Difficult Men is a recent book by Brett Martin which explores a behind the scenes view of some of the more popular shows that HBO and cable television have produced. Starting with the Sopranos, Martin moves on to The Wire, Six Feet Under, Deadwood, The Shield, Mad Men, and Breaking Bad. With the advent of these shows, Martin deems them part of the third golden age of television. The first golden age being the dawning of television and somewhat inexplicably he has concluded that the 80's was the second golden age…whatever. There is no denying that the shows Martin focuses on were the most compelling, most richly characterized, and the best damn writing television has ever seen. And yes… these shows were for the most part populated by difficult men fueled by testosterone, sex, violence, various addictions, personality disorders, and an inner rage that often mirrored their creators who Martin introduces as "showrunners".
Stephen J. Cannell became the prototype of the modern day showrunner. First and foremost a writer, he went on to create and produce a prodigious amount of network television in the 70's and 80's. What television writer before him attained the status of becoming a household name? Who even cared about TV writers before then? From his own studio, Cannell became a mogul with hits like the A-Team, Baretta, 21 Jump Street (which gave Johnny Depp his start), The Greatest American Hero, Hunter, and one of my personal favorites – The Rockford Files. And it was on Rockfordthat Cannell gave David Chase one of his first writing assignments. Yes…that David Chase, the creator of the Sopranos. But it would be a while before Chase would become one of the most successful showrunners in the business. Chase credits his old boss by revealing that, "Cannell taught me that your hero can do a lot of bad things, he can make all kinds of mistakes, can be lazy and look like a fool, as long as he's the smartest guy in the room and he's good at his job. That's what we ask of our heroes". The knowledge that he gained only helped him build the character of one of television's ultimate anti-heroes – Tony Soprano. But Chase wandered in the TV wasteland for years. In fact, he never really enjoyed or appreciated the medium. He considered himself a film auteur in the vein of a Scorcese or a Coppola. But a film career was not to be. Chase was just too good at writing for the small screen. He would enter into development deals secretly hoping that the projects wouldn't come to fruition. Martin characterizes him as a gloomy and pessimistic guy. So when the Sopranos got the green light from HBO, a multi-season sensation that it later became was not on the radar given Chase's track history.
And like some of the other showrunners that followed, Chase brought all of his personal baggage with him to the inner sanctum of the writers' room. The mommy issues, the insecurity, the need for total control (it was said that if Chase had the time to write every scene of every episode he would do it), and whatever psychological trauma he was dealing with at the time. Psychotherapy became an integral part of the show. Tony Soprano (James Gandolfini) had his therapist played by Lorraine Bracco who in turn had her therapist played by Peter Bogdonovich. Whew! Somehow Chase made it all work. Chase made it ok for difficult men to seek out therapy. It also seemed that many writers in his employ were in need of therapy after working for him. Martin describes him as being too autocratic and overbearing, not that any of that was a secret.
David Milch of Deadwood and NYPD Blue fame was another difficult showrunner showcased in Martin's book. The only thing predictable about Milch was his unpredictability. He could be dysfunctional, abusive, and cruel. Other times he could be gracious, generous, charming, and compassionate. Like Chase, he was always the best writer in the room so getting your ideas into the script was almost impossible. In fact, Milch rarely worked with a script just a vague idea of where a particular scene was heading. Jimmy Smits left NYPD Blue due to Milch's habit of seemingly ad libbing lines on the set. This sort of unpredictability and capriciousness led to problems on the sets of the Sopranos and The Wire as well. There were times when James Gandolfini went missing from the set with no one knowing what had happened to him. He would also work himself up into a rage in his trailer before appearing in violent scenes. Actors on The Wire were always at the mercy of showrunners David Simon and Ed Burns, a former journalist and a former cop respectively. Just like the Sopranos,actors on the The Wire never knew how prominent a role their respective character would play or how long their tenure would last. Lead characters one season could easily find themselves begging for screen time and working with second unit crews the next.
At the heart of these shows appears to be a latent fear of emasculation by the main characters. At the very least, the fear of being considered less than a man's man haunts these men. Take for instance Tony Soprano's panic attacks which leave him vulnerable. Breaking Bad's Walter White struggles with cancer as he tries to provide for a teenage handicapped son, a wife, and a newborn. U.S. Marshall Raylon Givens (Timothy Oliphant who also starred in Deadwood) gets demoted and sent to backwoods Kentucky on the show Justified. These are difficult men perpetually striving to be at the top of a constantly shifting hierarchy.
At this point, one is probably noticing the lack of input from those of the female gender. Believe it or not, there were female writers contributing to these shows but according to Martin, they weren't treated very well and often marginalized. Female characters were not seen in the best light either. The historic figure Calamity Jane was portrayed as a homeless drunk in Deadwood. Another character – a well to do widow spent a lot of screen time becoming a drug addict. Then there is the stable of whores in Al Swearigen's brothel. Nothing pretty there either. The same for the strippers of The Bada Bing, sort of a second office for Tony and his fellow mobsters. And the mob wives of the Sopranos live out a quiet desperation characterized by a wink and a nod at all of their husbands nefarious activities.
But make no mistake about it; these shows were made by men for men. When The Shield debuted in 2002 on FX, beer companies, fashion companies, video companies, "guy-type things", were targeted as sponsors. A morally corrupt cop who steals and murders a fellow cop has a limited appeal for most would be advertisers. Martin didn't present any data detailing male versus female viewership, but he really didn't have to. These shows weren't Sex and the City or any other chic flick faire. So it's no wonder the writers' rooms were heavily staffed with males. And one could make an argument that the way female characters were portrayed in many of these shows was realistic. After all, females in 1870's Deadwood, South Dakota or anywhere else for that matter weren't treated well – whores or not. The same argument could be made about the portrayal of women in the mob environment of The Sopranos. Edie Falco's masterful performance as Gandolfini's wife adds dimension but at the same time stays true to what we know and have learned about mob wives. Two shows that Martin barely mentions that present difficult women as the protagonists are Weeds and Damages. But those shows are the exception, not the rule when it comes to dramatizing multi-dimensional, complex, witty, smart characters. The whole process is a lot like sausage being made. It's not pretty to look at, but the end product is something a lot of folks like me find riveting and addictive.
It is what it is. What does that make me? A difficult man I guess.