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Behind the Scenes of a Creative Revolution: From The Sopranos and The Wire to Mad Men and Breaking Bad
(New York Times)
Many years ago, in an era when the phrases boob tube, idiot box and vast wasteland went unchallenged as television descriptors among the Discerning Classes, I sat in a pool of prospective jurors on a case involving a fancy jeweler. Aiming, apparently, to assess whether we were likely to confuse the actions of real-life rich people with those on Dynasty, the defense lawyer asked each of us, "Do you watch TV?" "Nah," swore a majority of my exceptionally discriminating citizen peers. "Just a little." "Maybe some 'Nova' from PBS on a black-and-white TV."
Had counsel tried that line of questioning today, odds are she would have gotten a very different earful, including enthusiastic recitations of dialogue from The Sopranos; sophisticated analyses of Don Draper's character flaws on Mad Men; and celebrations of Six Feet Under, Deadwood, The Wire and the violent, amoral mayhem that drives Breaking Bad. Today, those same potential jurors are more likely to say they don't go to many movies (see above re 'boobs' and 'idiots'), because they're home watching good television, much of it on cable rather than network TV. We're in a fascinating moment in the creative cycles of popular culture, when television - O.K., fine, the best of television - is embracing complexity, subtlety and innovation in storytelling with an exciting maturity. We're in a moment when the intricate structure and deep character development in long-form dramas can stand up to comparison with great literature. We're in a time when going to work for what the brilliant British television writer Dennis Potter once called "the medium of the occupying power" is a high calling. (Except maybe for David Chase, the cranky-genius creator of The Sopranos. Hold that thought.)
Following what the journalist Brett Martin identifies as a first burst of literary energy in the 1950s (when the medium was young) and a second in the 1980s (when the forward-thinking television executive Grant Tinker's MTM Enterprises begat the groundbreaking Hill Street Blues), this moment of ascendancy has become television's Third Golden Age. And in Difficult Men, Martin maps a wonderfully smart, lively and culturally astute survey of this recent revolution - starting with a great title that does double duty. Because for starters, the antiheroic protagonists in what the author calls "the signature American art form of the first decade of the 21st century, the equivalent of what the films of Scorsese, Altman, Coppola and others had been to the 1970s or the novels of Updike, Roth and Mailer had been to the 1960s," are indeed difficult men. (And they are all men.) The best-loved fellows in the Third Golden Age include suburban mobsters (The Sopranos), compromised cops (The Shield), touchy drug dealers (The Wire), lying ad execs (Mad Men), outrageous brothel keepers (Deadwood) and even a relatable serial killer (Dexter). Not a nice guy in the bunch.
But the men (and they are all men) who created these works of TV art and have presided over them as show runners are difficult men, too - many of them S.O.B. pieces of work, it turns out, with sharp edges that contribute to their characteristic storytelling styles. David Simon, the itchy Baltimore Sun journalist who put his mark on Homicide: Life on the Street, The Corner, Treme and his masterpiece of Baltimore-as-cosmos, The Wire, reveals himself to be a perpetually dissatisfied ranter who once chastised Wire fans for, essentially, liking his series the wrong way (i.e., talking about favorite characters rather than the show's larger political message). The Hill Street Blues writer David Milch, the "wildly unpredictable" creator of Deadwood, set in the rich muck of late-19th-century gold-rush South Dakota and ripe with gorgeous, florid, filthy dialogue, is a mess of autocratic perversity and struggles with addiction. "If there was a method to this madness," Martin writes with a psychological insight that enhances his nimble reporting, "it seemed to be that of a fireman setting blazes only he is capable of putting out, thus ensuring his own heroic indispensability."
As for Matthew Weiner, who graduated from The Sopranos and went on to create that magnificent period-piece dirge to gray flannel suits we know as Mad Men, Martin astutely notes, "Certainly it was not a unique question in the history of the arts: how someone capable of seeming insensitive and out of emotional touch in the real world could also produce work of exquisite emotional intelligence and 足empathy."
Not every boss man in Difficult Men is as maddening. Under the guidance of the show runner Alan Ball, the writers' room for Six Feet Under - the one about the dysfunctional family of funeral directors - could lay plausible claim to being the happiest in TV. And Vince Gilligan, the creator and show runner of Breaking Bad - the one about the high school teacher with the meth lab - gets a warm shout-out as someone who managed to balance the vision and microscopic control of the most autocratic show runner with the open and supportive spirit of the most relaxed.
But it is to David Chase of The Sopranos that Martin gives his fullest attention, his juiciest writing. This is no doubt in part a result of the generous access the author had to the show's production team and almost all the actors in connection with writing The Sopranos: The Complete Book, an official companion tied to the unsettling conclusion of the series in 2007. (One exception: James Gandolfini, whose recent, sudden death now casts a shadow on these pages.) But also, clearly, something in Chase's complexity - I believe the Freudian (or is it mob?) term for that condition of perpetual discontent and agita is meshugge - provides an insight into everything that has come together to make ours such a rewarding moment in television storytelling. At least about men.
"David Chase's long, unfortunate slide upward into success" is how Martin archly describes Chase's progress during the not-so-golden ages of the medium, writing for Kolchak: The Night Stalker and The Rockford Files, among other productions, while dreaming of becoming a New Jersey-bred Fellini or Godard. A screenwriter was what he had always wanted to be and still wants to be, a filmmaker, an artist. (He did release a feature-length movie in 2012, the autobiographical drama Not Fade Away, which felt strikingly episodic, like . . . a TV series.) In the years since The Sopranos first went on the air in January 1999, many profiles have been written about this Dyspeptic Man Who Prefers Movies, with exaggerated attention paid to the haunting effect of his deceased mother, Norma, on her son's creation of Tony Soprano's fictional (monstrous) mother, Livia, as well as to all the other not-to-be-trusted women in the Sopranos universe.
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When James Gandolfini, the treasurable actor who played conflicted mob boss Tony Soprano, died recently, it was front-page news. Much broadsheet ink has been spilt, too, on the lately deceased television series Breaking Bad, a saga of one man's revolt against being good, which has topped the cool ratings, though not the viewing figures. Breaking Bad built to just 6m US viewers per episode, and the UK totals are what the nutritional information on your cereal box would call 'trace'. Even The Sopranos at its height only managed a season average of between 8m and 10m in America. This is the new territory TV has lighted out for, where ratings are not king and shows can achieve significant cultural traction for characters who are murderous misfits and morally compromised monsters. How did it happen, and why now?
Brett Martin's insider understanding, built up by covering the industry for leading American magazines, makes his answers to these questions an entertaining read. You don't need to be a fan to enjoy his savvy insights into the key series; and his journalistic approach takes you up close to this parallel universe of show-runners, writers' rooms and beat-sheets, even into the Breaking Bad 'room' for a day (where nothing got written, as it happened).
What Martin dubs the Third Golden Age (3GA) of Television - American television, of course, but its impact has been felt here, too - started with Mary Tyler Moore. Or rather, with MTM, the production company she formed in the 1970s with Grant Tinker, her then-husband. Tinker should be credited, Martin says, for saving American TV from its self-hating view of itself as cinema's inferior: he did an unheard of thing - he rated what writers did.
The trail that leads from Tinker to the writing-led 3GA will begin to make sense to British readers when it arrives at the offbeat PI show The Rockford Files, where a de-Italianated writer, David Chase (nee DeCesare), was marking time; and to NYPD Blue, which used one of the first new-style showrunners, David Milch, and which, in the character Andy Sipowicz, a vile-tempered detective with personal problems as big as his gut, provided a template for the difficult men to come.
Martin plots a steady course through the stop-start evolution of this new kind of show, made by first HBO (Sopranos, The Wire), then cable operations with many of the same aims, AMC (Mad Men, Breaking Bad) and Showtime (Dexter). Each venture, he notes, began with a flourish but hasn't really repeated the trick yet.
The mechanics of this strange industry aside, it's the difficult men behind the shows who inevitably fascinate. Martin makes a direct correlation between these supersized personalities and the antiheroes they created: David Simon, campaigning reporter turned co-writer of The Wire; Matthew Weiner of Mad Men, a self-confessed control freak who almost becomes his characters, reading out scripts in the actors' voices; the improbably personable Vince Gilligan of Breaking Bad, whose collaborative style could have come straight from the best-practice section of a management handbook.
And there’s the capo di capi, Chase, a mordant intellect whom you suspect Martin secretly admires the most, who has no fancy theories about how the 'room' works - "We can all sit around and decide we want to make a Louis XIV table, but eventually somebody has to do the carving." That would be him, the man who crafted each Sopranos episode into an arty little movie, probably because that was what he would rather have been working on. Sopranos fans will drool over Martin's final chapter, where Chase discusses that last scene in the diner, as well as the section on the award-winning episode College.
It is a complex story, but Martin keeps it light and readable with a stream of nice nuggets, such as the amusing fact that, before he landed on the nom juste, Simon was going to christen Idris Elba's brooding kingpin 'Stringy' Bell, whereas Gandolfini was going to hit the mean streets of New Jersey as Tommy Soprano. He is adept, too, at locating the 3GA's co-ordinates in a time where old certainties were being lost and survival wasn't guaranteed. There is almost a separate book in his quip that these shows were quick to appreciate that "the American dream was at heart a criminal enterprise", one of many witty perceptions. What will television drama be like five years from now? He is sure there will be more great first acts like HBO's, but whose, and where we watch them, he cannot say. The book he writes then will be worth the wait.
(London Times 2)
The difficult men of the title are the mixed-up antiheroes of what the author of this high-resolution snapshot of American television calls its new golden age: the panic-attacked gangster Tony Soprano; the defective cops who wiretap Baltimore's still more damaged drug lords; the womanising, alcoholic mad man Don Draper; and, most topically, Walter White, the chemistry teacher who broke so very bad. To their ranks we may add a narcissistic undertaker, a psychotic LA cop, a conflicted gentleman vampire, a villainous frontier-land sheriff and whoever is the next big thing.
The complex, open-ended narratives of 21st-century American cable television proved, as Brett Martin writes, singularly equipped to present a panorama of a decadent empire's obsessions: violence, sexuality, addiction, family and class. What emerged most clearly, however, was a photofit of the inflammable American male. If spotted do not approach.
Martin pushes us to conclude that while this portrait may be accurate, or perhaps just the one customarily drawn in American fiction from Moby Dick to Spider-Man, its predominance right now has an easier explanation. The Sopranos, The Wire, Mad Men, Breaking Bad and their lesser kin were written by difficult men. It is they who turn out to have a truer claim on the book's title. Embittered and paranoid from years of hackwork and thwarted ambition, they found themselves in a commercial environment where channels were so desperate for distinction that they let the writer off the leash.
Difficult Men is convincing as a discussion of the relationship between the economics of television and its creativity. After all, Martin admits, this is US television's third golden age, the first forged in the Fifties when anything was possible and the second in the Eighties by freak chance. It also shines a flashlight on to the obscurely collaborative process by which episodes of dramas get beaten into shape in writers' rooms. The description of the one to which Martin gains entry - Breaking Bad's - is a highlight.
Its core, however, pulsates with some of the most entertaining profiles of writers since Dr Johnson's Lives of the Poets. We begin with David Chase, the creator of The Sopranos, a man who hates television so much (even The West Wing, particularly The West Wing) that on ending his masterpiece he went immediately to pen an unexceptional movie. Chase announced to a fellow writer that he had had an epiphany. Raising his hands to the writer's head, he told him: "I'll never be truly happy in life until I kill a man." Instead he fired them, including the protege who won an Emmy nomination for the show's season two finale. The comparisons with Tony S, the lonely, pressurised mafia boss, hardly need to be made.
David Simon, The Wire's bluff, pugnacious journalist turned show-runner, kicked a rubbish bin across an office, sparred with his writing partner, the ex-cop Ed Burns, and finally let his hatred of his old paper divert him into a weak final season that revolved around a newspaper office. David Milch, creator of Deadwood , a heroin addict and an alcoholic in his time, appeared lightly disguised as Caligula in an essay by a former employee, the screenwriter Theresa Rebeck. Caligula, she wrote, was charming, funny, compelling but also an abusive, chaotic nightmare. When Matthew Weiner, who had carried his rejected pilot for Mad Men about his person for years, was allowed to realise his dream, he was withering with his disappointment when his team's efforts displeased. If we wish to know what he is like, we may need to rest our eyes on Joan. "Matt," a junior writer said, "is a quintessential Queen Bitch. He could write that character for days and days."
Martin's theory falters rather when, in a final chapter disappointingly headed 'The Happiest Room in Hollywood', he reaches Vince Gilligan, inventor of Breaking Bad. It doesn't matter much, and certainly not to the viewer, that Gilligan is the good cop here. He is another genius who has flourished at a time when fate, chance and kings have given way to desperate men. Martin asks us not to worry that their era seems to be passing. This writer - unlike Martin, a TV critic - does.
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