As a true fan of what Brett Martin calls “The Third Golden Age” of television I devoured his new book, Difficult Men: Behind the Scenes of a Creative Revolution: From The Sopranos and The Wire to Man Men and Breaking Bad. I devoured the book by listening to Martin’s work as an audio book. Listening to a book in its entirety is a first for me. This one was very easy to listen to since I used long driving stretches to work thorugh it in only a few days. The essential core of Martin’s story was easy to grasp. The actual reader, Keith Szarabajka, was also fantastic, making the aural experience deeply satisfying. (I am told my own book, Your Church Is Too Small, is poorly read in its audio version since the reader apparently does not understand important words and thus mispronounces a number of them. O bother!)
In the late 1990s, and early 2000s, the landscape of television began a transformation with a wave of new shows, all featured on cable channels. The reality is that the advent and popularity of cable channels made this creative outpouring of really good popular culture possible. Because cable could feature shows that did not have to be commercial success stories, and because cable did not have to face the same standards as network television, creative genius could be developed in a more open artistic freedom. This two-way street led to a lot of bad programming but Brett Martin focuses on the award-winning programs that truly captured the heights of this third wave.
These new shows allowed for television’s narrative inventiveness, emotional resonance and artistic ambition under the care of a new breed of auteurs: the writer-showrunner.
The title of this fascinating study actually refers to the antiheroic male protagonists of these immensely popular television series. These include the foreboding and likable Don Draper, the lead on Mad Men and the out-of-control Walter White in the lead on Breaking Bad. Tony Soprano, the best known of them all, was the lead on the ground-breaking HBO series, The Sopranos. (The actor who played Tony Soprano recently died, as some readers will know.) But as reviewer David Pitt has noted the title of this book also refers, in “a slightly lesser degree . . . to some of the men who made those shows—David Chase, for example, the demanding creator of The Sopranos, and David Simon, the ambitious creator of The Wire. The author’s premise is that around 1999 what he calls a third golden age of television (The Sopranos debuted in ’99) began. Whether you agree with Martin’s designation of this era as “Golden” one thing is certain in his tighyly argued story – a new kind of TV series started to flourish around this time. Can you imagine any earlier point in television history when Breaking Bad, The Wire, Mad Men, Six Feet Under, and The Sopranos could have existed? Brett Martin combines a compelling account of behind-the-scenes production battles, stories about the stars who helped make these shows great, and the struggles over scripts and how they progressed, with in-depth profiles of the people who, in a very real sense, changed the modern face of television. Critic David Pitt concludes, “Fans of the shows he discusses, and especially those interested in television history, should consider this a must-read.” I could not agree more. This is a great read so long as the subject interests you.