Don’t Stop Believin’? Considering a TV Golden Age, 10 Years Later

Tony Soprano, Don Draper and Omar Little glower from the cover of “Difficult Men: Behind the Scenes of a Creative Revolution,” Brett Martin’s canon-codifying 2013 book about the prestige TV boom of the 2000s. But as difficult and revolutionary as those fictional antiheroes were, the title just as well describes their brilliant, gnomic, sometimes cruel creators, like David Chase (“The Sopranos”), David Simon (“The Wire”) and Matthew Weiner (“Mad Men”).

“Difficult Men,” whose 10th-anniversary edition was published in paperback this summer, is a history of the remarkable moment, starting nearly 25 years ago, when business imperatives and risk-taking executives empowered ornery writers with network experience and chips on their shoulders to create era-defining, artistically lasting programs.

One of the book’s through lines was that these shows tended to revolve around men who resembled the way their creators saw themselves: as mavericks taking arms against bureaucratic inertia. It’s a theme that Martin, a New Orleans-based journalist, said he might de-emphasize today in favor of delving into the depth and richness of the characters.

“The artistic triumph the original shows allowed,” Martin said earlier this month, “was to create all these real human stories and specific, idiosyncratic characters — which is more important than the easy antihero formulation.”

The past decade has seen a societal reckoning with misconduct in the culture industries, including television. Some of the showrunner behavior Martin chronicled in his book — icing out disfavored writers, halting entire productions for petty personal whims, throwing tantrums —looks different now.

In a new preface for the anniversary edition, Martin says that were he writing “Difficult Men” now, he would focus more on “the knotty question of how the same men who provided, in many ways, the most astute critiques of toxic male power that mainstream culture had ever seen could nevertheless end up confirming and recapitulating precisely the same dynamics in their own workplaces.”

A 10th anniversary edition of “Difficult Men” was released this summer.

Even in 2013, Martin held up counterexamples like the showrunners Alan Ball (“Six Feet Under”) and Vince Gilligan (“Breaking Bad”), who ran artistically successful programs while being, by all accounts, nice guys and good bosses.

In other respects, 2013 turned out to be a convenient year for a book about this Golden Age of television. It was the year “Breaking Bad” ended and James Gandolfini, the “Sopranos” star, died. And it was the year that “House of Cards,” the first original series commissioned by Netflix, debuted. In a phone interview, Martin discussed why the shows he wrote about still hold up and how the emergence of streaming has affected prestige TV. These are edited excerpts from the conversation.

Was there one show that provoked you to write the book?

It was “The Sopranos,” in both an abstract and a literal sense. I had been hired to write the official coffee table companion during the final season. I maybe outstayed my welcome, treated it like a real reporting job, was there for quite a long time and got a chance to peek behind the scenes. It was a revelation to me: the size of the operation, the ambition, the way people talked about their work — the sense of something very big being made. The number of times I had to explain what a showrunner was back then is, in and of itself, an indicator of what an alien world that was.

It’s such a funny term.

It just occurs to me what kind of a technical term “showrunner” is, how unromantic. It really is something that, like, the Teamsters would come up with. It’s so literal and so nonartistic: You keep things running. The term betrays the kind of factory mentality that applied to television at the time.

Did you think of yourself as establishing a canon?

It was very obvious what at least three of the four main shows that I was going to write about were, and most of the peripheral ones as well. In my original proposal, the fourth show was, actually, “Rescue Me” — which is a show whose first few seasons had been perhaps unfairly forgotten but felt very much in keeping with these other shows. It felt extremely daring in being one of the first shows where 9/11 was being treated in a fully rounded way. My first editor pushed me to include “Battlestar Galactica,” but it just really wasn’t my bag. And then “Breaking Bad” asserted itself as the book was being written and became very obviously the ending place. There were the other HBO shows, and “The Shield” was an important step as well, but there weren’t many examples I left out.

Have any of the shows in the book not stood up as much as you expected?

Quite the opposite: The shows you think might have been dated have proven riveting in ways they maybe weren’t even when they were on. The America of Tony Soprano, the America of Walter White and very much the America of “The Wire” has proved itself to be the dominant America in the past 20 years. “The Sopranos” became this huge pandemic rewatch, and I think it’s because it’s so recognizable: The themes — the rot at the center of America, the grift of American life, the anxiety Tony Soprano has — are all super familiar to us now.

Younger generations have adopted “The Sopranos”; it appears in countless memes.

It’s great entertainment. It had to be: It had to resemble entertaining network television in many ways. It was still operating as a Trojan horse. It had to be funny and human, and it had to be consumable because the high-art part, the ambition part, was something nobody was looking for.

How did the men you wrote about respond to your book?

I never heard a word from any of them except for Vince Gilligan, who wrote me a beautiful blurb on the back of the new edition. Not surprisingly, because the book ends making the point that one doesn’t have to be that difficult to create these wonderful shows.

Few would be interested in defending some of the behavior you document. But does the fact that it happened during the creation of these really great series make any of it easier to accept?

It’s hard for me to see how a lack of empathy for people who work for you is a necessary part of the creative process. I do think people’s feelings could get hurt in a very intense workplace, and I don’t think every hurt feeling is avoidable. But I do think one can maintain a basic level of decency — let alone avoid using your power destructively — and still create quality work. I believe it because I’ve seen the shows that prove it, and because I’m optimistic.

There are women characters and characters of color in these shows, but the protagonists and the creators behind them are all white men. Does that taint the legacy of that era?

It wasn’t a huge surprise that white men writing about white men dominated the first phase of this new world. But the door had been opened. “Orange Is the New Black” came out something like three weeks after my book. “Transparent” was soon after as well. What came after delivered on the promise, which is that all these other kinds of stories were going to be able to be told, and all these other kinds of voices were going to be empowered. “Atlanta” and “Reservation Dogs” are other deliveries on that promise.

What effect did the rise of streaming platforms, with their hundreds of millions of subscribers, have on Hollywood’s appetite for ambitious TV?

When the book was published, it was more important [to the producers of these early prestige series] to stand out and find the right kinds of viewers than to have the most. It made sense that that attitude moved from subscription cable to basic — in my book, it’s HBO to FX and AMC — and streaming seemed it would be another step in that. But it does seem as though every piece that I identified as being crucial to the invention of this new TV is now a flashpoint in the writers’ strike: shorter seasons, writer-producers, writers’ rooms. And it’s depressing. With all the stuff that looked great, the streamers saw there were opportunities for cost savings.

Are there ways streaming made TV better for viewers?

Oh, my God. Look how much work we got! So much that I can’t keep up — that I feel a constant sense of anxiety about missing things. Look how many new voices we got. That’s been the trade-off.

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