Don Draper (“Mad Men”), Tony Soprano (“The Sopranos”) and Walter White (“Breaking Bad”) are indeed difficult men. They are emotionally tormented, brooding and moody. Yet, they wield significant influence. These dark characters, brought to life by equally unhappy men, have ushered in a new era of storytelling.
Television critics are fond of saying we are living in television’s “Third Golden Age.” The First Golden Age was the 1950s, with the introduction of TV as the leading form of mass communication; the Second Golden Age began in the early 1980s with realistic, emotional dramas such as “Hill Street Blues” and “St. Elsewhere.”
In his new book, “Difficult Men: Behind the Scenes of a Revolution: From 'The Sopranos' and ‘The Wire’ to 'Mad Men' and 'Breaking Bad,'” GQ reporter Brett Martin explores the changes in storytelling that revolutionized television in the first decade and a third of the 21st century. In the book, Mr. Martin analyzes influential hourlong cable dramas that spanned 10- to 13-episode seasons. The 2000s marked the rise of the “showrunner,” a term applied primarily to a writer with near autocratic control over the entire production — from casting to cinematography to editing.
Mr. Martin begins with “The Sopranos,” the first big hit drama of the Third Golden Age. He sets up his analysis of showrunners by explaining that early TV writing was once considered to be “for hacks.” Writers such as “Sopranos” creator David Chase were influenced by 1970s filmmakers Robert Altman, Martin Scorsese and Francis Ford Coppola. David Chase grew up in New Jersey in an Italian family that looked down upon gangsters as “caroni,” or peasants. After spending years working on network series such as “The Rockford Files” and “Northern Exposure,” Mr. Chase had been gnawing on the idea of writing something for TV that resembled Mario Puzo’s “The Godfather.”
“The Sopranos” became a sensation, and was recently named the “best-written television show of all time” by the Writers Guild of America. Mr. Chase made numerous risky, counterintuitive decisions that included casting unknowns and pitching the show to HBO. Mr. Martin explains that ratings didn’t matter. He wasn’t worried about offending advertisers. Even within the circle of “The Sopranos” writers, there was uncertainty concerning the limits of how far they could take the action. That manifested itself in the “College” episode of “The Sopranos.”Tony Soprano takes his daughter, Meadow, to see Colby College in Maine. At a gas station, Tony spots a former associate who is in the witness-protection program. He was, in mob parlance, a “rat.” Tony strangles the man in a scene lasting one minute and 16 seconds. Mr. Chase could not justify any other course of action. This example of creative freedom is one of many in “Difficult Men.”
The title, “Difficult Men,” refers to the showrunners themselves, not just the antiheroes of their creation. Mr. Martin provides myriad examples of the showrunners as “difficult men.” Mr. Chase fired “Sopranos” writer Todd Kessler the very morning the two were nominated for a writing Emmy. Mr. Chase reconsidered and rehired him, only to permanently discharge him again several months later. When “Mad Men” creator Matt Weiner worked on “The Sopranos,” one staffer found him so difficult that she resorted to recording all of her interactions with him. David Milch, creator of “Deadwood,” is known to have engaged in behavior so outlandish that the details are unfit for a family newspaper. While he does not linger on them, Mr. Martin also touches on some of the writers’ foibles, such as drug use and alcoholism, providing insight into the writers’ overall makeup.
“Difficult Men” is an excellently sourced book. Mr. Martin had extensive access to all of the key players at the shows discussed in the book and the networks that aired them. Many sources spoke on the record, giving the book accuracy and legitimacy, rather than trading in gossip. The showrunners profiled are presented as successful, yet Mr. Martin avoids deifying them. Moreover, Mr. Martin eschews an overuse of show business jargon. Instead, he sprinkles the narrative with maxims such as, “Every great TV show tells its whole story in its pilot. Often in only one line,” and although it is a subject of curiosity, he does not delve into the profitability of the shows that are profiled.
The book is helpfully divided into chapters that analyze shows in the order in which they made it to the airwaves. Each chapter is loaded with anecdotes about the creative process. Even though all of the shows featured in “Difficult Men” were hits, their future never seemed to be assured, and this ramped up the creative fights recorded in the book.
Fans of “Mad Men” and “Breaking Bad” have to wait until the last quarter of the book to get the inside story on these shows, although they can always skip ahead, and somewhat disappointingly, Mr. Martin only devotes one rather short chapter to “Mad Men.”
Nevertheless, “Difficult Men” is required reading for anyone interested in the sweeping changes in television and the creative forces behind them. The news that Netflix’s “House of Cards” is the first Internet-based show to be nominated for the Outstanding Drama Emmy indicates that there are more changes to come. If this is the dawn of the next Golden Age, let’s hope Brett Martin will chronicle it.
Kevin P. McVicker is account supervisor with Shirley & Banister Public Affairs in Alexandria, Va.