James Gandolfini in 'The Sopranos'
HBO James Gandolfini in 'The Sopranos'

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.

Difficult Men cover

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.

'The Sopranos'
HBO 'The Sopranos'

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.