The mob boss Tony Soprano – played by the great James Gandolfini – was one of the most memorable fictional characters to emerge in the past several decades. He was also a prototype for a wave of provocative anti-heroes who, as Brett Martin’s new book points out, would place cable television at the vanguard of a creative revolution, one that would make open-ended serialized drama “the signature American art form of the first decade of the 21st century.”
The secretive and lonely Don Draper in “Mad Men,” the murderous Al Swearengen in “Deadwood” and the wily Walter White in “Breaking Bad”: These “difficult men,” as Martin calls them, are all Tony’s psychological relatives – “unhappy, morally compromised, complicated, deeply human” characters who stir our sympathy and our revulsion, a sense of identification and an implied complicity in their darkest deeds.
Conventional wisdom, Martin writes, “had once insisted Americans would never allow” such anti-heroes into their living rooms – they belonged on the big screen, in the communal dark of a movie theater.
That all began to change with tectonic shifts in the media landscape around the turn of the millennium. The proliferation of cable channels meant complex shows that earned critical acclaim and small but avid followings could thrive.
At the same time, new delivery systems (DVDs, DVRs, online streaming, on-demand services, big-screen TVs) began to change the way we watched television: We could binge on multiple episodes, even whole seasons, at a time.
Such observations are hardly new in an age when TV shows are minutely dissected online and in real time.
Focusing on the men
Large swaths of Martin’s new book, “Difficult Men,” will be familiar to readers of Alan Sepinwall’s popular blog, What’s Alan Watching?, and his astute 2012 book, “The Revolution Was Televised.” Like Sepinwall, Martin looks back at pioneering shows “NYPD Blue” and “Homicide: Life on the Street,” which helped rewrite the rules of network TV.
Like Sepinwall, he fleshes out his analysis of “The Sopranos,” “Mad Men” and “Breaking Bad” with interviews. He talks with writers, directors and producers to chronicle the sometimes rocky roads these series traveled to the small screen and the crucial role that casting and luck could play in their success.
Because he’s chosen to focus on shows about difficult men, Martin unfortunately leaves out the award-winning series “Homeland.” He also skims over the influence of the gritty prison drama “Oz” and bypasses powerful network series like “Friday Night Lights.” Such omissions can sometimes make this volume feel like a theory-driven college thesis filled with cherry-picked examples, and Martin occasionally slips into silly glib formulations.
Despite such lapses, Martin, a correspondent for GQ, provides vivid glimpses of these show runners at work, and the high-stress writers’ rooms they presided over. He also deftly situates their shows within a larger cultural context.
He explicates the novelistic qualities of “The Wire” and discusses how that show’s “Balzacian ambition to catalog every corner of its world” (that is Baltimore) stands in sharp contrast to the more inward, psychological approach taken by “The Sopranos.”
He argues that “The Sopranos” yoked together postwar literature’s “horror of the suburbs” (novels “Revolutionary Road” and “Rabbit, Run”) with what he regards as baby boomers’ ambivalence toward American capitalism (embodied, he suggests, in their fascination and repulsion with the mob, and their suspicion that “the American dream might at its core be a criminal enterprise”).
As Martin sees it, American pop culture’s favorite genres – the gangster drama, the Western, the detective story, the superhero epic (whose protagonist has a double identity) – are actually “literalizations” of an internal male conflict, a struggle between men’s desire to set loose “their wildest natures” and their intermittent efforts to tame those same impulses. This struggle, he says, is summed up in the Nick Lowe song “The Beast in Me” – which played over the closing credits of “The Sopranos” pilot, and which could well be “the theme song” for many of the important series in this new golden age in TV.
Failure stalked them
The heroes (or anti-heroes) of these shows, Martin observes, do not follow the traditional arc of moral change and redemption. Instead, “recidivism and failure stalked these shows.”
Tony Soprano “searches for something to fill the gnawing void he feels; he fails to find it.”
Jimmy McNulty of “The Wire” “swears off the twin compulsions of booze and police work; he goes back to both, while the rest of ‘The Wire’s’ most zealous reformers find themselves corrupted.”
As for Walter White in “Breaking Bad,” that show’s creator, Vince Gilligan, has said that the idea was to trace the transformation of a “Mr. Chips into Scarface.”
These shows delved into their heroes’ conflicted psyches and their strained relationships with family and colleagues, and they opened big new windows on the state of millennial America.
Looking back at the past decade and a half, Martin argues, it’s clear that the serialized drama has matured into a distinct art form all its own, “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.” Television had become “the dominant art form of the era.”