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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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  • Ed75

    Breaking Bad is an example of a remarkable new kind of television program: where a person knowingly and self-consciously and fully turns to do evil. It says a great deal about our society that such a show, even with great acting, would have an audience.

    • J__o__h__n

      No worse than the audience for Macbeth. 

      • Ed75

        MacBeth, exactly, but he quickly faces internal desolation and then defeat and destruction as a result. I don’t know the story of ‘Breaking Bad’, but I doubt that’s what happens.

    • adks12020

      Bad people are, and always have been, compelling characters. It isn’t just our society.  Look back through history and every society has many, many stories about evil characters. Often they don’t start out that way; they consciously turn to evil. 

      Maybe just pick up that book you are always quoting that’s been compelling to Christians for a couple thousand years. I think you’ll find your fair share of evil characters in there.

      • J__o__h__n

        One character tortures a follower to prove his loyalty, demands another sacrifice his son, and drowns the earth. 

      • Ed75

        Yes, and what happens to those characters isn’t pretty (see Ahab, for example, or the last king of Israel before the captivity).

      • Ed75

        I agree. One could argue that the Bible is complete in that it contains a picture and example of all possible types of human action, both good and bad.

  • Steve_in_Vermont

    I would also hope we take a moment to salute the people who bring us such memorable programs as Honey Boo Boo, the Kardashians, and Hardcore Pawn (where people spend 1/2 hour each week swearing at each other).

    • debhulbh

      That’s funny!!

  • Shag_Wevera

    Rick Grimes from “The Walking Dead” is a wonderfully complex and difficult character.  It seems this show’s artistic merits are ignored because of the zombie genre.

    • adks12020

      I don’t think they are ignored at all. Critics all seem to like the show just as much as the fans do and for just that reason: the story and characters are compelling. Even fans like me that are generally uninterested in the zombie genre like the show.

    • Renee Engine-Bangger

      No, The Walking Dead is ignored because it is a poorly written, poorly acted show.

  • Lauren

    I’m all for “difficult men” on TV — they’re much more interesting. Let’s hope for some more “difficult women” too — a la ‘Orange is the New Black.’ 

  • northeaster17

    Shoot you television. Read a book. Just saying…

  • elevine43

    Don’t forget Deadwood and Firefly and Oz

  • creaker

    TV is changing – I can’t imagine paying huge fees for cable and pay channels, and waiting a week at a time for the next episode. 

    Much more pleasant to just wait until a series is done, and watch it at my leisure on Netflix.

  • creaker

    One problem with the “open-ended serial” is these too often end with the show being cancelled in the middle of the plot. UK does many more one or two or three season “close-ended ” series (meaning it actually has an intended ending). The format works much better in Netflix – much harder to watch a series you know will just terminate somewhere in the middle.

  • DebbieAthensGA

    Six Feet Under — why is that great show rarely mentioned?

  • Unterthurn

    A parallel point: The female characters are also well written. The women characters in Breaking Bad and Mad Men are deep and this strengthens the male roles. Even the housewife’s mundane life is given an edge. It is so nice to see roles that are not shallow and filling the old hollywood ‘trite or obvious’ types usually allotted to actresses. 

  • bgpiper

    I definitely think Sopranos and Mad Men are the two definitive works of storytelling as art in TV. The episodes play out more like small films, but they seem capable of doing more than a film can because they can develop the characters and the plots over a much longer story arc. I think Breaking Bad is also a fine show, but it’s easier to find the formulaic repetition characteristic of TV shows from time to time; it is not however without some truly brilliant strokes of storytelling.
    Someone else has already mentioned Macbeth, but I think you can find in analyzing these shows that they are very Shakespearean, and that’s what makes them so engaging–very compelling plots about deception, sex, lies, what it means to be human, love of family, loyalty, etc.

    That being said I think we see a bigger similarity between Tony Soprano and Walter White. They’re both legitimate criminals–they’re “bad guys.” Perhaps we should call them anti-villains; they’re bad guys struggling to do something good. But we identify with them, because they love their families, and they’re both just trying to run a successful business. Draper, too loves his family, and I think that’s the primary way he wins viewers. But, his problems are more existential–he’s not sure who he is (even as somebody who more or less has “everything” by the standards of the mainstream thinking in the 1960s).

    Perhaps what makes these characters so compelling is that they’re much easier to identify with–they’re imperfect just like we are, and they’re problems are complex like real-life problems.

    There’s so much more that could be said about all of these shows. Definitely looking forward to reading the book.

    I’m very happy that this level of storytelling and writing exists in the TV world, and is pushing the limits on what intelligent adults can expect from TV dramas.

  • dt03044

    I have found so many great programs in this “3rd golden age” that I find I have to pick and choose.  There simply isn’t enough time to watch them all.  It’s a good problem to have.  But I don’t see them as all the same as one another.  A quick shout out to Treme, Six Feet Under, Carnevale, Boardwalk Empire.  Good stuff.  Keep ‘em coming!

  • ElOeh

    What about Prime Suspect, Damages, The Closer? Homeland? All great, complex, tough wormen, great roles? How did you miss that???

    • J__o__h__n

      Helen Mirren was great in Prime Suspect.

  • skelly74

    Who doesn’t love soap operas? They were great for housewives, now our housewives are “in the open” and their complexities are beginning to be understood. Lets drop the pleasantries and customs and explore our human complexities right before bed so we can reflect while we sleep. The soap operas have become mainstream so we can now pull out the stops and enjoy the “new soaps” together.
    get the popcorn and wine ready.

  • J__o__h__n

    The comment that TV’s flaw is that it isn’t international was true but it also shelters it from being dumbed down like movies have been to appeal to mass foreign audiences with explosions and alien invasions rather than being based in an actual setting. 

  • tbphkm33

    To me the big TV story is not about the new shows or characters.  The big TV story is about cutting the cord.  A trend that Netflix is betting on taking off.  

    I cut the cord some time ago, it is great.  I even got rid of the TV, just use an iPad.  Watching on Netflix it is much more like reading a book, since it is on demand, you can go through one series or one season, then move on to the next show.  ABC has a super App, NBC is passable – CBS is the gutter of TV Apps, but at the end of the day, their show’s are not all that great to begin with.

    Some friends had a two year old $3,000 TV brake down, instead of replacing it they cut the cord.  Got the kids iPad’s.  She says it is the best thing they ever did.  No more aimless watching TV just to have it on.  No more kids fights about what to watch.  The kids are outside more, as they know they can pickup where they left off on a show.  Appears even her husband is enjoying it, not aimlessly spending all Saturday watching whatever sports is on, but on occasion heading off to the local bar to follow his favorite basketball team.  She says they spend more family time, even if the kids have the ear plugs in watching a show on the iPad.  Much better than a loud oversized TV being the center of family life and the house. 

  • Olive555

    I haven’t read the book, but I’m wondering if “Sex and the City” is mentioned – wasn’t this truly the pioneer in this new type of television and HBO becoming the new powerhouse?  Realizing the show runner was a man, but original creator was a woman and most of the episodes were written by women, about women…

    • J__o__h__n

      The New Yorker article linked to under Tom’s reading list above is about that and worth reading. 

  • zax2000

    The movement towards story arcs and more detailed storytelling on TV has its roots on TV of the 1990s. Back when it was seen as risky, shows like “Babylon 5″, “Buffy” and even “The West Wing” were doing year-long (or in B5′s case 5 year-long) stories with a beginning, a middle and an end. James Michael Straczynski even called B5 a “TV novel” with each season being like a long chapter in the story… And all of those shows had strong female leads.

    Of course, the freedoms of the showrunners have greatly increased since those days and the stories that they’re telling are much more ambitious, but when I think about the golden age that we’re in today, I like to remember the pioneers of the method who were cutting this path some 20 years back.

  • Karen Fredrickson

    This was an interesting show, but it would be great to hear a show that focused on female roles, something you very briefly touched on in your discussion.  The lack of them is incredibly disheartening, and while I realize your guests book was on difficult men, why is it that the great majority of showrunners are all men?  This is a worrying and interesting issue that I would love to hear explored.  As few roles for women as there are on camera, it often appears that when you look at the production crews for most shows, the lack of women is even more striking.  Why is this?  Is anything being done to change it?

  • am450

    Borgen – a Danish drama which is gradually getting attention here in the U.S. – is a great example of a show that focuses in on the lives of women, two of the three major characters. The main character is the prime minister of Denmark. The great thing is that Borgen shows the wide array of challenges she faces … and the show avoids the anti-hero trend that has permeated good TV drama in recent years. I wish it would have been mentioned on the show!

  • Jacob Arnon

    I just heard the show. I liked some of it despite the fact that you got the main points wrong.

    What makes TV shows. Different from movies or novels is that serial shows have the same characters. That means that they can neither die nor change.

    It has very little to do with male or female writers.

    Also, there have been excellent serials on TV but they don’t last because if they become popular as Gunsmoke did the producers change the format which changes the show and dilutes what was good about it in the first place.

    These are just some of the issues you might have focused on, but since On Point is a serial too, you have concentrate on your own themes and motifs: gender, race, class, especially the first two are. On the top of your agenda.

    You therefore have to ignore what is important in whatever topic you touch.

    Tant pier.

  • Ed75

    There is no doubt a reason why this show, besides for the excellent acting, is so popular.
    This man is a teacher, and wanders into illegal and evil activity. What will happen to him? Is there hope for him? Could it be we have done seriously immoral things – drugs or abortion or IVF, illicit sexual activity, etc. – and we wonder what will happen to us?
    It also could be a mirror or our society – forty years ago we were doing normal things – like this man was teaching chemistry – and then we wandered into and then became committed to serious moral evil (abortion, etc.). And we wonder if we will turn back from this and other evils, or follow them to the end.
    It pictures our society at this critical moment, 40 years after Roe.

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