'Difficult Men' author Brett Martin on the era that gave us 'The Sopranos,' 'Mad Men' & more
What was it like to watch James Gandolfini act? Which creators were easier to get along with?
Let's talk about the difficult men behind the scenes, first of all. You go into a lot of detail — especially in writing about Chase and Milch and Matthew Weiner — about the emotional combustibility of them. How much of that did you experience in reporting this and how much is things you learned from others who had dealt with them over the years?
Brett Martin: There's a different answer for each of them. The bulk of it is from extensive reporting, although I've seen each of them at work. David Chase, I got to know a little bit while working on the (first) book, and I certainly feel as though I got to know some of his personality and some of the dynamic: some of the ways in which he's incredibly charismatic and funny and likable, and also was not always the easiest guy to talk to, not always laid back, concerned about how he was going to be portrayed, and just complicated. I feel like I got a sense of that viscerally. I met Matt Weiner on the set of "Sopranos" and was able to watch him interact with the staff there, and I had occasion to interview him at least twice more for various magazine articles. Matt's personality, good and bad, is pretty on his sleeve. He doesn't hide a lot. Again, I feel I had a taste of that. David Milch, I was able to sit with him in the writer's room of "Luck," and have lunch with him twice. But the vast bulk of mythology built around him, beyond that, informs most of what's written in the book. In each case, I had enough interaction to know what it feels like to be in their presence to get a feel for each man, which then was backed up by the stories of all these people who had even more intimate relationships. I don't claim to have had a truly intimate relationship with any of these guys.
Here's what I wonder: there's a through line with these guys and some of the others, but you've also got Vince Gilligan, who is one of the biggest mensches in the business, and Shawn Ryan being level-headed and easy to get along with. Is it that the difficulty helps fuel these fictional narratives a lot of the time? Or is that just an unhappy byproduct sometimes with these shows?
Brett Martin: I would throw Alan Ball on the good side, too. I don't know the answer. I think that ultimately this book is about writers put in very un-writerly positions. As always happens, circumstances conspired to create this opportunity, somewhat accidentally. There were cultural shifts, business shifts, technological shifts, and suddenly there was this opening, and as always happens in that moment, artists rushed in. And it demanded of them a certain adaptation to the form. Some were more suited for it than others. And they found their place on this continuum from mensch to autocrat, from a collaborator to an auteur. And a lot of them found their way as they went along. I think that's true of (David) Simon, for instance. He learned how to do this as he was doing it. I'm not sure there's anything intrinsic about the difficulty of it. I don't think it's any mystery that I would rather work for Vince Gilligan than for Matthew Weiner, but both shows are amazing. Gilligan says, whenever you talk to him, "There's more than one way to skin a cat." But if I were Weiner, I would point to the show and say, "The proof is in the pudding."
You mentioned Alan Ball before, and while I made a conscious choice to exclude it because I didn't want to cover too many HBO shows, my biggest regret from the book was not featuring "Six Feet Under." What position do you feel that show played in this revolution that was going on, that was different from what else was happening?
Brett Martin: Obviously, its placement time-wise was a huge thing. It inescapably was the follow-up to "The Sopranos." It first benefited from this HBO brand that suddenly had this cultural currency. To go back to what I was saying before about the form of 13 episodes — to me, that first season is a pretty perfect use of that form. It's incredibly well-paced, it's just wide enough a universe that it can sustain 13 hours worth of television. It uses that canvas to have intersecting arcs of its characters. It leaves just enough open to go on to the next season. And each hour stands as a very well-done little drama. One of the most important things about it is how it solidified that form. Obviously, there's a hook in the death thing, but it was the first show that didn't need to be an explicitly violent — it didn't need the Trojan horse to work. It wasn't so explicitly a turn on a genre show, even though it had a gimmick, obviously. That was hugely important. And tone-wise, as I say in the book, if you look at independent film, what passes as quirky credibility — and I don't mean that as negative as it sounds — that totally existed on "Six Feet Under." If you look at what it means to be an indie movie now, it means you look a little bit like "Six Feet Under." Personally, I lost some interest in the show as it went on. That first season is the one to me stands up. I lost track of it as a viewer, but I do think it was hugely important just to have a follow-up that worked, from a business standpoint. "Sopranos" was such lightning in a bottle, and no matter what Carolyn Strauss says about not thinking about it, it was huge. And the other thing is it took an Oscar-winning Hollywood screenwriter and put him to work on television, which would not have necessarily happened even a year or two before. So it broke that barrier, which is also huge.
The thing you say about it not being a genre piece is to me the most interesting part of it. And there hasn't been a whole ton of follow-up to that. Most of what's been tried — or at least most of what's been successful — in the years since has been "dark anti-hero spin on familiar TV drama format." Was "Six Feet" just too idiosyncratic to copy in a way "Sopranos" wasn't?
Brett Martin: First of all, I would say it is craftily an anti-hero show more than it presents itself as. I think the show's ultimate verdict on Nate, who's the central character, was almost as ruthless and brutal as anything Chase would have doled out to one of his characters. It plays a very similar game in that you're watching people who weren't learning from their mistakes, weren't able to move on and ultimately several of them died without achieving any kind of enlightenment. So sneakily, it's more of a piece with those more dramatic, dark shows we're talking about. But I think it also presaged where we are now to some extent. In some ways, "Breaking Bad" wasn't a genre piece, either. It didn't so obviously have a Trojan horse to pass it through the door. In some ways it's a mob story, in some ways it's a Western. Certainly, "Luck" and "Tremé" were weird non-genre things. So in some ways it presaged that: TV is now at a stage where it doesn't require that Trojan horse.
Although "Tremé" has existed entirely on the charity of HBO for three-plus seasons, and nobody was watching "Luck" even before the tragedy happened with the horses. I always looked at "The Sopranos" as some percentage of the audience was watching because they were into the art film qualities of it, and some were just watching because they wanted to see guys getting whacked. How important is the Trojan horse-ing, do you think, to the success of this era: that Chase was able to get people who didn't want to watch a show about dream sequences and psychology to watch that show?
Brett Martin: That was clearly the psychology of TV writers going into the era. This was what you had to do: you were fulfilling the commercial mandate of the network, and you could sneak in what you liked. This is part of what also attracted me as a magazine writer to the genre: I could see that; I recognized that dynamic. They were two separate things: what was going to make the money and what was going to satisfy the "artist." Each one down the line: "The Wire" presented as a cop show, and of course was so much more than a cop show. "Deadwood" presented as a Western, and was so much more. Right up to "Mad Men"; as the blood and guts, and Paulie and Silvio scenes were to the serious intent of "The Sopranos," the costume and cigarettes and booze was to the very serious story of Don Draper. I think that operates as a Trojan horse just as much as "The Sopranos" did. You would know better than me to some extent, because you're so engaged with the business, but I'd like to think we're in a post-Trojan Horse era now. That could be the next thing: being less concerned with, that executives don't need to be convinced any more by saying, "Oh, it's a twist on this genre." The idea that good storytelling will find an audience, and TV is the place to do it, has become sufficient. What do you think? Is that too hopeful to believe we're past that?
I've believed that at times, but it seems to me that when you look at what has succeeded and what has failed the last few years, that a certain level of noisiness is still required. (FX president) John Landgraf talks about this a lot: that there are so many original cable dramas now that you have to get people's attention. FX had "Terriers," which was a spin on a genre show, but which was hard to sell to people who weren't watching it because it's chief attribute was simply that it was good, and it failed. Where "American Horror Story" is a show that's really easy to get attention for, which is true whether you think it's a good or bad show.
Brett Martin: I see what you're saying. I don't ever imagine that there won't be be lots of bad television. My thesis is not that television got good, but that some television got good. I've been lucky enough, because it's not my full-time job, to concentrate on the real cream of the crop. And I totally respect, and to some extent am awed by TV critics. It's very hard for me to say this without sounding like it's a backhanded compliment, and I've been accused of being a snob to TV critics, which is totally not true. I don't watch the vast bulk of the bad things you guys have to watch, that you have to have an opinion about. I'm grateful for it, but I also understand that it puts me in a different position to talk about TV as a whole. My hope is that the circumstances exist, that we live in a world where at any given time, the circumstances that created these shows, in succession — which is a business imperative to create an identity and stakes low and desperate enough to take great risk — that's going to be happening somewhere at all times, for the next little while. There's such a proliferation of channels, so that if not the ones we've seen it on, someone is going to be desperate, ballsy and bright enough to give it a whirl. As long as there's a little bit of that, I don't really care how much it affects the greater body of television. I think we all understand, by the way, that "television" now means Netflix and Hulu and iTunes and who knows what else. When I say "network," I mean it in the broadest possible sense.
That's absolutely what I observed, both in writing my book and covering the business: when HBO or FX or AMC first got into this business, there were no rules and some of the best work happened. And though they've all done good work since then, it becomes more complicated as success becomes codified. I haven't loved any of the Netflix originals yet, but I'm just happy to see a new player in the mix.
Brett Martin: The metaphor I've been using is a flame ignited. You can stay lit and be sort of a strong flame for a long time, but the heat and light of that first ignition is very hard to find. Success kills it. That's just the way it goes. Those very conditions that you need are destroyed by having done it. Certainly, HBO does quality work. I still watch a lot of it. Though nobody would argue that anything on HBO approaches this first wave of shows. And I've missed some big things. I'll be perfectly honest: I haven't seen enough of "Justified" to really talk about it. Do you think it's at the level of FX's first wave?
It can be at times. That's one where there's an outlier season, the second one, and you watch that and can picture it being put up on the mountain. And the rest of it is still really good but not at that level.
Brett Martin: Part of being a latecomer is that I wound up having to watch a lot of back stuff. So I'm now catching up again, in order to be able to talk about these shows. But that's one of the ones that I've heard enough about to make me think it might be up on that level.