Behind the Scenes of a Creative Revolution: From The Sopranos and The Wire to Mad Men and Breaking Bad
By Brett Martin
(Penguin Press HC, The, Hardcover, 9781594204197, 320pp.)
Publication Date: July 3, 2013
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A riveting and revealing look at the shows that helped cable television drama emerge as the signature art form of the twenty-first century.
In the late 1990s and early 2000s, the landscape of television began an unprecedented transformation. While the networks continued to chase the lowest common denominator, a wave of new shows, first on premium cable channels like HBO and then basic cable networks like FX and AMC, dramatically stretched television’s narrative inventiveness, emotional resonance, and artistic ambition. No longer necessarily concerned with creating always-likable characters, plots that wrapped up neatly every episode, or subjects that were deemed safe and appropriate, shows such as The Wire, The Sopranos, Mad Men, Deadwood, The Shield, and more tackled issues of life and death, love and sexuality, addiction, race, violence, and existential boredom. Just as the Big Novel had in the 1960s and the subversive films of New Hollywood had in 1970s, television shows became the place to go to see stories of the triumph and betrayals of the American Dream at the beginning of the twenty-first century.
This revolution happened at the hands of a new breed of auteur: the all-powerful writer-show runner. These were men nearly as complicated, idiosyncratic, and difficult” as the conflicted protagonists that defined the genre. Given the chance to make art in a maligned medium, they fell upon the opportunity with unchecked ambition.
Combining deep reportage with cultural analysis and historical context, Brett Martin recounts the rise and inner workings of a genre that represents not only a new golden age for TV but also a cultural watershed. Difficult Men features extensive interviews with all the major players, including David Chase (The Sopranos), David Simon and Ed Burns (The Wire), Matthew Weiner and Jon Hamm (Mad Men), David Milch (NYPD Blue, Deadwood), and Alan Ball (Six Feet Under), in addition to dozens of other writers, directors, studio executives, actors, production assistants, makeup artists, script supervisors, and so on. Martin takes us behind the scenes of our favorite shows, delivering never-before-heard story after story and revealing how cable TV has distinguished itself dramatically from the networks, emerging from the shadow of film to become a truly significant and influential part of our culture.
Brett Martin is a Correspondent for GQ and a 2012 James Beard Journalism Award winner. His work has appeared in Vanity Fair, Gourmet, Bon Appetit, The New York Times, The New Yorker, Esquire, Food and Wine, and multiple anthologies. He is a frequent contributor to This American Life. He is the author of The Sopranos: The Book (2007).
From Tony Soprano to Don Draper, male characters drive this new â?? and yet old â?? form of storytelling. NPR's Linda Wertheimer talks with Brett Martin, author of Difficult Men: Behind the scenes of the Creative Revolution from The Sopranos and the Wire to Mad Men and Breaking Bad. More at NPR.org
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"Following what the journalist Brett Martin identifies as a first burst of literary energy in the 1950s (when the medium was young) and a second in the 1980s (when the forward-thinking television executive Grant Tinker’s MGM Enterprises begat the groundbreaking Hill Street Blues), this moment of ascendancy has become television’s 'Third Golden Age.'” And in ‘Difficult Men,’ Martin maps a wonderfully smart, lively and culturally astute survey of this recent revelation—starting with a great title that does double duty….Martin writes with a psychological insight that enhances his nimble reporting."
—New York Times Book Review
"Difficult Men is grand entertainment, and will be fascinating for anyone curious about the perplexing miracles of how great television comes to be."
—Wall Street Journal
"Martin is a thorough reporter and artful storyteller, clearly entranced with, though not deluded by, his subjects… In between the delicious bits of insider trading, the book makes a strong if not terribly revelatory argument for the creative process."
—Los Angeles Times
"[A] smart, fascinating read on the serpentine histories of some of this generation's most celebrated TV dramas."
—San Francisco Chronicle
"Martin offers sharp analysis of the advances in technology and storytelling that helped TV become the 21st century's predominant art form. But his best material comes from interviews with writers, directors, and others who dish about Weiner's egomania, Milch's battles with substance abuse, and Chase's weirdest acid trip ever."
"I read Difficult Men with the binge-like intensity of discovering Deadwood on DVD -- in three days, to the neglect of other responsibilities… I've been waiting for years for someone to write an Easy Riders, Raging Bulls for the HBO era…Martin does all that, with dry wit and a flair for juicy detail… an authoritative and downright riveting account of the stories behind these shows."
"Enjoyable, wildly readable."
"Martin operates with an enviable fearlessness, painting warts-and-all portraits of autocratic showrunners such as David Milch (Deadwood), David Simon (The Wire) and Matthew Weiner (Mad Men)… Anyone interested in television should read this book, no matter how much or how little they know about the shows it chronicles."
"Martin's analysis is intelligent and his culture commentary will be of interest to fans of many of today's better-written shows."
—Christian Science Monitor
"Difficult Men, with its vigorous reporting and keen analysis, is one of those books that crystallizes a cultural moment and lets you savor it all the more."
—Dallas Morning News
"Masterful… unveils the mysterious-to-all-but-insiders process that takes place in the rooms where TV shows are written."
—New Orleans Times-Picayune
“Difficult Men delivers what it promises. Martin had good access to actors, writers and producers . . . Difficult Men is an entertaining, well-written peek at the creative process.”
—Fort Worth Star Telegram
“A vastly entertaining and insightful look at the creators of some of the most highly esteemed recent television series… Martin’s stated goal is to recount the culmination of what he calls the 'Third Golden Age of Television.' And he does so with his own sophisticated synthesis or reporting, on-set observations, and critical thinking, proving himself as capable of passing judgment, of parsing strengths and weaknesses of any given TV show, as any reviewer who covers the beat… in short, the sort of criticism that must now extend to television as much as it does to any other first-rate art.”
"[Showrunners are] as complex and fascinating in Martin’s account as their anti-hero protagonists are on the screen…. Breaking Bad, The Shield, and Six Feet Under have dominated the recent cultural conversation in the way that movies did in the 1970s…. Martin thrillingly explains how and why that conversation migrated to the erstwhile 'idiot box.' A lucid and entertaining analysis of contemporary quality TV, highly recommended to anyone who turns on the box to be challenged and engaged."
"Martin deftly traces TV's evolution from an elitist technology in a handful of homes, to an entertainment wasteland reflecting viewers' anomie, to 'the signature American art form of the first decade of the twenty-first century."
"The new golden age of television drama—addictive, dark, suspenseful, complex, morally murky—finally gets the insanely readable chronicle it deserves in Brett Martin's Difficult Men. This group portrait of the guys who made The Sopranos, Six Feet Under, The Wire, Deadwood, Mad Men and Breaking Bad is a deeply reported, tough-minded, revelatory account of what goes on not just in the writers' room but in the writer's head—the thousand decisions fueled by genius, ego, instinct, and anger that lead to the making of a great TV show. Here, at last, is the real story, and it's a lot more exciting than the version that gets told in Emmy acceptance speeches."
—Mark Harris, New York Times bestselling author of Pictures at a Revolution: Five Movies and the Birth of the New Hollywood
"This book taught me a thing or two about how a few weird executives enabled a handful of weirder writers to make shows I still can't believe were on TV. But what I found more interesting—and disturbing—is how it helped me understand why an otherwise lily-livered, civic-minded nice girl like me wants to curl up with a bunch of commandment-breaking, Constitution-trampling psychos—and that's just the cops."
—Sarah Vowell, New York Times bestselling author of Unfamiliar Fishes, The Worldly Shipmates, and Assassination Vacation
"Aptly titled, and written with verve, humor and constant energy, Difficult Men is as gripping as an episode of The Sopranos or Homeland. Any addict of the new 'golden' television (or extended narratives on premium cable) will love this book. Along the way, it is also one of the smartest books about American television ever written. So don't be surprised if that great creator, David Chase (of The Sopranos), comes out as a mix of Rodney Dangerfield and Hamlet."
—David Thompson, author of The Big Screen and The New Biographical Dictionary of Film
"Sometime in the recent past the conversation changed. My friends were no longer talking about what movie they'd been to see, but what television show was their latest obsession. Brett Martin's smart and entertaining book illuminates why and how this happened—while treating fans to the inside scoop on the brilliant head cases who transformed a low-brow medium into a purveyor of art."
—Julie Salamon, New York Times Bestselling author of The Devil’s Candy and Wendy and the Lost Boys
"Brett Martin has accomplished something extraordinary: he has corralled a disparate group of flawed creative geniuses, extracted their tales of struggle and triumph, and melded those stories into a seamless narrative that reads like a nonfiction novel. With characters as rich as these, you can't help but reach the obvious conclusion—Difficult Men would itself make one heck of a TV series."
—Mark Adams, New York Times bestselling author of Turn Left at Machu Picchu
More than 150 writers from 40 events will gather in New York City for PEN World Voices Festival of International Literature, April 28 – May 4, 2014.
For its 10th anniversary, the festival celebrates those who have dared to stand ‘on the edge,’ risking their careers, and sometimes their lives, to speak out for their art and beliefs. Join us for a wide range of events, including debates, one-on-one conversations, participatory workshops and performances in venues throughout the city. Use the code PEN14 (use PEN2014 for events at The Public Theater) and receive a 20 percent discount on most events. www.worldvoicesfestival.org