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BOOK REVIEW

Brett Martin and Alan Sepinwall look at the TV revolution

'Difficult Men' and 'The Revolution Was Televised' take on the transformation of modern TV. Do we owe this new era of quality shows to a few great men?

June 27, 2013|By Mary McNamara, Los Angeles Times Television Critic
  • Linda Cardellini and Jon Hamm in "Mad Men."
Linda Cardellini and Jon Hamm in "Mad Men." (Jordin Althaus / AMC )

The unexpected death of James Gandolfini, who was best known for his work on the series "The Sopranos," recently re-ignited the conversation over How Much Television has Changed, which has become so intense and widespread in the last few years that books are now being written about it.

Last year, critic Alan Sepinwall self-published "The Revolution Was Televised: The Cops, Crooks, Slingers, and Slayers Who Changed TV Drama Forever" to such attention it has just been re-issued by Simon & Schuster's Touchstone imprint. This summer, magazine journalist Brett Martin follows with his own book, "Difficult Men: Behind the Scenes of a Creative Revolution: From The Sopranos and The Wire to Mad Men and Breaking Bad."

Along with the r-word and those regrettably long subtitles, Sepinwall and Martin share the same initial thesis: Television is the most significant voice in popular culture because that is where writers are allowed the most freedom.

Not surprisingly, the two trip over each other's feet more than occasionally. As with the WGA's recently released list of the 101 Best Written Television Series, "The Sopranos" is rhapsodized as this revolution's shot heard 'round the world. HBO in general gets a lot of attention, as does "Mad Men" and AMC. The crankiness of David Chase ("The Sopranos"), the mood swings of David Milch ("Deadwood") and the control issues of Matt Weiner ("Mad Men") are discussed in both books, and each author pays homage to the grandsires of this age of enlightenment, including Grant Tinker and Steven Bochco — without "Hill Street Blues," there would be no "Sopranos," premium cable be damned.

But while they spring from the same fertile soil, "The Revolution Was Televised" and "Difficult Men" follow very different paths. Sepinwall goes broad and analytical, explaining the narrative importance of 12 shows he considers influential, while Martin goes deep and personal, arguing that the fractured psyches and outsized worldviews of a talented few once again changed cultural discourse. Both provide clear and tantalizing windows on the creative process, and prove, by their very existence, how much things have changed — once upon a time, these sorts of reported analyses were reserved for theater and film.

A pioneer of the art form now known as recapping, Sepinwall was an early chronicler of the revolution; while writing about television for the Star-Ledger in Newark, he started the blog "What's Alan Watching," which became a template for the episode-by-episode analysis that helped create the obsessive audiences so many shows now seek (often in lieu of high ratings). Enthusiastic and informed, he begins his book by essentially debunking the hook for Martin's — the notion that quality television began with "The Sopranos."

Plenty of terrific television pre-dated its arrival on HBO and continues to exist outside the premium cable universe, including, according to Sepinwall, "Lost," "Buffy the Vampire Slayer," "24," "Battlestar Galactica," and "Friday Night Lights," which he includes along with the pantheon of heroic usual suspects: "The Sopranos," "Oz," "The Wire," "Deadwood," "The Shield," "Mad Men" and "Breaking Bad."

Each chapter tells the story of a particular show, combining interviews and behind-the-scenes anecdotes with a critical analysis studded by exquisite detail. Reading "The Revolution" is a rewarding but often exhausting experience, like binge-watching 12 very different shows with a smart, knowledgeable and over-caffeinated friend.

Fortunately, Sepinwall's knowledge is so vast, his enthusiasm so infectious that he leads the reader over some typographical road bumps — the text is littered with foot-noted asides in italics — and in my case complete and utter disagreement with some of his opinions. ("Lost?" Really?) As people in- and outside the industry often note, he knows his stuff.

A correspondent for GQ, Brett Martin's knowledge of television is less encyclopedic; he describes the genre as having "a reputation somewhere beneath comic strips and just above religious pamphlets." But after being hired by HBO to write a book about "The Sopranos" (2007's "The Sopranos: The Book"), he became "convinced that something new and important was going on," experiencing a personal journey that mirrors that of the many-similar-minded Americans who still can't quite believe how good TV has gotten, no matter how many times we critics point it out.

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