In a landscape of superhero movies, animated comedies, action pictures, buddy films, and chick flicks, we’re long past the day when thoughtful (translation: slow paced), adult dramas like The Ice Storm (1997) and Leaving Las Vegas (1995) could attract a theatrical audience. Stories about the fault lines of middle class existence, the hazards of juggling career, family, and personal desires, about the large and small disappointments of life can only be done on the small screen now — at least, that’s where they can be done with any hope of being seen. The irony of Hollywood writers and directors yearning to work in television for the creative freedom it affords them shouldn’t be lost on anyone who’s purchased a movie ticket at a multiplex lately.
Of the three types of television critics — academics (such as the late David Marc), slumming literati (Michael J. Arlen, Ron Powers, Lee Siegel), and fanboys (David Bianculli) — blogger Alan Sepinwall is firmly in the last-named category, and his book, The Revolution Was Televised: The Cops, Crooks, Slingers, and Slayers Who Changed TV Drama Forever, is a critically astute fan’s elegy for a recently vanished golden age of television. Sepinwall argues that a confluence of factors opened up a window of opportunity for innovative programming between the late 1990s and the mid 2000s.
Those factors included upstart cable channels, desperate for original content; cable executives with a nothing-to-lose, anything-goes approach to new shows; experienced but frustrated writers from the broadcast networks given, for a few years, unprecedented creative control and near-total freedom from censorship; Hollywood’s lack of interest in making “small” movies with $40-$50 million dollar budgets; and on the viewers’ side, easy access to DVD box sets, streaming video, and other time-shifting options, not to mention the internet, where we could spend hours discussing what we watch and why.
The ‘80s and ‘90s were a twenty-year opening act for what Sepinwall calls “the revolution.” Hill Street Blues, Twin Peaks, Homicide: Life on the Street, and other shows of your parents’ generation paved the way for the cable trifecta of the new millenium: The Sopranos, The Wire, and Deadwood (all on HBO, and all dark, despairing commentaries on the American Dream). They were preceded by the bleak prison drama Oz, and came in with the bleak police drama The Shield.
Of course cops and crooks weren’t the only characters on TV, then or now. Lost, Buffy, 24, Battlestar Galactica, and Friday Night Lights tweaked the science fiction, action, and sports genres, while Mad Men, a soap opera about the unhappy lives of Manhattan advertising executives, was a turn to the sort of subject matter that could’ve been a Hollywood feature once upon a time. The recession-era gangster epic Breaking Bad was, in Sepinwall’s view, the last great cable drama to succeed before the barriers of network caution went back up. The formerly upstart networks are big and successful, and have too much to lose now, and that’s why such shows as Boardwalk Empire, Sons of Anarchy, Justified, and The Walking Dead, good as they are, are conventional genre shows compared to what had preceded them just a few years earlier.
As for comedies and medical dramas, neither of which Sepinwall chooses to write about, well, what dates a show faster than its jokes? What looks more absurd than any episodic view of the American health care system?