Alan Sepinwall is an American television reviewer and writer. He spent 14 years as a columnist with The Star-Ledger in Newark until leaving the newspaper in 2010 to work for the entertainment news website HitFix. Sepinwall began writing about television with reviews of NYPD Blue while attending the University of Pennsylvania, which led to his job at The Star-Ledger. In 2007, immediately after The Sopranos ended, series creator David Chase granted his sole interview to Sepinwall. In 2009, Sepinwall openly urged NBC not to cancel the action-comedy series Chuck, and NBC Entertainment co-president Ben Silverman partially credited Sepinwall for the show's revival. Slate.com said Sepinwall "changed the nature of television criticism" and called him the "acknowledged king of the form" with regard to weekly episode recaps and reviews. Sepinwall and television critic Dan Fienberg host a podcast at HitFix called "Firewall & Iceberg", in which they discuss and review television.
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Hey everybody, it's Alan Sepinwall, TV critic at HitFix.com, sometime-podcaster, and author of books, including "The Revolution Was Televised," now out in an updated edition and this blog post explains all the changes from the original edition.
I'll be here for the next few hours to take your questions about the book, the current state of TV, or whatever you want to ask about. I did one of these the last time the book was released, and it was a lot of fun, so I'm looking forward to getting weird with you all again. I'll be here for the next few hours to take your questions about the book, the current state of TV, or whatever you want to ask about. I did one of these the last time the book was released, and it was a lot of fun, so I'm looking forward to getting weird with you all again.
UPDATE: And I believe that's a wrap. Thanks for coming everybody! The last question, from thereallisachings, seemed too good a note not to end on.
Alan, you wrote a book?
Who was in the outrigger??
Like I said on Twitter yesterday, I will be less surprised if David Chase explains exactly what happened to Tony in the seconds after the screen went black than I would if Lindelof were to publicly state who was in the outrigger.
The chapters in your book represent a significant shift in how TV shows are made and how we watch them. If you were to (hypothetically, of course) add additional chapters to your book, say, five years from now, are there any current shows you think would make the cut? Leftovers? One of the Netflix shows?
In one of my blog posts today, I note that in 5-10 years, someone could easily do a similar book about, say, Louie, Game of Thrones, Orange Is the New Black, Transparent, The Knick, Fargo, maybe Leftovers, and a few other shows that in different ways changed the way TV was made and/or viewed. We remain in an era of enormous change, so some historical distance helps before trying another book.
Hey, Alan! First I want to say how much you enhance the TV watching experience. I seriously hope you never retire.
My question. 10 years from now who do you think is the best network for show runners? Right now I think HBO is the clear favorite. While Netflix is gaining (especially with creative freedom and almost guaranteed second season renewal), HBO still has an easier time with awards. Amazon is up and coming. AMC, FX, CC, and even USA are right there too. Yes, I've given up on the networks.
Sorry for the long paragraph. Thanks!
I think FX is pretty great, in that they mostly leave creators alone but still (with the exception of Louie) insist on some feedback. Unfettered creative freedom is awesome if you're David Simon or Matt Weiner, but there's genuine value to network notes when they're coming from smart people (and the guys at FX are very smart). I think we saw with True Detective season 2, and with some of the flabbiness of recent Netflix shows, that just leaving people alone isn't always the best way to go about things.
Hey Alan - a couple questions
1) Do you still look back at LOST as fondly as you did when it ended?
2) Do you think the later seasons of The Office will taint its rightful place as one of the best comedies of this era, or will the genius of those early seasons save it? For example, it seems many people are already calling Parks & Rec a better show than The Office, which is of course a matter of opinion, but it does feel like many forget that S2-S3 of The Office was some all-time classic stuff.
3) You never say thank you...
1)Even more fondly, I would say. Once I got out of the week to week of it all, and the frustrations over the various stupid things that Lost did, I realized that what I tended to remember was all the good stuff. When I wrote the first edition of the book back in 2012, I rewatched a couple of bad episodes, but for the most part, what I wanted to look at again were ones like Exodus, Through the Looking Glass, The Constant, The Brig, etc.
2)No more than Willie Mays falling down in the Mets outfield taints his rep as one of the 5 best players in baseball history. Very few shows end on top creatively. It's a fact. The Office was uneven even in the Carell years, but it's still a classic.
3)THAT'S WHAT THE MONEY IS FOR!
Hey Alan, big fan!
1) I know you're knee-deep in year-end lists, so a question I've always had...instead of straight 1-10 rankings, why don't you group shows in "tiers"? Sort of like this: http://www.fftoday.com/rankings/playerwkrank.php?Season=2015&GameWeek=1
2) If you could pair any showrunner/writers with any actors with any network, what would your dream combo be? What would the show be about?
3) Any news to share on the podcast front?
PS. For anyone else that wants an easy list of links to Alan's episode-by-episode reviews of all the shows in his book, I compiled them here! http://raviudeshi.com/2015/12/sepinwall-episode-reviews
1)Top 10 lists are just A Thing We Do. Ideally, especially these days, I'd do a Top 25, and will almost certainly follow my "official" list (which has to be a certain length in part because of the HitFix TV Critics Poll) with another featuring the next 10-15 shows.
2)David Simon doing an HBO show about the '70s porn industry starring James Franco would be awesome in a fantasy world. Wait, that is a thing that is actually happening?
3)Not yet. We had hoped to keep the podcast going when Dan went to THR, but it unfortunately didn't work out. Rather than rush into something where I just grab a new partner and try to do the same show I was doing with someone I've been friends with for 20 years, I'm taking a little time to do a soup-to-nuts assessment of what I should try to do with the next one.
Alan, big fan, I have two quick questions
1) Do you think the Emmy's will ever recognize Andy Daly and Review? I honestly think it's one of the funniest, smartest and most compelling watches on TV these days and would to see him even get some sort of nomination, but don't think there's much of a shot
2) Is there a chance that you will be back hosting a podcast of any sort any time soon?
I would tend to doubt it on Review. It's just too far off the beaten path. For Comedy Central shows to break through into nominations, they have to be way more in the zeitgeist, like Amy Schumer and Key & Peele (which are/were also great).
You've mentioned that Deadwood and The Shield had amazing sets. What are the coolest sets you've visited in person?
Deadwood is probably the tops, just because it was so big and sprawling. The fake boardwalk HBO built for the first few seasons of Boardwalk Empire was also really impressive. I started visiting sets before the transition from SD to HD, and I remember a lot of the older sets looking surprisingly dingy, because the cameras couldn't catch that level of detail. Like, Frasier Crane's apartment was a mess in person.
I, like most of the people here, loved the podcast. But I was always curious: do you listen to any podcasts from other TV critics? Or other TV-related podcasts?
I listen to a bunch: Extra Hot Great with my pals from Previously.tv, NPR's Pop Culture Happy Hour (which doesn't always do TV, but does it a bunch), Andy Greenwald and Chris Ryan's new podcast, Mo Ryan and Ryan McGee's... the problem is that I don't always have enough time, especially since I like to listen to ones on other subjects (sports, mainly). It's Peak Podcasting in America, too.
To help out, some questions Alan already answered last AMA:
1) Why isn't a show like The West Wing in the book? Because while it was great, it wasn't as revolutionary as the other shows.
2) If you could add one more show, what would it be? Six Feet Under or Louie.
3) If you made a comedy version of the book, what would the shows be? Larry Sanders, Freaks and Geeks, The Office (UK), The Office (US), Arrested Development, Community, Louie. (Before people ask about Parks, I view it as a spiritual descendant of The Office; great, but working within a pre-established framework.)
(Alan, feel free to chime in if your responses to any of these have changed!)
Now, my question: as a long-suffering Knicks fan, is there any player in the NBA you would consider trading Kristaps Porzingis away for?!
I hear Steph Curry is pretty good...
Fairly open ended question, but in your opinion, can Network Television Survive? Can it survive in a climate where it seems people want deeper story lines and less chains in regards to content (i.e. Language, Violence, Sexuality)?
The networks have it tough, less because of the programming model than the business model. They have affiliates to please, which means they depend on ratings a whole lot more than even an AMC or FX, let alone a pay cable channel or streaming service. I feel like there will come a point in the next 10 years where one of the Big Four simply goes out of business, but I also feel like that was being said 10 years ago and they are all somehow still making it work.
As a fan of yours since the Star-Ledger days, I am always impressed when you decide to STOP watching a TV show. What has to happen for you to pull the ripcord, and are there certain shows you HAVE to watch and critique because of their popularity (thinking of The Walking Dead, as one example)?
Walking Dead I write about because the conversation around it is interesting, even when the show's in a really frustrating stretch like this most recent half-season. Sometimes, shows that aren't quite there are more fun to write about than ones that have it figured out.
But as to the question of when to pull the ripcord, it's a whole lot easier these days. Sometimes, it just becomes a question of what's stacked up the most unwatched episodes. I didn't hate the start to The Affair s2, for instance, but I kept prioritizing other shows, and suddenly I have more than half a season to catch up on, and do I really want to binge... that?
The Revolution Was Televised is about the most consequential shows that broke new ground in TV. What are some of the LEAST consequential shows that broke new ground or were "out there" in some way but failed to have lasting influence?
Babylon 5 is one I get asked about a lot. That was one of the first shows to try the whole "novel for television" idea. Problem is, not enough people — particularly people working in the industry — watched it to have enough of an impact on later shows, even if some of those shows had similar structures and/or themes. When I did the original interviews for the book and I asked people for influences, Twin Peaks came up a lot, Hill Street Blues came up a lot, French cinema came up a lot, and some other things (including some of the earlier shows of the Revolution); nobody ever mentioned Babylon 5.
With Breaking Bad and Mad Men over and a ton of other great shows before them do you think Game of Thrones is the last show that is universally watched and loved?
I wouldn't call Game of Thrones universally loved. And Mad Men certainly wasn't universally watched. Nor was Breaking Bad until that high-rated final season.
Bob Benson wants to know: How's it going?
NOT GREAT, BOB!
Hi Alan! Thanks for doing this. A simple question, but (in my experience) with a complicated answer: How do you suggest a young TV viewer balance new series with classic ones? To put it another way: Should I put off watching Mad Men so I have time to watch the next Mad Men?
I'm a big believer in building a viewing foundation, but I'm also the weirdo who was recording daily Hill Street Blues repeats with his VCR when he was 12. A mix of old and new is great. One of the more dispiriting things about the Cult of Netflix is all the people who won't get exposed to The Wire or Deadwood because HBO's deal is with Amazon.
What's the last tv show you fell in love with?
Master of None a few weeks ago? Happens a lot these days.
Alan loved the first version of the book. Question, I love The Wire, Sopranos, Mad Men, The Americas, and Boardwalk Empire but haven't watched Fargo- is it in the same leGe as the aforementioned and worth watching?
Fargo is fantastic, one of the best shows on TV right now.
Hi Alan, thanks for taking the time to do this! Can't wait to buy the new version of the book. I discovered your writing about 5 years ago when your Freaks and Geeks rewind reviews help pass my time in study hall. That fall, I stumbled upon the Firewall and Iceberg podcast which became such a joyous part of my week for years to come. I know it could be a struggle to make time for it among your and Dan's other responsibilities, so I just wanted to say thank you for your commitment to it - F&I really is one of my very favorite things.
Naturally, I was very disappointed when Fienberg left HitFix and thus the podcast had to end. You talked in your series finale about fun running jokes you and Dan developed over the years, but I was wondering if you had a favorite episode or moment from the podcast? I think my all time favorite is one of your winter 2012 press tour podcasts - the tour had just ended and it was clear the two of you were exhausted, but that only made you more hyper and talkative and loud (and also you were watching the Giants win in the divisional round, which of course annoyed Dan). Fun stuff all around.
Follow-up question: are you able to share even tentative plans for future podcasting? Was yesterday's "Alan and Roth talk The Walking Dead" hangout a trial run of a Grand Poobahwall and Rothberg Podcast?
My favorite podcast episode is one that's a technical nightmare: the first road trip from Los Angeles to San Diego episode. For some reason, I thought the crappy internal mic on my laptop would catch everything, and the system crashed altogether midway through. But the conversation and jokes and whatnot were so much fun, I wished we had done a better job capturing it all.
Long time reader, first time caller.
For your reviews, how many "just as soon as ___" intros do you have in mind before narrowing it down to the final one?
Also, have you given any more thought into how the DH rule doesn't make any sense? Two Words: Madison Bumgarner
I'll take my answer off the air, thank you!
I take notes as I watch episodes, and jot down just as soon as candidates as I go along. With comedies in particular, I've found there's a direct correlation between the number of candidates I write down and my enjoyment of that episode.
As to the absolute boringness of watching pitchers sacrifice bunt, if it makes you happy, then I'm happy for you.
What one-season show from the era do you think had the best chance to become one of the great?
Terriers arguably already was one of the great just based on that season. Rubicon maybe could have become great, or could not have, given the problems with the finale. Luck seemed to finally be getting its act together by the end of season 1, but Milch can be a wildly inconsistent writer, much as I love him, so a permanent step up wouldn't have been a guarantee even without the horse deaths.
Better detective: Lester Freamon or Frank Pembleton?
Different skill sets. Lester is the better investigator, Frank the better interrogator. If I'm starting from scratch and know nothing, I call Cool Lester Smooth. If I have the likely perp and just need a confession, I send Pembleton into the Box.
Hi Alan, I realised how much you've become part of my TV viewing in that once I finish an episode I'll look for your thoughts.
Anyways, I was wondering which shows have surprised you (good or bad) and which shows you've done a 180 on?
Anyway have a great day, looking forward to pick up the book with the new stuff included
You're the Worst and BoJack Horseman are two recent shows that I dismissed almost entirely out of hand after watching the first 2-3 episodes, and are now two of my favorites on TV.
In your opinion, what show had the most hype and was the biggest letdown and why was it John From Cincinnati?
House of Cards. There are at least a few JFC scenes I occasionally will call up on YouTube or HBOGO. I have no interest in ever revisiting any of Cards.
Over your career, you've managed to get some incredible interviews with both writers and actors. Have there been any that were particularly nerve-wracking, either because you were a huge fan of their work going in or they have a reputation for being notoriously prickly to journalists?
David Chase is terrifying to interview — and he likes me. He challenges the premise of nearly every question, and/or will demand, "What's your question?" if you make some kind of open-ended statement that 99 interview subjects out of 100 will respond to in some way.
The interview we did the morning after the Sopranos finale aired was particularly nerve-wracking because of that, but also because I knew I was the only one he was talking to, I knew he didn't want to do it (as I relate in the book, he'd agreed to it at the start of that season, and reluctantly agreed to keep his word when I reminded him of that), and I knew he wasn't going to explain much, if anything, about the finale. No pressure, kid!
Alan, there's something I desperately miss now that the podcast ended: you yelling out the name of a never-aired show about ancient Egypt. Hint: it starts and ends with an H. Would you yell it out in print, just for me?
How's the podcast planning going? Do you have a new podcasting partner picked out yet? I miss Firewall & Iceberg!
Unsurprisingly, getting a lot of podcast questions, so let me repeat this answer: We had hoped to keep the podcast going when Dan went to THR, but it unfortunately didn't work out. Rather than rush into something where I just grab a new partner and try to do the same show I was doing with someone I've been friends with for 20 years, I'm taking a little time to do a soup-to-nuts assessment of what I should try to do with the next one.
Hi Alan, longtime reader! You stated earlier in the fall TV season you were going to change up how you covered things through the end of the year. You weren't sure how it was going to go and was going to revisit it after getting used to it to see if you preferred the new way of doing things. I'm curious - how are you feeling about it? Do you intend to go back to the old way, stay how you are, or perhaps tweak the model further? It's been an interesting adjustment for me as a longtime reader and I'm wondering your feelings on it and what to expect moving forward.
I think it's worked out well this fall, in part because there haven't been any shows where I found myself wishing I was writing more about. The various superhero shows, for instance, are giving me more pleasure if I don't have to think of what I'm going to say after every episode. And it's given me more breathing room to do things like last week's In Defense of the Episode, which I was really proud of.
A few years back, someone interviewing me asked if I was missing the forest for the trees by recapping so many shows at the same time. In hindsight, I think I probably was.
But if we head into January and there are 8 shows I feel like I want to write about every week, then I'll write about those 8 shows every week.
I have had your book for quite some time and haven't gotten around to reading it. Mostly I was hoping to watch all the shows before diving in but haven't yet gotten around to all of them. Is the book structured in a way where I could just read the information on the shows I have already seen?
I have a feeling you are going to get a lot of questions about your favorite shows and top 10 of the year and such so I'll try being a little more specific. What have been your favorite episodes of the year so far?
Yes, you can only read the chapters on the shows you've seen if you want. I very deliberately kept spoilers for one show out of the chapters for other shows, though I think references to the end of The Sopranos (which the whole world knows about) crept into a few discussions of later shows with divisive endings.
Oh, god. So many to choose from, and that's just from the last couple of months. Off the top of my head: Leslie & Ron from Parks and Rec, both the Fargo and Banshee episodes where the precinct was under siege, International Assassin from Leftovers, Lost Horizon (among others) from Mad Men, the episode of Broad City where Jeremy gave Abbi the Shinjo, either the Review episode where he reviews being a little person or the one where he gets an imaginary friend in prison, Indians on TV from Master of None, There Is Not Currently a Problem from You're the Worst... It has been a GREAT year in TV
Huge fan, and I loved the book when it first came out - can't wait to pick up the new version. As a bit of an amateur TV reviewer, your stuff is what I strive to be able to write/podcast/whatever eventually.
My question is this - do you think The Walking Dead can come back from the Glenn ridiculousness this season and manage to find a way to make it feel like no one is safe again, or is that bell unringable?
I think it's a huge problem, but the show has always been wildly uneven. (People have very selective memories about the first season because the pilot was so great — the show's best-ever episode, in fact — but even back then at least half the episodes stunk.) There have been periods (previously with the Governor) where it seemed like no one knew what to do with the series, and then other times (the first half of last season) where the show seemed to have finally turned a corner, only to turn right back.
I think their fidelity to the comic book (which I never much liked) is an ongoing issue, and it's not a coincidence that many of the best characters and/or stories were TV inventions, but I expect the series to continue to have wild swings in quality, and stay on the air until it stops being profitable.
Alan, I know you were a fan of Terriers. It struck me as a shaggy update of The Rockford Files. Why did it work critically but fail to get over with the public? And what do you think of Donal Logue's work? Loved him in Knights of Prosperity and just about any role he takes on.
Terriers was a show you had to see to appreciate. The awful title and/or poster (the latter of which is on a wall behind me in this office) aside, there was really no way to sell the show, because all of its genius was in the execution rather than the ideas. Describe it to someone who hasn't seen it, and it sounds like 10,000 other, less interesting shows.
Hi Alan! Your recaps (and formerly Molly's at Grantland) are the only ones I can enjoy. What's been your favorite TV moment of 2015?
As with the episode question, way too many to pick just one, so I will go with three:
1)Peggy struts down the McCann hallway with the cigarette dangling from her lip;
2)Ron and Leslie make a saxophone fart;
3)We find out on The Leftovers why Laurie has to keep washing her car.
Hi Alan! Obviously we've seen a rise in fresher, more independent voices in TV—Jill Soloway, Broad City, among others—but it seems to me that things haven't really changed much: creators are still beholden to being "given a shot" by the powers that be, whether it's a major network or Netflix/Amazon. Heck, even Vine stars are trying to land TV or movie deals.
When the rise of streaming started, some people thought the model might shift to independent distribution—but do you think it's safe to say the future of TV is still going to be a pretty traditional greenlighting model?
I think the existence of a Broad City — which Abbi and Ilana started on YouTube because they felt they weren't advancing quickly enough in the New York comedy scene — is a sign that there are now side doors beginning to open in the business. It still requires you to know someone, or develop a famous fan (like they did with Amy Poehler), but there are more non-traditional ways to break in now.
As a fan of the classic HBO series like The Sopranos, Deadwood, and The Wire, how do you think this current crop of HBO shows compare? Is Game of Thrones on the same level as those classics? Is The Leftovers as good as Six Feet Under? Will Westworld be as fascinating as Deadwood? And are you as excited for Vinyl as I am?
When Leftovers is said and done (which hopefully won't be this weekend), I wouldn't be surprised if I rank it comfortably alongside the early HBO classics. I love that show, despite its various flaws.
Game of Thrones is, like Walking Dead, hamstrung by its fidelity to the source material. I can't speak to the quality of the books; I just mean because GRRM has so many characters and so many different story threads, and Benioff and Weiss are trying to be relatively faithful to what he's done while only producing 10 episodes a year, the show is always going to feel overcrowded and rushed to a degree. When it's at its very best, it's in the discussion with its predecessors, but most of the time I'd call it a notch or two below.
Hopeful for Vinyl, as I liked Boardwalk Empire more than a lot of other critics. No idea on Westworld, but the delay in announcing an airdate are at a minimum puzzling.
What is your favorite show to "Hate Watch" ?
No time to hate watch in the TV's new Golden Age, my friend. Too many good shows to choose instead. I do still make time to hope watch a few shows, like the aforementioned Walking Dead, but if I've completely given up hope on a show — unless we're right near the very end, like HIMYM — I'd rather devote that time to something good.
You had a very positive review of the Leftovers. Were you able to see all the episodes at that time? Any thoughts on Ep. 8, International Assassin? That episode blew my mind.
I think I'd seen 3 Leftovers eps before I wrote my initial review of season 2. But I've been reviewing it every week. Here's my International Assassin review
It seems to me that it's both easier and harder than ever before to write intelligently about a range of TV shows. There's more to write about but also far more to watch than it's physically possible to do. And there are more people writing about the same things, with the same experience, than ever before. Do you have any thoughts on the state of TV criticism for writers who are just getting into it?
Related to that: any parting thoughts on The Dissolve and Grantland beyond what's already been said widely?
I was very sad about both The Dissolve and Grantland. This is a hard business to make a living in. I've been very lucky. When I got the summer internship at The Star-Ledger that led to my first full-time job, the paper's managing editor warned me, "You'll never make a lot of money in this business, kid." And this was at a time when the Ledger was as flush as any paper in the country. Now, the TV-covering business is very much like the TV business itself; no one's quite sure how to make money doing it.
Have you seen Porzingis play yet and how was it a life changing experience?
Not live, but one of the reasons I've fallen behind on shows like The Affair and Homeland is because a lot of the time that would ordinarily be devoted to DVR catch-up has instead been given over to watching this scrappy Knicks team and its new godlike power forward. The only thing not fun about the experience, given how far Three 6 Latvia is ahead of projections, is that we don't have our draft pick because of the heinous Bargnani trade. If we were going to get a late lottery pick out of the season and could still enjoy watching KP, Grant, Galloway and others develop, the inevitable losses wouldn't trouble me in the slightest.
How has deciding your top 10 shows changed over the years? Is it much harder since there are so many shows to choose from, or does the top quality stuff still easily separate itself from the pack?
I'd say about half the list each year is a lock, and then the other half consists of 10 or 15 other candidates that I shuffle back and forth until I'm the least unsatisfied with the collection.
As I said to another critic yesterday when they turned in their Critics Poll ballot, I hate my Top 10 list, even though I love every show on it, because I had to leave out so many others.
What's your sense of the likelihood of Leftovers Season Three from both the creative side and the network? Does Lindelof have a plan for it and would the network want it despite the low ratings? It's my favorite, most involving show on television.
I think Lindelof either has a plan or at least the ability to come up with one, as we saw this season when he and Perrotta had to work without the book as source material. But the ratings have been awful. The reviews have been much better — Lindelof even converted his bete noir, Andy Greenwald! — but I don't know if that's enough. Maybe an out of left field Golden Globes nomination saves them?
What's the biggest tip you can give to a fellow tv-critic?
I'm young tv-critic myself, saw you earlier this year in Bergen, Norway. Have been following you since around 2008 and even talked about your book on norwegian radio. Looking forward to updated edition of your book next to Matt Zoller Seitz's new book about Mad Men.
Watch as much as you can, and write as much as you can. The only way to get better is to keep doing it, even if it's for an audience of only yourself.
Do you think think we'll see an episode of iZombie later this season where Liv eats the brain of a pro basketball player and recants her criticism of Kristap Porzingis?
Let's just say that I'm friendly with a few iZombie writers and have been regularly sending them Vines of Kristaps putback dunks and blocked shots.
What do you hear about David Milch's projects? I know the Deadwood movie is still very unlikely, but what about the Boss Tweed series? And whatever happened to the thing he was going to do with Brendan Gleeson?
Seems like Milch should just avoid HBO at all costs. Every one of his projects ends badly there.
HBO is also the network that has given him the freedom to do crazy things like John from Cincy, and Luck, and even Deadwood. I'm not sure who else would give him that framework.
I think the Gleeson thing fell apart. I'm not sure what exactly he has in development right now.
What's one thing you hate about your job?
Finding the time to do it all? I started doing this as a 22-year-old single guy with only a handful of networks to cover. Now I'm a 42-year-old with a wife and two kids who understandably want my time and attention, only now it's Peak TV in America.
Alan, what's your favorite tv episode of all time?
Drama: Ozymandias from Breaking Bad.
Comedy: Ask me on any given day and I'll likely give you a different Simpsons episode. Today? Homer the Heretic.
I feel like this AMA is the perfect opportunity for you to reveal a few of your best kept secrets. So tell me, in all honesty: you did thoroughly enjoy The Following, didn't you?
Ummm... I liked that it ended in time for Kevin Bacon to do a Tremors TV show!
Can you believe Obama said in Simmons' GQ piece that he reads Game of Thrones recaps?? I guess it shouldn't be too surprising, since he read Grantland, but I was kinda shocked. The president reads recaps!
That was pretty amazing. I'm assuming he was reading Andy Greenwald, given the Grantland/Simmons of it. But if it turns out he's read me? Wow.
Reminds me of how the whole "secret MS" story arc on West Wing happened because Sorkin wanted to do a scene where President Bartlet was watching a daytime soap, but couldn't find a way to justify it unless POTUS had a serious illness. (It was only after the episode aired that people pointed out that the president keeping that a secret might be kind of a big deal.) If Obama has time to read recaps, Bartlet sure as heck could have justified an hour for Days of Our Lives!
With a lot of the top shows of today being based off books/comics. What three shows would you like there to be books?
Also, when are you going on Simmons' pod? RIP Grantland
Squirrel Girl, starring Mae Whitman.
Squirrel Girl, starring Mae Whitman.
Squirrel Girl, starring Mae Whitman.
Just picked up your book since I was waiting for the updated edition, but very excited to read it!
This kind of touches upon your recent article on the defense of the episode as a structure, but what kind of weird innovation do you wish TV shows would try? Maybe I have the completely wrong read of this but with a bunch of shows debuting on streaming sites it'd seem that there'd be a lot more flexibility. Why haven't we seen shows have like 17-episode seasons, or some episodes that are 70 minutes long while other episodes in the season are only 35 minutes? Like maybe if Louie was a Netflix show he'd do that with the season that had a couple different long arcs.
I think there needs to be some way to allow for budgetary flexibility so that you don't have to make 13 episodes just because that's what you've been given the money for. I really enjoyed Jessica Jones, but imagine if they could have squeezed that down to 8 or 9 hours and spared us idiocy like Robyn in the diner.
I'm all in favor of experimentation, so long as the material is there to back it up. I wouldn't watch 90 minute Bastard Executioner episodes, but most of these extra-long Fargos have been swell.
One thing I've always wondered about...when you get multiple episodes in advance—say, of the new season of The Americans—do you write your reviews as you watch each episode or after you've watched all the episodes provided?
(Also, I just wanted to say THANK YOU for being hyper-vigilant about spoilers. Even when writing about years- or decades-old shows, you go out of your way to avoid spoiling them and I notice and really appreciate that. Thank you!)
It varies, but it's never practical to write the reviews as I watch the episodes. Sometimes I'll hold off on watching every screener so the episodes are fresher in my mind when it's finally time to write about them. But my notes are usually detailed enough that I can do it a month or even two later and be okay.
One of the things I experimented with on Master of None, and may try with Transparent, is to do mini one or two paragraph reviews for every episode of a streaming show's season. The approach I took the last couple of years with Orange Is the New Black (review two episodes each week over 6-7 weeks) wasn't particularly satisfying for me or the readers, it seemed. The Master of None piece seemed a decent compromise.
Do the overwhelming ratings for shows like the underwhelming "The Walking Dead" provide pause in this "TV golden age"; while shows like "The Leftovers" go comparatively unwatched?
Nah. The Wire's entire run overlapped with American Idol, CSI, and other shows that were vastly more popular and not nearly as good. Doesn't make the revolutionary era any less exciting.
Considering you mention it in your book, any chance you would ever go back and review Oz? I don't think anyone has ever reviewed Oz!
I doubt it. I revisited a bunch of episodes for the original edition of the book, and while I enjoyed them and had to include it because of its historical importance, there are other shows I'd rather revisit that I also don't have time for.
Could you please pick a broadcast or cable network and construct an optimal 2015 Battle of the Network Stars team from it?
HBO employs The Rock. HBO's team beats anyone else's team, even if it's Dwayne Johnson, Ann Dowd, Lena Dunham, and the cast of Silicon Valley.
Thoughts on Better Call Saul?
Like it a lot. Its first season was better than the first season of Breaking Bad, when Vince was still working out the kinks. Will it have the same growth curve that BB did? We'll see. But I was super-skeptical about the show going in for a bunch of reasons, and found myself shocked with how much I cared about Jimmy within a few weeks.
What's one show that on paper sounded awesome, in terms of who was behind it and what the premise was and the cast, but in reality ended up not being so great?
And as a longtime reader, you've always seemed to be a very measured critic. A lot of other critics can sometimes even get pretty nasty with their criticism, and maybe it's because you don't often review shows that you really dislike, but is it deliberate that you seem to be much more...positive? Even when you dislike something you never seem mean about it
Studio 60 for the first. Aaron Sorkin doing another show about a show, with Tommy Schlamme directing, a great cast, etc., and it was a catastrophe on almost every level.
I'm not without sin for writing the odd scathing review, but I tried to stop being purely mean about it a long time ago. Who needs that? It can be fun to write, but I'd rather not be an asshole about it. Plus, I think negative reviews are more convincingly argued when they're not just taking easy shots.
Alan, two questions. Programs do not have a positive history of changing networks (e.g. Scrubs, Diff'rent Strokes, Taxi). Will HBO's B.S. Report be any different? Without access to some ESPN personalities how will this show do? Can we expect to see you, even though TV is not a visual medium?
Now away from TV questions for a bit. As a former New Jerseyan and current Quaker, I have to ask: Which do you miss more The Star Ledger or The Daily Pennsylvanian?
If Bill asks me to come on, I'll come on. But based on the podcasts he's done so far, and the one Andy and Chris are doing, I wouldn't expect much to change. Bill's at the point in his career where he does what he does, regardless of venue.
(And the first of the two ABC seasons of Scrubs is wonderful, and one of that show's best.)
I miss them both for different reasons. I like to say that when I was at Penn, I majored in the DP, as I spent way more time and energy on that paper than I did on my classwork. And the Ledger gave me a career, plus a ton of great friends — including Matt Seitz, with whom I'm working on my next book.
North Jersey guy here. Love all your work but going back and reading your Sopranos recaps you did this summer were a treat. You hit a point about how well Sopranos captured the North Jersey weather in the various seasons and it's so true it's almost scary. The cinematography in that show is brilliant and the Blu Ray set is terrific. Do you have a favorite diner in the state (not sure you're still in Jersey or not)?
My dad used to work at Hoffman LaRoche in Nutley, so I loved the Tick Tock across the highway from him. And growing up, our family used to eat regularly at the Tiffany Diner (now replaced by a Bonefish Grill) in Pine Brook.
Do you still watch Modern Family? Your persistence in critiquing it despite negative comments was admirable, especially because it came at a time when I was doubting the show myself and wondering if I should quit it. Meanwhile, friends loved it and raved about it, and I felt I could trust you to offer a criticism of it while still liking it some; just not as much as others did.
Once I stopped watching it, I didn't miss it, and I was shocked to see Luke Dunphy several years later after a notable growth spurt. Barely recognized him. If you still watch it, do you find that it holds up at all compared to its earlier years?
Modern Family is another example of one I cut the cord on pretty easily. I never loved it even in the early days, though I did love some individual episodes, and after a while I found it was frustrating me much more than it was entertaining me.
Oddly, I neglected to delete the season pass for it on our basement DVR for an additional two years after I stopped watching. I'm not sure why.
Thoughts about the upcoming Star Trek streaming series for whatever CBS is calling their newest revenue channel?
I'll be excited if they hire a cool person to run it. Right now, it's a business deal more than it is an actual show. CBS needs to bait a hook so people will subscribe to their service, but they don't have a writer, a premise, or anything else.
I'm sure in the course of your career, you've become friendly (possible even actual friends) with the TV people you cover. Is there a general understanding that you won't be holding back when it comes to reviewing their shows or has a review ever costed you a relationship/contact?
I'd like to think there's a general understanding like that, and there are in fact some writers who have been surprisingly understanding when I wrote negatively about a new series (or even a new episode) of theirs.
But at summer press tour, I ran into a producer I've known and been friendly with for virtually my whole career, and he said he was very unhappy with me because of things I'd written about a show he worked on (where he wasn't even the showrunner) and made it clear that I was persona non grata to him.
Which is fair. But I have to write my honest opinion, regardless of access or any personal relationships that may develop along the way.
Your thoughts on how Trevor Noah and Stephen Colbert are doing so far?
Been a while since I watched much of either, to be honest. I want to loop back in on Noah (and on Larry Wilmore), but I'm always so far behind on everything else, and I tend to get a better night's sleep if the last thing I do before my head hits the pillow is reading a book rather than watching a show.
Which characters do you hate the most? I'm talking about characters that were specifically written to make you loathe them, ala Clay Morrow, Gaius Baltar or Schillenger, not actors who are doing terrible jobs portraying their characters.
Awfully hard to top Schillinger, played by Future Oscar Winner JK Simmons.
I've been a big fan since the Star Ledger days, used to read everything about the Sopranos religiously. A few questions for you:
1. Do you ever think to yourself "right place, right time" that arguably the most important TV show ever filmed right in your backyard as your career grew? Talk about some impeccable timing there.
2. You mentioned in an earlier comment that you don't expect David Chase to explain what happened to Tony in Holsten's (I really need to stop back in there one of the times I visit home for longer than two days) anytime soon. Had James Gandolfini not passed away, do you think there would have been a Sopranos movie, or some follow-up?
3. Am I wrong to think that The Walking Dead will go the way of Dexter and become thoroughly unwatchable soon, unless I really hate myself that day?
4. You mention a few shows as precursors to the shows you highlight in the book, so I'm interested to know which ones you'd expand on. If you had an opportunity to add one or two shows to the book, which would they be?
I think about that every day of my life. It's not just that I wound up in The Sopranos backyard, but that I wound up at a paper with a long-time TV critic nearing retirement with no backup in place, AND that Matt — who was smarter than me and grabbed hold of The Sopranos beat at the start — got tired of writing about the show and invited me to take it on for the second half, which meant I was the guy there for the finale.
I can't imagine Chase would have done a sequel. He mentioned a few times the idea of doing a prequel about young Johnny Boy and Junior in the '60s, but even that might have been a stretch. He ended the show on his terms, then moved on to the next thing. I do, however, think he would have found a role for Jim in every project he did for as long as both of them were alive and working.
It's entirely possible. There's a kind of fundamental repetition to the show at this point, just as there was for Dexter within the first 3-4 seasons (even the Lithgow season is super formulaic, but elevated because Lithgow and Hall were so good), and the only way there seems to be to vary it is with the rate and explicitness of the violence.
The new intro to the new edition not only talks about a couple of shows I might have included (either Six Feet Under or Louie) if there'd been a 13th chapter, and there's a prologue listing lots of the precursor shows like Hill Street and X-Files.
True or False? King Joffrey is more unlikable a character than Schillenger?
Joffrey at least has the excuse of being a kid who was raised by a monster and an absentee drunk. Schillinger did a lot of incredibly heinous stuff over six seasons as a fully-grown adult.
What episode of tv would you watch if you knew it was going to be the last one you ever saw?
Something happy and/or very funny. Maybe the Parks and Rec where Andy and April get married? Or the Cheers where Cliff goes on Jeopardy? Or Lisa's Substitute?
Best advice for an aspiring critic--Tv or movie?
TV. The economics are slightly more stable. The recap industrial complex has its issues, but there's more paying work there, it seems.
If you could choose one actor/actress to put on a current TV show who isn't on it currently, who and what would it be?
I want M. Emmett Walsh or John Turturro or another Coen regular to be in the next season of Fargo, even if it's a tiny role.
I know critics get lots of swag, and I'm wondering if you could name some of the more memorable items you've gotten over the years?
Just looking around my office, I've got bobbleheads from Dexter, The Shield, and Sharknado, a Selina Mayer commemorative plate, several action figures from Mike Tyson's Adult Swim show, a Rick & Morty hip flask, and a piece of tile from the Melrose Place pool, which has somehow survived a whole lot of office moves over the last 6 years.