There are influences from your past that need to be acknowledged even if you’ve moved on. If it weren’t for the Sports Guy, he of the HBO empire now, I wouldn’t know the name Alan Sepinwall. When I first heard the name, he was a TV critic at the Newark Star-Ledger and now, as befits the modern content-creating world, writes/videos at hitfix.com. When there’s a new Game of Thrones episode, I check his review out, albeit the following day since he usually doesn’t get advanced copies.
Sepinwall wrote a book about some of the most important TV shows of the past 20 years, and I recently read the “updated” version as it was part of an Amazon Prime Day binge. It’s $3.99, and you probably spend three times that amount for a “rebooted” summer flick.
The good news about the book was that I had watched all the shows from start to finish (well, I watched all of the premieres and didn’t make it through all of them), although in the case of Lost I’m not sure if making it all the way to the end was quite as rewarding as I had hoped.
It’s not just a recap of the shows’ greatest hits, the book goes into detail regarding the shows’ creators and how the shows got made, sometimes delving into the channel on which the show appeared. I think that’s critical as in my childhood days it was all about the ‘big three’ and now there seem to be more “channels” than there used to be total shows on the air.
Because we are in the middle of a continuum of shows, it is important to pay homage to how each show was influenced, the time in which it was created and how it managed to stay on the air.
Chapter 1: Oz
HBO wasn’t quite into the drama game when they optioned Oz. Thanks to show creators Tom Fontana and Barry Levinson, this show paved the way for The Sopranos, Six Feet Under, and much later, Game of Thrones. It was a show gutsy enough to kill its “main character” in the pilot and never really had a main character in six seasons. Hey, I even did my own “pilot” episode of a youtube show on this TV landmark with Jen Ryan (still waiting to be picked up). There is the audience’s point-of-view character in Tobias Beecher, but other than that it’s characters galore, none of them 100% “good” or “bad”, but mostly leaning toward the latter. The wheelchair-bound character of Augustus Hill, played by Harold Perrineau, played the “Greek chorus”, giving us the opener and closer to each episode. There was at least a death per episode, so the characters who made it to the end were true survivors. The best part of this show and many that follow in this book is when Fontana says “The reality is, I got to make a show that I really wanted to make. And that was a huge reward.”
Chapter 2: The Sopranos
For me, the best part of each chapter other than re-living the memories of watching the show and trying to remember where I was for the start and the end is how these iconic shows came to air. Nobody knew who James Gandolfini was when The Sopranos was launched. If Oz set the foundation, The Sopranos built the house for HBO and its reputation as an award winner and drama powerhouse. Show creator David Chase fought against the idea that the central character on a show had to be likable. Tony Soprano was a killer, cheated on his wife and basically made life miserable for his underlings so he could remain in power. The relationships made the show soar, from Dr. Melfi to his family to his “other” family. Real life affected the show’s run as the death of Nancy Marchand didn’t allow the mother-son relationship from hell to develop any further. As the show wasn’t going to fly on mainstream TV, HBO took it and the rest is eyeball history.
I’ll admit that I didn’t make it to the end of the show but as a breathing human being in America, I know what happened.
Chapter 3: The Wire
I got on the bandwagon late in this venture. It makes sense that David Simon and Ed Burns, the co-creators, had histories at newspapers and within the police department, to tell like Oz a sprawling story but this time it was about an entire city and not just a prison block. I could have another great draft picking the characters on The Wire’s run, and there are so many deaths that the survivors feel legitimate. I have the series on DVD and probably will watch it again, although I’m wondering if HBO’s retrofitting of the entire project into HD is the way I want to watch it.
Chapter 4: Deadwood
This was the first show that I watched cover-to-cover without my wife. She wasn’t so much a fan of the stilted language of this late 19th century frontier show nor the violence. I needed subtitles to get through. Sepinwall refers to the show as “profane poetry” and it’s very true. Again, the show doesn’t have main characters although you’re going to remember Timothy Olyphant’s Seth Bullock and Ian McShane’s Al Swearengen. This was one of the shows that could have used a slightly longer run as it ends on a bit of a iffy finale. The word cocksucker has never sounded so much like poetry.
Chapter 5: The Shield
FX got into the drama game kind of late and took the HBO-style series in The Shield as far as it could. This is the rare show even on this list that kept its quality at the highest level all through the series. Series creator Shawn Ryan hasn’t reached this high before or since. Michael Chiklis’s Vic Mackey owns the show as the corrupt cop but you can’t forget Walton Goggins as Shane Vendrell, and let’s just end on Cleetus Van Damme.
Chapter 6: Lost
Odd in that the story “idea” came from a studio executive that was fired before the pilot was filmed, Lost is a rare show on this list from a mainstream station, ABC. The original pilot was going to kill off a main character and Michael Keaton was supposed to get the slot. Instead the doctor lived and we got six seasons of intrigue pushed on by social media and this show launched a thousand podcasts. We all hated the ending, and maybe it cheated the rest of the show but it was a fun ride.
Chapter 7: Buffy
We like to think that Buffy the Vampire Slayer and its spin-off Angel were cut off short but we got 12 combined seasons of greatness. This show oddly took a failed movie written by Joss Wheadon, who the show “suits” thought he’d pass on but he took the helm. The show combined supernatural elements and teenage angst in the perfect way, and we all liked the supporting characters more than the lead. Or did we? This show ended so long ago that I recorded the finale for my wife who was out of town on a VHS tape. We wondered if Joss would make it big-time then The Avengers came out. Never mind.
Chapter 8: 24
This show made Kiefer Sutherland and oddly set political tones for a decade. What I remember about the show, of which I did not binge-watch to completion, was my good old days of four Netflix DVDs at once and watching something like 13 episodes in a weekend with my wife. We loved the first season (come on, Dennis Hopper with an Eastern European accent as the Big Bad) and the rest was a rotating door of people letting Jack Bauer do whatever he wants after trying to stop him for the first 18 hours.
Chapter 9: Battlestar Galactica
A remake of a cheesy 70s Star Wars-like TV show became something deeper and darker. It aired on the “SyFy” network and needed British financing to make it through. It was genius and saved the budget to make the Cylons actual humans in disguise. Humans make AI, AI tries to kill humanity, then the lines get blurred as some of our “humans” turn out to be something else. The series finale like Lost went in a bit of an odd direction but it was certainly a closed-door finale.
Chapter 10: Friday Night Lights
I believe the wife and I watched the premiere and maybe a few more episodes before letting it go. It’s a football show in which the football scenes are the low point (how many amazing comebacks did we get in five seasons?) and it works. It’s the only TV show I can recall in which the main husband and wife are in a loving, committed relationship, have fights and disagreements and stay together. Buzz Bissinger really hit on something when he followed around a high-school football team in the late 80s. It was a book, movie, and TV show, and the movie’s pretty darn good but the TV show goes into depths that you couldn’t imagine.
Chapter 11: Mad Men
AMC picked up a pilot from a Sopranos writer and everyone thought “wait, isn’t that the channel that shows Shawshank Redemption 40 times a week?” Then we met Don Draper, aka Missouri’s pride and joy in Jon Hamm. We were transported in time and had a great time watching the ups and downs of a man hiding from his past and trying to avoid making any kind of commitment in life. We traveled through the 60s and watched women and minorities be treated like people, a novel concept indeed. I didn’t make it to the end, ditched cable during the season finale two-step and like on The Sopranos, heard about it through other means.
Chapter 12: Breaking Bad
AMC picks up Mad Men, becomes something, then goes on a sharp left turn to tell the tale of a high-school science teacher who gets a terminal cancer diagnosis and decides to break bad and cook the best (is best appropriate here?) meth the world has ever seen. Another fun accident of fate: this show was supposed to be filmed in LA but had to head to New Mexico and the state’s a big character in the show. Walter White became Scarface as the series creator intended. I watched approximately 30 episodes in a week to catch up and it was literal torture when they pulled off that last season as two seasons crap. (I want a constitutional amendment banning this. It’s torture for the fans and makes the actors miss windows for picking up new work. Just finish it.)
It’s funny that when you look at this list that there is a lack of comedy. Each show has comedic moments (once again, Cleetus Van Damme) but only within a tightly scripted drama. In any case, I segued from the actual book content to my own memories because I have a natural tendency to spoil and think you should read the book yourself. Go check it out. And read Sepinwall.