Was there any show that inspired you to write the book?
It was “The Sopranos” in both the abstract and literal sense. I was assigned to write the official Coffee Table Companion during the final season. I probably overstayed my welcome, treated it like a real reporting job, stayed there long enough and got a peek behind the curtain. It was a revelation to me: the size of the operation, the ambition, the way people talked about their work – the feeling of something much bigger. The number of times I had to explain what that was to an audience at the time is in itself an indicator of what a foreign world it was.
This is a very strange word.
The only thing that comes to my mind is how “showrunner” is such a technical term, how unromantic. It’s really something that, like, the Teamsters would come up with. It’s so literal and so non-artistic: You keep things going. The term evokes the type of factory mentality that applied to television at the time.
Did you consider yourself setting a canon?
It was pretty obvious what at least three of the four main shows I was going to write about were, and most of the peripheral shows as well. In my original proposal, the fourth show was, in fact, “Rescue Me” – which is a show whose first few seasons were perhaps unfairly forgotten, but felt more in line with these other shows. It felt extremely courageous to be one of the first shows where 9/11 was being presented in its entirety. My first editor pushed me to include “Battlestar Galactica”, but it wasn’t really my cup of tea. And then as the book was being written “Breaking Bad” established itself and became the obvious ending point. There were other HBO shows, and “The Shield” was also an important step forward, but there weren’t many examples I missed.
Have any of the shows in the book not been as good as you expected?
Quite the opposite: Shows that you might think are outdated have proven to be interesting in ways that perhaps weren’t when they were on the air. Tony Soprano’s America, Walter White’s America and indeed the America of “The Wire” have proven themselves to be the dominant America over the last 20 years. “The Sopranos” became a big pandemic rerun, and I think that’s because it’s so recognizable: The themes — the rot at the center of America, the messiness of American life, Tony Soprano’s angst — all of these are familiar to us now. Super familiar.
Younger generations have adopted “the Sopranos”; It appears in countless memes.
This is great entertainment. It had to be: It had to look like entertainment network television in many ways. It was still functioning as a Trojan horse. It had to be funny and human, and it had to be consumable because the high-art part, the ambition part, was something no one was looking for.
How did the men you wrote about react to your book?
I never heard a word from any of them except Vince Gilligan, who wrote a lovely blurb on the back of the new edition for me. Not surprising, because the book ends on the point that one doesn’t need to be that tough to create these amazing shows.