In his new book Difficult Men: Behind the Scenes of a Creative Revolution: From The Sopranos and The Wire to Mad Men and Breaking Bad, author Brett Martin writes about TV’s current “Third Golden Age,” which he says began when The Sopranos premiered on HBO in 1999. According to Martin, the common thread running through the great shows of this era are the prickly men who created them, and the complex male characters they placed at the center of each. Cable television, less beholden to ratings and advertisers than networks and more willing to take risks, became the place for a movement that has shifted the center of pop culture conversation from the movie theater to the living room.
For Difficult Men, Martin spoke to celebrated TV writers including David Chase (67, and creator of The Sopranos), David Milch (68, Deadwood), David Simon (53, The Wire), Matthew Weiner (48, Mad Men) and Vince Gilligan (46, Breaking Bad). We talked to Martin about how a generation of writers raised on TV revolutionized the medium, and where that revolution goes from here.
Their shows are made for adults. They produced work that, unlike 95 percent of what comes out from Hollywood and into the movie theater, is for grownups and about grownup things. In some broad sense, the shows are about midlife crises and reaching a certain age. The movies and network television ceded this entire adult audience to cable TV. And these are men who have lived through disappointments and triumphs, have had children, have had marriages, and jobs that they’ve loved and lost and hated. So you have a range of grownup experience being shown.
Boomers were the first generation raised on television, and yet the older writers in your book have conflicted feelings toward it.
The book covers two very different generations of writers. The first generation, the baby boomers – David Chase, David Milch and David Simon – are sort of the accidental television auteurs, who were interested in becoming filmmakers, literary novelists, journalists. They found themselves in the position where they were able to do their best work on TV. None of those guys talked much about television at all from their youth, and in fact are kind of disdainful of it. The second generation is different – Matthew Weiner, for example, was a complete consumer of TV growing up.
But The Sopranos , the show that gave birth to the Third Golden Age, owes a debt to the classic TV shows of the 1950s and 1960s.
David Chase says that The Sopranos is really Father Knows Best – it’s just Father Knows Best How to Kill People. It was an inversion of the classic ’50s family sitcom, with the mischievous kid and the bratty daughter and the father who goes to work and the mother who stays home. That’s part of what made that show work so well: For a generation of people raised on that formula, and who then went on to discover what real life was like, it was thrilling to see that turned around.
Mad Men is another show that turns a new eye on the conventions of the boomers.
Again, Weiner is a little younger, so his show is more about regarding that (boomer) generation, growing up just behind it and mythologizing it, and then at the same time puncturing the myths of what “the ’60s” meant. That’s explicitly true about Mad Men.
Tony Soprano, Don Draper and Al Swearengen: Why do people, especially boomers, want to watch these guys?
The story of the male antihero is especially vital to a generation that lived through the upheavals of a war (Vietnam) that they generally didn’t participate in – unlike their fathers, many of whom had been in World War II. The definition of being a man changed. And of course, there was the massive upheaval between gender roles: That’s a significant piece of the puzzle. What kind of masculinity is still OK? There’s a kind of wish fulfillment, watching a certain kind of man (on TV) in a world that doesn’t accept that anymore.
Showtime’s Ray Donovan, a new show about a difficult man, was created and written by Ann Biderman. Shonda Rhimes created Scandal, and Lena Dunham gave us Girls. Are difficult women the next evolution of this golden age?
I hope it’s clear how many women play a huge part in this book, from (network executives) and female writers, and the actresses on these shows. But an even wider range of people and experience would be only to the good. We’re really at the end of this phase right now – Breaking Bad will be over at the end of this summer and Mad Men is on its final approach. Television is now established as the place to go for interesting stories and characters. Inevitably, that means that you’re going to get more voices. And there are plenty of difficult women in the world, and difficult female stories to tell.