‘Difficult Men’ author Brett Martin on the era that gave us ‘The Sopranos,’ ‘Mad Men’ & more

Over the years, it’s given me no end of amusement to witness how often two different networks will develop what seems at first to be the exact same show in the exact same season, whether it’s hospital dramas in Chicago (“ER” and “Chicago Hope” in 1994), adults traveling back in time to teenage years (“That Was Then…” and “Do Over” in 2002) or slackers with super powers (“Chuck” and “Reaper” in 2007). Even though many of these doppelgangers turn out to be fairly different in execution, something always seems fishy about the claims that the one show didn’t know at first that the other existed, and that “there was just something in the air” that led to them both existing at the same time.

After recent events in my own life, I may have to start taking these claims at face value. As most of you know, I published a book last fall called “The Revolution Was Televised: The Cops, Crooks, Slingers and Slayers Who Changed TV Drama Forever,” about the transformation in television that happened as a result of groundbreaking new dramas like “The Sopranos,” “The Wire” and “Deadwood.” Very late in the process of writing it, I learned that another book about this same era, and many of these same shows, was in the works: “Difficult Men: Behind the Scenes of a Creative Revolution: From The Sopranos and The Wire to Mad Men and Breaking Bad,” by magazine journalist and author Brett Martin.

Like those TV doppelgangers, both books were conceived independently years ago, with no awareness of the other’s existence, and wound up approaching the same subject matter in very different ways. I’m a critic, and Martin’s a reporter, and that makes a very notable divergence in how we researched and wrote our books. We both talked to most of the creators of the shows we covered (other than Matthew Weiner for both of us and Joss Whedon for me) and several of the key executives at each network, but Martin talked to a much wider range of people attached to each show. We both cover the origin stories of the shows in question, but Martin’s narrative sticks to behind-the-scenes discussion as each show continued, while I’m focused more on the stories, the characters and what they meant. Martin also focuses entirely on cable (and mainly HBO and AMC), while I also folded in network shows like “Buffy,” “Lost,” “24” and “Friday Night Lights.”

I’ve read “Difficult Men,” and liked it very much. It paints a portrait, warts and all, of the complicated people (mostly male, as the title suggests) responsible for creating these shows. And though neither book was designed this way, I think they accidentally wound up complementing each other very well, providing a wide-ranging look at the internal and external lives of these series over the last 15-odd years.

Martin interviewed me back in the winter about my book, so it seemed only fair to return the favor. In a wide-ranging chat, we talked about the origins of “Difficult Men,” how he decided which shows to cover and which to exclude, why some of the men creating these shows are so difficult and others are extremely nice and well-adjusted, what it was like watching the late James Gandolfini act (while Martin was researching “The Sopranos: The Complete Book”), and more.

You had written “The Sopranos” book, but where and when did this idea to tell this larger story come from?

Brett Martin: When I got the job to do “The Sopranos” book, I was very much a lay viewer. I was somebody who had consumed the first screener, because I picked it up at Time Out where I was working, and didn’t really get it, early on. Then caught on and watched it like everyone else, addictively. But I was not a TV critic, or more engaged like that. So I was given this job to do this chronicle of the last season. It was supposed to be a summing up of both the story and the work that went into it, and I approached it as a reporting job. I was proud of what came out of that, that I spent all that time. What I also experienced, as I write in the book, something that seemed quite remarkable to me. It was at the very end, it was as big an operation as it would ever be, and you had all these people who could have had very very good television careers working on shows and doing terrific work that was never recognized, working in a place that suddenly was going to make their best work visible to the world. Even though there was a lot of fatigue there, and the kind of thing you would see at the end of anything that had run that long, there was a sense of that: that this was a place where amazing work was being allowed to be done. And it was intoxicating. I left there and wound up writing a cover story about Jon Hamm for GQ, probably after the second season of “Mad Men,” if not the first. And I revisited Matt Weiner then, and slowly it occurred to me that I could revisit this material in a “real book” – that there was something big going on that I had been allowed to take a glimpse of, and that it was worth turning the themes and observations into something more serious.

I get asked this all the time: how did you decide on the parameters of what was and wasn’t going to be covered in the book?

Brett Martin: My title suggested parameters immediately. The story I was going to tell is narrower in some ways than yours, in that it is very much about the cable revolution. I knew that that was where I was going: the form of the shortened season, 13-episode serial drama, was the first step. And in fact, the first working title was “The Power of 13,” which became instantly unusable when they started going to 12 episodes on some shows. But it was more about the storytelling form than it was about the difficult men, which came soon after that. The double meaning of the title was shows that featured what I believe is the signature character of the era – the anti-hero that flowed out of Tony Soprano – and then run by this fascinating new role of this empowered writer/universe builder. So that was the first thing. And then it was just so big in trying to tell an ongoing narrative that I had to start cutting further. Network was out, half-hour was out. The more subtle distinction was that what I called “mysteries” were out: self-contained, great but ultimately conventional stories told over 13 episodes. No matter how thematically rich they could be, I’m talking about “Dexter” and “Damages” as the two big ones – where I think there are tons to talk about, but didn’t serve both those things, which was the power of 13 and the difficult men, where it was also a new mode of storytelling.

Let’s talk about the difficult men behind the scenes, first of all. You go into a lot of detail – especially in writing about Chase and Milch and Matthew Weiner – about the emotional combustibility of them. How much of that did you experience in reporting this and how much is things you learned from others who had dealt with them over the years?

Brett Martin: There’s a different answer for each of them. The bulk of it is from extensive reporting, although I’ve seen each of them at work. David Chase, I got to know a little bit while working on the (first) book, and I certainly feel as though I got to know some of his personality and some of the dynamic: some of the ways in which he’s incredibly charismatic and funny and likable, and also was not always the easiest guy to talk to, not always laid back, concerned about how he was going to be portrayed, and just complicated. I feel like I got a sense of that viscerally. I met Matt Weiner on the set of “Sopranos” and was able to watch him interact with the staff there, and I had occasion to interview him at least twice more for various magazine articles. Matt’s personality, good and bad, is pretty on his sleeve. He doesn’t hide a lot. Again, I feel I had a taste of that. David Milch, I was able to sit with him in the writer’s room of “Luck,” and have lunch with him twice. But the vast bulk of mythology built around him, beyond that, informs most of what’s written in the book. In each case, I had enough interaction to know what it feels like to be in their presence to get a feel for each man, which then was backed up by the stories of all these people who had even more intimate relationships. I don’t claim to have had a truly intimate relationship with any of these guys.

Here’s what I wonder: there’s a through line with these guys and some of the others, but you’ve also got Vince Gilligan, who is one of the biggest mensches in the business, and Shawn Ryan being level-headed and easy to get along with. Is it that the difficulty helps fuel these fictional narratives a lot of the time? Or is that just an unhappy byproduct sometimes with these shows?

Brett Martin: I would throw Alan Ball on the good side, too. I don’t know the answer. I think that ultimately this book is about writers put in very un-writerly positions. As always happens, circumstances conspired to create this opportunity, somewhat accidentally. There were cultural shifts, business shifts, technological shifts, and suddenly there was this opening, and as always happens in that moment, artists rushed in. And it demanded of them a certain adaptation to the form. Some were more suited for it than others. And they found their place on this continuum from mensch to autocrat, from a collaborator to an auteur. And a lot of them found their way as they went along. I think that’s true of (David) Simon, for instance. He learned how to do this as he was doing it. I’m not sure there’s anything intrinsic about the difficulty of it. I don’t think it’s any mystery that I would rather work for Vince Gilligan than for Matthew Weiner, but both shows are amazing. Gilligan says, whenever you talk to him, “There’s more than one way to skin a cat.” But if I were Weiner, I would point to the show and say, “The proof is in the pudding.”

You mentioned Alan Ball before, and while I made a conscious choice to exclude it because I didn’t want to cover too many HBO shows, my biggest regret from the book was not featuring “Six Feet Under.” What position do you feel that show played in this revolution that was going on, that was different from what else was happening?

Brett Martin: Obviously, its placement time-wise was a huge thing. It inescapably was the follow-up to “The Sopranos.” It first benefited from this HBO brand that suddenly had this cultural currency. To go back to what I was saying before about the form of 13 episodes – to me, that first season is a pretty perfect use of that form. It’s incredibly well-paced, it’s just wide enough a universe that it can sustain 13 hours worth of television. It uses that canvas to have intersecting arcs of its characters. It leaves just enough open to go on to the next season. And each hour stands as a very well-done little drama. One of the most important things about it is how it solidified that form. Obviously, there’s a hook in the death thing, but it was the first show that didn’t need to be an explicitly violent – it didn’t need the Trojan horse to work. It wasn’t so explicitly a turn on a genre show, even though it had a gimmick, obviously. That was hugely important. And tone-wise, as I say in the book, if you look at independent film, what passes as quirky credibility – and I don’t mean that as negative as it sounds – that totally existed on “Six Feet Under.” If you look at what it means to be an indie movie now, it means you look a little bit like “Six Feet Under.” Personally, I lost some interest in the show as it went on. That first season is the one to me stands up. I lost track of it as a viewer, but I do think it was hugely important just to have a follow-up that worked, from a business standpoint. “Sopranos” was such lightning in a bottle, and no matter what Carolyn Strauss says about not thinking about it, it was huge. And the other thing is it took an Oscar-winning Hollywood screenwriter and put him to work on television, which would not have necessarily happened even a year or two before. So it broke that barrier, which is also huge.

The thing you say about it not being a genre piece is to me the most interesting part of it. And there hasn’t been a whole ton of follow-up to that. Most of what’s been tried – or at least most of what’s been successful – in the years since has been “dark anti-hero spin on familiar TV drama format.” Was “Six Feet” just too idiosyncratic to copy in a way “Sopranos” wasn’t?

Brett Martin: First of all, I would say it is craftily an anti-hero show more than it presents itself as. I think the show’s ultimate verdict on Nate, who’s the central character, was almost as ruthless and brutal as anything Chase would have doled out to one of his characters. It plays a very similar game in that you’re watching people who weren’t learning from their mistakes, weren’t able to move on and ultimately several of them died without achieving any kind of enlightenment. So sneakily, it’s more of a piece with those more dramatic, dark shows we’re talking about. But I think it also presaged where we are now to some extent. In some ways, “Breaking Bad” wasn’t a genre piece, either. It didn’t so obviously have a Trojan horse to pass it through the door. In some ways it’s a mob story, in some ways it’s a Western. Certainly, “Luck” and “Tremé” were weird non-genre things. So in some ways it presaged that: TV is now at a stage where it doesn’t require that Trojan horse.

Although “Tremé” has existed entirely on the charity of HBO for three-plus seasons, and nobody was watching “Luck” even before the tragedy happened with the horses. I always looked at “The Sopranos” as some percentage of the audience was watching because they were into the art film qualities of it, and some were just watching because they wanted to see guys getting whacked. How important is the Trojan horse-ing, do you think, to the success of this era: that Chase was able to get people who didn’t want to watch a show about dream sequences and psychology to watch that show?

Brett Martin: That was clearly the psychology of TV writers going into the era. This was what you had to do: you were fulfilling the commercial mandate of the network, and you could sneak in what you liked. This is part of what also attracted me as a magazine writer to the genre: I could see that; I recognized that dynamic. They were two separate things: what was going to make the money and what was going to satisfy the “artist.” Each one down the line: “The Wire” presented as a cop show, and of course was so much more than a cop show. “Deadwood” presented as a Western, and was so much more. Right up to “Mad Men”; as the blood and guts, and Paulie and Silvio scenes were to the serious intent of “The Sopranos,” the costume and cigarettes and booze was to the very serious story of Don Draper. I think that operates as a Trojan horse just as much as “The Sopranos” did. You would know better than me to some extent, because you’re so engaged with the business, but I’d like to think we’re in a post-Trojan Horse era now. That could be the next thing: being less concerned with, that executives don’t need to be convinced any more by saying, “Oh, it’s a twist on this genre.” The idea that good storytelling will find an audience, and TV is the place to do it, has become sufficient. What do you think? Is that too hopeful to believe we’re past that?

I’ve believed that at times, but it seems to me that when you look at what has succeeded and what has failed the last few years, that a certain level of noisiness is still required. (FX president) John Landgraf talks about this a lot: that there are so many original cable dramas now that you have to get people’s attention. FX had “Terriers,” which was a spin on a genre show, but which was hard to sell to people who weren’t watching it because it’s chief attribute was simply that it was good, and it failed. Where “American Horror Story” is a show that’s really easy to get attention for, which is true whether you think it’s a good or bad show.

Brett Martin: I see what you’re saying. I don’t ever imagine that there won’t be be lots of bad television. My thesis is not that television got good, but that some television got good. I’ve been lucky enough, because it’s not my full-time job, to concentrate on the real cream of the crop. And I totally respect, and to some extent am awed by TV critics. It’s very hard for me to say this without sounding like it’s a backhanded compliment, and I’ve been accused of being a snob to TV critics, which is totally not true. I don’t watch the vast bulk of the bad things you guys have to watch, that you have to have an opinion about. I’m grateful for it, but I also understand that it puts me in a different position to talk about TV as a whole. My hope is that the circumstances exist, that we live in a world where at any given time, the circumstances that created these shows, in succession – which is a business imperative to create an identity and stakes low and desperate enough to take great risk – that’s going to be happening somewhere at all times, for the next little while. There’s such a proliferation of channels, so that if not the ones we’ve seen it on, someone is going to be desperate, ballsy and bright enough to give it a whirl. As long as there’s a little bit of that, I don’t really care how much it affects the greater body of television. I think we all understand, by the way, that “television” now means Netflix and Hulu and iTunes and who knows what else. When I say “network,” I mean it in the broadest possible sense.

That’s absolutely what I observed, both in writing my book and covering the business: when HBO or FX or AMC first got into this business, there were no rules and some of the best work happened. And though they’ve all done good work since then, it becomes more complicated as success becomes codified. I haven’t loved any of the Netflix originals yet, but I’m just happy to see a new player in the mix.

Brett Martin: The metaphor I’ve been using is a flame ignited. You can stay lit and be sort of a strong flame for a long time, but the heat and light of that first ignition is very hard to find. Success kills it. That’s just the way it goes. Those very conditions that you need are destroyed by having done it. Certainly, HBO does quality work. I still watch a lot of it. Though nobody would argue that anything on HBO approaches this first wave of shows. And I’ve missed some big things. I’ll be perfectly honest: I haven’t seen enough of “Justified” to really talk about it. Do you think it’s at the level of FX’s first wave?

It can be at times. That’s one where there’s an outlier season, the second one, and you watch that and can picture it being put up on the mountain. And the rest of it is still really good but not at that level.

Brett Martin: Part of being a latecomer is that I wound up having to watch a lot of back stuff. So I’m now catching up again, in order to be able to talk about these shows. But that’s one of the ones that I’ve heard enough about to make me think it might be up on that level.

So let’s talk about you both as a relative layperson to this subject and you as a non-critic. People are going to be asking, “What’s the difference between these two books?” You’ve read one and wrote the other; what do you see as the fundamental differences?

Brett Martin: I think yours is broader; it encompasses more shows. My number one intent, that I was most concerned with and proud of, was to describe what the writers room is like, what the process is like in executive boardrooms but especially the writers room. It was a breakthrough to me when I had this epiphany that I wasn’t writing about television shows; I was writing about writers. Or “creators” is probably a better term, because I think it encompasses executives and actors and directors and all that stuff. But the artist in the commercial world is the main theme of my book. And I approached it as such. There is, of course, plenty of analysis of the shows, and some of my judgments and preferences. But on the whole I think of it as a work of journalism. Michiko (New York Times book critic Michiko Kakutani) summarized it as a work of criticism, which I don’t think it is. I think it’s a piece of narrative journalism – trying to deconstruct the excitement and confusion and conflict that led to this stuff.

You go much more into the interpersonal relationships: Chase’s falling-out with some of the writers on his show, some of Weiner’s misbehavior.

Brett Martin: It’s meant to be a narrative portrait. Though I think I expand a little bit beyond the showrunners than you do, talking to the other writers, because I was trying to nail that dynamic. I think those are fascinating stories, those are interesting people. It brought out incredibly bizarre and telling behavior between these guys – mostly guys. It’s funny: I don’t know to what extent anybody cares. This debate came up: why don’t we talk all the time about everybody who participates in working on an episode (rather than just the showrunner)? And the answer is, I think, generally speaking, I don’t know how interested people would be, and the story isn’t as good. I try to give a full portrait of the other writers in the room and the ways in which they interacted with this figure of the showrunner. I think my analysis of “The Wire” is, essentially, (co-creator) Ed Burns is the secret sauce – that it was much more of a two-man show than we generally believe it to be. As titanic a character Simon is, my conclusion is it was them working together that made that show what it was.

So I wouldn’t say we’re 180 degrees away from each other. I think we’re a question of emphasis away from each other. And I would say it was freeing to me to be less concerned with the content of the show, except as it related to these guys’ personalities. I think yours is much better at writing about the inner world of the fictional show and mine is more about the external world of how it got made – even though we both overlap somewhat. My biggest problem with you is that you’re a Yankees fan. That’s where we are at terrible, terrible odds, and must fight to the death.

I know you only interviewed Gandolfini once, for the original “Sopranos” book. What was that interaction like, and what were your observations of him through the filming of that final season?

Brett Martin: He only met me once, and it was literally on the very last day in which he possibly could – the last 45 minutes or hour of the last day before Christmas break, and my book deadline was looming the next week. He was always very polite about declining, but he just clearly didn’t like doing it. And I understood that. I was around a lot, and he refused to acknowledge me for a long time. We sat down in a room at Silvercup (Studios), but when we were together, he engaged extremely politely, and intelligently. He’s an intimidating guy to be around, especially before you talk to him. For all the reasons in which he was indivisible from Tony on the street, with people running after him yelling, it’s hard for even us enlightened people to recognize (that he’s not). He was big, he was pissy often on set, because it was hard, and he was really tired of it at that point. So he was an intimidating guy. And that all went away very very quickly as we sat down. We had a very good talk, in which he assiduously denied any authorship of Tony, and claimed not to have thought about it very much, and then revealed how much insight he really had into the character. Watching him act, just from behind the scenes was one of the great experiences of my professional life. We’re talking about incredibly mundane scenes of dinner. I’ve never seen an actor play each take so completely differently, but so entirely convincingly, time after time. Each take was just a slight shade different from the last. It was not intentional – he wasn’t trying something out – but he was just so a part of that character, that he couldn’t help something new coming out, because he was living the scene. It was totally improvised to me. So that was a privilege. When we would run into each other after that, he was always polite, and moved on quickly. I talked to a lot of people around him, and what became this big diagnosis last week about his shyness and discomfort in that visibility, I think that that came through really strongly in meeting him. But my primary relationship with him was watching him work, and it was amazing.

Let’s talk about the “Men” part of “Difficult Men.” It’s such a male era, both in terms of the characters and especially in terms of the people making these shows. Is it just because “The Sopranos” was this big, long shadow that everyone was trying to imitate it, that this happened? Or is there something endemic in the business for this sort of behavior and these sorts of characters to be presented from a male perspective?

Brett Martin: Unquestionably, we still live in an era where it’s easier for men to do everything than it is for women. So that’s a given. In the book, (former FX president) Peter Liguori says he looked at the leads on the shows on his network and realized he was just putting himself on screen over and over again: “I realized, ‘Oh, my God, Vic Mackey: forty-year-old guy, flawed. Screwed up. The two guys from Nip/Tuck, same descriptor. Rescue Me, same thing. Dr. House, same thing.” It was like I was looking at Sybil.” I think that’s a pretty good distillation of one of the reasons: the business is controlled by middle-aged men. But I do think The Sopranos was ahead of its time and prescient in capturing something bigger in the cultural zeitgeist about masculinity and conflicted feelings about masculinity run amok, and I think strongly came out once the Bush administration was rolling along and there was so much conflicted feeling about American masculine power in the world. I think to some extent, the generation that was making this television – Baby Boomers who had lived through upheavals in what it means to be a man and what it means to feel guilty about being a man, and have wishes to act a certain way and know better – a lot of that came out in that stuff. The degree to which Tony was in some ways this incredible wish fulfillment at the same time he was repellent is the key dynamic of this era. And early Don Draper is the same way. I think all those things were happening. And I also think there’s something in Americans that will tolerate something more from male characters than female characters – we’re repelled by certain behavior in women on some level, where we’re just not there yet. I think that for all those reasons, it started with the men.

Alan Sepinwall may be reached at sepinwall@hitfix.com