News Column

Books take on new realms of TV

September 12, 2013


Sept. 12--These are strange times for the television industry, an understatement exemplified by the fact that huge swaths of audiences don't even watch TV on TV anymore, opting instead for computers or handheld screens.

That shift, along with the flexibility offered by DVDs, DVRs, and on-demand services, has shattered network business models of ratings and ad revenue.

Meanwhile most critics are hailing recent programs such as "The Wire" and "Breaking Bad" as among the best shows ever made, and Netflix has started producing its own acclaimed series (such as "House of Cards") and releasing them all at once, so viewers can watch a full season across 13 weeks or 13 hours, given their preference and stamina.

Into this odd realm come two new books -- "The Revolution Was Televised" by critic and podcaster Alan Sepinwall, and Brett Martin's "Difficult Men" -- which aim similar but separate focuses at a rapidly changing medium.

"The Revolution Was Televised" looks at a dozen specific shows, touchstones in TV's recent evolution, beginning with pay cable's groundbreaking forays into storytelling, charting innovative network fare such as "Friday Night Lights" and "24," and moving on into basic cable gems such as "Mad Men."

Each chapter functions like a mini biography of 12 programs, delving into their production and illustrating their effects. The sections stand on their own, though, so if a reader hasn't finished, say, "The Shield" or "Battlestar Galatica" and wants to skip a chapter, the rest of the book still works.

Sepinwall first examines how HBO tilted the television landscape when it broke into series TV in 1997 with the prison drama "Oz." Freed of network restrictions and with no need to court sponsors or ratings, the show's creators came up with something much different from what viewers could already watch for free. "Oz" was, in fact, certifiably insane, and its moderate success paved the way for "The Sopranos" and "The Wire," which in turn radically affected content on regular cable channels like AMC and FX.

By contrast, Sepinwall discusses how "Lost" at first meshed perfectly with the growing online capabilities of the mid-2000s. Its labyrinthine mysteries went hand in hand with Wikipedia culture and comment boards, but when the final season failed to satisfy, fans could deliver angry verdicts so loudly that, years later, they still taint the once-lauded show.

Shrewd and insightful, Sepinwall writes with a fan's enthusiasm but journalistic curiosity. He distributed "Revolution" himself last year, but it was picked up and released in May by a national publisher.

True to its title, Brett Martin's "Difficult Men" takes a more personal approach. He theorizes that the gritty TV anti-heroes that have driven the best shows of the past 15 years were themselves wrought by gritty anti-heroes, the shows' almost uniformly male creators, and he draws portraits (often through unnamed sources) that are no less fascinating for feeling a bit gossipy.

For example, Martin casts David Chase, the supremely successful creator of "The Sopranos," as a sore winner with a frosty heart; Matthew Weiner, who conceived and runs "Mad Men," comes off as an arrogant bully; and David Milch, the chief scribe behind "Deadwood" and "N.Y.P.D. Blue" is, in the book's telling, something of a self-destructive, highbrow huckster.

The fact that all workplaces have some degree of conflict, and that those politics heat up when creativity and TV money enter the mix, may prompt readers to take Martin's depictions with a grain of salt. At the same time, however, viewers familiar with those bent, brilliant shows probably already gathered they likely didn't emerge from uncomplicated minds.

The only show-runner Martin singles out as particularly well-adjusted and upbeat is Vince Gilligan, the creator of "Breaking Bad" (who's Virginia born and raised, but of course). Gilligan's production staff occupies "the happiest room in Hollywood," according to the book.

A recent New Yorker piece recently criticized "Difficult Men" for not recognizing the role "Sex and the City" played in HBO's success. Although Martin's book largely avoids half-hour sitcoms, the point is valid, and given the evolving nature of the medium and the recent rise of female-driven shows like "Girls" and "Orange is the New Black," he may soon have ample material for an equally engaging yet somewhat less gender-specific sequel.


(c)2013 The Roanoke Times (Roanoke, Va.)

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