Kill The Leading Man: Two Histories of 21st Century Television
By Phillip MaciakAugust 14, 2013
Difficult Men by Brett Martin
The Revolution Was Televised by Alan Sepinwall
IT COULD’VE BEEN WINNIE HOLZMAN. In the late 1990s, executives at HBO gave veteran TV scribe Tom Fontana a blank check to create a dark, violent, virtually unmarketable show about an experimental wing of a maximum-security prison. The short version of this story is that HBO's experiment worked, and, around 1998, they were looking to give out another one of those blank checks. The final list of possible beneficiaries came down to two people: David Chase, veteran of The Rockford Files and Northern Exposure and Holzman, creator of My So-Called Life and veteran of thirtysomething. Holzman had a pitch about a female executive; Chase had a pitch about a gangster. We all know how that shook out.
But imagine if HBO had gone with Winnie Holzman. Instead of Chase and the dream sequences and the evil mother and the psychoanalysis and the capicola and the Fellini and the Scorsese and the Rolling Stones, it could’ve been Holzman and whatever she could do with the boundless creative freedom and financial support of premium cable. Imagine if that show had focused on a powerful woman rather than a powerful man, a businessperson rather than a murderer, a potential hero rather than the anti-hero who begat a thousand sons from Vic Mackey to Ray Donovan. What if HBO — a network that currently has a single series on air with a female showrunner and only one in development — had put their revolution in the hands of a woman?
This question is asked by Alan Sepinwall in a brief anecdote that appears in his book The Revolution Was Televised: The Cops, Crooks, Slingers, and Slayers Who Changed TV Drama Forever. Sepinwall’s book, alongside GQ journalist Brett Martin’s Difficult Men: Behind the Scenes of a Creative Revolution: From The Sopranos and The Wire to Mad Men and Breaking Bad — published by Penguin Press earlier this summer — constitutes the first attempt to tell the story of the television paradigm shift put in motion by Fontana, Chase, and some risk-taking executives at HBO around the turn of the century. These books are gripping narratives of the creative process and often hilarious and unsettling encyclopedias of anecdotes about idiosyncratic creators like Chase, David Simon, and David Milch. They are also, unabashedly, exercises in canon-building that, by definition, exclude as many series as they include and streamline a narrative of production and reception that, in a different telling, might have been more ragged and diverse.
To be clear, it’s not Sepinwall’s fault that none of the shows deemed influential enough to make his list were created by women. (Though Showtime’s Weeds is contemporaneous with the series he covers, and creator Jenji Kohan’s voice might well have added a new texture to the proceedings.) And the shows he covers are widely acknowledged to be those most “important” in this period, by male and female critics alike. Nor is it Martin’s fault that the revolution he narrates was primarily spearheaded by the eponymous “difficult men” like Chase, Simon, and Milch rather than women like Holzman or Kohan. For what it’s worth, both books, and especially Difficult Men, do a better job than any other account I’ve seen in pointing to the central roles of women executives and writers — particularly HBO’s Carolyn Strauss and The Sopranos’ Robin Green — who were motor forces of this golden age. But, excepting the small number of female writers and producers that slip into these pages, the gender balance these books reflect was unavoidable.
What was avoidable, however, is Martin’s thematic focus on “difficult men.” Despite its title, the book does very little to critique the notions of masculinity that structure the shows about which he writes. (As Emily Nussbaum recently noted, Martin even goes out of his way to dismiss the female-centric world of Sex and the City as a cosmetic upgrade on The Golden Girls.) “Not only were the most important shows of the era run by men,” Martin writes in his introduction, “they were also largely about manhood—in particular the contours of male power and the infinite varieties of male combat.” But, in the course of his history, Martin seldom returns to this theme except when it is manifest as a kind of totemic symbol. Deadwood creator David Milch, for instance, has his cock out of his pants pretty frequently throughout the narrative, but we never stop for a moment to talk about what that might mean. What could have simply passed by as an unfortunate demographic coincidence or a sad reminder of institutionalized sexism becomes, in this narrative, something of a heroic trait. And what is, in Martin’s book, explicitly characterized as a writers’ revolution, is instead branded and thus mythologized as a men’s revolution.
A missed opportunity, in this regard, is the lack of a deeper engagement with the simultaneous growth of TV criticism. Coinciding with the boom in serial television, the genre of television criticism — especially online — has grown in quality, quantity, and, increasingly, respectability. And while the early years of critical response to this revolution were indeed anchored by fellows like Sepinwall himself, the field of television criticism is one often dominated and led by women. Many of these women came to the field in order to offer feminist critiques of the shows they love. Emily Nussbaum, Willa Paskin, Maureen Ryan, Tara Ariano, Sarah Bunting, Linda Holmes, Alyssa Rosenberg, Nancy Franklin, Heather Havrilesky, June Thomas, Kate Aurthur, Caryn James, Molly Lambert — this is by no means a marginal group. Representing thousands of readers, they’re many of the most trusted sources of popular criticism in circulation today. If there were few female voices at the helms of these shows, their reception was shaped by a discourse community with a strong female — and, more often than not, feminist — undercurrent.
To review a work of history by pointing out all of the topics it doesn’t cover is a suspect, if commonly used, critical practice. But it seems fair to ask, in these beginning moments of a new historiography of television production, if a given work simply depicts a real-life structural inequality or whether the work reproduces that inequality. If in the midst of this project, however, Sepinwall and Martin don’t ask too many questions about what television might have been, it’s because they are busy providing a great volume of answers about what it is, and how it came to be.
Alan Sepinwall has the distinction of not only being one of the first critics to popularize the episodic recap as a form of criticism — more on that in a moment — but also to have been covering TV at the time The Sopranos premiered, along with fellow critic Matt Zoller Seitz, for Tony Soprano’s hometown newspaper: Newark's The Star-Ledger. During his time there, Sepinwall did a great deal to push the blog form as an ideal vehicle to disseminate criticism. In 2010, he left the paper to work full-time on “What’s Alan Watching?,” the blog he started at Hitfix.com. Sepinwall is a wildly popular writer, an acknowledged expert in recent television history, and his style and enthusiasm have been inspirational for the generation of critics who’ve come about in his wake.
It seems obvious that Sepinwall would be the man to write an authoritative history of the period of television production that gave him his start and has been the focus of his life’s work. But The Revolution Was Televised is not exactly a history. “I wanted there to be a kind of permanent record of the era in TV I’ve been fortunate enough to be covering,” Sepinwall recently noted in an interview. It’s an understandable, and laudable, impulse. For the TV critic, especially the critic writing episodic criticism, seasons fly by, and page views for initial reviews and recaps dwindle as readers move on to other shows. A great deal of remarkable television was produced in the past 15 years, and, as good as the internet is at translating the excitement and pace of contemporary viewing patterns, its archive is ephemeral. A book lends the solidity of old media to the lightning synapses of the web.
And, perhaps because permanence and solidity were the guiding impulses of Sepinwall’s book, it takes shape less as a narrative history or even a sustained argument than it does as an encyclopedia or (dappled as it is with passages of analysis evolved from Sepinwall’s own journalism) a scrapbook. In his introduction, Sepinwall writes that, in the moments before The Sopranos, he “was about to witness a big bang of sorts, one that would greatly expand the boundaries of this universe, and the way we viewed it.” The Big Bang is an apt metaphor for the way Sepinwall presents these series. Indeed, while he certainly lays out the appropriate industrial contexts for all of the production histories he records in these pages, each premiere or narrative innovation is portrayed as a kind of cosmic explosion of creativity. The conditions were right for a new kind of cop show to enter the scene, and — KAPOW! — The Shield is born. This gives a sense of energy to the book and a sense of importance to its subjects, and it authentically describes the feeling of a viewer seeing these revolutionary shows appear, as if out of nowhere, but it also lends a romantic air to the story it tells. The Revolution Was Televised is, for good and for ill, a mythology of television.
So the book begins with the Big Bang itself, and it follows the trajectory of a handful of its effects, hurtling out into space. It consists primarily of 12 chapters, each devoted to a different individual television series — HBO’s Oz, The Sopranos, The Wire, and Deadwood; FX’s The Shield; ABC’s Lost; WB’s Buffy the Vampire Slayer; FOX’s 24; Syfy’s Battlestar Galactica; NBC’s Friday Night Lights; and AMC’s Mad Men and Breaking Bad. The chapters are all arranged in roughly chronological order — though Buffy, the earliest series, comes up in the middle, once the narrative of HBO’s ascendance has run its course — and each chapter very loosely focuses on what made the particular show formative in this period. The chapter on 24, for instance, focuses on the show’s innovation in serial storytelling, and the chapter on Lost focuses on the adaptation of Sci-Fi-style “mythology” to serial drama. Because the book is not, strictly speaking, a narrative history, it does not suffer from too many sins of omission, but, by the end, the occasional arbitrariness of the selection process becomes more noticeable. (It’s unclear, for instance, what the great Friday Night Lights specifically adds to the story beyond its switch from network to DirecTV.) I look forward to the possibility of a future edition that might expand to cover more of the major dramas of this period like Damages, Weeds, and Six Feet Under.
Because the book is a slightly idiosyncratic canon of the television revolution, one of the valuable pieces of work it does is bring under-watched, but highly influential, shows to the reading public. The book begins with a chapter that offers capsule analyses of a large number of shows, such as Hill Street Blues and The X-Files, that formed the preconditions for the post-Sopranos explosion. Most notable, however, is Sepinwall’s rightful insistence on placing Oz before The Sopranos. The Oz chapter, detailing the struggles of veteran TV producer Tom Fontana — of St. Elsewhere and Homicide, among others — to bring the gritty prison drama to television, genuinely feels like a tale of the Wild West. A dirty-minded, dissatisfied network producer lights out to the territories and helps found the little prospecting town — HBO — that would grow into a metropolis of the frontier. Sepinwall relates the anecdote that, early in the development stage, HBO exec Chris Kraus asked Fontana, “What’s the one thing you’ve always wanted to do in the pilot of a broadcast television show that you’ve never been allowed to do?” Fontana responded, “Kill the leading man.” Kraus responded, simply, “I love that! Do that!” This is something of an unfamiliar story, and one frequently ignored in favor of the tales of Chase and Simon. Perhaps because of this unfamiliarity, the show comes across as a downright miracle, and the vivid career of Fontana creates one of the clearest threads of narrative about how premium cable emerged from the strictures of network TV.
Because Sepinwall is so enamored of his subjects, and because so many of them are so beloved, there’s a risk that The Revolution Was Televised might read as if its goal was to explain how great The Wire is to people who are reading the book because they already think The Wire is great. But when describing the history of Oz or exactly what made The Shield so revolutionary or why Buffy the Vampire Slayer belongs in the company of these anti-heroes and ponderous dramas, Sepinwall brilliantly occupies the critic’s most valuable role: the advocate.
Each chapter of The Revolution Was Televised is told from the perspective of a viewer who was eagerly watching from the beginning, and one of the strengths of the book is its period detail. While The Sopranos and Lost and The Wire will likely remain in circulation for generations to come, the circumstances of their original serialization will be lost, and with them the frenzied, often generative, cultures of response — what some still quaintly call “the water-cooler moments.” Sepinwall masterfully captures moments of shock in the way they originally reverberated. Particularly compelling, even for a viewer who experienced them in their initial run, are his discussions of specific “revolutionary” moments — when season two of The Wire premiered at the docks, when Lost revealed the flash-forward device, or when Tony Soprano killed a snitch with his bare hands midway through the first season. These tonal shifts and reveals may still shock viewers today, but Sepinwall economically tells his readers — and, more importantly, future readers — why and in what way they were even bigger shocks in their own time. Tony Soprano killing a snitch in the fifth episode of the first season is jarring today in terms of the narrative of the series, but after Nucky Thompson, Vic Mackey, and Al Swearengen, it may not be obvious that the reason that moment was so resonant initially was that no protagonist had ever done such a thing and still asked for our empathy and identification.
Formally, The Revolution Was Televised is somewhat betwixt and between a work of journalism and a work of criticism. Because the interviews Sepinwall conducted rarely stray past the showrunners, and because not all of the shows discussed fit into the broader industry narratives that lend the book its structure, Sepinwall’s account does not become a fully fleshed-out work of narrative journalism. (There are a few exceptions to this, notably the fascinating career of Lloyd Braun, an executive who was crucial to the conception of both The Sopranos and Lost, and whose candid remarks on his own mildly tragic fall from grace at ABC provide a compelling through-line.) And while each chapter is buoyed by close readings of episodes and scenes, Sepinwall largely avoids polemics and even guards against betraying too much favor for the over-praised. Indeed, for a critic of Sepinwall’s opinions, he is often maddeningly judicious when discussing issues as controversial as The Wire’s downturn in its final season or the unsavory politics animating the narrative momentum of 24. Sepinwall is not out to judge this period — though his selections certainly imply judgments, and coming from a critic as respected as Sepinwall, will help shape future canons of Great Television — but rather, as he says, to record it. And, true to that purpose, The Revolution Was Televised is a record of what felt at the moment, and still feels now, like a revolution.
While Sepinwall’s book is mostly a work of criticism that only occasionally edges on the journalistic, Martin’s Difficult Men is unabashedly and thrillingly the work of an investigative reporter. Despite his journalistic rigor, however, Martin does not forego any of the requisite awe of Sepinwall’s tome. Indeed, both books are committed to a pair of narratives: one nuts-and-bolts, one starry-eyed. The first is a narrative of formal innovation. New techniques, new philosophies of production, new kinds of characters, and new networks emerged during this period to produce something unique and remarkable in television history. This narrative rightly attains the status of reported fact. It is the occasion for both books to exist at all.
The other narrative to which both books subscribe, however, is the mythology I mentioned above. For Martin, these innovations transformed a “vast wasteland” into the “Third Golden Age” of television — after the first Golden Age in the 1950s and the second in the 1980s. Difficult Men is a story of the 21st-century television writers’ room. Martin, a journalist and food writer for GQ, was commissioned by HBO in 2007 to write an official companion to The Sopranos that would coincide with the show’s final season. During that time, Martin became enamored of these series as a lay viewer, but in doing interviews for The Sopranos book, he began to see the potential in a narrative about precisely how these gripping series are built, page after page, by a roomful of arrogant, petty, and often brilliant writers.
Martin is neither a critic nor an encyclopedic expert in television history like Sepinwall, so the great strength of Difficult Men lies in its evocation of the weird rooms that produced these shows. There are the fratty antics: Deadwood’s Milch pissing out of a window, for instance, or the elaborate pile of snacks and toys at the center of the Breaking Bad conference table. There are the prophetic moments: Simon turning down a job working for Milch on NYPD Blue, Matthew Weiner declaring, accurately, after Jon Hamm’s audition for Don Draper that, “That man was not raised by his parents.” And there are the endless stories of rivalry, mentorship, and betrayal, most often involving Chase. Martin tells the story of how writer Todd Kessler was brought onto The Sopranos, taken under Chase’s wing as a protégé, and then abruptly fired. In one of the book’s most ironic reveals, Kessler went on to create and run Damages, a brilliant FX drama about a young upstart attorney mentored and eventually betrayed by the evil head of the firm. Glenn Close’s Patty Hewes, one of the most towering female characters of this era, and one of its greatest villains, turns out to be based on David Chase himself.
In this vein, perhaps most revelatory in Difficult Men are the delicious ways other writers characterize their bosses and competitors. Steven Bochco indelibly describes his former partner Milch as “a big piece of equipment.” Martin fascinatingly narrates the ambivalence or even resistance that writers like George Pelecanos felt about the newspaper setting of The Wire’s divisive final season. And the Mad Men writer Chris Provenzano recounts how Matthew Weiner, the show’s creator, would often pace around the writers’ room soliloquizing as sultry, damaged office manager Joan Holloway: “It would overcome him, as if he were in a trance. Of course Joan is the bitchiest character. And Matt is a quintessential Queen Bitch. He could write that character for days and days.” Much of Martin’s book, like Sepinwall’s, is taken up with the voices of the creators of these shows, but Martin is as committed to troubling the narrative of the difficult genius as he is to holding up Chase, Simon, and Milch as what he calls the Moses, Mencken, and Magus of the Third Golden Age.
To that end, Martin also devotes a sizable amount of space to a fourth foundational figure: Six Feet Under’s Alan Ball. Level-headed and nurturing where the three David’s were fiery and cruel, Ball would serve as an exception to the larger narrative of difficulty — only to be succeeded as the Nice showrunner by Breaking Bad’s famously likable Vince Gilligan. And, indeed, Six Feet Under writer Jill Soloway provides one of the most intriguing, complicated, and telling theorizations of what precisely made this revolution occur in her description of Ball:
Alan once described the masculine style of showrunning as standing in front of your troops, saying, “Come on! This is where we’re going.” The feminine style is standing behind your troops, pushing them forward so they lead you. Alan did the feminine style. The show exists in the center of the room, and we all come to it with our minds and let it rise up, and it belongs to nobody.
If Martin’s book is an account of the power dynamics behind a creative revolution, those dynamics are rooted, with few exceptions, in autocracy, humiliation, and dominance. It is a struggle over ownership, over credit, over the role of the auteur in a collaborative medium. It is our choice, at the end, to decide whether we buy into a narrative of God’s orderly creation of the heavens and the earth or a mythology of unity arising from chaos.
As I’ve mentioned, the voices of female TV critics might have productively complicated both Martin’s and Sepinwall’s narratives. Beyond that, it is notable that the context of television criticism in general is one that is conspicuously absent from both Martin’s and, surprisingly, Sepinwall’s accounts of the period. Indeed, a profession once dedicated to helping consumers decide what to watch on Tuesday nights has become, over the past decade, something of an art in itself, with internal formal variations (recap v. review), overarching aesthetic questions (Are TV serials novelistic? Does the rise of “slow” TV compromise the art?), and heavyweights like Sepinwall, Seitz, and Nussbaum. It’s not a stretch to imagine that the debates over the first season of Girls alone were carried out with the same degree of intensity, the same sense of cultural import, and, frequently, the same eloquence as anything Alfred Kazin and Lionel Trilling squabbled about in the pages of the Partisan Review.
This mass of criticism haunts both books. Sepinwall’s name alone conjures up the legions of recappers he begat from his early days in the field, and the unorthodox, in-text footnoting system that he’s imported from his blog to his book remind the reader that this is very much an extension of a critical practice that lives and breathes on the internet. But, within the text, Sepinwall seldom cites other critics or refers to the ways in which big debates played out in the critical sphere, tending, instead, to cite fan reaction as a barometer. Of course, many of the close readings that pepper The Revolution Was Televised were developed in Sepinwall’s own writings and thoughts from the period, but, throughout, I felt myself wishing that he would dip a little further into memoir. Any writer can research and report the production and reception of these series, but a critic with Sepinwall’s experience and memory would have been able to provide a more fleshed-out account of what it was like to be on the ground in this period. This was, after all, a viewer’s and critic’s revolution too, and Sepinwall’s metamorphosis from beat writer and critic to recapper and blogger is one that tells us a great deal about how both television and the context of its viewing and reception have been transformed in the past 15 years.
For his part, Martin only tangentially acknowledges the critical community that has grown up around these television series. Martin points to the importance of television’s critical culture in the development of brand loyalty between viewers and networks, and he implicitly praises networks like HBO for relying more on reviews than ratings, but he is somewhat dismissive of, if not derisive to, the group of writers and critics who emerged from this culture. The new age of television occasioned the rise of “fan-cum-critics,” he writes, “the most die-hard, or smitten, [of whom] took to the strange practice of ‘recapping’—which became the dominant way of talking about these shows on the internet.” For Martin, recaps are products of obsessive fan commitment, not necessarily critical acts, that take the form of “ritual reenactments” of episodes with occasional moments of “editorializing” or “snarkiness.” Difficult Men is the story of an artistic revolution that, for Martin, does not yet have the critical conversation it deserves.
Martin’s book is very explicitly a behind-the-scenes account of this generation of television, so, while the context of television criticism might have added a new texture to this history, its absence is by no means a strike firmly against Difficult Men. The brief passage I quote above, however, has occasioned a number of responses in the critical community. Most prominently, Entertainment Weekly TV critic Ken Tucker, in his review of Difficult Men for Bookforum, takes up what he calls Martin’s charge against the “anemic state of television criticism.” After trumpeting Martin’s own powers of analysis — his book is indeed filled with sharp insights about the series he covers — Tucker goes on to bemoan the fact that other critics have not risen to the challenge thrown down by the quality of these series and have instead fallen prey to the false comfort and critical mushy-headedness of the recap. Recapping, he suggests, is an unsustainable and unhealthy critical practice, and the internet is, ultimately, a poor forum for criticism in general. He writes:
There remains the challenge of creating diverse aesthetic principles that rise above the Internet’s limited range of extracritical responses, which typically run the gamut from this-is-awesome! blog posts to fitfully edited twelve-thousand-word essays about this or that show’s elaborate “mythology.”
He praises the critics Alyssa Rosenberg, Matt Zoller Seitz, and Tom Carson for asking “the proper artistic questions,” yet he asserts that the internet has not yet produced a Great Critic. “Who,” he asks, “have been TV criticism’s Pauline Kaels, its Andrew Sarrises?”
This, I think, is the wrong question, and it harmfully mischaracterizes the current field of television criticism. The claim that the internet is ruining public discourse is a familiar one — once upon a time they said the same thing about television — but I find it difficult to sustain the argument that the proliferation of online forums has done anything but enliven the discourse community surrounding television. These series are hotly anticipated week to week, they are closely watched, and it seems only appropriate that criticism should mirror and illuminate the viewing practices of its readers. Why should television criticism mimic the beats of film criticism rather than develop in relation to its own medium?
While it’s certainly true that, in the wide world of the internet, there are recaps that offer bare-bones plot rehashes and those that engage primarily with the extratextual latticework Tucker refers to as “mythology,” there are more than enough examples that exist in between. Seitz, in his elaborate defense of the recap at Vulture, has even named this middle genre the “overnight review” to distinguish it from a recap in the literal sense of the term. But Tucker and Martin are not particularly concerned — as outspoken critics of the recap like David Simon and Matthew Weiner are — about overnight recaps disrupting the integrity of the series as a narrative whole. Instead, their line of criticism is that episodic reviewers and TV critics are overly cathecting to the series, that the critical edge is worn down or rusted out by the easy intimacy critics develop with the shows they cover.
Yet the hallmark of good episodic criticism is not overattachment but close reading and a sense of the personal and cultural importance of the subject. Passionate engagement and obsessive analysis do not preclude good criticism; they are its foundation. How else could we describe the painstakingly detailed cinephilia of André Bazin in the early years of Cahiers du Cinéma? The recaps of a critic like Seitz, and even the elaborate mise-en-scène analyses of fashion bloggers Tom and Lorenzo's "Mad Style" posts, partake of this critical spirit. And how else can we think about Pauline Kael’s electric 7,000-word review of Bonnie and Clyde if not as the ardent eloquence of a critic who’s just seen something brilliant and transformative and needs to write about it now? To miss this responsive, improvisatory boldness in the Mad Men recaps of Molly Lambert or the short, polemical, episodic missives of Alyssa Rosenberg is to miss what Kael represented to film culture.
If the past 15 years of television production tell us anything, it’s that “proper artistic questions” change and crumble over time. Bazin and Kael and Sarris did not change film criticism by importing the conventions of literary criticism wholesale from Henry James and Trilling. Nor did Simon, Chase, and Milch change television simply by copying the filmmakers of the French New Wave or New Hollywood. But as much inspiration as Dickens or Scorsese provided for Simon and Chase, The Sopranos is not a movie, and The Wire is not a novel. Critics shouldn’t be hamstrung by the intentions of a show’s creator, nor should they be beholden to literary or cinematic constructions of value. Television criticism has not developed as a discourse simply by aping Kael and Sarris, nor has it thrived by listening faithfully to the hectoring pronouncements of those “difficult men” Martin and Sepinwall profile. Kael and Sarris changed film criticism by creating a form specific to and worthy of the medium, and, just as the time to equate television series with junk food is over, it is now time to consider how the culture of online television commentary has expanded, rather than degraded, our critical culture.
And the democratic character of this culture is apparent even at its highest ranks. Nussbaum, who is currently the chief television critic for The New Yorker began her career in television as a frequent poster on Buffy the Vampire Slayer message boards, and developed her critical and editorial chops as an editor at Nerve.com. An online writer is now the chief television correspondent for the most highbrow, prestigious arts criticism section in America. And if this makes you think that Kael is rolling over in her grave, just try to imagine her coming up in 2013 and not completely owning the immediacy, populism, and energy of the blog form.
As I’ve argued, there already exists a critical community, and that critical community has the energy and the platform to produce thousands upon thousands of words of the kind of “rigorous, if often admiring, scrutiny” Tucker calls for. But, as much as these critics focus attention on shows like Mad Men and Breaking Bad, shows that have already been granted the imprimatur of greatness, these critics are also looking at television as a broad and diverse medium. They are writing about the conventions and politics of reality TV, they are critiquing the aesthetics and assumptions of channels like Food Network and HGTV, they are advocating for under-seen programs and agitating for greater racial, sexual, and gender parity at the networks responsible for this century’s television revolution. The critical community — Sepinwall included — is not content to occupy itself merely with the canonization of Great Works or the policing of aesthetic sensibilities. Nor, indeed, is television itself in that business. Top of the Lake, Orange is the New Black, Masters of Sex, Rectify — at this very moment, we are seeing new series functioning outside the tyranny of the white male anti-hero, increasing interest in limited-run miniseries, high-profile series created by women, and high-profile series focusing on queer protagonists and protagonists of color. Martin and Sepinwall have produced invaluable, readable, often brilliant histories of an uncommon period of television production, but they should be seen as a beginning and a provocation, a picture of part of television, not its whole. We needn’t concretize the rules and conventions they describe but understand how to move past them. The revolution was televised, but we should still pay attention. It’s not off the air yet.
Phillip Maciak is Assistant Professor of English and Film Studies at Louisiana State University, and he is at work on a book about secularism and U.S. culture at the turn of the twentieth century. He is co-founder — with Jane Hu, Evan Kindley, and Lili Loofbourow — of the weekly television criticism blog, “Dear Television.”
image: James Minchin
Phillip Maciak (@pjmaciak) is the TV editor of the Los Angeles Review of Books. His essays have appeared in Slate, The New Republic, and other venues, and he's co-founder of the Dear Television column. He's the author of The Disappearing Christ: Secularism in the Silent Era (Columbia University Press, 2019) and Avidly Reads Screen Time (New York University Press, 2023). He teaches at Washington University in St. Louis.
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