A revealing look at the shows that helped TV emerge as the signature art form of the twenty-first century
In the late 1990s and early 2000s, the landscape of television began an unprecedented transformation. While the networks continued to chase the lowest common denominator, a wave of new shows on cable channels dramatically stretched television’s narrative inventiveness, emotional resonance, and artistic ambition. Combining deep reportage with cultural analysis and historical context, Brett Martin recounts the rise and inner workings of a genre that represents not only a new golden age for TV, but also a cultural watershed. Difficult Men features extensive interviews with all the major players, including David Chase, David Simon, David Milch, and Alan Ball; in addition to other writers, executives, directors and actors. Martin delivers never-before-heard story after story, revealing how cable television became a truly significant and influential part of our culture.
Martin (The Sopranos: The Book) names the period spanning 1999 to 2013 "the third golden age of television," after those of the 1950s and the 1980s, and shows how it was made possible by a unique moment in entertainment history. The 1980s saw premium cable services with their shorter seasons and the advent of the VCR. The new landscape encouraged developing original programming to help fill 168 hours a week and taking chances with serialized narrative, as opposed to the syndication-friendly stand-alone episodes common in broadcast television. A little later, shows like The Wire, The Sopranos, and Mad Men subverted network formulas to present flawed, even nihilistic antiheros wrestling with inner demons. Over the course of a dozen episodes a season, each show explored such dark themes as addiction, psychotherapy, and failure, and this boundary pushing made them as revolutionary as the very idea of "good television." Martin's book recognizes the small-screen auteurs that made it all possible including Grant Tinker, a television executive whose high regard for writers made the most creative ones flock to him; Steve Bochco, who established the role of autonomous writer/show runner; and frustrated screenwriter David Chase, a TV scribe with a scathing disregard for the medium. Martin deftly traces TV's evolution from an elitist technology in a handful of homes, to an entertainment wasteland reflecting viewers' anomie, to "the signature American art form of the first decade of the twenty-first century."