Difficult Men, Brett Martin’s book about the Third Golden Age of Television, a period that more or less begins with David Chase’s The Sopranos, takes in The Wire, Deadwood, Six Feet Under and Mad Men before culminating, in some senses, with Vince Gilligan’s Breaking Bad, is a very good book. It’s arrival in the post distracted me from Bleeding Edge, the Thomas Pynchon novel I was reading – I picked up Difficult Men, the idea being to flick through it; two days later I looked up and the book was done. Like Peter Biskind’s Easy Riders, Raging Bulls, Martin’s book charts a course through the characters of the period – the showrunners (Chase, Simon, Milch, Gilligan), the actors (tortured Gandolfini, gadabout West, damaged Hamm), the writers (names pertinently you may not have heard of) – telling the stories whilst at the same time arguing a larger point (that each of these shows explores masculinity, to a greater or lesser extent).
There is a great deal to like about the book. Martin’s manages to combine a lightness of touch with a depth of perception. By which I mean to say Difficult Men is easy to read even as it raises some interesting questions that it goes on to deal with in a thoughtful way. If you’re a real telly hound, and if you followed some or all of the shows mentioned above, you will find much here that is deeply thrilling (the glimpses we get of James Gandolfini make me want to read a book all about him so publishers take note and get cracking on a bio please). There is a powerful sense of the roads not taken (you read how Steve Van Zandt auditioned for the role of Tony Soprano, how Ray Winstone was approached to play McNulty, how Michael Chiklis had to fight to convince the showrunner of The Shield he was up to the job) and a truly interesting glimpse into the way the TV industry works and has changed over the last twenty years (how HBO reimagined itself and how other cable and non cable networks followed – a show like Friday Night Lights demonstrates that influence – and how this in turn led to organisations like Netflix and, although it isn’t mentioned, operators like Sky developing original material – original material is, still, where it’s at).
Reading Difficult Men is a true pleasure and yet it is not perfect. We have some issues with it. First of all, the Biskind comparison. Easy Riders, Raging Bulls is a full 500 pages of twisting, interlocking, often scurrilous, scathing stories of people whose films are as familiar as fingerprints. One of Biskind’s great skills is maintaining: throughout the book, we follow the principals and the coverage of each of the principals feels equitable. There is a beautiful evenness to Easy Riders, Raging Bulls, a comprehensive quality that works, lattice-like, to create a fully realised window on to the world of Hollywood in the 70s and 80s. Martin’s Difficult Men is just over half the size of Easy Riders. So what, you might think. Perhaps Martin just gets to the point. But no. What happens over the course of the book is that there are moments where Martin drives too fast. Generation Kill, Simon and Burn’s post-Wire miniseries? Blink and you miss it. The fallout from Albrecht’s departure from HBO? Over in a couple of pages. The spats between Weiner and AMC over pay and the arguments about whether Mad Men would end or run without Weiner? Hardly even discussed. David Chase’s bad behaviour? David Milch’s worse behaviour? David Simon and Ed Burns drawing apart? Not all that much. The book even skips breezily over the first couple of Golden Ages. Take your time, you want to say. Ease up now. Martin covers the beginning of The Sopranos, the beginning of The Wire, the beginning of Six Feet Under and the sort of just passed the middle of Breaking Bad; what we don’t get is a sense of each show’s progress, ups and downs, true relation to one another (it feels like a rushed production – imagine if he’d waited six months and then had a book in which Breaking Bad in its entirety could be judged as the son of The Sopranos). So the book probably warrants a second edition update. In itself this is no bad thing.
Another point is Martin’s central argument, that the Third Golden Age of Television is overly concerned with difficult men. Undoubtedly there is some truth, perhaps even a lot, of truth in this. But there are gaps in the story and Martin doesn’t really admit them. There are gaps in the televisual history (he touches on shows like Girls but a page is enough; he mentions Game of Thrones in passing, a show easily as good as The Sopranos, but it doesn’t quite gel with the idea that the Third Age is finished and so Martin gives it scant attention; he raises interesting points about the way in which HBO worked – from the sounds of things, Deadwood ended more or less like The Smiths – and the ensuing kneejerk loss of nerve, if you will, putting paid to shows like Rubicon, a terrific show that didn’t pull in viewers on season 1 and so was cancelled – despite the fact that The Wire, for example, didn’t pull in viewers for five seasons). The true story feels like a messier story, a story that arguably warrants a bit more space to unwind, a story in less hurry to get where it’s going, a story less keen on convincing us of the rightness of its argument, a story that considers Treme, for instance, a far messier show than The Wire and worthy of serious consideration (is it a glorious failure, a complex masterpiece, a car crash of the two?). Martin even mentions, in passing, what a shock it was to see actors from The Wire in more mainstream entertainment shows (as if The Wire was so big it overshadows anything anyone else does – which patently isn’t the case – Dominic West, Idris Alba and Michael K Williams have all enjoyed strong post-Wire careers (Williams in particular, who had a strong cameo in the adaptation of Cormac McCarthy’s The Road and features prominently in Boardwalk Empire (another excellent show given rather short shrift here because it doesn’t fit)). This argument leads to an exclusivity on Martin’s part, an outright refusal, for example, to deal with all of TV, only drama (if Martin isn’t at this moment writing a similar book on how comedy has changed as a result of cable, then he should be – and if he isn’t, can I please?). The fact that Breaking Bad rose to such prominence when Martin was obviously putting the finishing touches to the book and only warrants a somewhat tacked on chapter of coverage suggests Martin didn’t quite realise it was (is) as significant as it is.
Even taking these things into account, Difficult Men is still highly recommended. It’s flaws arise largely from the fact that the book leaves the reader wanting more. It may be we will still get them. Peter Biskind had his Down and Dirty Pictures; we will eagerly wait to see what Martin does next…
Any Cop?: If you’re a fan of The Sopranos, The Wire, The Shield, Mad Men and Breaking Bad, this is an essential read.