By SONNY BUNCH
Dorothy from Kansas was nowhere to be seen in "Oz," Tom Fontana's hard-boiled prison drama, which debuted on HBO in 1997. Rather, white supremacists, black Muslims, Hispanic gangbangers and Italian mobsters fought for supremacy and committed horrific murders in an experimental prison facility in the fictional Oswald State Correctional Facility. It was like nothing seen on television before, writes Alan Sepinwall in "The Revolution Was Televised."
"The main character was going to be killed at the end of the first episode," Carolyn Strauss, an HBO executive at the time, tells Mr. Sepinwall. "It was very much a 'let's see what happens' attitude rather than a 'we need to know exactly what happens every step of the way.'" "Oz" was certainly experimental—and never a ratings bonanza—but along with "The Sopranos" and "Deadwood," it helped to usher in a golden age of television. The past decade and a half have seen shows like "The Wire," "24" and "Mad Men" earn the sort of critical recognition previously reserved only for Oscar-winning films. Mr. Sepinwall's 12 case studies take in these shows as well as "The Shield," "Friday Night Lights," "Buffy the Vampire Slayer," "Battlestar Galactica," "Lost," and "Breaking Bad."
The Revolution Was Televised
By Alan Sepinwall
What's Alan Watching, 306 pages, $16.99
Mr. Sepinwall is an astute critic but also a dogged reporter. Part critical appraisals, part history lessons, his chapters incorporate new interviews with showrunners and network executives as well as a deep archive of previous discussions from his days with the New Jersey "Star-Ledger" and entertainment website HitFix.com. Contrasting early ideas about shows with their eventual evolution reveals some creators as clear-minded from the start on what they wished to accomplish ("Mad Men"), others as improvisers ("Lost"). It adds up to something like an oral history of Mr. Sepinwall's small-screen "revolution."
It was Hollywood filmmakers' overreliance on brainless big-budget pictures, Mr. Sepinwall suggests, that nudged viewers toward the small screen: "Where once there had been blockbusters, art films, and a large swath of movies in between—many of that last group geared to adults—the 21st century slowly saw the extinction of the middle-class movie." If a studio was going to sink money into a film, it needed to be assured of a big opening and that meant big spending—and aversion to risk.
As movie producers scaled up to reach the widest possible audience, TV networks scaled back. "For 50 years, TV had operated under a big-tent philosophy: you tried to rope as many people into the tent as possible, and once they were in, you gave them the same thing they wanted over and over until they got bored," Mr. Sepinwall notes. That philosophy has reversed: "You can make money on a show watched by 3 million people, if they're the 'right' 3 million people, paying close attention." Essentially, movies and television have switched places in the public mind.
Ratings have always been less important to a cable network like HBO, which can rely on subscriber fees. But "Friday Night Lights" (2006-11) entered the world as a much-loved, little-watched show on NBC, and flirted with cancellation for much of its run. Then, the satellite company DirecTV struck a deal with the peacock to fund a sizable portion of the series' budget in exchange for an exclusive broadcast window for the show's final seasons. Similarly, "Battlestar Galactica" (2004-09) was saved from the dustbin of history when British network Sky and American network Sci-Fi worked out a deal that allowed Sky to air the show in the United Kingdom several months before its American debut.
New technologies also aided adventurous programming. "Mad Men" averaged fewer than 1 million viewers its first season—"The Sopranos," by comparison, averaged 3.46 million viewers in its first season and peaked at almost 11 million in its fourth season—but "viewership has gone up every year, as new viewers have sampled the series in between seasons via DVR, DVD, On Demand, and streaming video services," Mr. Sepinwall writes. Viewers no longer have to watch shows from the debut, and word-of-mouth is as powerful a force for TV as it once was for movies.
Blogs dedicated to recapping television shows also emerged as a handy tool for the most dedicated viewers. "'Lost' didn't invent internet discussion of TV shows," Mr. Sepinwall writes, "but the show and its fandom may have perfected the art." As viewers began to scrutinize every moment of every episode, watching and re-watching their favorite programs, creators realized they could develop ever more intricate and complex stories, and trust dedicated viewers to stick with them.
Viewers of "The Shield" (2002-08) spent years living with—and frequently cheering for—a cop who killed other cops, stole drugs and viciously beat suspects, only to watch as his best friend turn against him. "The Shield" was made at such a high level, A-Listers like Glenn Close and Forest Whitaker were willing to slum it on basic cable. "It's become commonplace now for established movie stars of that level to do long guest arcs on cable dramas," Mr. Sepinwall writes, "but at the time, it was a huge deal." The revolution has been led by writers, directors and actors working together in close collaboration for extended periods—the condition that brought us Hollywood's golden age and Shakespeare's brilliance—and Mr. Sepinwall is right to call it a modern-day renaissance.—Mr. Bunch is managing editor of the Washington Free Beacon.