Considering the amount I write about television shows, I read relatively little on the subject. I follow plenty of blogs scanning through dozens, if not hundreds of news stories and interviews via the marvellous productivity aid of RSS, but the number of books I’ve actually read can be counted on the fingers of one hand and is entirely limited to books dedicated to specific shows.
The Revolution was Televised had come up in passing from several television pundits I respect, most notably Maureen Ryan, currently of Huffington Post, who always adds depth not just to reviews of individual shows and episodes, but of the television landscape as a whole. I popped it on a Christmas list and had finished it by 3rd Jan.
The concept of the book is that there was a revolution in the way television was produced starting in the late 90s and those changes can be tracked back to a dozen key shows, that were not necessarily ratings hits (or even critical hits, although most of them are), but marked a step change in the way that television shows are created, run, marketed and watched . Alan Sepinwall takes us through each of these shows telling their stories and explaining their importance.
Your enjoyment and empathy with the book is going to be somewhat dependent on how many of those shows you’ve seen and what you thought of them. But, I was actually surprised at how engaged I was even in chapters on shows I’d never seen a single episode of. Out of the dozen shows, I would consider myself a fan of about half of them (Deadwood, Buffy, Battlestar Galactica, Friday Night Lights, and Mad Men), five others I’ve seen a few episodes or couple of seasons of and have some respect for even if they weren’t to my taste (The Sopranos, The Wire, The Shield, Lost, 24) and two I’ve never seen at all (Oz, Breaking Bad). But Sepinwall does a great job introducing each show and making you see what was groundbreaking and even magical about each show whether you were already on his side or not.
The dozen chapters telling the story of the shows are built up from interviews with a range of people involved with each show – the creators, producers, network executives that bought them, even the people who didn’t support them at the time. The comments are very open and honest, pride in successes, acceptance of mistakes and Sepinwall weaves them all together to form a detailed picture of the world of television production. Throughout the book there are also plenty of references to both older shows that lay the foundations and the newer ones which built upon them, charting the whole thing in a giant network of giants’ shoulders. Thanks to it going all the way up to the Summer of 2012 and talking about shows that are still on the air, it feels extremely current, although I guess the flip side of that is that it may not age so well.
My only frustration with the book was that as it went on, it felt like it lost sight of its premise a little. Each chapter focussed more and more on the show itself and less on what was revolutionary. The reader is left to draw a lot of conclusions themselves, which is slightly frustrating. Also, for a book which is so current, there was surprisingly little said about how television distribution is changing both with the internet (pirated or otherwise) and even the rise of dvd sales over the period. Although it’s touched on a little in the section on Lost, there’s also very little coverage of the other effects the internet drives including marketing and fandom. Mind you, those subjects could easily fill whole books just by themselves.
This is an absolutely brilliant book for anyone interested in how television really works, not just gushing about shows that people love, but about how the industry develops and innovators can succeed in a massively competitive and generally risk averse environment. Alan Sepinwall is clearly a television fan, but he is not blind to the fact that it’s a commercial endeavour – he doesn’t vilify the networks who cancel low rated series and he doesn’t sanctify show runners whose poor working practices overwhelm their brilliant creative ideas.
I found this book fascinating, entertaining and completely un-put-downable. Sepinwall has reminded me of just what a complex and fascinating medium television can be. He’s given me a fresh look at shows that I adore, brought to my attention shows I knew nothing about, and encouraged me to give second chances to ones that I’ve struggled with in the past. If you’ve read any of the dribble I’ve written, go read this and see what a professional can do.
The Revolution Was Televised by Alan Sepinwall (2010) is available in paperback from Amazon. It amuses me that if you search amazon for the book title you get a number of suggestions including The Revolution Wasn’t Televised (1997), The Revolution Will Not be Televised (2008), The Revolution Will be Televised (2010), Will the Revolution Be Televised (2012) – so it would seem the jury is still out on the question.