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Sunday, January 6, 2008

Remote Controlled: Q&A with Alan Sepinwall

An absolute machine when it comes to TV coverage, Alan Sepinwall's blog is a must-read for several reasons. One, he recapped every "Freaks and Geeks" episode over the summer. Two, he's the foremost face for "Sopranos" coverage seeing as how the Newark Star-Ledger was Tony's hometown newspaper on the show and he's spoken with creator David Chase several times. Three, he's also obsessed with "The Wire." Even with a slew of columns to write (and while battling a cold), Sepinwall -- one of our favorite TV critics -- took time to answer a few questions for Channel Surfing's Remote Controlled profile.

Obviously you're still keeping busy with your blog despite the writers' strike. What are your thoughts on the stalemate, and when do you think the public is really poised to care, if they don't already?

The writers' strike has me extremely depressed. First, because I feel bad anytime large conglomerates try to squeeze money from their workers just because they can, which seems to be what's happening here. Second, because I miss having original "Office's," "30 Rock's," etc., and the longer this drags on, the more I fear that it's going to kill the rest of this season, and maybe even drag into next year. For now, at least, I have stuff that was already in the can like "The Wire" and some leftover "Friday Night Lights" episodes, but what happens come summer if the strike hasn't been resolved yet?

I don't know how much the public knows or cares about the specific financial issues, but I know that everywhere I go, people complain about how their own favorite shows are being shut down by this.

Do you think the Letterman deal will do anything to speed up the larger negotiating process, or will it just lead to more inflamed rhetoric and gamesmanship (freezing out Leno for guests, etc.)?

Given that Leno beat Dave on their first night head-to-head, the only way the Letterman deal speeds things up is if it makes the WGA realize their bargaining position just got weaker, unfortunately. We'll see if that trend holds long-term. The problem, as many have pointed out, is that Worldwide Pants was one of the few independent production companies left in the business, compared to the '88 strike, when there were dozens upon dozens of wholly independent shops with the same amount of bargaining power as the congloms. Now, it's like 8 CEO's are running this thing.

On the same topic, you've previously addressed the point that the strike shouldn't mean that viewers inevitably force themselves to settle for mediocre or flat awful TV. TV on DVD can remedy this. What unheralded shows do you recommend people watch in the absence of new programming?

(As a sidenote, "Moment of Truth" promos and a second season of "Tila Tequila" has to depress you as much as it does me ...)

How much time have you got for suggestions? Given that "The Wire" is maybe my favorite show ever, I'd put it at the top of any DVD list. If I'm sticking with shows no longer on the air, I'd say "Freaks and Geeks," "NewsRadio," "My So-Called Life," the first three seasons of "Homicide," "Arrested Development," early "Buffy," "Firefly," "Extras" (and the British "Office"), "Sports Night," and "Veronica Mars," to name just a few.

I just saw you on a few of the short documentaries about "The Wire." I caught the first episode of Season Five earlier in the week, and if you've been able to watch more than that, what can viewers expect of the new season without giving away too many of the juicy details?

They can expect more of the same greatness. I don't know that any season could possibly be as perfect or powerful as Season Four - the balance between all the worlds was just right, and the focus on the kids made the usual "Wire" beats hit harder than when they involved adults - but it's awfully good, even by this show's high standards.

"The Wire" has never received the mass audience it deserves. The docs covered this territory somewhat (too gritty, too diverse), but I was wondering what your thoughts were?

By "too diverse," you mean "too black," right? I think that's a huge stumbling block right from the start; it's a sad truth that a lot of white people look at a show with this many black faces and say "not for me." Also, as I think I say at the start of one of the documentaries, this is a show whose underlying message is that America is fundamentally, perhaps irreparably broken, and how many people want to hear that? Plus, much as I try to downplay it whenever I write a review, the show is work. You really need to watch it two episodes at a time (at least) until you get used to the rhythms and the characters, you need to differentiate from a large cast that seems to expand exponentially each year, pick up quickly on police and street jargon, etc. I say the reward far exceeds the effort you have to put in, but lots of people just want to turn off their brains at the end of a long day of work and watch something easier like "Grey's Anatomy" or a "CSI."

As one of the foremost experts on "The Sopranos," were you satisfied with how the series ended? Your Best of 2007 would indicate your satisfaction with David Chase's decision-making the whole way through. Also, was it somewhat bittersweet to end your own coverage since you poured so much into it as a writer for the show's hometown paper?

I loved the ending. HBO screened the finale a couple of hours early for local writers like me looking to make the print deadline, and when the screen cut to black, I erupted with laughter. It just seemed so appropriate to everything Chase had done with the storytelling, and I also knew that it would Drive. People. Nuts.

Look. He wrapped up nearly everything. War with New York is over, Paulie's promoted, lots of other people are dead (or in Silvio's case, near death), Meadow and AJ have their futures mapped out for them, etc., etc. Whether you believe Tony died or (as I do) just had to keep on being Tony, does that ambiguity about the final scene really ruin your enjoyment of everything that came before?

And, yeah, it's bittersweet to not have the show around anymore. On the one hand, I doubt I'll ever have to work as hard on this beat as I did whenever a "Sopranos" season began. My editors' appetite -- and our readership's, for that matter -- for "Sopranos" coverage was bottomless, and it rarely stopped with the show itself. If a cast member got arrested, or if Bacala came out with a line of soups, or if there was anything with even a whiff of Soprano to it going on in the tri-state area, I had to be at least consulted, it not outright tasked to cover it myself. On the other hand, I doubt I'll ever again get the opportunity to be able to cover a show that's simultaneously that great and that popular in the depth that the Star-Ledger allowed me to. I can do similar doctoral theses about "The Wire," but how many people care? Or I can write about how Sanjaya did on "American Idol," but how much analyzing is really required there?

In other words, while I won't miss the workload, I'll always miss the work itself.

Having interviewed Chase after the much-discussed finale, did he seem to be at peace with how he left it, and also about the legacy of his show?

I think David was at peace with it. Being able to run away to France certainly helped. I'm not sure David, like any other great artist, is capable of being 100 percent satisfied with anything, but when we spoke the next morning, or the handful of times since the finale aired, he didn't seem to be tearing himself up over how it ended or how much the ending upset or confused people.

How would you summarize the year in TV?

I think we're in one of the greatest periods ever for drama and one of the worst for comedy. "The Sopranos" just ended, "The Wire" is about to come back, and we've got other brilliant dramas like "Mad Men," "Dexter," "The Shield," "Friday Night Lights," etc. Comedy's basically "The Office," "30 Rock," "How I Met Your Mother" and whatever show Larry David or Ricky Gervais decides to do every couple of years. (Oh, and "Flight of the Conchords," but that's an acquired taste.)

But looking at these strike schedules just (there's that word again) depresses me, for the most part a collection of mediocre scripted shows that were lying around and every sleazy reality idea possible. I've long considered "Idol" to be a guilty pleasure, but it may actually be one of the best shows on television by the time its season really kicks into gear after the audition episodes.

-- Thomas Rozwadowski,



i really like this guy's dvd recommendations. and i really need to start watching the sopranos outside of a&e.

By Anonymous Anonymous, At January 6, 2008 at 9:40 PM  

Yeah watching The Sopranos on A&E is almost like watching another show. You simply don't get the full experience of the show. I urge everyone to watch The Wire as well. It truly is the greatest drama ever, as Mr. Sepinwall himself has said many times.

By Anonymous ThatOneGuy, At January 6, 2008 at 10:28 PM  

Alan always brings it on his blog. Maybe it's only because this season is the last, but a lot of people are talking about The Wire now. That's great news. My only hope is that the entire cast gets a Sopranos like sendoff at the Emmy's while winning Best Drama.

By Anonymous jt, At January 6, 2008 at 11:23 PM  

JT ... I'm hoping for that same send-off. Kind of like a career achievement award. And the Emmy's have been known to do that.

-- Tom

By Blogger Press-Gazette blogger, At January 7, 2008 at 11:06 AM  

It's refreshing to see a local site profiling such a phenomenal, diverse show. Thanks from the people in GB who care about forms of entertainment outside of Larry the Cable Guy.

By Anonymous mcnutty, At January 7, 2008 at 3:31 PM  

If only one local person buys "The Wire" on DVD after all my incessant blathering about it in three consecutive posts, I'll be happy. Thanks for the kudos!

-- Tom

By Blogger Press-Gazette blogger, At January 7, 2008 at 4:13 PM  

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