Let's start with Tom Fontana and David Milch, the two members of the mind-boggling cadre of revolutionary Buffalo TV writers still eminently visible in their profession.
The interviews with both in Alan Sepinwall's self-published “The Revolution Was Televised” (Sepinwall, 388 pages, $16.99 paperback) are revelatory and the best you will ever read. Even if you have devoured every jot, tittle and comma by every writer in Buffalo who ever typed their names somewhere, you have never read anything a fraction as informative as what you will find in “The Revolution Was Televised.”
How and why was “Deadwood” canceled? And “Luck?” A much fuller story than you have ever known is in Sepinwall's book, including details of the incompatibility of Milch's chaotic, last-minute creative “process” – a high-wire act requiring his casts to wobble on the wire with him – with that of his supposed partner Michael Mann, who, if Sepinwall is to be believed, effectively canceled Milch out, resulting in “Luck” taking far longer to get started than it should have.
Have you, for instance, wondered just why it is that Milch's scripts abound in dialogue that sounds like horribly translated German, with clauses and modifiers clumped in inverse order to where our language prefers them?
“Sentences constructed in a familiar straightforward manner were replaced with jargon mixed with clauses placed seemingly out of order. … Milch acknowledges now that the dialogue could sound like a 'snake swallowing its own tail' and says that the odd but memorable sentence construction was the 'byproduct of the way I was working. It would have been a distortion of the process and the way I was working for the characters to have spoken any other way.' ”
The “way I was working” involved rewrites right up to shooting and “hoping the actors could keep up.”
Here is what actor Jim Beaver told Sepinwall: “It's no wonder that some actors might have difficulty with his process. But I thrilled in it. It was like going over Niagara [Falls] in a barrel every morning with all the fear intact, yet with a subdued voice in my head whispering 'David won't let you die.' ”
That, I submit, is great journalism about television. And that's what “The Revolution Was Televised” is – a book that fulfills in the 21st century that promise made by television criticism in the 1970s, when Michael Arlen was writing extraordinary essays about television in the New Yorker, James Wolcott was at the Village Voice, ex-Buffalonian Gary Deeb (before his professional self-immolation) was standing TV on its head from Chicago and people such as Ron Powers and William Henry were given Pulitzer Prizes as a tentative way for the journalistic establishment to try to represent it all.
As television itself got increasingly better after its most shocking, transformative executive change – the hiring of MTM's Grant Tinker as the überhoncho of NBC programming – the critics' profession seemed to submerge itself in metric tedium and keyhole histories that could be turned into HBO movies.
“The Revolution Was Televised” is the best book by a journalist on American television that I've read in at least 20 years. It's as eccentric in its way as a piece of Milch dialogue stuffed into a rewrite in the 23rd hour of a 24-hour writer's workday. Paragraphs and footnotes alternate wildly with each other sometimes, as if Sepinwall were haunted by the ghost of David Foster Wallace.
And that may account for why Sepinwall himself is publishing it, rather than Random House or Knopf or Norton or Simon and Schuster or Farrar, Straus and Giroux. If so, it's a major opportunity lost by American publishing – the right writer on the right subject, one that has been lying dramatically in plain sight for years.
This is a very 21st century TV critic – a young and brilliant one with his own blog (“What's Alan Watching?”) who got his newspaper start at the Newark Star-Ledger. And this is a very 21st century book about television whose premise is that in his time he has seen “a big bang of sorts” in the TV universe, “one that would greatly expand the boundaries of this universe and the way we viewed it.”
TV was transforming itself in front of us.
On Sepinwall's list of nova and galaxies in this universe are: “The Sopranos,” “Oz,” “The Wire,” “Deadwood,” “The Shield,” “Lost,” “Buffy the Vampire Slayer,” “24,” “Battlestar Galactica,” “Friday Night Lights,” “Mad Men” and “Breaking Bad.”
Sepinwall's subtitle for “The Revolution Was Televised” is “The Cops, Crooks, Slingers and Slayers Who Changed TV Drama Forever.”
It takes nothing away from Sepinwall's book to observe that that's very much an orthodox list of unorthodox television.
I disagree with many of the shows Sepinwall accords chapters to – and wonder where “CSI” is and where in heaven's name are the extraordinary less-watched Showtime counterparts to the HBO shows to which he was clearly given top-to-bottom access: “Huff,” and, above all, “Brotherhood” and the current hit “Homeland.”
But what Sepinwall is doing here is vastly more important than, say, a New York Times reporter's history of late-night executive follies featuring Jay Leno hiding out in a bathroom as an earwitness to his fate (as readable as Bill Carter's books on Leno/Letterman and Leno/O'Brien have clearly been).
It's entirely understandable that what we've got here is a book by a blogger forced to self-publish. You have no idea how much healthier a statement could have been made by a blogger lavishly published by a major literary publisher that offered the writer the most sensitive and challenging editor it had.
A book full of illustrations. And an index. All the accoutrements of a book that deserves to hang around for years, even decades. That's what Sepinwall's book seems to be to me, even though it looks like something thrown over the transom by a guy on a bicycle riding home to catch the latest episode of “Scandal” on DVR.
It would wake up the world of TV criticism from its long metric, keyhole-peeping nap to start, with suitably full intelligence, dealing with what's in front of us every week.
In the meantime, the book exists in all its ultrasmart hyperbole and eye- and brain-opening glory.