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Difficult Men: Behind the Scenes of a Creative Revolution: From The Sopranos and The Wire to Mad Men and Breaking Bad [Hardcover]

Brett Martin

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Book Description

July 9 2013
A riveting and revealing look at the shows that helped cable television drama 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, first on premium cable channels like HBO and then basic cable networks like FX and AMC, dramatically stretched television’s narrative inventiveness, emotional resonance, and artistic ambition. No longer necessarily concerned with creating always-likable characters, plots that wrapped up neatly every episode, or subjects that were deemed safe and appropriate, shows such as The Wire, The Sopranos, Mad Men, Deadwood, The Shield, and more tackled issues of life and death, love and sexuality, addiction, race, violence, and existential boredom. Just as the Big Novel had in the 1960s and the subversive films of New Hollywood had in 1970s, television shows became the place to go to see stories of the triumph and betrayals of the American Dream at the beginning of the twenty-first century.

This revolution happened at the hands of a new breed of auteur: the all-powerful writer-show runner. These were men nearly as complicated, idiosyncratic, and “difficult” as the conflicted protagonists that defined the genre. Given the chance to make art in a maligned medium, they fell upon the opportunity with unchecked 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 (The Sopranos), David Simon and Ed Burns (The Wire), Matthew Weiner and Jon Hamm (Mad Men), David Milch (NYPD Blue, Deadwood), and Alan Ball (Six Feet Under), in addition to dozens of other writers, directors, studio executives, actors, production assistants, makeup artists, script supervisors, and so on. Martin takes us behind the scenes of our favorite shows, delivering never-before-heard story after story and revealing how cable TV has distinguished itself dramatically from the networks, emerging from the shadow of film to become a truly significant and influential part of our culture.
 

Frequently Bought Together

Difficult Men: Behind the Scenes of a Creative Revolution: From The Sopranos and The Wire to Mad Men and Breaking Bad + The Revolution Was Televised: The Cops, Crooks, Slingers, and Slayers Who Changed TV Drama Forever + I Wear the Black Hat: Grappling with Villains (Real and Imagined)
Price For All Three: CDN$ 51.10

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Review

"Following what the journalist Brett Martin identifies as a first burst of literary energy in the 1950s (when the medium was young) and a second in the 1980s (when the forward-thinking television executive Grant Tinker’s MGM Enterprises begat the groundbreaking Hill Street Blues), this moment of ascendancy has become television’s 'Third Golden Age.'”  And in ‘Difficult Men,’ Martin maps a wonderfully smart, lively and culturally astute survey of this recent revelation—starting with a great title that does double duty….Martin writes with a psychological insight that enhances his nimble reporting."
—New York Times Book Review
 
"Difficult Men is grand entertainment, and will be fascinating for anyone curious about the perplexing miracles of how great television comes to be."
—Wall Street Journal
 
"Martin is a thorough reporter and artful storyteller, clearly entranced with, though not deluded by, his subjects…  In between the delicious bits of insider trading, the book makes a strong if not terribly revelatory argument for the creative process."
—Los Angeles Times
 
"[A] smart, fascinating read on the serpentine histories of some of this generation's most celebrated TV dramas."
—San Francisco Chronicle

"Martin offers sharp analysis of the advances in technology and storytelling that helped TV become the 21st century's predominant art form. But his best material comes from interviews with writers, directors, and others who dish about Weiner's egomania, Milch's battles with substance abuse, and Chase's weirdest acid trip ever."
—Entertainment Weekly

"I read Difficult Men with the binge-like intensity of discovering Deadwood on DVD -- in three days, to the neglect of other responsibilities… I've been waiting for years for someone to write an Easy Riders, Raging Bulls for the HBO era…Martin does all that, with dry wit and a flair for juicy detail… an authoritative and downright riveting account of the stories behind these shows."
—Huffington Post

"Enjoyable, wildly readable."
—Boston Globe
 
"Martin operates with an enviable fearlessness, painting warts-and-all portraits of autocratic showrunners such as David Milch (Deadwood), David Simon (The Wire) and Matthew Weiner (Mad Men)… Anyone interested in television should read this book, no matter how much or how little they know about the shows it chronicles."
—Newsday
 
"Martin's analysis is intelligent and his culture commentary will be of interest to fans of many of today's better-written shows."
—Christian Science Monitor
 
"Difficult Men, with its vigorous reporting and keen analysis, is one of those books that crystallizes a cultural moment and lets you savor it all the more."
Dallas Morning News
 
"Masterful… unveils the mysterious-to-all-but-insiders process that takes place in the rooms where TV shows are written."
—New Orleans Times-Picayune
 
Difficult Men delivers what it promises. Martin had good access to actors, writers and producers . . . Difficult Men is an entertaining, well-written peek at the creative process.”
—Fort Worth Star Telegram
 
“A vastly entertaining and insightful look at the creators of some of the most highly esteemed recent television series… Martin’s stated goal is to recount the culmination of what he calls the 'Third Golden Age of Television.'  And he does so with his own sophisticated synthesis or reporting, on-set observations, and critical thinking, proving himself as capable of passing judgment, of parsing strengths and weaknesses of any given TV show, as any reviewer who covers the beat… in short, the sort of criticism that must now extend to television as much as it does to any other first-rate art.”
Bookforum 

"[Showrunners are] as complex and fascinating in Martin’s account as their anti-hero protagonists are on the screen…. Breaking Bad, The Shield, and Six Feet Under have dominated the recent cultural conversation in the way that movies did in the 1970s…. Martin thrillingly explains how and why that conversation migrated to the erstwhile 'idiot box.' A lucid and entertaining analysis of contemporary quality TV, highly recommended to anyone who turns on the box to be challenged and engaged."
—Kirkus (starred)

"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."
Publishers Weekly

"The new golden age of television drama—addictive, dark, suspenseful, complex, morally murky—finally gets the insanely readable chronicle it deserves in Brett Martin's Difficult Men. This group portrait of the guys who made The Sopranos, Six Feet Under, The Wire, Deadwood, Mad Men and Breaking Bad is a deeply reported, tough-minded, revelatory account of what goes on not just in the writers' room but in the writer's head—the thousand decisions fueled by genius, ego, instinct, and anger that lead to the making of a great TV show. Here, at last, is the real story, and it's a lot more exciting than the version that gets told in Emmy acceptance speeches."
—Mark Harris, New York Times bestselling author of Pictures at a Revolution: Five Movies and the Birth of the New Hollywood
 
"This book taught me a thing or two about how a few weird executives enabled a handful of weirder writers to make shows I still can't believe were on TV. But what I found more interesting—and disturbing—is how it helped me understand why an otherwise lily-livered, civic-minded nice girl like me wants to curl up with a bunch of commandment-breaking, Constitution-trampling psychos—and that's just the cops."
—Sarah Vowell, New York Times bestselling author of Unfamiliar Fishes, The Worldly Shipmates, and Assassination Vacation
 
"Aptly titled, and written with verve, humor and constant energy, Difficult Men is as gripping as an episode of The Sopranos or Homeland. Any addict of the new 'golden' television (or extended narratives on premium cable) will love this book. Along the way, it is also one of the smartest books about American television ever written. So don't be surprised if that great creator, David Chase (of The Sopranos), comes out as a mix of Rodney Dangerfield and Hamlet."
—David Thompson, author of The Big Screen and The New Biographical Dictionary of Film
 
"Sometime in the recent past the conversation changed. My friends were no longer talking about what movie they'd been to see, but what television show was their latest obsession. Brett Martin's smart and entertaining book illuminates why and how this happened—while treating fans to the inside scoop on the brilliant head cases who transformed a low-brow medium into a purveyor of art."
—Julie Salamon, New York Times Bestselling author of The Devil’s Candy and Wendy and the Lost Boys
 
"Brett Martin has accomplished something extraordinary: he has corralled a disparate group of flawed creative geniuses, extracted their tales of struggle and triumph, and melded those stories into a seamless narrative that reads like a nonfiction novel. With characters as rich as these, you can't help but reach the obvious conclusion—Difficult Men would itself make one heck of a TV series."
—Mark Adams, New York Times bestselling author of Turn Left at Machu Picchu

About the Author

Brett Martin is a Correspondent for GQ and a 2012 James Beard Journalism Award winner. His work has appeared in Vanity Fair, Gourmet, Bon Appetit, The New York Times, The New Yorker, Esquire, Food and Wine, and multiple anthologies. He is a frequent contributor to This American Life. He is the author of The Sopranos: The Book (2007).

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Customer Reviews

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Most Helpful Customer Reviews on Amazon.com (beta)
Amazon.com: 4.2 out of 5 stars  100 reviews
29 of 33 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars What I saw at the revolution July 6 2013
By Nathan Webster - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover|Vine Customer Review of Free Product
I think this interesting, detailed book will be best enjoyed by those of a "certain age," who can recall the original creation of each step along the way. If you're in your mid-40s, you might very well have watched "Hill Street Blues," and realized, when Hill and Renko got shot, that it was something different, even if you weren't sure how or why.

Author Brett Martin answers that 'why' and 'how' for many of the current high-quality shows we take totally for granted. The 'showrunners' behind "The Sopranos," "The Wire," "Mad Men," etc., are creative producers at the top of their game, but none of them walked into a studio and just started making shows; their personal timelines date back decades, with a surprising amount of collaboration between them. Each had to overcome obstacles and a lack of network faith.

Martin does not recap show plots and stories. Rather it walks the reader through the decisions, proposals, and occasional lucky breaks and coincidences that led to each show's genesis - FX's "The Shield" was greenlit just before 9/11 for example; another two weeks, and it's probably never made. So it's not about the shows, but the offices that created the shows - it's much more interesting than that might sound.

Each of these shows required a complete commitment from its creator - and a lot of breaks in-between. Anybody who ever thinks "oh, creative people are just lucky" is an idiot. They made their own 'luck' with a single-minded devotion and talent that 99 percent of people can't relate to, and Martin's biographical accounts fill in those blanks. These men are often (not always) jerks, self-righteous, meanspirited, uncompromising, and in many accounts fairly difficult to be around, but the book's stories show that without that personality, things often don't get done at this high level. Martin's done a great job with both reporting and interviews to create these detailed portraits (but it assumes you are already familiar with the shows themselves).

I don't agree with another reviewer's comment that the book is "70 percent" Sopranos. There is a lot about David Chase, but he connects to many other stories, so it makes sense. Many of the men worked together or for each other, at some point. Sometimes it went well, sometimes not (The "Damages" to "Sopranos" connection is kind of funny).

I wish there had been a woman represented somewhere, but Tina Fey and the comedy "30 Rock" would have been a difficult fit.

Like any book about nostalgia, this book assumes you care - a lot - about its subject matter. If you're only mildly curious, you might roll your eyes at constant references to TV's 'Third Golden Age' and other melodramatic phrases.

But it's like that scene in "Devil Wears Prada" where Meryl Streep sneers at her assistant who doesn't care about a color choice - an amazing amount of money and effort went into these shows, and they get millions of people to invest their time with them on a weekly basis (and with HBO, pay for the privilege). So you can roll your eyes if you want, but whether it's these shows or many other shows, creative effort from these men or their proteges is probably on display and we're sitting on the couch watching it. These shows have supplanted movies as the 'water cooler conversation' and social thread that ties us together. I appreciated seeing what it took to get there.
35 of 43 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Good, but too Sopranos'-focused June 30 2013
By Phil Simon - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
Difficult Men is well written and researched and I did enjoy it. While reading it, though, something began gnawing at me roughly 50 pages in. Difficult Men feels like two separate books fused into one, and the result is ultimately unsatisfying.

I'd wager that nearly 70 percent of the book is about The Sopranos, clearly the show that spawned what Martin calls "the creative revolution." No argument here. Matthew Weiner of Mad Men has a Sopranos' lineage. And Vince Gilligan has said that there would be no Walter White without Tony Soprano. Additional kudos go to David Simon's The Wire, also a groundbreaking show. Unfortunately, however, Martin gives culturally significant series like Six Feet Under, Breaking Bad: The Fifth Season, and others short shrift.

For some reason, Martin keeps bringing everything back to The Sopranos, and often its creator David Chase. Difficult Men spends far too much time on the show that spawned the Creative Revolution and not enough on the other shows of that revolution. Yes, The Sopranos was important. We get it. As I read the book I kept asking myself, Why not just write a book about The Sopranos and another, more balanced one on what Martin calls The Third Golden Age of Television? Maybe the publisher recommended that Martin add popular shows to the subtitle of the book for SEO purposes?

A few pet peeves: I lost count of the number of times that the author dropped words like auteur and tropes. Some of that seemed a bit gratuitous. And why Bryan Cranston is on the cover of this book is beyond me. This is mostly a book about The Sopranos and the impact it has had.
24 of 29 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Inside look at the creators July 3 2013
By laughslast - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover
Primarily biographies of, insights into and amusing stories about those who created the shows - David Chase, David Simon, Matthew Weiner, Vince Gilligan. Well written and interesting if you want to learn about how some got a deal with HBO or who was a tyrant to their staff. Much less informative about the contents of the shows themselves. Interesting but only for junkies who want inside dope on these men who changed the landscape, rather than insight into the contents or style of the shows.
8 of 10 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars The passing of James Gandolfini makes this book even more timely July 1 2013
By G. Uhl - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover|Vine Customer Review of Free Product
Difficult men

Brett Martin

Difficult men is a book about the new golden age of television, focusing on the male creators, writers and showrunners, and specifically concentrating on The Sopranos. There is mention to a fair degree about The Wire, and Mad Men, some discussion of Deadwood and The Shield, but other than that there is not much in depth mention of Breaking Bad, Damages, Dexter...

One of the only actors to be detailed in the book is James Gandolfini. His passing this month makes these aspects of the book particularly enthralling.

The book focuses most on the difficult men behind the shows rather than the difficult men the shows are about. So this is more about David Chase, David Simon, Ed Burns and Matthew Weiner than it is about Tony Soprano, Don Draper, or Mr. White.

I listen to Terry Gross on NPR. If I watch a series on DVD or Blu-ray I watch the extras and listen to the commentary. So there was not much in this book that was brand new for me. The author does not really go too far past obvious observations regarding creative types and their motivations. So this book is not going to spark any debates about the author's thesis regarding men's psyches because he does not really go there.

If you never pay attention to DVD extras or entertainment news, and you are fan of HBO shows in particular than this book will provide you with a lot of fascinating behind the scenes information.
5 of 6 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Original and insightful July 5 2013
By Greg - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover
Based on a significant amount of original reporting (Martin interviewed every showrunner except Weiner), Brett Martin takes us through the sea change from the late 1990s through 2013 that had TV--in particular premium TV and cable TV--as a dominant creative force. Martin takes us inside the writing rooms--and (whenever possible), the showrunner's heads--to illustrate how Tony Soprano, Walter White, and Al Swearengen came to dominant the national psyche.

The book is by necessity limited--no comedies (so no Dan Harmon and no Tina Fey as a calm counterpoint) and no broadcast shows, no matter how good (one would've loved to have a chapter on Lindelof and Cuse running LOST, no Joss Whedon's brilliant but cancelled Firefly). Slightly stranger, there's no mention of Ronald D. Moore and David Eick, whose 2004 Battlestar Galactica reboot tried to do for the Sci-fi channel what Mad Men did for AMC. And, with the exclusion of Tina Fey, Jeni Kojar (Weeds) and Michelle King (co-showrunner for The Good Wife), very few women, a problem Martin admits up front.

That being said, anyone who's a fan of TV will devour this book, and I'm glad--as the showrunner of a small forthcoming webseries--that Martin's focus included Alan Ball and Vince Gilligan, both of whom seem collaborative, friendly and largely ego-free rooms. A great companion piece to Alan Sepinwall's "The Revolution Was Televised" and a rapid read.

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