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The ‘Difficult Men’ Who Made Great TV

We look at the creators who changed TV, the generation behind “The Sopranos,” “Mad Men,” “Breaking Bad” and more.

Left to right: James Gandolfini in HBO's "The Sopranos" (Abbot Genser/HBO via AP), Jon Hamm as Don Draper in AMC's "Mad Men" (Jordin Althaus/AMC via AP), Bryan Cranston as Walter White in AMC's "Breaking Bad" (Frank Ockenfels/AMC via AP).

CLICK TO ENLARGE (from left to right): James Gandolfini as Tony Soprano in HBO’s “The Sopranos” (Abbot Genser/HBO via AP), Jon Hamm as Don Draper in AMC’s “Mad Men” (Jordin Althaus/AMC via AP), Bryan Cranston as Walter White in AMC’s “Breaking Bad” (Frank Ockenfels/AMC via AP).

American television got the “vast wasteland” reputation. And then, around the turn of the century, something happened. On cable.

Great dramas started showing up. They broke the rules. They won the prizes. “The Sopranos,” “The Wire,” “Mad Men,” “Breaking Bad” — new turf.

In a new book, Brett Martin writes about the “showrunners” — the show creators, bosses — who made the new era.  They, he says, are our new Scorceses, our new Updikes, our new Norman Mailers. Delivering the “signature American art form” of a new century.

This hour, On Point: The minds behind the TV drama revolution.

– Tom Ashbrook

Guests

Brett Martin, GQ correspondent and author of “Difficult Men: Behind the Scenes of a Creative Revolution, From The Sopranos and The Wire to Mad Men and Breaking Bad.” (@brettmartin)

June Thomas, culture critic at Slate. (@junethomas)

Interview Highlights

Brett Martin described the recent shift in how Americans use and esteem TV:

Sometimes you can tell a revolution by complete it is. You have to remind yourself just how radical it was just at the beginning. In other words, we all sort of know this, that TV within living memory was the vast wasteland, was the boob tube. It was still a plausible point of pride to not own a television as recently as 15 years ago. I think we all know that adult storytelling somehow wound up going there. At some point in the last decade, we wound up talking not so much on Monday mornings about the films we’d seen over the weekend, not so much about this novel that captured everything about what America was going through that got to the heart of what was going on in the country, but about television shows.

It became the place to ask the big questions or to have them asked and to discuss them and to be flummoxed by them and to become engaged by what it means to be an American in this decade. Whether the show took place in Deadwood in the 1800s or the 1960s in an ad company, that’s where the big questions have been asked for the last 15 years. These men, as has happened wherever that dominant art form is, artists were ready to kind of rush in and take advantage of that opportunity.

Martin explained the importance of the showrunner:

The thing you have to understand about television is that, unlike any place else, the rarest of circumstances exist, which is the writer has always been dominant on television, as opposed to the director … And that’s because television is a train that can never stop moving, and writers are the people who provide the coal. Even before this revolution, writers had an inordinate amount of power, and it usually rested in what became known as a showrunner, which is the head writer/visionary of the show, the person who’s sort of the keeper of the vision and in some ways, as we move into the revolution that I’m talking about, becomes something that you can almost not talk about without using the language of divinity. They really are the Creator with a capital C.

Martin said David Chase, the creator of HBO’s “The Sopranos,” helped start the revolution:

David Chase is what I call the “reluctant Moses” of this Golden Age. David Chase was sort of your prototypical baby boomer who had grown up worshiping film, worshiping the auteurs of European film and American film … believed film was the higher calling and that he had somehow irretrievably corrupted himself by becoming successful. And he was quite successful in television as a TV writer — and a good one and on shows that, by any measure, were something to be proud of.

Martin on HBO’s decision to offer original programming:

I think HBO very reasonably looked at the world and looked at how we were getting movies in many different ways and thought, “This isn’t going to sustain us forever. What we need to do is to brand ourselves. We need to be indispensable. You need to be considered culturally illiterate if you do not subscribe to HBO.” The way to do that — they determined rightly, sort of brilliantly — was through original programming, was through empowering a writer.

Martin on the difficult personalities of TV’s showrunners:

How big a job these shows become, how much pressure winds up on the shoulders of everybody who is in charge of them, who stewards them. And nobody gets more of that pressure than the showrunners who really are, as I say, masters of this universe. And don’t forget: They’re writers, which is not necessarily the group of people you’re most inclined to  put in charge of what becomes a corporate division. [TOM: They’re not necessarily schooled in management?] Not necessarily. They’re as neurotic as any other artist, and they’re not necessarily inclined to be great managers, great collaborators. And so each of them has sort of developed their own adaptation to the needs of television in order to take advantage of the opportunity.

So you get a David Chase, who again had come through television but could be enormously prickly — fired writers with some frequency, was really an autocrat in the room. David Simon, who created “The Wire,” very different kind of person but sort of created a laboratory of argument among the small group of writers that were creating Baltimore in the writers’ room of “The Wire.” David Milch from “Deadwood” is a whole other story altogether … did it while lying on the floor while dictating his stream of consciousness while being attended by a bunch of younger acolytes. They’re all weird to some extent; some are nicer than others. But it is a measure of what an enormous task it is to bring these universes to life.

Marin on male protagonists and gender roles:

I think America around that time was hungry for stories that were a little more complicated, had a sense of ill ease itself on some level. [TOM: This is the decade of eventually war on terror and all the rest.] Sure, and one in which … in the political air was male power and how we were using it in the world. And it was very much part of the political discourse. Were we men or were we girls from France in how we interacted with the world? And this stuff was out there. And the desire to understand the monster outside and the monster inside was very much on Americans’ minds, I think.

And, also, gender roles at home. The men who made these shows really lived through great dislocation of what it means for the role of a man was … it becomes this act, in some ways, of … both wish fulfillment and sort of queasy backing away from the wish fulfillment for both the creators and the audience.

Book Excerpt

Excerpted from “Difficult Men: Behind the Scenes of a Creative Revolution, From The Sopranos and The Wire to Mad Men and Breaking Bad” by Brett Martin. Copyright 2013 by Brett Martin. All rights reserved. Reprinted with permission from The Penguin Press.

From Tom’s Reading List

The New York Times: No More Mr. Nice Guys [BOOK REVIEW]: “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.”

The Wall Street Journal: How The Small Screen Got Big [BOOK REVIEW]: “Not only has technology made us all our own programmers — free to watch what we want, when we want — but much of what we can program for ourselves these days is remarkably good. In his wonderfully reported and thoughtful exploration, ‘Difficult Men: Behind the Scenes of a Creative Revolution,’ Brett Martin claims that cable television’s open-ended serial dramas represent ‘the signature American art form of the first decade of the twenty-first century.’ And he makes a good case.”

The New Yorker: Difficult Women: “Martin gives ‘Sex and the City’ credit for jump-starting HBO, but the condescension is palpable, and the grudging praise is reserved for only one aspect of the series — the rawness of its subject matter. Martin hardly invented this attitude: he is simply reiterating what has become the reflexive consensus on the show, right down to the hackneyed ‘Golden Girls’ gag. Even as ‘The Sopranos’ has ascended to TV’s Mt. Olympus, the reputation of ‘Sex and the City’ has shrunk and faded, like some tragic dry-clean-only dress tossed into a decade-long hot cycle.”

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