Book review: 'Difficult Men' covers questionable 'golden age' of TV

Brett Martin's Difficult Men (Penguin Press, 320 pp., $27.95) took on an unexpected layer of relevance after James Gandolfini, the star of The Sopranos, died June 19. Gandolfini figures prominently in the opening chapter of the book, which was completed but not released before the actor's death.

Offscreen, Gandolfini had a reputation for being soft-spoken and gracious, unlike Tony Soprano, the temperamental, angst-ridden mob boss and family man he played on The Sopranos. The intensity of the role occasionally got to Gandolfini, who, according to Martin, once disappeared for three days just because playing Tony got to be too much, causing production of an episode to come to a halt.

But it's Tony, more than Gandolfini, who's one of the "difficult men" of the title — along with Sopranos creator David Chase, one of several veteran TV writers with acerbic or enigmatic personalities who created the antihero-driven shows of the new millennium that give the book its double-edged title. Starting with The Sopranos, Martin follows a "third golden age of television" (the others being the '50s and the Hill Street Blues-era early '80s) that began around 1999 and includes such show- runners as David Simon (The Wire, Treme), David Milch (Deadwood, John From Cincinnati, Luck) and Matthew Weiner (Mad Men).

Judged solely on its lengthy subtitle (Behind the Scenes of a Creative Revolution: From The Sopranos and The Wire to Mad Men and Breaking Bad), Difficult Men delivers what it promises. Martin had good access to actors, writers and producers, except for the normally loquacious Weiner, who declined to participate (but has talked about Mad Men enough elsewhere to give Martin plenty of material).

Almost all the show-runners had done their time on broadcast networks, dealing with silly notes from the suits, before they reveled in the relative freedom of premium cable and suddenly ambitious basic-cable channels such as FX (home of The Shield, Rescue Me, Damages and Kentucky-based Justified) and AMC (Mad Men, Breaking Bad). Among Martin's revelations:

■ Chase's unconventional-for-TV storytelling style on The Sopranos was a reaction to everything he disliked about other TV shows, including the self-consciously quirky Northern Exposure, on which he was a producer for a season.

■ Weiner, a former Sopranos writer, could be so tough on the people in his Mad Men writers room that they would take bathroom breaks so nobody would see them cry, and he would give writers sole credit on their scripts only if at least 20 percent of their original material remained after Weiner's rewrites. Mad Men's first shot — a view of the back of protagonist Don Draper's head — might have been inspired by Chase's dislike of similar shots.

■ The hyper-intelligent-to-the-point-of-cosmic Milch, known for highly stylized dialogue suited to his series' worlds, often would work without scripts, sometimes to the bafflement of actors and other writers who had to wait for Milch to extemporaneously dictate lines before they could proceed. (According to Martin, Jimmy Smits left the Milch-run NYPD Blue because he got tired of working without a net.)

Taken at face value, Difficult Men is an entertaining, well-written peek at the creative process. But when you read between the lines, the book begins to falter. To call any age of television "golden" is to be selective because there has always been more dross than gold, and that has never been more true than during the period Martin covers, when Survivor and American Idol were the most popular shows — and they're among the best of the scores of reality-TV series they helped spawn.

The past 15 years certainly have seen some of the best scripted TV ever, but these novelistic series have seldom dominated viewership in the ways that NCIS or CSI have, and those less-ambitious shows have their own virtues (and probably their own wacky show-runner tales).

More to the point, Martin ignores or gives lip service to some other quality series, including Lost, 24 and Friday Night Lights, all quality series that bent the rules of broadcast TV, and the reboot of Battlestar Galactica that Rolling Stone once called "the most subversive show on television." (Critic Alan Sepinwall, who covered similar ground in last year's self-published The Revolution Was Televised, did address many of the shows Martin passes over.)

Late in the book, Martin gives a nod to Easy Riders, Raging Bulls, Peter Biskind's look at a similar revolution in 1970s movies, which contains crazy- entertaining stories about the lengths that directors such as Francis Ford Coppola, Martin Scorsese, William Friedkin and others went to in their movie-making. Those filmmakers influenced many of Martin's subjects, and Biskind's book appears to be an influence on Difficult Men.

But the difference in Biskind's evocative title and Martin's prosaic one is telling: Even though the best TV of the new millennium is often better than the best movies, Biskind's big-screen stories feel big and Martin's small-screen stories feel small.