Feature

Book of the week: Difficult Men: Behind the Scenes of a Creative Revolutionby Brett Martin

Brett Martin’s book opens a “clear and tantalizing” window on an artistic shift that has remade American television.

(Penguin, $28)

Brett Martin’s new book opens a “clear and tantalizing” window on an artistic shift that has remade American television, said Mary McNamara in the Los Angeles Times. Focusing on the “difficult men” who so often have been cast as the creative forces behind the most acclaimed series of our time, the GQ correspondent treats The Sopranos’ David Chase, Mad Men’s Matt Weiner, and a handful of peers “with the sort of bad-boy admiration most usually associated with profiles of Jack Nicholson or books about John Huston.” Martin’s triumph-of-the-mavericks storytelling sometimes glosses over the complications of how great television is truly made. But it turns a real cultural revolution into compelling reading. “As with any cultural shift, the chronicle must begin somewhere.”

Difficult Men begins that story with a host of “pungent anecdotes,” said Ken Tucker in Bookforum. A producer who worked with Chase reports at one point that the famously tortured Sopranos creator once confided that he’d never find true happiness until he killed a man with his bare hands. Weiner is shown guarding Mad Men’s upcoming plot developments as if they were nuclear codes, and then telling listeners how “amazing” his own work has been. Despite exposing the monstrous egos of the shows’ creators, Martin deeply admires what they’ve done with The Sopranos, Mad Men, Breaking Bad, The Wire, and Deadwood. His sophisticated analysis of why these shows are so good serves as a model for TV criticism that matches the intelligence of the medium’s foremost artists.

It’s a pity, though, that Martin promotes such an “utterly reductive” fallacy about how TV is made, said Craig Fehrman in The New Republic. At times, he suggests he knows better, as when he “digs into the writers’ rooms” to show how scriptwriting is an intensely collaborative process. Yet his heart “still belongs to the showrunners,” the “god-like” auteurs who’ve been soaking up all the credit for shows like Mad Men for years. In playing up that myth, he’s asking readers to accept “a kind of narrative simplicity that we would never accept in an Emmy-winning drama.” Great actors, cinematographers, episode directors, casting directors, film editors, and “even the suits’’ from the studio all make valuable—and sometimes crucial—contributions to great TV series. By necessity, any good show “is created less by celebrity chef than by crock pot.’’ But to make the premise of Difficult Men work, Martin tells us all about the chefs, and not a lot about the cooking.

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