A riveting and revealing look at the shows that helped cable television drama emerge as the signature art form of the 21st century
In the late 1990s and early 2000s, the landscape of television began an unprecedented transformation. While the networks continued to chase the lowest common denominator, a wave of new shows, first on premium-cable channels like HBO and then basic-cable networks like FX and AMC, dramatically stretched television’s narrative inventiveness, emotional resonance, and artistic ambition. No longer necessarily concerned with creating always-likable characters, plots that wrapped up neatly every episode, or subjects that were deemed safe and appropriate, shows such as The Wire, The Sopranos, Mad Men, Deadwood, The Shield, and more tackled issues of life and death, love and sexuality, addiction, race, violence, and existential boredom. Just as the big novel had in the 1960s and the subversive films of New Hollywood had in 1970s,television shows became the place to go to see stories of the triumph and betrayals of the American Dream at the beginning of the 21st century.
This revolution happened at the hands of a new breed of auteur: the all-powerful writer-showrunner. These were men nearly as complicated, idiosyncratic, and “difficult” as the conflicted protagonists that defined the genre. Given the chance to make art in a maligned medium, they fell upon the opportunity with unchecked ambition.
Combining deep reportage with cultural analysis and historical context, Brett Martin recounts the rise and inner workings of a genre that represents not only a new golden age for television but also a cultural watershed. Difficult Menfeatures extensive interviews with all the major players, including David Chase(The Sopranos), David Simon and Ed Burns (The Wire), Matthew Weiner and Jon Hamm (Mad Men), David Milch (NYPD Blue, Deadwood), and Alan Ball (SixFeet Under), in addition to dozens of other writers, directors, studio executives, actors, production assistants, makeup artists, script supervisors ,and so on. Martin takes us behind the scenes of our favorite shows, delivering never-before-heard story after story and revealing how cable television has distinguished itself dramatically from the networks, emerging from the shadow of film to become a truly significant and influential part of our culture.
©2013 Brett Martin (P)2013 Blackstone Audio
Who knew the land of quality television could be so intriguing? I’ve dabbled with books discussing the evolution of TV into a medium capable of showcasing intelligent and quality work. Everything Bad Is Good For You by Steven Johnson discussed the development of the multi-story arc, describing the complicated story lines once reserved for soap operas which began to drift into primetime dramas with Hill Street Blues.
Difficult Men: Behind the Scenes of a Creative Revolution: From The Sopranos and The Wire to Mad Men and Breaking Bad by Brett Martin (I’m not kidding, there are really two subtitles there) takes this concept further, covering what he calls TV’s “third golden age”: the era that began with The Sopranos, continued with The Wire and Mad Men, and finally crescendoed with Breaking Bad. The title stems from not only protagonists of the third golden age, like Tony Soprano and Walter White; but also from the intense and exacting personalities behind these characters, like David Chase, David Simon, and David Milch (yes, the number of Davids discussed gets confusing).
I love stories of the persistence required to reach success, as it reminds me that great things don’t just seem great to everyone and blossom easily, and a lot of the tales behind the most popular TV shows today are full of rejection and stumbling blocks. Breaking Bad was passed over by several networks and almost didn’t get aired after the pilot was filmed, but AMC gave the show a chance after everyone else said no. Matthew Weiner stewed over the pilot of Mad Men for eight years, at times literally carrying it around with him wherever he went.
I was mainly drawn to this book because of The Wire. I thought it was so audacious and smart, and it illustrated how systems can just not work in a way only illustrated by books and movies in the past. The poignance of the one-liners, and the level to which the writers let things play out (legalizing drugs?) seemed more akin to the complicated plot development of novel than the forgettable actions taken on traditional TV shows. The Wire’s creator David Simon has had an incredible life: he seemingly forced his way into journalism first in college and then at the Baltimore Sun, and then embedded with Baltimore police for a year and wrote books about his experience in the city. The first book, Homicide: A Year on the Killing Streets inspired the boundary-pushing TV show Homicide: Life on the Street; the second book, The Corner: A Year in the Life of an Inner-City Neighborhood inspired The Wire. I hadn’t realized the level of research Simon had done before creating The Wire, and now I realize it shows in the work.
Difficult Men manages to examine the success of these shows from many levels. Martin discusses the history of the cable business with the same ease as he analyzes our fascination with Tony Soprano. This book shows that at the core of most TV, there are writers yearning to create stories of a certain quality. These guys are studying Chekhov and hoping to create art in the truest sense of the word. As movies keep devolving into blockbuster action flicks and series based on teen novels, it is easy to see why TV has been forced to step up to the plate as an outlet for intelligent and complicated work. This was a timely read for me, as Breaking Bad was ending shortly before I read this and it seemed like everyone was talking about the show everywhere I went, to a level I’d never experienced before. TV seems to be the most evolving genre of our time, with companies like Netflix and Amazon now financing their own shows. It will be interesting to see what sort of masterpiece the brilliant and difficult writers of the TV world come up with next.
Unlike some of the other reviewers, I didn't mind at all that this title wasn't a treatise on the recent history of the revolution in television. I thoroughly enjoyed the gossipy insider info on my two very favorite TV shows--The Sopranos and The Wire. I also liked the focus/priority given these two shows, as opposed to the afterthought discussion of Mad Men and Breaking Bad, both of which I am watching, but neither of which--IMHO--measures up to the other two. In fact, I would have preferred it if the author hadn't been so generous with his own opinions about how The Wire fell short, given how off-the-mark they were and also how many TV critics there are out there who can offer much better-informed insights on the issue.
As for the narration, I found it satisfactory overall. Mr. Szarabajka does a credible impression of Tony Soprano, but I wish he hadn't abused it by applying it to David Chase or Tony Sirico.
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Unlike “The Butler” where I did not realize it was a “behind the scenes” book and therefore didn’t like it because I felt duped, I knew what this book was all about in advance so I only have myself to blame if I didn’t like it. I suspected that his might be the case just based on the title; however I decide to give it a shot anyway.
My attention was up and down throughout. As predicted, I was very captivated when the subject covered a show I’d seen (Sopranos and Mad Men), I loved the tidbits and factoids, and whole TVography was interesting…. great fun! But when it came to shows I hadn’t seen, I tuned out – I really was not interested.
Not surprisingly therefore I’d recommend it to people who have watched all the shows featured – it’s way more fun that way!
Do you read the book before you dislike my reviews?
As much I like reading, I really enjoy watching tv. There is always some kind of comfort from my childhood at coming home from school and sitting in front of the television and just watching shows after shows until my parents found out that my grades were slipping and the tv got unplugged from the wall. Even today, I cannot wait to get home to see what has been recorded on the DVR and have a relationship with the remote for a few hours. I know its sad, but I like the idiot box.
"Difficult Men" by Brett Martin was a rerun from all of my favorite shows in the past. Such as Carnivale, Deadwood, Breaking Bad, Nip/Tuck, and so many other shows that I can vividly remember.
In the past we had awesome scripted shows that entertained us and made us think at the same time. Now, the boob tube has really become the idiot box with cheap reality tv shows that wants to shock us at every camera angle. If there is no shock factor, the viewer will change the channel.
Gone are the days where the television was an appliance that you got to watch after supper and the family would gather around to watch the weekly episode.
The Wire is the best show ever, but Brett Martin focus his book too much on the Sopranos. Sure, that was a great show, but if I really wanted to watch the seasons over, they are always on VOD. The Wire was the best part of the book. There are a few snippets of Breaking Bad, but its nothing to drool over.
The title of this book is also misleading. It really doesn't go in depth with the actors that plays the main characters in each show. Majority of the book is about Gandolfini and HBO.
I was hoping for a comparison between the latest "golden age of TV" and its cultural and political causes and ramification as compared to the previous "golden ages", whose ramifications are in the history books.... alas, I was disappointed. This book quickly degenerated into Hollywood gossip and became a tell-all about the writers/show-runners who, it seems, are the same old narcissistic, ego maniacs of yesteryear, albeit with new names. Apparently some things, i.e., Hollywood, never change.
If you're looking for a behind the camera tell-all, you will love this book.
The author has good writing, and the narrator is pleasant to listen to. He (the narrator) has a blue-collar no-nonsense type of narration that applies well to the subject matter.
What I did not like was the misleading description and cover, you see a photo of Walter White and of Tony Soprano, leading you to assume that the book would cover both characters in-depth.
While fans of Tony Soprano will get a lot of insight into his character development and the mindset of The Sopranos creator David Chase, you don't get anywhere the same amount of detail in Breaking Bad and Vince Gilligan.
The book spends almost half its length discussing David Chase and The Sopranos, the other half on David Simon and The Wire. In comparison, Breaking Bad and Vince Gilligan receive only ~30 minutes of coverage total.
It seems like the narrator's voice keeps getting lower and lower as sentences/paragraphs end. Impossibly to listen to in the car with slight road noise. Liked the historical aspects of revisiting all my favorite shows. Went back and binged on all 5 seasons of The Wire.
I'll keep this short but to the point. as much interest as I have in the topics this book covers I felt extremely unsatisfied with the overall story. What I was expecting was the author to start with the conception of each series and go through the process of explaining everything from start to finish. What I received was pieces that never fully captured my interest. The author jumps back-and-forth between shows explaining conversations or thoughts of the writers. He never stays with one TV show. The book starts out with the sopranos, you start to take a genuine interest and then it switches to something else and then switches to something else comes back he makes comments about the Sopranos goes to a different topic and continues down that path throughout the whole book. I could not keep track of who was to where the timeline fell in the place because it skipped around for too much. My example is right in the middle of a story talking about a specific show The author starts telling you about a Nother show takes you forward in time brings you back in time doesn't continue where he left off.
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