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Difficult Men: Behind the Scenes of a Creative Revolution: From The Sopranos and The Wire to Mad Men and Breaking Bad


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, ...

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Difficult Men: Behind the Scenes of a Creative Revolution: From The Sopranos and The Wire to Mad Men and Breaking Bad

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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.

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Editorial Reviews

From Barnes & Noble

For decades, television networks cranked out simple, likable entertainment that seldom rose to the level of art. Then in the late nineties and in the dawn of the new century, cable TV screened dramas that earned high praise even from congenitally skeptical critics. Shows like The Sopranos, The Wire, Mad Men, Breaking Bad, and Six Feet Under broke the mold by tackling the complexities of issues such as love and sexuality, the workplace, gray area ethics, and life and death. Martin Brett's Difficult Men gives us our best view yet of this relatively new celebrated and controversial art form with a combination of history, cultural analysis and extensive interviews with its creators. Among those sharing their insights on the new world that they helped concoct are David Chase (The Sopranos), Matthew Weiner and Jon Hamm (Mad Men), David Simon and Ed Burns (The Wire), David Milch (NYPD Blue; Deadwood) and Alan Ball (Six Feet Under.) A major behind-the-scenes view of breakthrough TV.

The New York Times Book Review - Lisa Schwarzbaum
…a wonderfully smart, lively and culturally astute survey of this recent revolution…
Publishers Weekly
Martin (The Sopranos: The Book) names the period spanning 1999 to 2013 “the third golden age of television,” after those of the 1950s and the 1980s, and shows how it was made possible by a unique moment in entertainment history. The 1980s saw premium cable services with their shorter seasons and the advent of the VCR. The new landscape encouraged developing original programming to help fill 168 hours a week and taking chances with serialized narrative, as opposed to the syndication-friendly stand-alone episodes common in broadcast television. A little later, shows like The Wire, The Sopranos, and Mad Men subverted network formulas to present flawed, even nihilistic antiheros wrestling with inner demons. Over the course of a dozen episodes a season, each show explored such dark themes as addiction, psychotherapy, and failure, and this boundary pushing made them as revolutionary as the very idea of “good television.” Martin’s book recognizes the small-screen auteurs that made it all possible—including Grant Tinker, a television executive whose high regard for writers made the most creative ones flock to him; Steve Bochco, who established the role of autonomous writer/show runner; and frustrated screenwriter David Chase, a TV scribe with a scathing disregard for the medium. 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.” (July)
Wall Street Journal
Difficult Men is grand entertainment, and will be fascinating for anyone curious about the perplexing miracles of how great television comes to be.
Los Angeles Times
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.
Entertainment Weekly
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.
Boston Globe
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.
Christian Science Monitor
Martin's analysis is intelligent and his culture commentary will be of interest to fans of many of today's better-written shows. "10 Best Books of July"
Dallas Morning News
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.
New Orleans Times-Picayune
Masterful… unveils the mysterious-to-all-but-insiders process that takes place in the rooms where TV shows are written.
Fort Worth Star Telegram
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.
Library Journal
Tony Soprano and Don Draper are "difficult men," symbols of what Martin (The Sopranos: The Complete Book) sees as a renaissance in television programming during the past decade. He explains that award-winning cable and pay television dramas such as The Sopranos, The Wire, Mad Men, and Breaking Bad took the viewing experience to a new level: they were edgier and morally ambiguous and had long narrative arcs with flawed antiheroes. Delving behind the scenes into how these programs were created, the author profiles the showrunners—the writer-producers—of these programs, exploring the personalities and sensibilities of these predominantly middle-age writers who are themselves "difficult men." Although Martin dedicates a majority of the book to Sopranos creator David Chase, whom he sees as having paved the way for the increase of creative, quality TV, he also provides interesting studies of Mad Men creator Matthew Weiner, Breaking Bad writer Vince Gilligan, and The Wire showrunner, David Simon. VERDICT A must-read for fans of the shows discussed, aspiring TV writers, and media studies students.—Donna Marie Smith, Palm Beach Cty. Lib. Syst., FL
Kirkus Reviews
The new golden age of television and how we got there. GQ contributor Martin traces the sea change in American television of the past decade and a half, which saw the medium evolve from a repository for numbing mediocrity (with some notable exceptions) to a venue for material that enjoys artistic parity with the best products of film, theater and literature. While the author clearly lays out the financial and technological conditions that made such high-quality, idiosyncratic TV possible--the proliferation of cable stations demanded more content, and more nuanced demographic targeting by advertisers and the relative indifference to ratings enjoyed by subscription channels made niche programming profitable--his real interest is in the protean creators ("showrunners," in industry parlance) who brought highly personal, genre-redefining, boundary-pushing series to the small screen. That's a wise strategy, as they are a singularly compelling group--The Sopranos creator David Chase, pathologically morose and embittered; The Wire's David Simon, the fire-breathing investigative reporter intent on exposing the corruption in American institutions; David Milch, the mystical, oracular literary prodigy who redefined the Western with Deadwood; and Matthew Weiner, the abrasive, loquacious, obsessive mind behind Mad Men--that's as complex and fascinating in Martin's account as their antihero protagonists are on the screen. Shows like these (and Breaking Bad, The Shield, and Six Feet Under) have dominated the recent cultural conversation in the way that movies did in the 1970s, engendering a passionately engaged and intellectually stimulated audience eager to debate, parse obscure details and evangelize about their favorite programs. 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.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9781594204197
  • Publisher: Penguin Group (USA)
  • Publication date: 6/28/2013
  • Pages: 320
  • Sales rank: 356,048
  • Product dimensions: 6.52 (w) x 9.34 (h) x 1.14 (d)

Meet the Author

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).

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