Sepinwall made an appearance at Printer’s Row LitFest to discuss his recent self-published book, The Revolution Was Televised. The book, an in-depth analysis of the recent evolution of small-screen entertainment, analyzes the factors that culminated to produce a higher standard of television entertainment. Such shows include “Oz,” “Friday Night Lights,” “Buffy the Vampire Slayer,” “The Sopranos” and “Mad Men,” to name a few.

When it comes to television analysis, Sepinwall is certainly a reliable source. Stemming from his days writing “NYPD Blue” reviews out of a dorm room, he is credited with having created something of a revolution himself, having pioneered a paradigm shift towards more informed viewership. Where before TV critics were primarily expected to review pilots and finales, now, following Sepinwall’s style, reviewers pick apart episodes for trends, symbolism, references, and make predictions regarding the weeks to follow. This more in-depth analysis owes a great deal of its influence to the groundswell of fan communities fostered by the rise of the internet.

Though one can certainly argue that the internet played a major role in this revolution, Sepinwall argues that the golden age of television began even before the onset of internet fandom, beginning in the late 1990s.

“Everyone had cable in their homes, and everyone had more and more channels, and that was A) splintering the audience, and B) these channels needed original programming and started doing it, HBO first and foremost among them. And so HBO started doing things like ‘Oz’ and ‘Sex and the City’ and most importantly ‘The Sopranos’ and they showed that A) you can get a pretty big audience doing this, and B) you can break all sorts of traditional storytelling rules that we had to this point held sacrosanct. And people will watch this.”

Though Sepinwall covers exclusively dramatic series in his book, he acknowledges that comedy has been affected by the same elements. These more recent comedies, however, were not included due to the difficulty of selecting a complete sample size: “If you do a list of the best comedies and start in only 1997, then you’re an idiot. Because you don’t have ‘Lucy,’ ‘The Honeymooners,’ ‘Dick Van Dyke,’ ‘Mary Tyler Moore,’ ‘MASH.’ What has happened, though, is that because audiences are splintering, you have comedies that are no longer trying to pull in a big tent audience and they can do the stranger things…’Community,’ ‘Louie.’ ‘Girls’ — shows you wouldn’t have necessarily called comedy 15 years ago.”

Now, with the release of ‘House of Cards’ and the most recent ‘Arrested Development’ season, among others, on Netflix, television continues to transform. One must wonder how the simultaneous release of entire seasons will affect the way in which fan communities watch and discuss television: where with week-to-week television, the question on forums and in reviews remains, “What’s Next?” with Netflix, the viewership experience rests more heavily on the entire arc of the show.

When I ask Sepinwall what he thinks of this recent development, he seems optimistic: “It’s really interesting. I’m waiting for them to put out a show that I love and that feels perfect for this format. I don’t know that they’ve had one yet. ‘House of Cards’ is basically an HBO show. The creator of ‘Arrested Development’ in the days leading up to the release took to Twitter begging people to not marathon it. Because that’s what Netflix wants you to do. I’m very happy that Netflix has gotten in the game, because one thing that happened over and over in the revolution was that, each time a new player started, it wound up being a net good for everybody. Each unit that jumps into it does it not only without the kind of rules that had existed previously, but they forced the preexisting parties to raise their games a little bit.”

As far as the television that has already raised the bar, Sepinwall has a pretty clear idea of what makes such shows “revolutionary.” From ad executives to high school football teammates to adolescent vampire slayers, the thread that connects the shows in quality is consistency: consistency of tone and character, based in a compelling world.

Beyond that, Sepinwall advises writers, “Know what you’re doing, and do the best possible version of that that you can do. A lot of the time what I see in TV is people sort of making a halfhearted version of the show, because they’re worried about confusing people; they’re worried about accessibility. And so they throw in all these compromising elements just to try to make it more palatable to more people. And one of the things that unifies these shows is that these are a bunch of creators that said, ‘To hell with that, I’m gonna do this my way, this is the way I wanna do it,’ and for the most part were in positions where their networks allow them to do that.”

The “To Hell with that” mindset may have played a role in Sepinwall’s publishing experience. After a few attempts to take a traditional route, he finally took a look at self-published books.

“They looked indistinguishable from quote-unquote real books, and I thought, ‘Well I can do this.’ I assembled my own team. I hired a friend of mine to edit the book, who is a really good editor, and whipped a lot of the prose into shape. I hired a cover artist. It worked out really well, and in the end I guess the people who thought there wasn’t a market for the book, those same people wound up calling me about the book after.” With the audience and platform Sepinwall has found on the internet, the success of his self-publication is no surprise.

Now, Sepinwall takes his expertise to both his Podcast, “Firewall and Iceberg,” and reviews on Hitfix.com, where he covers an absurd number of television shows; so many that it’s a wonder he also found the time to self-publish a book. “Again,” he says of the added time commitment, “it just goes back to my wife being awesome.”

 
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