Where did this new cable-led quality television revolution come from? How did themes like meth labs, philandering and deplorable but compelling protagonists come to show up on so many TV series? How are shows like “The Sopranos,” “Breaking Bad” and “The Wire” changing the industry and the people who make them? GQ correspondent Brett Martin’s new book “Difficult Men: Behind the Scenes of a Creative Revolution: From The Sopranos and The Wire to Mad Men and Breaking Bad” tackles those questions and more. It’s just been released from Penguin Press. Buy it from Amazon here.
Here’s the prologue from the book, reprinted with permission from the publisher.
“You think it’s easy being the boss?” — Tony Soprano
One cold winter’s evening in January 2002, Tony Soprano went missing and a small portion of the universe ground to a halt. It did not come completely out of the blue. Ever since “The Sopranos” had debuted in 1999, turning Tony — anxiety-prone dad, New Jersey mobster, suburban seeker of meaning — into a millennial pop culture icon, the character’s frustration, volatility and anger had often been indistinguishable from those qualities of James Gandolﬁni, the actor who brought them to life. The role was a punishing one, requiring not only vast amounts of nightly memorization and long days under hot lights, but also a daily descent into Tony’s psyche — at the best of times a worrisome place to dwell; at the worst, ugly, violent, and sociopathic.
Some actors — notably Edie Falco, who played Tony’s wife, Carmela Soprano — are capable of plumbing such depths without getting in over their heads. Blessed with a near photographic memory, Falco could show up for work, memorize her lines, play the most emotionally devastating of scenes, and then return happily to her trailer to join her regular companion, Marley, a gentle yellow Lab mix.
Not so Gandolﬁni, for whom playing Tony Soprano would always require to some extent being Tony Soprano. Crew members grew accustomed to hearing grunts and curses coming from his trailer as he worked up to the emotional pitch of a scene by, say, destroying a boom box radio. An intelligent and intuitive actor, Gandolﬁni understood this dynamic and sometimes used it to his advantage; the heavy bathrobe that became Tony’s signature, transforming him into a kind of domesticated bear, was murder under the lights in midsummer, but Gandolﬁni insisted on wearing it between takes. Other times, though, simulated misery became indistinguishable from the real thing — on set and off. In papers related to a divorce ﬁling at the end of 2002, Gandolﬁni’s wife described increasingly serious issues with drugs and alcohol, as well as arguments during which the actor would repeatedly punch himself in the face out of frustration. To anybody who had witnessed the actor’s self-directed rage as he struggled to remember lines in front of the camera — he would berate himself in disgust, curse, smack the back of his own head — it was a plausible scenario.
It did not help that the naturally shy Gandolﬁni was suddenly one of the most recognizable men in America — especially in New York and New Jersey, where the show ﬁlmed and where the sight of him walking down the street with, say, a cigar was guaranteed to seed confusion in those already inclined to shout the names of ﬁctional characters at real human beings. Unlike Falco, who could slip off Carmela’s French-tipped nails, throw on a baseball cap, and disappear in a crowd, Gandolﬁni — six feet tall, upward of 250 pounds — had no place to hide.
All of which had long since taken its toll by the winter of 2002. Gandolﬁni’s sudden refusals to work had become a semiregular occurrence. His ﬁts were passive-aggressive: he would claim to be sick, refuse to leave his TriBeCa apartment, or simply not show up. The next day, inevitably, he would feel so wretched about his behavior and the massive logistic disruptions it had caused — akin to turning an aircraft carrier on a dime — that he would treat cast and crew to extravagant gifts. “All of a sudden there’d be a sushi chef at lunch,” one crew member remembered. “Or we’d all get massages.” It had come to be understood by all involved as part of the price of doing business, the trade-off for getting the remarkably intense, fully inhabited Tony Soprano that Gandolﬁni offered.
So when the actor failed to show up for a six p.m. call at Westchester County Airport to shoot the ﬁnal appearance of the character Furio Giunta, a night shoot involving a helicopter, few panicked. “It was an annoyance, but it wasn’t cause for concern,” said Terence Winter, the writer-producer on set that night. “You know, ‘It’s just money.’ I mean, it was a ton of money — we shut down a fucking airport. Nobody was particularly sad to go home at nine thirty on a Friday night.”
Over the next twelve hours, it would become clear that this time was different. This time, Gandolﬁni was just gone.
The operation that came to a halt that evening was a massive one. “The Sopranos” had spread out to occupy most of two ﬂoors of Silvercup Studios, a steel-and-brick onetime bread factory at the foot of the Queensboro Bridge in Long Island City, Queens. Downstairs, the production ﬁlmed on four of Silvercup’s huge stages, including the ominously named Stage X, on which sat an endlessly reconﬁgurable, almost life-size model of the Soprano family’s New Jersey McMansion. The famous view of the family’s backyard — brick patio and swimming pool, practically synonymous with suburban ennui — lay rolled up on an enormous translucent polyurethane curtain that could be wheeled behind the ersatz kitchen windows and backlit when needed.
A small army, in excess of two hundred people, was employed in fabricating such details, which added up to as rich and ﬂeshed out a universe as had ever existed on TV: carpenters, electricians, painters, seamstresses, drivers, accountants, cameramen, location scouts, caterers, writers, makeup artists, audio engineers, prop masters, set dressers, scenic designers, production assistants of every stripe. Out in Los Angeles, a whole other team of postproduction crew — editors, mixers, color correctionists, music supervisors — was stationed. Dailies were shuttled back and forth between the coasts under a fake company name — Big Box Productions — to foil spies anxious to spoil feverishly anticipated plot points. What had started three years earlier as an oddball, what-do-we-have-to-lose experiment for a network still best known for rerunning Hollywood movies had become a huge bureaucratic institution.
More than that, to be at Silvercup at that moment was to stand at the center of a television revolution. Although the change had its roots in a wave of quality network TV begun two decades before, it had started in earnest ﬁve years earlier, when the pay subscription network HBO began turning its attention to producing original, hour-long dramas. By the start of 2002, with Gandolﬁni at large, the medium had been transformed.
Soon the dial would begin to ﬁll with Tony Sopranos. Within three months, a bald, stocky, ﬂawed, but charismatic boss — this time of a band of rogue cops instead of maﬁosi — would make his ﬁrst appearance, on FX’s “The Shield.” Mere months after that, on “The Wire,” viewers would be introduced to a collection of Baltimore citizens that included an alcoholic, narcissistic police officer, a ruthless drug lord, and a gay, homicidal stickup boy. HBO had already followed the success of “The Sopranos” with “Six Feet Under,” a series about a family-run funeral home ﬁlled with characters that were perhaps less sociopathic than these other cable denizens but could be equally unlikable. In the wings lurked such creatures as “Deadwood”‘s Al Swearengen, as cretinous a character as would ever appear on television, much less in the role of protagonist, and “Rescue Me”‘s Tommy Gavin, an alcoholic, self-destructive ﬁreﬁghter grappling poorly with the ghosts of 9/11. Andrew Schneider, who wrote for “The Sopranos” in its ﬁnal season, had cut his teeth writing for TV’s version of “The Incredible Hulk,” in which each episode, by rule, featured at least two instances of mild-mannered, regretful David Banner “hulking out” and morphing into a giant, senseless green id. This would turn out to be good preparation for writing a serialized cable drama twenty years later.
These were characters whom, conventional wisdom had once insisted, Americans would never allow into their living rooms: unhappy, morally compromised, complicated, deeply human. They played a seductive game with the viewer, daring them to emotionally invest in, even root for, even love, a gamut of criminals whose offenses would come to include everything from adultery and polygamy (“Mad Men” and “Big Love”) to vampirism and serial murder (“True Blood” and “Dexter”). From the time Tony Soprano waded into his pool to welcome his ﬂock of wayward ducks, it had been clear that viewers were willing to be seduced.
They were so, in part, because these were also men in recognizable struggle. They belonged to a species you might call Man Beset or Man Harried — badgered and bothered and thwarted by the modern world. If there was a signature prop of the era, it was the cell phone, always ringing, rarely at an opportune time and even more rarely with good news. Tony Soprano’s jaunty ring tone still provokes a visceral response in anyone who watched the show. When the period prohibited the literal use of cell phone technology, you could see it nonetheless — in the German butler trailing an old-fashioned phone after the gangster boss in “Boardwalk Empire,” or in the poor lackeys charged with delivering news to Al Swearengen, these unfortunate human proxies often bearing the consequences of the same violent wishes Tony seemed to direct to his ever-bleating phone.
Female characters, too, although most often relegated to supporting roles, were beneﬁciaries of the new rules of TV: suddenly allowed lives beyond merely being either obstacles or facilitators to the male hero’s progress. Instead, they were free to be venal, ruthless, misguided, and sometimes even heroic human beings in their own right — the housewife weighing her creature comforts against the crimes she knows her husband commits to provide them, in “The Sopranos” and “Breaking Bad”; the prostitute insisting on her dignity by becoming a pimp herself, in “Deadwood”; the secretary from Bay Ridge battling her way through the testosterone-fueled battleﬁeld of advertising in the 1960s, in “Mad Men.”
In keeping with their protagonists, this new generation of shows would feature stories far more ambiguous and complicated than anything that television, always concerned with pleasing the widest possible audience and group of advertisers, had ever seen. They would be narratively ruthless: brooking no quarter for which might be the audience’s favorite characters, offering little in the way of catharsis or the easy resolution in which television had traditionally traded.
It would no longer be safe to assume that everything on your favorite television show would turn out all right — or even that the worst wouldn’t happen. The sudden death of regular characters, once unthinkable, became such a trope that it launched a kind of morbid parlor game, speculating on who would be next to go. I remember watching, sometime toward the end of the decade, an episode of “Dexter” — a show that took the antihero principle to an all but absurd length by featuring a serial killer as its protagonist — in which a poor victim had been strapped to a gurney, sedated, and ritually amputated limb by limb. The thing a viewer feared most, the image that could make one’s stomach crawl up his or her rib cage, was that the victim would wake up, realize his plight, and start screaming. Ten years earlier, I would have felt protected from such a sight by the rules and conventions of television; it simply would not happen, because it could not happen. It was a sickening, utterly thrilling sensation to realize that there was no longer any such protection.
Not only were these new kinds of stories, they were being told with a new kind of formal structure. That cable shows had shorter seasons than those on traditional network television — twelve or thirteen episodes compared with twenty-two — was only the beginning, though by no means unimportant. Thirteen episodes meant more time and care devoted to the writing of each. It meant tighter, more focused serial stories. It meant less ﬁnancial risk on the part of the network, which translated to more creative risk on-screen.
The result was a storytelling architecture you could picture as a colonnade — each episode a brick with its own solid, satisfying shape, but also part of a season-long arc that, in turn, would stand linked to other seasons to form a coherent, freestanding work of art. (The traditional networks, meanwhile, were rediscovering their love of the exact opposite — procedural franchises such as “CSI” and “Law & Order,” which featured stand-alone episodes that could be easily rearranged and sold into syndication.) The new structure allowed huge creative freedom: to develop characters over long stretches of time, to tell stories over the course of ﬁfty hours or more, the equivalent of countless movies.
Indeed, TV has always been reﬂexively compared with ﬁlm, but this form of ongoing, open-ended storytelling was, as an oft-used comparison had it, closer to another explosion of high art in a vulgar pop medium: the Victorian serialized novel. That revolution also had been facilitated by upheavals in how stories were created, produced, distributed, and consumed: higher literacy, cheaper printing methods, the rise of a consumer class. Like the new TV, the best of the serials — by Dickens, Trollope, George Eliot — created suspense through expansive characterization rather than mere cliff -hangers. And like it, too, the new literary form invested in the writer both enormous power (since he or she alone could deliver the coal to keep the narrative train running) and enormous pressure: “In writing, or rather publishing periodically, the author has no time to be idle; he must always be lively, pathetic, amusing, or instructive; his pen must never ﬂag — his imagination never tire,” wrote one contemporary critic in the London Morning Herald. Or as Dickens put it, in journals and letters to friends: “I MUST write!”
The result, according to one scholar writing of Dickens’s “The Pickwick Papers,” the ﬁrst hugely successful serial, certainly sounds familiar: “At a single stroke… something permanent and novel-like was created out of something ephemeral and episodic.” Moreover, like the Victorian serialists, the creators of this new television found that the inherent features of their form — a vast canvas, intertwining story lines, twists and turns and backtracks in characters’ progress — happened to be singularly equipped not only to fulﬁll commercial demands, but also to address the big issues of a decadent empire: violence, sexuality, addiction, family, class. These issues became the deﬁning tropes of cable drama. And just like the Victorian writers, TV’s auteurs embraced the irony of critiquing a society overwhelmed by industrial consumerism by using precisely that society’s most industrialized, consumerist media invention. In many ways, this was TV about what TV had wrought.
Certainly this was the view of the only man on the fourth ﬂoor of Silvercup Studios more crucial to “The Sopranos”‘ success than its missing star. For all of the show’s accomplishments, its creator and executive producer, David Chase, was at best ambivalent about his career in television, at worst as tormented as Gandolﬁni. Chase had grown up worshipping Film with a capital “F.” His heroes were the auteurs of the European New Wave and the 1970s American ﬁlmmakers inspired by them. These men were mavericks, artists who sacriﬁced the easy path to realize their vision on-screen. Television was for sellouts and hacks.
Yet any of the directors Chase idolized would have killed for a fraction of the godlike powers over an ever-expanding universe that he exercised from his office overlooking the Queensboro’s off-ramp. Every decision — from story direction to casting to the color of seemingly insigniﬁcant characters’ shirts — passed through that office. In the halls of Silvercup, his name and its power were so often invoked, usually in whispers, that he came to seem like an unseen, all-knowing deity.
This, too, was part and parcel of the wave washing over television: the ascendancy of the all-powerful writer-showrunner. It had long been a truism that “in TV, the writer is king,” accustomed to power and inﬂuence unheard of in the director-dominated ﬁlm industry. Now, that power would be wedded to the creative freedom that the new rules of TV afforded. And the men who seized that role — again, they were almost all men: Chase, David Simon, Alan Ball, David Milch, Shawn Ryan and, later, Matthew Weiner, Vince Gilligan, and others — would prove to be characters almost as vivid as the ﬁctional men anchoring their shows.
It was not an especially heroic-looking bunch — not a barrel-chested Balzac or Mailer-like wrestler of words among them. Generally speaking, they conformed to the unwritten television rule that the more power you have, the more aggressively terribly you dress. A similar working-class ethic — part affectation, part genuine (it is, after all, a business dominated by teamsters) — combined with a fatalistic sense of any show’s provisional life span, prevailed in showrunners’ offices. Some of the most powerful men in television worked in digs that would draw a labor grievance from assistant editors at lesser Conde Nast magazines.
And being writers, they were not necessarily men to whom you would have automatically thought it prudent to hand near total control of a multi-million-dollar corporate operation. Indeed, this story is in many respects one of writers asked to act in very unwriterly ways: to become collaborators, managers, businessmen, celebrities in their own right, all in exchange for the opportunity to take advantage of a unique historical moment.
If that occasionally led to behavior that was imperious, idiosyncratic, domineering, or just plain strange, it could perhaps be understood. “The thing you’ve got to remember is there’s a lot of pressure to deal with when you’re running one of these shows,” said Henry Bromell, a longtime TV writer and sometime showrunner himself. “You’d probably be better off with a Harvard jock CEO-type guy. But that’s not what you got. You got writers. So they react to pressure the way most people do; they internalize it or they subvert it. They lash out.”
Or as another television veteran put it, “This isn’t like publishing some lunatic’s novel or letting him direct a movie. This is handing a lunatic a division of General Motors.”
What all the showrunners shared — and shared with the directors whom Chase held in such esteem — was the seemingly limitless ambition of men given the chance to make art in a once viliﬁed commercial medium. And since the Hollywood ﬁlm industry had long been in a competitive deep-sea dive toward the lowest common denominator, chumming the multiplexes with overblown action “events” and Oscar-hopeful trash, Alan Ball, the showrunner of “Six Feet Under,” was entirely justiﬁed in his response to hearing Chase’s stubborn assertion that he should have spent “The Sopranos” years making ﬁlms.
“Really?” said Ball. “Go ask him, ‘Which ﬁlms?’'”
What all this added up to was a new Golden Age — by most counts the third in television’s short lifetime, the ﬁrst being the ﬂowering of creation during the earliest days of the medium, the second a brief period of unusual network excellence during the 1980s. This isn’t bad for a medium with a reputation somewhere beneath comic strips and just above religious pamphlets.
It might be more precise to call it “the First Wave of the Third Golden Age,” since whether the age is indeed over remains an open question. At the time of this publication, two of the six or seven major shows on which it focuses were still in production; all the major players were still actively working. Several of the conditions that sparked the revolution — primarily a proliferation of channels (both broadcast and Internet), all with a hunger for content — were still in place. At the same time, there can be no replicating the creative fecundity that comes with a genuine business and technological upheaval — from people not knowing what the hell to do and thus being willing to try anything. That is what distinguished the generation of cable drama that lasted roughly from 1999 through 2013.
I was able to enjoy most of the Third Golden Age as a lay viewer. I have never been a television critic or someone inclined toward rabid fandom. I remember taking a VHS advance copy of “The Sopranos” out of the free bin at the magazine where I was working in the late 1990s. I watched about half before dismissing it as a carbon copy of a Harold Ramis ﬁlm being advertised at the same time: “Analyze This,” starring Robert De Niro and Billy Crystal as a mobster and his shrink. In retrospect, the knee-jerk comparison (in favor of “Analyze This”) was based solely on the fact that one was a ﬁlm and the other merely TV.
Then, in 2007, I was hired by HBO to write an official behind-the-scenes companion to “The Sopranos,” then preparing for the second half of its ﬁnal season. By that point, I’d long since recanted and become a fan of the show, which, with or without my endorsement, had been accepted by the outside world as a canonical accomplishment in the history of television. A representative from the Smithsonian Institution visited the set one day when I was there, to discuss which iconic props they might seize after the ﬁnal wrap.
I hung around — on set, around the makeup trailers, in meetings — chatting with everyone from actors to parking supervisors. (A singular exception was Gandolﬁni, who did not acknowledge my presence for weeks and sat for a half-hour interview only on my very last day in the building.) I found myself entranced by the world into which I’d parachuted. It was, ﬁrst of all, exciting to suddenly be at the white-hot center of the pop culture universe, to have intoxicating access to rooms into which the rest of the world feverishly wanted to peer.
More than that fascinated me, though: I have spent my working life in magazines — a place, like television, in which the demands of art and commerce are in constant, sometimes tense, negotiation. In that wider war, this was a battleﬁeld on which art had seized the upper hand. After eight years, there was plenty of fatigue among the show’s staff and crew, along with the complaining you’d ﬁnd in any huge organization, but there was also a universal understanding that everyone from writers to set designers to sound editors was being allowed to do perhaps the best work of their professional lives.
The satisfaction was palpable and heightened only by a truth that “Breaking Bad” showrunner Vince Gilligan later conﬁrmed for me: “The worst TV show you’ve ever seen was miserably hard to make.” It was entirely possible, even likely, to have a long, highly successful career in television without ever working on a show one felt truly proud of; here, at least for a brief time, the product was undeniably worthy of the talent and effort.
I left the world of “The Sopranos” convinced that something new and important was going on. The feeling deepened as I continued to watch David Simon’s The Wire, HBO’s other masterpiece, and a new show from one of the writers of “The Sopranos,” Matthew Weiner’s “Mad Men.” The ambition and achievement of these shows went beyond the simple notion of “television getting good.” The open-ended, twelve- or thirteen-episode serialized drama was maturing into its own, distinct art form. What’s more, it had become the signature American art form of the ﬁrst decade of the twenty-ﬁrst century, the equivalent of what the ﬁlms of Scorsese, Altman, Coppola, and others had been to the 1970s or the novels of Updike, Roth, and Mailer had been to the 1960s. This is a book about how and why it happened.
Attempting to keep up with the ﬂow of great and good programs to come out of the Third Golden Age often felt like trying to get one’s arms around a rushing torrent of water. For the purposes of this book, I needed to set parameters: The shows on which I concentrate are all an hour long and appear in short seasons of between ten and thirteen episodes. All are categorized as “dramatic” (though I can’t think of any that don’t incorporate a strong dose of humor). All appear on cable, as opposed to traditional network TV.
More subtly, all employ an open-ended, ongoing mode of storytelling that distinguishes them from either of their closest precedents: the largely episodic “quality” network dramas of the 1980s and early 1990s (“Hill Street Blues,” “thirtysomething,” “St. Elsewhere,” and so on) and the closed-ended high production-value miniseries of the BBC. These rules eliminate, at least from a starring role, not only a handful of noteworthy network shows of the same period (“Friday Night Lights” foremost among them), but also several ﬁne cable shows that are very much the product of the TV revolution but are essentially structured as season-long mysteries that are solved, or at least put temporarily to bed, at the end of each cycle, rather than remaining deliriously, riskily unresolved. I’m thinking in particular of the early seasons of “Dexter” and of “Damages,” shows I’m sad not to spend more time on.
It also more or less segregates a parallel generation of half-hour-long comedies that did nearly as much to deﬁne the era and the networks on which they appeared. At least one of these, “Sex and the City,” helped to pave the way for the revolution by establishing HBO as a destination for distinctive original programming. Many would, like their dramatic counterparts, push the deﬁnition of what had previously been thought possible on the medium — even if those boundaries had, by the nature of comedy, been easier to push. (“Married… with Children”‘s Al Bundy pioneered awful fathering on network TV long before Tony Soprano made it a staple of cable.) These shows — “Curb Your Enthusiasm,” “It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia,” and “Louie,” to name a few — shared many of the themes of the dramas, including that of the deeply ﬂawed, usually male protagonist; but on the whole, they did not partake of the formal innovations of the dramas on which I focus. Moreover, comedy was the one area in which the traditional networks actually kept some sort of pace with cable, albeit sometimes seemingly against their will, with smart, multilayered, and provocative shows like “The Office,” “Arrested Development,” “Community,” and “30 Rock.”
Another kind of half-hour program emerged during this time, and that was the cable show (not necessarily a sitcom) that centered on women rather than men. It was comic itself, this chauvinism of the clock: a male suburbanite turned drug dealer was worth sixty minutes (“Breaking Bad”), while his female counterpart (“Weeds”) warranted thirty. Only with the advent of “Damages” did a female-centric show break through this new glass ceiling.
This is only one reason for a plain fact: Though a handful of women play hugely inﬂuential roles in this narrative — as writers, actors, producers, and executives — there aren’t enough of them. Not only were the most important shows of the era run by men, they were also largely about manhood — in particular the contours of male power and the inﬁnite varieties of male combat.
Why that was had something to do with a cultural landscape still awash in postfeminist dislocation and confusion about exactly what being a man meant. It may also have had something to do with the swaggering zeitgeist of the decade. Under George W. Bush, matters of politics had a way of becoming referenda on the nation’s masculinity: were we a nation of men (decisive, single-minded, unafraid to use force and to dominate) or girls (deliberative, empathetic, given to compromise)?
Or the answer could be much simpler. Peter Liguori — the executive who developed the ﬁrst wave of FX programming and, later, “House M.D.,” a Fox network show that mimicked the kinds of heroes suddenly successful on cable — was candid enough to look inward. He had turned forty in 2000. “At one point,” he said, “I was looking at the body of shows I was associated with and I realized, ‘Oh, my God, Vic Mackey: forty-year-old guy, ﬂawed. Screwed up. The two guys from ‘Nip/Tuck,’ same descriptor. ‘Rescue Me,’ same thing. Dr. House, same thing.’ It was like I was looking at Sybil.”
In other words, middle-aged men predominated because middle-aged men had the power to create them. And certainly the autocratic power of the showrunner-auteur scratches a peculiarly masculine itch. The auteur theory, Pauline Kael wrote in one of her attacks on that orthodoxy, “is an attempt by adult males to justify staying inside the small range of experience of their boyhood and adolescence — that period when masculinity looked so great and important…”
Or as Barbara Hall, herself a showrunner, said of her male counterparts: “Big money, big toys, and a kind of warfare. What’s not to like?”
Truthfully, I’d hoped to avoid the cliche “Golden Age,” redolent as it is of fusty “Greatest Generation” nostalgia for the playhouse dramas and vaudeville comedies that dominated the medium’s earliest years. (There was plenty of garbage on television in 1950 and would undoubtedly have been much more had there been twenty-four hours and ﬁve hundred channels to ﬁll.) However, no other term adequately expresses the sense of bounty, the constant, pleasurable surprise, that being a TV watcher during this period entailed. The shows came one after the other, with startlingly consistent quality: first HBO’s astonishing run, with “Oz,” “The Sopranos,” “Six Feet Under,” “The Wire,” and “Deadwood”; and then the migration to other pay channels and basic cable, with “The Shield,” “Rescue Me,” “Damages,” “Dexter,” “Mad Men,” “Breaking Bad,” and more. Even if not all of these were to your liking, none could be dismissed as anything but new and challenging in the television universe. Sunday night, when the majority aired, became something akin to a national, communal holiday.
And the revolution in what we watched was inseparable from a revolution in how we watched. DVDs were barely in use when “The Sopranos” debuted. By the time it ended, not only had DVDs represented a signiﬁcant extra revenue stream for HBO, but — along with TiVo and other digital video recorders, online streaming, on-demand cable, Netﬂix, ﬁle sharing, YouTube, Hulu, and more — they had introduced a new mode of television viewing. Now you could watch an entire series in two or three multihour, compulsive orgies of consumption — marathon sessions during which you might try to break away, only to have the opening credits work their Pavlovian magic, driving you forward into yet another hour. Or for those who resisted the binge method and watched in real time, there was its opposite: the unusual sensation of actual suspense, delayed pleasure, in a world of instant gratiﬁcation.
About those credits — or, to use the industry term that better hints at their epic quality, those “main titles”: These were no minimalist ﬂ ashes of music and graphics. (Think “Seinfeld”‘s rippling bass line.) Nor were they the melancholic credit sequences of the 1970s and 1980s (“Taxi,” “The Rockford Files,” “WKRP in Cincinnati,” “Welcome Back, Kotter”) that promised more depth than their shows ever delivered. They were expansive little movies in their own right, guides to the vocabulary and palette of the show to come.
Here, as in so much else, “The Sopranos” set the template. Arriving in an era of “Friends” frolicking dumbly in a fountain, it began with a characteristic David Chase joke — Good news: There’s a light at the end of the tunnel. Bad news: It’s New Jersey! — and went on to present, in Tony’s drive home, nothing less than a minute-and-a-half-long representation of Italian American progress in New Jersey: from the working-class apartments of Newark’s old North Ward, up Bloomﬁeld Avenue into starter homes in the Oranges, Glen Ridge, Verona, and ﬁnally to the Promised Land of the Caldwells. By the time Tony crankily slammed the car door in his driveway, it was clear that he was not a character who would be there for you when the rain started to fall, or any other time, for that matter.
As for the TVs themselves, perhaps every new generation of televisual technology sounds like science ﬁction when it’s introduced, but, good God: liquid crystals, 3D plasma, Blu-ray. This is the stuff of dreams. The sets themselves became objects of beauty, downright sensual delights to watch. And TV’s directors and cinematographers, suddenly freed from the restrictions imposed by the old grainy square box — establishing shot, close-up, close-up, establishing shot, close-up, close-up, camera always on whoever was speaking, everything ﬂooded with light — seized on the possibilities. Now they could work with shadows and darkness; hypnotic depth of ﬁeld; beautiful, endless wide shots; handheld pyrotechnics — the entire toolbox once seen only on the big screen. While shooting the pilot of “Breaking Bad” in Albuquerque, New Mexico, cinematographer John Toll gave a bewildered local Circuit City employee an outraged lecture on the correct picture settings for the ﬂatscreens in his showroom. “Do you realize how long I spend lighting these things?” he said. The “small screen” had gone big, only without the indignities of modern moviegoing: extortionary prices, cell-phone-chatting strangers, and, in an ironic switch, relentless advertisements.
All of this conspired to create a remarkable new intimacy between show and viewer. Even the most inveterate gorger on season-long blocks of a show might ﬁnd him- or herself slowing down as the number of remaining episodes dwindled, hesitant to say good-bye, a victim of something very much like separation anxiety. After all, by that point he would have spent at least as much sustained time with those ﬁctional characters as with his own friends or family.
With the simultaneous rise of the Internet, a new breed of fan-cum-critic was born. Once, a TV critic might review the pilot episode of a new series and then never revisit it. Now, just as TV evolved into a true serial form — making it necessary to watch an entire season, or even multiple seasons, before assessing the work as a whole — it became paradoxically common to review each and every episode as soon as it aired or even, via live blogging and live tweeting, in real time. It became common to watch TV with a so-called second screen, a smartphone or tablet, open and at the ready. Deep into the night and the wee hours of Monday morning, the keyboards would click, turning out heroic rafts of prose, parsing each nuance, pouncing on each inconsistency, speculating on what might come next. After one episode of the FX comedy “Louie,” one fancritic tellingly tweeted: “Let’s have a sleepover right now only instead of going to each other’s houses we just sit here and tweetconverse about #Louie till sunrise.”
The most diehard, or smitten, took to the strange practice of “recapping” — which became the dominant way of talking about these shows on the Internet. Recaps were precise, moment-by-moment retellings of an episode just aired. They may have been an opportunity for editorializing and snarkiness, but they also smacked of ritual reenactment — not unlike a young writer fastidiously typing out a favorite short story, word for word, in an attempt to commune with its author.
Through all this, an unusual bond was formed, not only between viewer and show, but between viewer and network. A new drama on HBO or AMC was deemed all but automatically worthy of the recap treatment and of hopeful goodwill — a level of brand loyalty and affection never granted, say, CBS or Paramount Pictures.
If it had once been axiomatic that audiences might tolerate difficult characters at the safe remove of the movie theater, but not in their own bedrooms, it turned out that the result was nothing less than a kind of overwhelming, seismic love. Is it any wonder James Gandolﬁni might have felt just the tiniest bit of pressure?
Understandable or not, Gandolﬁni’s absence was becoming increasingly worrisome at Silvercup. The production team had already performed all the acrobatics it could — switching the schedule around to shoot those few scenes that could be done without its star. The whole operation had been nervously treading water for days; many began to expect the worst. Terence Winter, driving into work, heard a newscaster report, “Sad news from Hollywood today…,” and his heart stopped. “It was some drummer for a band,” Winter said. “But I thought, ‘Holy shit! He’s dead.’'” Sooner or later, the press, hungry for “The Sopranos” gossip at the best of times, would get hold of the story, and the upper echelon of producers at Silvercup and at HBO began to prepare a damage control strategy.
Then, on day four, the main number in the show’s production office rang. It was Gandolﬁni calling, from a beauty salon in Brooklyn. To the surprise of the owner, the actor had wandered in off the street, with no money and no identiﬁcation, asking to use the phone. He called the only number he could remember, and he asked the production assistant who answered to put someone on who could send a car to take him home.
“The Sopranos” would go on. And so would the world it had created.