Book Review: Brett Martin’s Difficult Men

A Detailed Account of the Third “Golden Age of Television”

You might think the “difficult men” in Brett Martin’s new book, subtitled “Behind the Scenes of a Creative Revolution: From the Sopranos to the Wire to Mad Men and Breaking Bad,” would be Tony Soprano, Jimmy McNulty, Don Draper, and Walter White. You wouldn’t be entirely wrong, but you would be missing Martin’s point. For him, the real difficult men are the creators of those shows: David Chase, David Simon, Matthew Weiner, and Vince Gilligan. These new auteurs of television have helped turn conventional wisdom on its head, so that the average hipster is now more likely to avoid the box office-driven Cineplex and stay home to enjoy the third Golden Age of Television

According to Martin, the first Golden Age arrived at the very beginning of the medium. Looking to what seemed obvious inspirations for entertainment, early producers aired classical music concerts and opera and Shakespeare. Television sets were expensive, the thinking went, so content should cater to the affluent, presumably cultured families who could afford them.

A long decline into silliness and self-loathing was interrupted in the 1980s by thoughtful, hard-edged dramas like Hill Street Blues and St. Elsewhere. The second Golden Age was brief, however, and it took the rise of cable television, HBO in particular, to resurrect the early hope so many people in the 1950s had for TV.

The first part of Difficult Men focuses on David Chase, the creator of The Sopranos. Chase idolized directors like Martin Scorsese (he once called Goodfellas “the Koran” for The Sopranos), but HBO allowed freedoms the major film studios would certainly have denied him. Crude, curmudgeonly, egotistical, and mercurial, Chase—at least as Martin pictures him—sounds like one of the worst bosses in television history. No one, though, can argue with his results.

The cable shows that followed The Sopranos, are Martin argues, “far more ambiguous and complicated than anything television…had ever seen.” Network programs had become excruciatingly predictable. Dramas featured the same stoic heroes sleepwalking through nearly identical story arcs. In contrast, The Wire and Mad Men and Breaking Bad were “narratively ruthless: brooking no quarter for which might be the audience’s favorite characters, offering little in the way of catharsis or the easy resolution in which television had traded.”

Ironically, one of the hallmarks of the shows Martin examines is that each focuses on a male character who demonstrates vulnerability and compassion; yet this emotional openness is in all cases counterbalanced by a streak of vengefulness, if not homicidal violence. The “sensitive psycho” evolves from 1998 to 2007, and not surprisingly Martin contends that more than a little of each showrunner’s personality is infused in his protagonist.

Tony Soprano had fits of unthinking rage, sure, but he loved his family and he had an almost childlike fondness for animals. In contrast, as Breaking Bad moved from one season to the next, Walter White became less a solicitous family man, and more a cold-eyed killer who reveled in pure power and evil. As he tells his wife in the final episode: “I did it for me. I liked it. I was good at it. And I was really…I was alive.”

For all the dark content of the shows themselves, Difficult Men is an optimistic book. Martin celebrates the triumph of cable and the resulting explosion of programming, which have created a “new economic reality” so that “‘success’ no longer requires a huge, or even very large, audience.” Amazingly, to those of us who lived through television in the 1960s and ’70s, this success more often than not is associated with quality. Even 20 years ago it would have been impossible for a writer to refer to television as “serious art form,” as Martin does several times.

Now, of course, only an idiot would doubt that.

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