Behind The Scenes of a Creative Revolution, From The Sopranos and The Wire to Mad Men and Breaking Bad
By Brett Martin
Penguin, 320 Pages
In Difficult Men, Brett Martin makes the argument that we’re in the midst of a third Golden Age of television, thanks in large part to the cable networks that have been churning out a steady stream of scripted, high-quality, one-hour dramas since HBO first aired The Sopranos in 1999. These shows have broken traditional screenwriting rules, showing that audiences will stick around for deep character development and root for an anti-hero who, in most cases, proves to be a male and difficult (think about your guilt rooting for Tony Soprano or Walter White and you start to get the feel).
But the real difficult men in Difficult Men are the story show runners: David Chase, David Simon, matthew Weiner and others. After all, it was David Chase personifying his own mother issues in Tony Soprano and it was David, not Tony, who said things like “Go look at Albert Camus’s Myth of Sisyphus. Life seems to have no purpose, but we have to go on behaving as though it does. We have to go on behaving toward each other like people who would try to love.”
Brett Martin’s in-depth histories of The Sopranos, The Wire, Breaking Bad and others revolves around the creators, writers and most often, show runners. He oscillates from admiring fanboy (Breaking bad’s Vince Gilligan) to envious though respectful critic (Mad Men’s Matthew Weiner).
The book is a must-read for anyone who has watched more than one of the six or so shows Marton chronicles in depth, and you’re sure to be the most annoying person in the room when season six of Mad Men premieres, armed with trivia like Jon Hamm once having been roommates with Paul Rudd or Matthew Weiner asking an interviewer to not mention he was smoking, since his parents didn’t know he smoked, when he was 44. But there is a deeper story there and the book, which gives all the credit to the new rules of cable television while taking jabs at the networks, is as much about the business of television as it is about the art of television.
There is a chance you have already read portions of Difficult Men. The book’s release was coincidentally timed perfectly with the death of James Gandolfini, leading to it being excerpted by several outlets. And while the book pays rightful homage to The Sopranos, it’s nice to see Martin skip the Boardwalk Empire hype almost entirely and dig into shows that may have been lesser known, as evidenced by their ratings (The Wire, Deadwood) but have had a bigger role in the rise of the anti-hero obsession. Martin also does a commendable job of showing how the decline of Hollywood, which has churned out sequels, plotless narratives loaded with special effects and not much else, and other “safe” projects, has helped fuel the cultural revolution on Sunday night (even if people like Chase, who still considers himself a sellout for working in tekevision, will never be comfortable with TV trumping film).
“American movie audiences now just don’t seem to be very interested in any kind of ambiguity or any kind of real complexity of character or narrative,” said Steven Soderbergh, an indie film star who sought solace and creative freedom on television. “I think those qualities are now being seen on television and that people who want to see stories that have those kinds of qualities are watching television.”
Like most books about men, Difficult Men has to include the obligatory apology to women: Martin notes that these tormented, middle-aged, male characters became our standard Sunday night fare because television is controlled by middle-aged men (being tormented optional). And he’s quick to note that shows like The Sopranos, Mad Men and Breaking Bad get a full hour treatment while shows with strong female ledes, like Sex In The City and Weeds, only get a half hour and usually get a lighter, more comedic treatment.
And, of course, therein lies the problem with the book. For all the time Martin spends chronicling the quirky personalities of show runners and the drama they create in their writers’ rooms, Martin comes up short in showing why the characters they created come up short in resonating with so many men and women. He doesn’t dare suggest the conversation about pop culture’s emasculation of men that started with the 1999 release of Fight Club and cut abruptly short with the bombing of the World Trade Center in 2001, continued with more subtle overtones during the past decade. Men who probably look and act like Ray Romano and work in a place like Jim Halpert’s Office were given quiet permission to root for their own, suppressed, inner demon, be it the womanizing McNulty on The Wire or the elegant yet vicious orator and barkeep Al Swearengen on Deadwood.