A highly readable new book promises to anatomize the shifts in entertainment technology and in the culture in the cable era that gave rise to the 21st Century’s most lionized form of “art television”: the 12-episode, novelistically textured premium cable serial.
Brett Martin’s “Difficult Men: Behind the Scenes of a Creative Revolution: From ‘The Sopranos’ and ‘The Wire’ to ‘Mad Men’ and ‘Breaking Bad'” (Penquin) provides a useful overview of the changes that enabled this alternative to the 30-to-22 episode anthology-of-short-stories format that for decades was the only game in town in Television City.
But while Martin’s excellent long accounts of those four great shows can be strongly recommended to anyone who loves them — or any one or two or three of them — his book isn’t quite the definitive evolutionary chronicle that the TGA (Martin’s “Third Golden Age of Television”) richly deserves. The timing is right, too, as we are at the beginning of the next generation of TGA TV, as the serial-novel aesthetic is being applied to additional genres such as epic fantasy (“Game of Thrones”), the espionage thriller (“The Americans”) and twisty science fiction (“Orphan Black”).
By the mid-oughts, Martin writes, “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.”
I agree. The question is why? Why then, and why now? Martin is excellent on historical antecedents to the TGA such as Grant Tinker’s MTM and Steven Bochco’s “NYPD Blue” — though I think he severely underrates the impact of the classic David Simon/Barry Levinson/Tom Fontana series “Homicide: Life on the Street,” from which flowed “Oz,” “The Corner,” “The Wire” and “Treme.” On the cause and effect issues he’s a bit vague.
The economics of the cable industry, a radically different business model, is of course a large part part of the why. Without advertisers to pander to, and without the dependence on syndication to recoup exploding production budgets, aesthetic considerations could be allowed to rule. Formats closer to the limited series format pioneered in Europe by what were essentially public television outlets (England’s BBC, Denmark’s DR), which won an elite following in the US on PBS, were a direct appeal to a more demanding and smaller audience than the mainstream networks could afford to cater to.
As it developed, the TGA also began to attract “creatives,” from feature screenwriters and directors to novelists, who in the past would never have been caught dead doing television. They were now intrigued, Martin writes, “by how much more of human life could be dissected over the course of thirteen or twenty-six or fifty-two open-ended hours, rather than a mere two-hour stretch freighted with the need for easy answers and tidy resolution.”
Because it had likely always been “advertisers, rather than audiences” who were uncomfortable with anti-heroes and ambiguity on television, the richer formats of the new TV seemed naturally to call for richer, darker characters, for less wish-fulfillment in its storylines. Martin’s book is at its best in its behind-the-scenes accounts of how “difficult men,” from Tony Soprano to Walter White, “a species you might call Man Beset or Man Harried—badgered and bothered and thwarted by the modern world,” came to dominant the NGA. His description of “the ascendancy of the all-powerful writer-showrunner(s)” who created those characters, difficult men in their own right, is thorough, sympathetic and convincing. (“Breaking Bad’s” Vince Gilligan comes off best.)
“Difficult Men” is not the first book to dissect this phenomenon. That would be Alan
Sepinwall’s “The Revolution Was Televised: The Cops, Crooks, Slingers, and Slayers Who Changed TV Drama Forever” (2012). It was on Sepinwall’s influential blog, What’s Alan Watching? that the now ubiquitous-to-the-point-of-being-oppressive practice of re-capping and reviewing every single episode of an important series was invented half a decade ago.
It also needs to be said that there have been other excellent models of how best to review television, in particular the one adopted by the man who is arguably still the best TV reviewer of them all, Britain’s loquacious polymath Clive James, who writes about TV not by the program but by the week. He watches as his readers watch, and then reports on what he and they have seen together. His columns in the 19780s were also weekly snapshots of British public culture, contextual with references to top news stories and developments in the other arts.
“Difficult Men” puts the last nail in the coffin of the assumption underpinning James’ approach that there is one big audience that sits glued to the box at the same times and for the same programs. Fragmentation, niche programming and various forms of time shifting have put an end to that. A culture-domination phenomenon like “Roots” or “Who Shot JR?” is simply no longer imaginable.
Creatively I think, as Martin does, this is mostly for the best. “As long as there is no true consensus audience for anything,” he writes, “or at least as long as the chase for one is relegated to the broadcast networks and the multiplexes, quality storytelling, fresh voices, challenging ideas, all the hallmarks of the Third Golden Age, may be able to remain another brand, a niche, right alongside home improvement, cute puppies, and weather.”