Bad men and a few mad men
TV DRAMA Difficult Men: Behind the Scenes of a Creative Revolution Brett Martin Faber & Faber, €20, tpbk, 320 pages
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James Gandolfini became so consumed by the role of Tony Soprano that at the end of a day's shoot he would go home and inflict the rages of the mobster antihero on his wife.
Less conveniently for the production, he would also go AWOL for days on end, thus causing countless problems for the rest of the cast, not to mention costing the company an awful lot of money.
Gandolfini, though, was only one among the many difficult men who are featured in Brett Martin's engrossing account of how various groundbreaking and game-changing cable dramas came to be made in the United States over the last decade and a half.
For starters, there were the creator-producers of these series (the "showrunners" in insider parlance), who brought their own demons to the party – not least David Chase, whose unresolved issues with his domineering mother found furious expression in the monstrous matriarch, Livia Soprano, and Mad Men creator Matthew Weiner, whose childhood insecurity in a competitive middle-class family fed directly into the insecurities of Don Draper.
And then there were the fictional protagonists of these dramas – those troubled and troublesome middle-aged men who were entirely new to television, certainly as main characters with whom viewers were expected to identify and even admire as they pursued power, money, status and whatever other dreams fuelled their often violent and repellent energies.
These, as Martin observes, were characters whom, conventional wisdom decreed, "Americans would never allow into their living rooms: unhappy, morally compromised, complicated, deeply human". Yet they not only allowed them but actively embraced them, and that, Martin argues, is because these characters, like many among their audience, belonged to a recognisable species of men who were "badgered and bothered and thwarted by the modern world".
A different kind of woman emerged in these dramas, too – not the essentially passive and supportive women of earlier, more conventional shows but women who were infinitely more complex and interesting, whether Livia, Carmela, Meadow and Janice in The Sopranos, Peggy and Joan in Mad Men or Skyler in Breaking Bad: women who had feelings, appetites and volatilities of their own.
None of these characters, though, and none of the fictional worlds they inhabited, would have made it to the small screen without the existence of cable television – which, freed from the constraints demanded by network advertisers, could allow their shows to address provocative issues in ways that the conventional networks wouldn't countenance, notably in what could be said and shown.
HBO was the original prime mover here, with its greenlighting of The Sopranos, Six Feet Under and The Wire and with its hands-off indulgence of their creators' impulses and whims – though even HBO got jittery when, in the fifth episode of The Sopranos, Chase had Tony strangling a snitch while taking his daughter on a college tour. "You're going to lose the audience!" a senior HBO executive yelled at Chase, who countered that as the snitch was a scumbag "we'd lose the audience if he didn't kill that guy".
Chase is the book's most fascinating character, not least because as a lover of the French New Wave cinema of the Sixties and of the great American movie-makers of the Seventies, he despised the small-screen medium in which he found himself working – a medium, as Martin notes, that facilitated this wannabe film auteur's "long, unfortunate slide upward into success".
This success was triggered when, an executive who was standing beside him at the elevator idly asked: "Have you ever thought about doing The Godfather for TV?"
He was not an easy man to please and nor was former newspaper reporter David Simon, from whose coverage of the Baltimore crime beat came the idea for The Wire.
And nor was Matthew Weiner, yet another of these innovators who were routinely referred to as "the smartest guys in the room".
In their different ways, these men with "godlike powers" that were hitherto unknown for writers were bullying, autocratic and frequently unbearable (only Vince Gilligan of Breaking Bad seemed to avoid these domineering traits), but they were creators of what Martin deems a golden age of television, and few of us would disagree.
And it all came out of nowhere, or at least out of various unforseeable individual somewheres.
When Carolyn Strauss of HBO first contemplated greenlighting a show about what Gandolfini called "a bunch of fat guys from Jersey", she was uneasy about its taboo-breaking tone and its criminal protagonist.
"Should we do this?" she asked fellow-executives. "Can we do this?"
They could and they did and the response was such that when Six Feet Under was in production a couple of years later, creator-writer Alan Ball was advised that it was all a little "safe". Indeed, a memo asked him: "Can it be more fucked up?"
In other words, TV drama would never be the same again, for which much thanks, because we're the beneficiaries.