If there’s one thing I’ve learned from “behind the scenes” books about television, it’s that I don’t particularly care what goes on behind the scenes of the shows I watch. Why they’re worth watching in the first place is what I’d rather be reading about, but that isn’t really what this book is about. Difficult Men: Behind the Scenes of a Creative Revolution: From The Sopranos and The Wire to Mad Men and Breaking Bad acknowledges that there was an explosion of quality cable dramas between 1999 and 2008, enough good shows to qualify for the label of a “third golden age of television,” if you’re into that sort of thing.
The showrunners who created and oversaw those programs had, a few years earlier, been doing (highly paid) intellectual grunt labor as the writers of conventional cop shows and sitcoms, and what fascinates author Brett Martin, apart from the gossipy stuff about what horrible bosses and eccentrics some of them turned out to be, is the idea that a handful of embittered television writers, invited to pitch their least saleable ideas for TV shows, were ultimately responsible for the survival of HBO, FX, and AMC.
Four major film studios had tried to form a cartel to put HBO out of business as early as 1980, and were determined to limit the network’s access to new Hollywood movies. Just as the movie studios had been afraid of the newborn television medium thirty years earlier, they now saw premium cable as a threat to be strangled in the crib. AMC was the black-and-white movie channel that had had to settle for TCM’s leftovers. FX, apart from the place where the future hosts of “Survivor” and “The Amazing Race” got their starts, wasn’t much of anything. What the networks needed to keep from being dropped by the cable carriers was original content that would attract the right demographic: viewers who gave a damn.
The commercial-free HBO was first, gambling on Tom Fontana’s harrowing prison drama, (“Oz” 1997-2003), before striking gold with David Chase and his astonishing hybrid of satire and terror, “The Sopranos” (1999-2007). The network then hit a string of home runs with Alan Ball’s dark comedy, “Six Feet Under” (2001-2005); David Simon and Ed Burns’s “The Wire” (2002-2008), a Trojan horse disguising a critique of institutional power as a police procedural; and David Milch’s talkative and grotesquely violent western, “Deadwood” (2004-2006). (New Yorker TV critic Emily Nussbaum is indignant that Martin gives short shrift to HBO’s romantic dramedy, “Sex and the City” (1998-2004), a show that no man I know has ever watched.)
FX amped up basic cable with Shawn Ryan’s “The Shield” (2002-2008), the grimmest and grittiest of grim-and-gritty cop shows; it opened the door to FX’s dark series about plastic surgeons (“Nip/Tuck,” 2003-2010), firefighters (“Rescue Me,” 2004-2011), lawyers (“Damages,” 2007-2012), and outlaw bikers (“Sons of Anarchy,” 2008-present). AMC got into the quality drama game fairly late, but had the good fortune to back Matthew Weiner’s “Mad Men” (2007-present) and Vince Gilligan’s “Breaking Bad” (2008-2013) — two extraordinary series that HBO had had first crack at, but the network hadn’t even bothered to have someone tell Weiner and Gilligan “no.”
I’ve never been comfortable with the idea of a “golden age of television,” that label we use to point at a boom in worthwhile new shows, because the medium seems too protean to have ever had one. The live teleplays of the 1950s, surviving only in a handful of poor quality kinescopes, paved the way for one of television’s supreme masterworks, Rod Serling’s “The Twilight Zone” (1959-1964); at the same time, FCC chairman Newton Minow delivered his famous “vast wasteland” speech before the National Association of Broadcasters. A 1970 federal law (repealed in 1995) that prohibited CBS, NBC, and ABC from producing and owning their own programming ushered in the era of the independent producer and the so-called “second golden age” of the 1980s, which played out on a long, winding road from “The Mary Tyler Moore Show” (1970-1977) to “Homicide: Life on the Street” (1993-1999).
By the early 1990s, the most innovative and influential shows on television weren’t scripted dramas at all, but comedies, especially animated comedies. “The Simpsons” (1989-present), “Seinfeld” (1989-1998), “The Ren & Stimpy Show” (1991-1996), and “Beavis & Butt-head” (1993-1997) were cultural phenomena, and more importantly, they rewrote the rules of what television comedy could do. No subject matter was off limits; no design aesthetic could be too stylized or too “ugly” for the audience. Difficult Men isn’t about comedy, but to examine comedy’s impact on television (and vice versa) is to make a hash of the whole idea of a golden age. Each era’s shows are a refinement of, and dismissal of, the shows that preceded them, but they share the same template. Cardboard supercops and middling medical dramas have been with us since the days of live radio drama, and always will be. On the other hand, it’s sad to see something like Mitch Glazer’s ambitious period piece, “Magic City,” try to fuse “Mad Men” with “The Sopranos” and fail miserably at it. The golden age of television is any era of TV that any given viewer happens to like.
As Martin’s Difficult Men draws to a close in the spring of 2013, we already seem to have reached the end of an era, with television itself becoming an increasingly outmoded delivery system for original content. Netflix, Hulu, and DirecTV will probably be the birthplaces of the next wave of quality dramas, ground zero for, as Martin puts it, “creative opportunism in the face of dislocation, confusion, and low stakes.” And then there’s the eerie coincidence of this book’s publication in the same month that actor James Gandolfini – Tony Soprano now and forever – died at the age of 51. Some endings are more final than others.