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Annabelle Sheehan reviews a new account of the revolution in American TV that began on HBO

Annabelle Sheehan 29 July 2013 1779 words

Undroppable: Christina Hendricks as Joan Harris in Mad Men.

The Revolution Was Televised
By Alan Sepinwall | Black Inc. | $27.99

“WE’RE going to take Mr Chips and turn him into Scarface” was the pitch from creator/producer Vince Gilligan. The boldness of the proposal and the success of the series, Breaking Bad, capture the creative risks that are the hallmark of the best drama on our screens today, and are the focus of this new book.

Alan Sepinwall’s fascinating study of recent American television drama series is a take-home seminar that would frame a great TV marathon of best box sets. Sepinwall’s notion, which fans of The Sopranos, The Wire, Breaking Bad, Mad Men and Friday Night Lights would endorse, is that we have just witnessed a revolution on our screens. Using twelve top drama series as his evidence, he shows how television has stepped “out from the shadow of cinema.”

Great American drama, he argues, is now more likely to be found on small screens than in feature films and, in the United States at least, on cable rather than network TV. With blockbusters increasingly the focus of the major Hollywood studios, the middle had fallen out of the movie business and cable TV was ready to be the new black.

Transcending genre, the resonating aesthetic of the new TV is its focus on complex, flawed characters – Tony Soprano in The Sopranos, Don Draper in Mad Men, and Walter White in Breaking Bad, to name a few. It’s no longer cops, docs and lawyers, it’s the drama of character development. Shows like The Wire, The Shield and Friday Night Lights gave those characters a visceral real world to live in, sometimes based on a non-fiction book. Season two of The Wire was “the point when you recognise that this isn’t a show about cops and drug dealers but a much broader look at the death of an American city.” The propensity for season-length story arcs rather than formulaic, self-contained episodes is also a hallmark of Sepinwall’s revolution. TV drama became the equivalent of the Great American Novel.

The revolution started with Oz on HBO, which showcases the notion of the flawed character that runs through so many of his twelve chosen series. Devised by Tom Fontana, Oz is set in a maximum-security prison where almost all the characters are bad guys. Amazingly, HBO executive Chris Albrecht picked it up because he noticed that the channel was getting great ratings for prison documentaries. Fontana, who was influenced by Greek tragedy, had the stories narrated by a wheelchair-bound black prison inmate. The series broke most of the rules and, while it was not a ratings hit, it drew a broad audience and critical acclaim. Oz was a message to the creative community to come to HBO. Sepinwall sees the Oz series as the starting point or branding point for all that followed in the era of “It’s not TV. It’s HBO.” “Fontana kicked the door open,” he says, “and many others followed him through.”

“Come for the whacking. Stay for the dream analysis” is how Sepinwall explains the success of The Sopranos. Interestingly, he cites the psychology of The Sopranos as the divider between network and cable TV perspectives. When he asked creator David Chase whether network TV rejected The Sopranos because of the violence, Chase laughed. “They would have been fine with even more violence,” he said. “It was the psychiatry they wanted to get rid of.”

The book gives numerous examples of how cable TV executives were in a position to encourage risk. Chris Albrecht, HBO’s exceptional president of original programming, figures as one of the first executives to exploit this very different risk profile. The use of an assessment of potential audience size to calibrate commercial value in the early stages of a project’s development continues to create a risk-averse environment in network television. Albrecht was not concerned about ratings; instead, he wanted to drive subscribers to HBO. He wanted new, high-quality dramas and he wanted to control that first window. Perversely, his strategy was supported by the technology of digital video recorders, on-demand viewing and the rise of DVD box sets, which allowed people to join shows late and provided further tail-end revenue. It was a very different business model than television had previously operated within.

As late as 2005 those conditions also made AMC’s Mad Men possible. AMC executive Rob Sorcher sums up how they were not ratings focussed in their quest for original programming: “What AMC need[ed was] a show, a critically acclaimed and audience-craved show that would make us undroppable to cable operators.” Although they had only ever produced one scripted show (Remember WENN) they responded to Mad Men’s high concept and took the risk. “On the surface it was belligerently uncommercial. It’s period. People smoke. Everyone’s unlikeable.”

Sepinwall also includes Friday Night Lights in his pantheon of twelve – a tiny, gleaming show that isn’t about unlikeable characters. The series was drawn from a book written by journalist H.G. Bissinger, who spent the 1988 high school football season in Texas documenting the pressures of small-town grid iron. For producer Peter Berg, the book “was able to hit upon pretty complex issues: racism, education, parent child relationships.” While his first screen adaptation was a movie, he knew he also had to make it a TV series to truly honour the story.

At the heart of Friday Night Lights are coach Taylor and his wife, whose relationship ultimately binds these raw storylines. Sepinwall reminds us that “the TV business says that there is nothing more boring than a happy couple” but is delighted that “episode by episode, season by season,” the series “exposed that theory for the lazy falsehood that it was. The ebb and flow of Coach Taylor and Tami’s respectful relationship is a new high in TV series drama. Despite poor ratings during the first two seasons, it stayed on air with a devoted cult following. When DirecTV offered to foot 50 per cent of the bill in return for an exclusive pre-network screening, the show was saved from the NBC axe and brought new subscribers to DirecTV.

ALTHOUGH The Revolution Was Televised foregrounds the structural conditions that allowed executives to greenlight risky shows, this book is not about the economics of that revolution. Occasional insights into costs per episode and initial ratings are included but not revenues and deals. It is about the shows themselves and the creative space they were made in. While it’s clear that the broadcast executives and the nature of cable television are essential to the seismic changes, the real heroes of this book are the creator/producers such as David Chase for The Sopranos, David Milch for Deadwood, David Simon for The Wire, Peter Berg for Friday Night Lights and Matthew Weiner for Mad Men. Much of the book is devoted to their creative process, their interaction with cast and executives, their vision and their obsession with their worlds and characters.

Sepinwall looks only at drama and some may quibble that to leave out irreverent, groundbreaking comedies such as Arrested Development and 30 Rock does not fully define a revolution. And his television drama canon could be questioned for its lack of key shows such as The West Wing. Nor does he assess whether the revolution extends beyond the United States – Scandinavian successes like The Killing and The Bridge are absent – but that parochialism does reflect the globalisation of Hollywood and the one-way flow of material. His remit could not extend to Australia which, until recently, has not made its mark globally despite the rise in Australian television drama production over the past five years. That will have to wait for a study of its own.

US television drama history is well served by his analysis of the forerunners of his twelve exceptional drama series. He contributes substantially to a genealogy of American television, acknowledging a golden age of TV shows in the eighties and nineties such as NYPD Blue, Homicide: Life on the Street, St Elsewhere and Twin Peaks, all of them on network TV. Sepinwall argues that there was a maturity to network television at that time, within which writers and show runners could develop their craft. These earlier series “pioneered the concept of a mythology, a complex backstory,” and used cinematic motifs, fast-moving cameras and “straight from the streets” dialogue. They also laid out a template for the ensemble dramas that inspired the “families” that would support the great flawed characters of the revolution. It was only once the radical mission of the cable networks was under way that writers could truly explore storytelling and, above all, character in a new and revolutionary way.

Over the fifteen years since the revolution began, cable TV drama has come almost to monopolise the nominations in the drama series categories at the US Primetime Emmy Awards. Earlier this month Netflix’s House of Cards received nine nominations, the first time an online show had been recognised. Just like HBO’s big splash of Emmy nominations for The Sopranos in 1999, which knocked network drama off its perch, this may be a sign of the changing of the guard.

Ultimately, the book raises the question of which economic circumstances will leverage the next major creative screen revolution. With many consumers programming their own choices via the internet, network and cable executives are warily eyeing the growing “zero TV group” – those who simply don’t have a television – up from two million to five million Americans over the past five years. For many artists with a story to tell, novels gave way to garage bands and finally to the indie feature during the twentieth century. Now the great TV drama series are inspiring storytellers, but House of Cards shows that the new territory for low-budget, innovative, high-impact storytelling could be in webisodes.

Sepinwall has an impressive ability to synthesise an analysis of storylines and characters and the machinations of executive decision-making about scripts, casting and scheduling. This is as much a behind-the-scenes book as it is textual analysis, all deftly woven together. Whether introducing you to a series you haven’t seen or allowing you to resubmerge in one you love, Sepinwall has created an accessible study that substantially raises the quality of the conversation about TV. •

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