…Or to give the book its full title: Difficult Men: From The Sopranos and The Wire to Mad Men and Breaking Bad: Behind the Scenes of a Creative Revolution.
In this fascinating book, Brett Martin discusses what he calls the Third Golden Age of Television – a revolution in television broadcasting, that gave the viewers a new type of protagonist; a man (it was almost always men) who was morally compromised, not always likeable, sometimes acting very much on the wrong side of the law. In short, a difficult man, the most obvious examples of which include Tony Soprano of The Sopranos, Jimmy McNulty (and many other characters) of The Wire, Don Draper of Mad Men, and Al Swearengen of Deadwood. And the audience are supposed to care for and root for these characters – not always an easy sell.
Martin demonstrates how, in a reversal of typical roles (such as always good cops, and always evil villains), more complicated protagonists (such as those mentioned above) started emerging in the 1990s. (Suggestions of such anti-heroes were seen in shows such as NYPD Blue and Hill Street Blues.) HBO were largely responsible for the start of the Third Golden Age, with The Sopranos being the groundbreaking show that opened the door for those that came after it. Basic network cable followed suit with shows such as The Shield, Mad Men and Breaking Bad.
The book is fascinating, and hard to put down. It is packed with details of how the shows were put together, what life was like in the writers’ room, and how various problems were overcome. Many of the main players in the story were interviewed for the book, which provided insight into their world.
I couldn’t say whether the title of the book is intended to have two meanings, but the term Difficult Men certainly could apply equally to the men (again, it was always men) who created some of these shows. While they had undoubted talent and vision, it becomes clear that some of them were very difficult to work for or with, due to reasons such as temper, addiction, or various eccentricities. It makes for interesting reading.
One word of warning: The books contains several spoilers, of varying size, for The Sopranos, The Wire, Deadwood, The Shield, Breaking Bad and Mad Men, so if you are not up to date with any of these shows and want to read the book, it might be best to wait until after you have seen all the episodes.
I thoroughly enjoyed reading this book, and definitely recommend it.
(Author’s website can be found here.)