With James Gandolfini's sudden death at 51, GQ looks back at the show that made him famous and made HBO a powerhouse, that gave birth to a television revolution that would eventually spawn everything from Mad Men to Breaking Bad to House of Cards and turn ours into the cable-auteur generation. Brett Martin tells the story of the creatively brilliant and infuriatingly complicated men who struggled to create a whole new TV genre—and the night that almost brought The Sopranos down.
In The Revolution Was Televised: The Cops, Crooks, Slingers and Slayers Who Changed TV Drama Forever, longtime critic and blogger Alan Sepinwall deftly tells the stories of twelve shows—from Oz to The Wire, Friday Night Lights to Mad Men—that helped transform television from cultural also-ran to the dominant medium of the first decade of the 21st century (give or take a few years). But the book is also, in its way, the story of another, complementary upheaval: the revolution in how television is covered.
So, it’s no surprise that The Revolution Was Televised has made media news of its own, rising out of the ranks of self-published books to receive a New York Times review and a spot on Michiko Kakutani’s Top Ten Books of 2012. (It was recently picked up by the Touchstone imprint of Simon and Schuster.) Here he talked to GQ about revolutions within revolutions:
GQ: Why do you think the networks have done such a better job staying innovative and sophisticated with comedies, as opposed to drama?
Alan Sepinwall: I don’t want to say that comedy is easier, because it’s not; you know the old saying, “Dying is easy, comedy is hard.” But at the same time, if something is funny it can more easily reach more people than something dramatic. You know, The Office was a really big hit for a while. Regardless of what it was saying about society and the media and all that, it was just Steve Carell being really, really funny.
GQ: Of the shows you left out, which have had the most vocal lobbies?
Alan Sepinwall: I’ve heard a lot about The West Wing. I have nothing against The West Wing, it was a great show. But it represented the past, as far as I was concerned: one of the last of the traditionally structured prestige network dramas. I’m asked a lot about Six Feet Under, too, and certainly there were persuasive arguments to be made for including it. I just didn’t want to do every single HBO show from that period and I just preferred the other four—Oz, The Sopranos, The Wire and Deadwood.
GQ: So where do you see the next frontier?
Alan Sepinwall: I’m interested in seeing what Netflix is going to do. I want to see if House of Cards is good, if Arrested Development is as good as it used to be. I also want to see how people react, because it’s going to change the nature of viewing things. And the nature of reviewing them, as well, because they’re putting all the episodes up at once. I’m not going to be able to review thirteen episodes of House of Cards before the first episode airs. It’s just not logistically feasible.
We flew Aziz Ansari, LCD Soundsystem’s James Murphy, and chef David Chang to Tokyo to binge eat raw fish and do lots of drunk-araoke. Sometimes Twitter dreams do come true. Writer Brett Martin was there to take it all in:
Jet lag is a funny thing. It plays tricks on the mind. For instance, right now I could swear that I’m crammed into a tiny karaoke room on an upper floor of a building somewhere in Tokyo. The narrow table is covered end to end with empty bottles of Asahi beer and Zima, jugs of whiskey and vodka, buckets of ice, huge clear-plastic bags of luridly colored Japanese candy. There are about ten of us in here, packed thigh to thigh on the U-shaped banquette, under a ceiling of peeling geometrically patterned wallpaper that seems to strobe in the fluorescent light. That’s not including the trio of waitresses in tiny fur-trimmed Mrs. Santa Claus dresses, peering in curiously from the door. All this is more or less plausible. The strange part is what we’re all staring at, to all appearances a surrealist pop-culture mash-up, bizarre even by the standards of a country known for bizarreness: the comedian and actor Aziz Ansari (of Parks and Recreation), the musician James Murphy (of LCD Soundsystem), and the chef David Chang (of Momofuku), in suits, arm in arm, belting out A-Ha’s “Take On Me.”
It’s hard enough on a healthy male ego just kind of standing around a guy like Alexander Skarsgård, whose Viking physique, showcased to such great effect on HBO’s True Blood, tends to make one feel small and soft and generally shabby in comparison. One does not need the extra discomfort of being humiliated by his dad. Skarsgård’s father, Stellan, happens to be Sweden’s biggest movie star, best known on these shores as the quadriplegic roughneck in Lars von Trier’s Breaking the Waves or as the Swedish travel writer performing off-key ABBA songs in Mamma Mia!, depending on how you like to think of yourself. I’d called Stellan in Stockholm and informed him I was going whale-watching with his son. “Ever since he went whale-watching, he won’t stop talking about it. Everybody has to go! It’s a plague!” he affectionately complained. Then came the setup: “Listen,” he said, the lugubrious voice oozing authority. “Bring a sweater. It’s cold out there.”
Photo: Carter Smith