Rise of an anti-hero

Dabney Coleman as power broker we hate to love, Commodore Louis Kaestner, in Boardwalk Empire.THE REVOLUTION WAS TELEVISED
Nanjing Night Net

By Alan Sepinwall. Black Inc. 400pp. $27.99.

You know who you are. Addicted to the unravelling dramas of Tony Soprano or Don Draper or Walter White.

Can’t wait to get home to see the next episode. Analysing plots with friends and family: “I’m up to season five, episode eight.” “Can you believe the way Tony whacked that guy?” “What about that severed head on the back of the tortoise!”

Pretty soon your nearest and dearest cave in and follow your obsession or make a dash for the door as you approach. They’ve had it. No more, please, enough about The Sopranos, The Wire, Deadwood, Mad Men, Breaking Bad.

But once hooked, nothing is enough for the fans of the wave of television shows that began on the cusp of the millennium and continues with Homeland, Boardwalk Empire, Girls and House of Cards.

The addicts are experts on their favourite series but few know more about them than the American critic, Alan Sepinwall, whose new book, The Revolution Was Televised, is a phenomenon in itself.

Subtitled The Cops, Crooks, Slingers and Slayers Who Changed TV Drama Forever, it is one of the very few self-published books ever reviewed by The New York Times, whose chief literary critic, Michiko Kakutani, named it as one of her 10 favourite books of 2012. More praise followed in The New Yorker, Time and elsewhere.

Sepinwall’s career began at the Newark Star-Ledger but two years ago he took his blog – What’s Alan Watching? – to the website of HitFix, the American company that streams movies and TV shows on demand on the internet.

The Revolution Was Televised is more than a critical analysis of the 12 shows that Sepinwall chose to represent the golden age of television. He also interviews the creators and expands on his theme of revolution as he explains how the dramas allowed television “to step out of the shadows of the cinema”.

“If you wanted thoughtful drama for adults, you didn’t go the multiplex; you went to your living room couch.”

Despite their differences in settings and narratives, many of these television shows had something in common in the way they represented the state of America in the early 21st century.

Dissecting The Wire, Sepinwall writes that there were always cops and criminals, but this series “used them to make various points about the rotting state of the American city – and by extension, the broken condition of America itself”. In the London Review of Books last January, the novelist James Meek compared the anti-heroes of the dramas with the squeezed middle-class discussed in another recently published book, Who Stole the American Dream?

The author, Hedrick Smith, explores how global capitalism undermined the middle-class dream of “a steady job with decent pay and health benefits, rising living standards, a home of your own, secure retirement, and the hope that your children would enjoy a better future”.

Aspects of the middle-class dream and its failure play out in the fictional home of Tony Soprano, a sociopath, yes, but also a husband and father hoping that his children just might escape the deadly path set for him by his own crime boss father.

Tony has money, and plenty of it, but Walter White, the chemistry teacher of Breaking Bad, is diagnosed with lung cancer and struggling to make ends meet to pay his medical bills and support his family after his death. His answer: make crystal meth that will eventually earn him a fortune.

Such shows are built around middle-aged anti-heroes who win our sympathy despite their ruthlessness – the likeable murderer Tony Soprano, the selfish yet charming detective Jimmy McNulty of The Wire, the good citizen Walter White, who soon relishes his status as a drug kingpin, and the urbane Don Draper of Mad Men whose corporate success hides a fake identity.

Last year, Sepinwall pitched his book, based on his blog, to many traditional publishers but failed to win a contract. Instead he self-published and his sales skyrocketed.

He won’t give exact figures but they are, he said, beyond his wildest dreams.

Touchstone, an imprint of Simon & Schuster, had earlier rejected the book but came back to Sepinwall with an offer to publish a new paperback edition that will go on sale next May.

The revolution may have been televised but it’s not over yet. House of Cards, a remake of the 1990 BBC political thriller, represents another revolution in that NetFlix made all 13 episodes instantly available to their US subscribers last month.

Viewers can bypass network and cable television altogether and watch their new anti-heroes on the internet at any time they choose and all in one sitting for the truly addicted.

For them, Kevin Spacey in the role of the US Representative, Frank Underwood, will be the next villain that they are only a little ashamed to love.

This story Administrator ready to work first appeared on Nanjing Night Net.