Difficult Men is Brett Martin’s brilliant and entertaining look behind the key shows of what he calls the Third Golden Age of television, a period spearheaded by HBO with the prison drama Oz laying the foundation from which The Sopranos would become a phenomenon.
The title has double meaning. The programs that make up the core of Martin’s third golden age focus largely on the lives of forty-ish men in crisis: Tony Soprano, Vic Mackey, Walter White, Don Draper, and several cops, politicians, and drug dealers in The Wire. Those are the guys the public saw. The men responsible for their creation were forty-ish themselves, and they were, by and large, the truly difficult men.
The biggest takeaway, for me, was, “Why would anyone want to write for television?” Even if you overcome innumerable hurdles and are lucky enough to get on a first-rate show, you may get to work for a David Chase, a David Milch, or a Mathew Weiner. Chase never got over the idea he was too good for television. Weiner comes off as an arrogant an asshole ever to draw breath. Milch is such a whack job he makes James Ellroy look as eccentric as Jimmy Carter.
The stories of how all these men achieved their positions are fascinating. How events, timing, critical masses of people, and the pure luck of pitching the right idea to the right network at the right time came together to create something special. How HBO owned the franchise until it got a little complacent and FX leadership decided maybe that network didn’t have to be an afterthought at Fox, after all. AMC’s good fortune when looking for a program with gravitas, but not a crime show, which had done the heavy lifting to that point. Martin talked to a lot of people in position to know, and what they told him was too good to have been made up.
Not all the showrunners were off the rails. David Simon comes across as argumentative, but fair, and extremely loyal to both his people and his vision, which could cause friction. Shawn Ryan (The Shield) called in personal favors from friends for his pilot and to keep the cast together—casting his wife as Vic Mackey’s wife because “I know I can get you back”—and using the guerilla film tactics born of budget necessity to create something special both onscreen and off. Vince Gilligan appears to be a mensch. So, no, one does not have to be a neurotic asshole to be a big success, though it doesn’t seem to hurt.
Difficult Men is a great read for any fans of any of the shows cited, and for anyone curious about how shows get made—or, more often, don’t get made—in Hollywood. A quick read, written by Martin in an engaging manner with the perfect distance from the subject matter. Not so distant he looks down on his subjects, yet not so close he fails to recognize the lunacy. This is pretty much a pitch perfect tale.
One last thing. Despite giving David Chase every opportunity to justify the ending of The Sopranos, when all is said and done, it was still chickenshit.