It's common to hear people claim that we're living in a Golden Age of television, and have been since a certain mobster emerged from his New Jersey McMansion in the late '90s. But ironically enough, our obsessional devotion to the great dramas of the past 15 years -- from "The Sopranos" to "Breaking Bad" -- can obscure the roots and context of our collective good fortune.
Weekly recaps, essays on individual seasons, features on buzzworthy programs and reviews of new shows -- all of those things are easy to find here at HuffPost TV, not to mention hundreds of other Web sites and in magazines and newspapers. The sheer word count of television coverage has never been higher.
But the sea of immediate coverage doesn't give us much time to think about how we got to this moment and why the American pop culture machine produced a particularly potent batch of shows in the post-millennial era.
I don't fault the armies of TV writers and critics -- dozens of whom I feel fortunate to read every week -- for this state of affairs. Speaking as someone who's had the great privilege of writing about television for the past decade, I can say from experience that it's hard on a day-to-day basis to pull your head out of the trenches and try to get a grip on overall trends, let alone attempt to come to terms with the bigger ideas percolating through the small screen. With more and more shows of every kind coming down the pike every year, the growing horde of networks almost seem determined to prevent us from seeing the forest for the trees -- but it'd be dishonest not to also admit that it's fun to revel in the minutiae of who did what to whom this week and why.
No matter the cause of the overload, I've often wished that someone would take the time to look at the big picture and chronicle the birth and the history of TV's Golden Age, and I'm enormously pleased that Alan Sepinwall has done just that. Sepinwall, the TV critic for Hitfix.com, recently published "The Revolution Was Televised: The Cops, Crooks, Slingers and Slayers Who Changed TV Drama Forever," and I can't recommend this engaging history highly enough.
Full disclosure: Alan is a friend, but I knew his work long before I met him, and his book is full of the kind of intelligence, clarity and thoughtful curiosity that made me a regular reader of his site well before we met. If critics have one thing to offer these days, it's context, and Alan really knows his history: His enthusiasm for television as an art form and as a repository of our collective consciousness is palpable. He knows what he's talking about because, when it comes to scripted television, he's seen it all, and having to endure the bad has in no way dulled his ability to analyze and engage with the good.
Part of what got Alan hired by "The Star-Ledger" (his previous employer) straight out of college was his thorough and intelligent online writing about "NYPD Blue," so he is particularly well-suited to write about how the rise of the rule-breaking one-hour drama and the explosion of online commentariat fueled each other. But that particular synthesis isn't Alan's main focus in this engaging and well-paced book, which singles out a dozen influential and ground-breaking shows ("The Sopranos," "Oz," "The Wire," "Deadwood," "The Shield," "Lost," "Buffy the Vampire Slayer," "24," "Battlestar Galactica," "Friday Night Lights," "Mad Men" and "Breaking Bad") for in-depth scrutiny.
In each chapter, he speaks to the network executives and creative brain trusts that helped birth and nurture those shows (most of the interviews in the book are new), and he also makes a case for why each program helped change the television landscape (this book isn't about Alan's 12 favorite shows; it's an examination of a dozen shows that had, in his opinion, a sizable impact on the medium). Wisely, he leaves out comedy, which is deserving of a book (or five) of its own. "The Revolution Was Televised," for the most part, follows the evolution of one-hour dramas with a particular emphasis on cable programs.
Sepinwall's knowledge of the medium is demonstrated with the first show he profiles: HBO's prison drama "Oz" gets its due as the show that truly kicked off that network's early-aughts reign as Supreme Overlord of Quality TV. He makes a convincing case for its importance, but unsurprisingly, "The Sopranos," a show Alan frankly covered better than anyone else, is the subject of one of the book's most impassioned and compelling chapters.
The fresh interview with creator David Chase is particularly insightful, and Alan makes a great case for the show's almost unparalleled status as auteur television. Whatever your reaction to "The Sopranos" series finale, it may make you reconsider what Chase did not just in that episode, but in the series as a whole. Chase doesn't "explain" the ending per se, but he offers thoughtful and considered insights into what he was trying to accomplish with Tony's story and with its ending, and it's also clear that the reaction to the ending has required a lot of processing on Chase's part. The entire chapter is riveting.
"The Revolution Was Televised" goes over the histories of programs that a lot of people (myself included) covered obsessively, and yet the chapters on "Battlestar Galactica," "Lost," "Friday Night Lights" and "Buffy the Vampire Slayer" are far from mere rehashes. Each chapter contains nuggets of information I didn't know (the history of "Lost," as told by executive producers Carlton Cuse and Damon Lindelof, is a series of happy accidents, furious reactions and dizzying inventions). All in all, it's simply enjoyable to revisit the sense of discovery and momentum that took us from Buffy Summers to Tony Soprano, not to mention Sawyer, Laura Roslin and Walter White. The judiciously edited interviews with creators such as Vince Gilligan ("Breaking Bad"), David Milch ("Deadwood"), David Simon ("The Wire"), Howard Gordon ("24") and many others are a pleasure to read, as are Alan's considered yet enthusiastic assessments of how these shows toyed with, tested and gleefully broke the rules of television narrative.
The Golden Age has been a great ride, and I can think of no finer tribute to it than Alan's book, which I and critic Ryan McGee discuss with Alan in the hourlong podcast below. As we all note near the end of the podcast, Alan's book, in some ways, feels like the capper to a great, adventurous era that was full of highs and lows and allowed us to share and compare our intense intellectual and emotional reactions to a host of ambitious shows. Yet that era had its own limits: Golden Age shows were quite often about heterosexual white men working through issues relating to masculinity, power and authority, and that's territory that feels pretty thoroughly mined by now.
It's tempting to hope that the next big wave -- perhaps the subject of a future book by Alan or a similarly informed, eloquent advocate -- will consist of shows like "Homeland," "Girls" and "Louie": Programs that take the building blocks of the past 15 years and do weird, innovative and transfixing things with them.
Follow Maureen Ryan on Twitter: www.twitter.com/moryan