‘You’re here for two things,” the experienced writer-producer told his starry-eyed underling, “selling Buicks and making Americans feel cozy. That’s your job.” Television, for most of its existence, has been a medium not much given to romanticism. Quality programs were few and far between, overwhelmed by forgettable drivel, and the women and (mostly) men who made TV knew what their jobs were. “Art” was a foreign word.
Then the rise of cable television opened up new vistas and empty hours to be filled with new shows. Television grew bold, and then it got good. THIS PROVIDES THE STORYLINE FOR Brett Martin’s enjoyable, wildly readable “Difficult Men,” which follows in the footsteps of Alan Sepinwall’s similar, equally enjoyable “The Revolution Was Televised.”
“Difficult Men” zeroes in on the shows that Martin argues permanently transformed television — “The Sopranos,” “The Wire,” “Six Feet Under,” “Breaking Bad” — and their irascible, headstrong creators, moving chronologically through what he terms the Third Golden Age of the form. The title is, if anything, understated; The auteurs who made TV the quintessential American art form of the past decade are generally not people you’d want to have over for Thanksgiving dinner, or serve as your boss. But the results speak for themselves. The name of that writer-producer pumping Buicks? David Chase, creator of “The Sopranos.” Frustrated in his ambition to become a filmmaker, Chase professed disdain for television, but the quality of his work argued against him.
DIFFICULT MEN: Behind the Scenes of a Creative Revolution: From ‘The Sopranos’ and ‘The Wire’ to ‘Mad Men’ and ‘Breaking Bad’
“This isn’t like publishing some lunatic’s novel or letting him direct a movie,” observes one TV insider. “This is handing a lunatic a division of General Motors.” “Lunatic” might be a tad strong to describe CREATIVE DRIVING FORCES LIKE Chase, “Mad Men’s” Matthew Weiner, and “Deadwood’s” David Milch, but only just. Martin, in his markedly polite style, does not stint in his judgment of the personal foibles of these men, and the result is a more tightly concentrated, “showrunner’’-focused book than Sepinwall’s. “ ‘Wasn’t that amazing?’ ” Martin remembers of Weiner’s stream of self-referential dialogue. “Or, ‘That was hilarious.’ And it would take an interviewer — used to the usual rules of human discourse — a moment to remember that Weiner was speaking unabashedly about his own work.”
There is no shortage of dirt here — about Chase’s tendency to coddle and then dismiss his writers, about Milch’s team of female factotums, gathered at his feet, as part of an “astonishing, self-aggrandizing theater, a kind of religious rite in and of itself, with Milch acting as shaman” — but the point of “Difficult Men” is not merely to post images of our WRITER-PRODUCER heroes’ clay feet onto Instagram. It is, instead, to demonstrate the sheer ferocity required for producing great television.
This is also a case study in historical contingency, whereby a writer for “The Rockford Files,” a former Baltimore Sun reporter, the showrunner of “The Lone Gunmen,” and a writer for the Ted Danson vehicle “Becker,” all in the right place at the right time, go on to become the most acclaimed show creators of their time.
Cable networks like HBO had initially attracted an audience through their devotion to bare breasts and profanity, but soon realized that those same liberties could be taken in the structure and format of television series AND IN THE SERVICE OF TELLING COMPLEX, HUMAN STORIES. Why not a show about a devoted suburban father who was a mob boss? Why not transform, in the words of “Breaking Bad’s” Vince Gilligan, “Mr. Chips into Scarface”? Martin is an assiduous collector of ephemera about his preferred shows. Who knew that John Hurt was under consideration to play McNulty on “The Wire”?
The difficult men were ones who wouldn’t take yes for an answer, forever dissatisfied by their success. The show’s heroes reflected their creators, middle-age men consumed by guilt and regret and trapped in endless cycles of progress and recidivism. HBO programming chief Chris Albrecht, an HBO antihero in his own right, decided to bring back “The Wire” simply to avoid more negotiations with its exasperating creator David Simon: “I think it was easier to do the fourth season than to have to call up David and have another meeting.” Even after “The Wire” had been declared, by unanimous agreement, one of the greatest series in TV history, Simon grumbled about devoted fans who liked the show for all the wrong reasons.
Martin chooses to limit his focus to hourlong dramas. Sitcoms are relegated to a brief explanation of their exclusion, leaving other television auteurs — Larry David, Lena Dunham, Tina Fey — on the sidelines of the Third Golden Age.
Cable’s creative revolution began, as Martin indicates, with the fun house-mirror comedy of “The Larry Sanders Show,” and without “Curb Your Enthusiasm,” “Arrested Development,” and “Community,” our understanding of the changed television environment is incomplete at best. But “Difficult Men” is a gripping recap of television’s renaissance. Will it carry on into the future, or will the impending conclusions of “Breaking Bad,” and soon “Mad Men,” also spell the end of the Third Golden Age? That depends on how many more difficult men wait in the wings.
Saul Austerlitz is the author of “Sitcom: A History in 24 Episodes From I Love Lucy to Community,’’ to be published next year by Chicago Review.