'Difficult Men' author Brett Martin on the era that gave us 'The Sopranos,' 'Mad Men' & more
Over the years, it's given me no end of amusement to witness how often two different networks will develop what seems at first to be the exact same show in the exact same season, whether it's hospital dramas in Chicago ("ER" and "Chicago Hope" in 1994), adults traveling back in time to teenage years ("That Was Then..." and "Do Over" in 2002) or slackers with super powers ("Chuck" and "Reaper" in 2007). Even though many of these doppelgangers turn out to be fairly different in execution, something always seems fishy about the claims that the one show didn't know at first that the other existed, and that "there was just something in the air" that led to them both existing at the same time.
After recent events in my own life, I may have to start taking these claims at face value. As most of you know, I published a book last fall called "The Revolution Was Televised: The Cops, Crooks, Slingers and Slayers Who Changed TV Drama Forever," about the transformation in television that happened as a result of groundbreaking new dramas like "The Sopranos," "The Wire" and "Deadwood." Very late in the process of writing it, I learned that another book about this same era, and many of these same shows, was in the works: "Difficult Men: Behind the Scenes of a Creative Revolution: From The Sopranos and The Wire to Mad Men and Breaking Bad," by magazine journalist and author Brett Martin.
Like those TV doppelgangers, both books were conceived independently years ago, with no awareness of the other's existence, and wound up approaching the same subject matter in very different ways. I'm a critic, and Martin's a reporter, and that makes a very notable divergence in how we researched and wrote our books. We both talked to most of the creators of the shows we covered (other than Matthew Weiner for both of us and Joss Whedon for me) and several of the key executives at each network, but Martin talked to a much wider range of people attached to each show. We both cover the origin stories of the shows in question, but Martin's narrative sticks to behind-the-scenes discussion as each show continued, while I'm focused more on the stories, the characters and what they meant. Martin also focuses entirely on cable (and mainly HBO and AMC), while I also folded in network shows like "Buffy," "Lost," "24" and "Friday Night Lights."
I've read "Difficult Men," and liked it very much. It paints a portrait, warts and all, of the complicated people (mostly male, as the title suggests) responsible for creating these shows. And though neither book was designed this way, I think they accidentally wound up complementing each other very well, providing a wide-ranging look at the internal and external lives of these series over the last 15-odd years.
Martin interviewed me back in the winter about my book, so it seemed only fair to return the favor. In a wide-ranging chat, we talked about the origins of "Difficult Men," how he decided which shows to cover and which to exclude, why some of the men creating these shows are so difficult and others are extremely nice and well-adjusted, what it was like watching the late James Gandolfini act (while Martin was researching "The Sopranos: The Complete Book"), and more.
You had written "The Sopranos" book, but where and when did this idea to tell this larger story come from?
Brett Martin: When I got the job to do "The Sopranos" book, I was very much a lay viewer. I was somebody who had consumed the first screener, because I picked it up at Time Out where I was working, and didn't really get it, early on. Then caught on and watched it like everyone else, addictively. But I was not a TV critic, or more engaged like that. So I was given this job to do this chronicle of the last season. It was supposed to be a summing up of both the story and the work that went into it, and I approached it as a reporting job. I was proud of what came out of that, that I spent all that time. What I also experienced, as I write in the book, something that seemed quite remarkable to me. It was at the very end, it was as big an operation as it would ever be, and you had all these people who could have had very very good television careers working on shows and doing terrific work that was never recognized, working in a place that suddenly was going to make their best work visible to the world. Even though there was a lot of fatigue there, and the kind of thing you would see at the end of anything that had run that long, there was a sense of that: that this was a place where amazing work was being allowed to be done. And it was intoxicating. I left there and wound up writing a cover story about Jon Hamm for GQ, probably after the second season of "Mad Men," if not the first. And I revisited Matt Weiner then, and slowly it occurred to me that I could revisit this material in a "real book" — that there was something big going on that I had been allowed to take a glimpse of, and that it was worth turning the themes and observations into something more serious.
I get asked this all the time: how did you decide on the parameters of what was and wasn't going to be covered in the book?
Brett Martin: My title suggested parameters immediately. The story I was going to tell is narrower in some ways than yours, in that it is very much about the cable revolution. I knew that that was where I was going: the form of the shortened season, 13-episode serial drama, was the first step. And in fact, the first working title was "The Power of 13," which became instantly unusable when they started going to 12 episodes on some shows. But it was more about the storytelling form than it was about the difficult men, which came soon after that. The double meaning of the title was shows that featured what I believe is the signature character of the era — the anti-hero that flowed out of Tony Soprano — and then run by this fascinating new role of this empowered writer/universe builder. So that was the first thing. And then it was just so big in trying to tell an ongoing narrative that I had to start cutting further. Network was out, half-hour was out. The more subtle distinction was that what I called "mysteries" were out: self-contained, great but ultimately conventional stories told over 13 episodes. No matter how thematically rich they could be, I'm talking about "Dexter" and "Damages" as the two big ones — where I think there are tons to talk about, but didn't serve both those things, which was the power of 13 and the difficult men, where it was also a new mode of storytelling.