Difficult Men chronicles the Third Golden Age of television, an age when a medium that has been characterized as a vast wasteland suddenly blossoms with shows of depth and nuance.
While assessing the best shows of this age, the author Brett Martin found himself especially drawn to hour-long dramas with truncated seasons (ten to thirteen episodes) on cable TV. These dramas were unique in that they were forever open-ended, leaving fundamental matters unresolved. Each episode led to the next one, and each season led to the next one. With multiple seasons to work with, writers had 50 hours or more to develop interesting characters and were less concerned with conclusions – they “created suspense through expansive characterization rather than mere cliff-hangers.” There was no catharsis or easy resolution, and it was no longer safe to assume that everything would turn out OK.
Author Brett Martin points out that these shows can be enjoyed on two levels – high-brow (fine literature) and low-brow (pulp fiction). Because I have never been much for appreciating fine literature, I suspect my joy emanates from the low-brow aspect of the shows. Yet, because cable shows don’t require vast, mainstream popularity, the producers aren’t required to emphasize the low-brow aspects over the high-brow.
The chronicled shows are HBO’s The Sopranos, Six Feet Under, The Wire, and Deadwood, FX’s The Shield, and AMC’s Mad Men and Breaking Bad. Each show was created and developed by an individual described as a “showrunner.” This person is primarily a master writer, but unlike a movie screenwriter, this writer is ultimately responsible for the finished product.
The showrunner manages a “writing room” that produces the scripts, but also controls the final product by directing the director. The author Martin takes the reader into each showrunner’s writing room to reveal dramatically different management styles – from autocratic micromanagers to collegial collaborators. But the essential job of any writing room is to flesh out where the character’s head is and what he is doing. The showrunner and his writers obsess about the integrity of the story, but as with fine writing in great literature, I suspect that 95% of it is lost on 95% of the viewers.
The following brilliant men are the showrunners of Third Golden Age:
- David Chase of The Sopranos
- Alan Ball of Six Feet Under
- David Simon of The Wire
- David Milch of Deadwood
- Matthew Weiner of Mad Men
- Vince Gilligan of Breaking Bad
These showrunners created the following “Difficult Men”:
- Tony Soprano (The Sopranos)
- Nate Fisher of (Six Feet Under)
- Jimmy McNulty (The Wire)
- Al Swearengen (Deadwood)
- Vic Mackey (The Shield)
- Don Draper (Mad Men)
- Walter White (Breaking Bad)
As the book’s title suggests, the protagonists in these shows are not John Wayne types who see a clear line between right and wrong. Instead, they are “unhappy, morally compromised, complicated, deeply human…. badgered and bothered and thwarted by the modern world.” They struggle with doing the right thing because in an ambiguous situation, there often is not a right answer. Although this type of complicated protagonist has long been accepted in the movies, he was not deemed acceptable into someone’s home via television until Tony Soprano proved them wrong.
Incidentally, the First Golden Age was in the 50s, with “televised Shakespeare and opera and brilliant, original anthologized drama,” and Second was in the 80s, with Hill Street Blues, thirtysomething, St. Elsewhere, NYPD Blue, et al.