Review of Brett Martin's "Difficult Men: Behind the Scenes of a Creative Revolution: From The Sopranos and The Wire to Mad Men and Breaking Bad"

tags: Jim Cullen, Ethical Culture Fieldston School, Brett Martin, Difficult Men, cable television, Breaking Bad



Jim Cullen teaches at the Ethical Culture Fieldston School in New York. His most recent book, Sensing the Past: Hollywood Stars and Historical Visions, was published earlier this year by Oxford University Press. His next book, A Brief History of the Modern Media, will be published next year by Wiley-Blackwell.

Historians of popular culture know the pattern: every so often a confluence of developments -- technological change, new revenue sources, emerging audiences, and last (and, mythology notwithstanding, very possibly least), artistic innovation -- converge to create an unexpected cultural flowering in an established medium. It happened in the publishing industry circa 1850, radio circa 1930, the record business in the 1950s, and in Hollywood in the 1970s. As we're all aware, we seem to be living through such a moment now with cable television, reflected in the excitement of dramas like The Sopranos (1999-2007), The Wire (2002-2008), Mad Men (2007-), and Breaking Bad (2008-). One difference that may distinguish this particular efflorescence from previous ones is the degree of self-consciousness in the breadth and depth of the cultural commentary. It usually took a while, for instance, for good books to show up on even as recent a phenomenon as the rise of independent cinema. But in the case of cable, we have Alan Sepinwall's highly regarded The Revolution Was Televised, which came out last year. And we now have Brett Martin's newly published Difficult Men as well.

The most obvious model for Difficult Men is Peter Biskind's now-classic 1999 book Easy Riders, Raging Bulls: How the Sex-Drugs-Rock & Roll Generation saved Hollywood. As befitting the different cultural moments, Martin's subjects -- notably Sopranos creator David Chase, The Wire's David Simon, and Mad Men's Matthew Weiner -- are a notably more dour, business-savvy crowd than the manic Francis Coppola or Martin Scorsese. But they're comparably driven personalities able to take advantage of a relative vacuum in a medium and realize passionate artistic visions. In the case of Hollywood in the Seventies, this was a matter of an industry that had lost its way commercially. In the case of a network like HBO, it was a matter of very low, if not confused, expectations about how to proceed. In both cases, early success pushed open a door for others to follow -- in movies, it was a figure like Steven Spielberg; in the case of cable, Vince Gilligan (of Breaking Bad fame). Both were more mild personalities who seem to be able to work within the system (in Gilligan's case, the once-benighted world of basic cable like AMC, which acquired Mad Men as well as his show).

Unlike The Revolution Will Be Televised, which is organized around particular shows, Difficult Men is constructed in a more complex, woven structure driven by personalities. Though it occasionally makes forays into usually very good textual reading of individual episodes, notably the "College" episode from the first decade of The Sopranos, its core is interviews with the showrunners of these programs. Here Martin's strength as a reporter -- he writes for GQ, among other magazines -- shines through. One nevertheless wishes the documentation had been a little more careful, at least in terms of secondary sources. Still, the sense of craft here is impressive; Martin may owe a debt here to master editor Colin Dickerman at Penguin. He avoids the sense of irritating idiosyncrasy that sometimes attends such books (why so much Sopranos and so little Big Love?) by making a reasonably good case for the distinctive significance of the shows he focuses on in terms of their impact on the television industry.

The most striking strength of this book, though, is the overarching argument that animates Martin's narrative. He makes a compelling case that this television renaissance -- he calls it the "Third Golden Age" after those of the early years of TV and the Hill Street Blues era of the eighties -- was driven by a notably gendered male angst rooted in a post-feminist zeitgeist, both in terms of the way these shows were made and in what they depicted. As with the breakdown of network dominance of the television industry in the 1990s, the more diversity-minded milieu of the 21st century paradoxically legitimated the art of of mostly white men -- though Martin makes a good case that HBO became an unexpected venue for African American culture -- because it could be seen as simply one subculture among many in a broadcast world where cable audiences for even the most successful shows were a fraction of those of the network era. Notwithstanding the rise of recent female-centered dramas like Homeland and The Americans, I suspect this moment may be viewed with more distaste in the coming years as cultural undercurrents shift, and the auteurist-minded sensibility of autocratic figures like Chase and Weiner, who pride themselves on the degree to which the exercise control over their creations, are subjected to ongoing critical scrutiny. But the place of their shows will be secure as historical phenomena, if not necessarily in terms of their artistry.

One also suspects -- as one suspects Martin suspects -- that this particular flowering may be close to running its course. As a younger generation with far less willingness to pay inflated (and, ironically, socialistic) bundled fees for multiple networks refuses to pay for cable television at all, much less a package of channels subscribers don't necessarily want, the financial model that sustains these uniformly expensive enterprises may disappear. Quality television -- no, make that quality shows, which may or may not show up on television -- will not disappear. But they're likely to be fewer and farther between, and show up in different venues. Someday someone will long to be David Chase, just as Chase longed to be Martin Scorsese. The intensity of that desire will a precondition for success. The rest of it will involve recognizing the emergence of new worlds and figuring out ways to capitalize on them. Such is the stuff our moneyed (and recyclable) dreams are made of.


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