Was there one show that provoked you to write the book?
It was “The Sopranos,” in both an abstract and a literal sense. I had been hired to write the official coffee table companion during the final season. I maybe outstayed my welcome, treated it like a real reporting job, was there for quite a long time and got a chance to peek behind the scenes. It was a revelation to me: the size of the operation, the ambition, the way people talked about their work — the sense of something very big being made. The number of times I had to explain what a showrunner was back then is, in and of itself, an indicator of what an alien world that was.
It’s such a funny term.
It just occurs to me what kind of a technical term “showrunner” is, how unromantic. It really is something that, like, the Teamsters would come up with. It’s so literal and so nonartistic: You keep things running. The term betrays the kind of factory mentality that applied to television at the time.
Did you think of yourself as establishing a canon?
It was very obvious what at least three of the four main shows that I was going to write about were, and most of the peripheral ones as well. In my original proposal, the fourth show was, actually, “Rescue Me” — which is a show whose first few seasons had been perhaps unfairly forgotten but felt very much in keeping with these other shows. It felt extremely daring in being one of the first shows where 9/11 was being treated in a fully rounded way. My first editor pushed me to include “Battlestar Galactica,” but it just really wasn’t my bag. And then “Breaking Bad” asserted itself as the book was being written and became very obviously the ending place. There were the other HBO shows, and “The Shield” was an important step as well, but there weren’t many examples I left out.
Have any of the shows in the book not stood up as much as you expected?
Quite the opposite: The shows you think might have been dated have proven riveting in ways they maybe weren’t even when they were on. The America of Tony Soprano, the America of Walter White and very much the America of “The Wire” has proved itself to be the dominant America in the past 20 years. “The Sopranos” became this huge pandemic rewatch, and I think it’s because it’s so recognizable: The themes — the rot at the center of America, the grift of American life, the anxiety Tony Soprano has — are all super familiar to us now.
Younger generations have adopted “The Sopranos”; it appears in countless memes.
It’s great entertainment. It had to be: It had to resemble entertaining network television in many ways. It was still operating 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 nobody was looking for.
How did the men you wrote about respond to your book?
I never heard a word from any of them except for Vince Gilligan, who wrote me a beautiful blurb on the back of the new edition. Not surprisingly, because the book ends making the point that one doesn’t have to be that difficult to create these wonderful shows.