When it was first published in 2013, Alan Sepinwall’s “The Revolution Was Televised” helped crystallize our understanding of what’s now referred to as the Golden Age of television. Sepinwall, the television critic for HitFix, cast an incisive eye on the business imperatives that drove networks to order more original programming — and on the writers who stepped up to meet that demand with a run of visionary shows, many of them about middle-age white men acting out and accessing new parts of their personalities.
But the television landscape has changed dramatically even in those two years, and so Sepinwall issued a revised version of the book that hit stores yesterday, taking into account the end of “Breaking Bad” and “Mad Men” and pointing toward a new and more diffuse era of the medium. We chatted about the new edition of “The Revolution Was Televised,” whether the Golden Age is over and how to define the new period we’re in. Our conversation has been edited for clarity and length.
When you’re defining an era, which is one of the things you sort of do in “The Revolution Was Televised,” part of the definition process is determining not just when an era begins and what it consists of, but when it ends. It’s been two years since the first edition of “The Revolution Was Televised” was published. Do you think the so-called Golden Age of TV is over, not necessarily in the sense that television isn’t good anymore, but that it’s moved on to new forms and concerns?
It’s funny that you ask that, because I was just putting the finishing touches on a blog post that’s exactly about that. I would say the era lines are blurry. An argument could be made that “Mad Men” and “Breaking Bad” belong more to whatever we’re calling this current era (new Golden Age, Peak TV, etc.) than they do to the era of “The Sopranos” and “The Wire.” I put them in the book because I felt they were the last links in the chain from then until now. In particular, the success and acclaim that AMC got from “Mad Men” — going from a joke to an industry leader with one show — is arguably the biggest contributor to everyone else in the business rushing in to produce their own scripted series.
But I do think there are some key differences now, not so much in quality — because I feel just as strongly about, say, “The Leftovers,” as I do about most of the shows in that book — as in those new forms and concerns you mentioned. Netflix and Amazon have reinvented the way seasons are constructed, for good and for ill at times. There are more diverse voices being represented in front of and behind the camera, as you can see in shows like “Orange [Is The New Black]” and “Transparent.” And there’s been ever so slightly a push away from the writer-driven TV model with “The Knick,” with “True Detective” season one, and with whatever “Twin Peaks” turns out to be.
It’s interesting to me that you’d say “Breaking Bad” and “Mad Men” might fit more neatly into the new model then the Golden Age, just because I think of the Golden Age as so strongly defined by middle-aged, white, male anti-heroes, created by people with very definitive voices and visions. In what way don’t they fit that model? Or would you define the Golden Age differently?
No, “Breaking Bad” is very much in “The Sopranos” vein structurally. So, for that matter, is “Mad Men,” as they’re the two big cable dramas of the era that were more interested in individual episodes than in seasonal arcs. I guess I mean more in terms of the business of it all. They came after “The Sopranos” had ended and many of the other shows had, and as HBO was beginning to wander in the wilderness, and that was the first time that I started hearing questions about “Is this era over?” And then those two shows either revived it or started something new. And if you look in particular at how “Breaking Bad”‘s audience grew over time thanks to Netflix repeats, that was a concept that was largely new; some people may have caught up on “The Wire” on DVD before the end, but not nearly this many.
Part of what’s fascinating to me about this period (and the one we’re in now) is that, while it’s largely discussed in creative terms, so many of these developments are driven by business concerns, whether it’s AMC’s fear of getting dropped from the cable bundle or Netflix and Amazon’s needs to get people to commit to their ecosystem. But do you think we’re headed for a crash occasioned by a glut? Are there just too many services out there for consumers to pay for them all (not to mention too many hours of television for any sane person, even a critic, to watch them all)? Do you think there’s a network or service that’s in danger of financially over-extending itself on original programming?
Peter Gould, who wrote for “Breaking Bad” for years and co-created “Better Call Saul,” compared it to a gold rush, and that seems about right. I just don’t know that this amount of programming from so many different channels and services is sustainable. But I also don’t have access to the internal economics of it all. AMC recently renewed “Halt and Catch Fire,” which is their lowest-rated drama ever, and when I asked one of AMC’s executives why that show was spared when, years earlier, “Rubicon” (also low-rated, but not to this degree) wasn’t, and he said the business model has changed. Everyone tries to own their shows now, which then gives them money at the other end when they’re sold to streaming services and/or foreign markets. So maybe there’s enough gold in them thar hills for everybody.
Well, one thing you’ve written about and that is true of pretty much all content economics these days is that depth can be more important than breadth. The person who subscribes to The Washington Post rather than reading their allotment of free articles for the month is more valuable, just as the person who pays for Netflix matters more than the person who, say, borrows a parent’s password. Was there anything about the Golden Age that changed the way fans felt about their favorite shows? Did the spread of faster and cheaper home Internet, in conjunction with the arrival of these new shows, make conversations between fans (or between fans and creators) more viable and visible? How did that feedback influence series creators and actors?
There’s definitely more of passionate and ongoing dialogue now between fans and shows than there was before. A lot of that’s the Internet becoming popular at the same time these sorts of shows were being made. I do think there’s some degree of brand loyalty, particularly when it comes to Netflix, where any attempt to suggest that Netflix is not the One True Way of things going forward can get you labeled as an old man yelling for people to get off their lawn with the binging and the streaming. But I also frequently hear people say they will sample anything that, say, FX premieres, and/or dismiss a show I praise because it’s on a channel they have no history with.
Tell me if I’m right or wrong about this, but it seems like fans see themselves as part of the business ecosystem here, especially when they’re trying to get dead shows revived or rally enough people to catch up to keep a current but wobbly show alive. And do you think that’s a good thing, or a risky one? It seems like some of the shows that are rising from the dead, like “Twin Peaks” or “The X-Files,” may disappoint.
Absolutely. I used to be incredibly pessimistic about Save Our Show campaigns, and would tell people not to get their hopes up, because shows so rarely return from the dead, or shift networks, or what have you. But the economics of the business have changed so much that now I’m more surprised when a show with an even slightly passionate [following] doesn’t either get renewed or get picked up somewhere else, like the Yahoo season of “Community.” Brand names seem to be one of the easier ways to stand out in this cluttered environment; even if “The Killing” was no longer a valuable property to AMC, it had value to Netflix as a continuation of the catalog, and another reason for people to either subscribe or keep their subscriptions.
I have very mixed feelings about all these reboots and revivals. I want these new “X-Files” and “Twin Peaks” and “Gilmore Girls” episodes to be good, but that so rarely happens. (Think of the recent “Arrested Development” revival.) Shows end. It’s okay. Not everything needs a movie or a sequel miniseries. Yesterday on Twitter, someone asked me to create a poll asking viewers to predict when Vince Gilligan would do a proper “Breaking Bad” sequel series. Why would you want that? The show as we know it was over, and many of its greatest characters — including the single most important one — are dead. I really like “Better Call Saul,” which is a different way to go in continuing a brand, but does someone want a sequel set in Albuquerque where Flynn White morosely eats breakfast?
To shift gears a bit, how would you define the new age of television that we’re in? Or is it too early to try to define it? And what role do the creators of some of these iconic series and their proteges have to play in this new epoch?
I think it’s hard to define it while we’re in the middle of it, especially because there’s just so much more of it now than there was a decade ago. But I do think you could do a similar book in 2025 looking back at, say, “Orange,” “Transparent,” “Fargo,” “The Knick,” “Louie” and a few other current series and the different ways that they continued the transformation that “Oz” and “The Sopranos” started.
In terms of being driven by a very specific vision? “Orange Is the New Black” seems to fit less well into that schema, both in terms of it being an adaptation and a show where the actors as well as the showrunner are such visible symbols to the public.
No, in terms of changing the ways that TV shows are made and/or perceived. “Orange” was one of the earliest Netflix shows — and easily the best of that group (“House of Cards” was more of the trailblazer, but I don’t think it’s very good) — and helped kickstart this recent trend of different kinds of faces and voices than we’d ever seen on TV before.
One of the interesting threads in “The Revolution Was Televised” is Matthew Weiner’s journey from “The Sopranos” to “Mad Men.” So what role do you think the Golden Age creators and their writers are going to play in this new environment? David Simon seems to have gone even more granular and specific in “Show Me a Hero.” Moira Walley-Beckett went from “Breaking Bad” to “Flesh and Bone,” which applies the former’s moral darkness to a totally new subject. What else could you see happening?
Well, Simon’s next show is about pornography, and I look forward to seeing how non-commercial he can make that subject. It’s been a mixed approach. David Chase has taken a step back, though he still has that miniseries about the early days of Hollywood in development at HBO. Vince Gilligan found a way to stay in the “Breaking Bad” world with “Saul.” “The Leftovers” seems to be Damon Lindelof taking aspects of “Lost” and pushing them to further emotional and narrative extremes. Shawn Ryan just keeps making shows everywhere, and I like that he has new ones set up at both Amazon and Netflix for next year. And who knows what Matt Weiner is going to do. Will anyone give him control as absolute as what he had for most of “Mad Men’s” run? Showrunners are more likely than actors to have more than one great series in them, but it’s not a lock that they will, and/or that lower-tier people like Weiner in his “Sopranos” days or Walley-Beckett in her “Breaking Bad” days will be able to step up and make their own shows that live up to what they worked on in subordinate roles.