Difficult Men: Behind the Scenes of a Creative Revolution: From The Sopranos to The Wire to Mad Men and Breaking Bad by Brett Martin is an interesting read for anyone who wants to hear more about how some of the most critically acclaimed TV shows of the past fifteen years were made. Martin refers to the time we’re living in as the “Third Golden Age of TV” (the first being the earliest days of television and the second being the 1980s) and Difficult Men gives you access to the process of writing, selling, and producing a TV show. The title is not only about the characters in the TV shows it mentions (Tony Soprano from The Sopranos, Vic Mackey from The Shield, and Walter White from Breaking Bad to name a few), but also about the (mostly) men who brought these characters to the screen.
I learned quite a bit while reading the book. For instance,
- The Sopranos was shopped to CBS, NBC, and ABC who all passed. I can’t imagine how that show would have even worked on those networks and HBO picking it up was the spark that led to some of the best TV shows we have today.
- Ed O’Neill, who played Al Bundy on Married with Children was the first choice to play Deadwood’s foul-mouthed saloon owner Al Swearengen (portrayed excellently by Ian McShane). That sounded amusing to me until I remembered Katey Sagal who played Peggy Bundy on Married with Children does an amazing job on Sons of Anarchy playing the occasionally foul-mouthed wife of a outlaw biker.
- AMC executives didn’t think Jon Hamm was sexy (WHAT?!?!) and had doubts about casting him as Don Draper in Mad Men.
- For me, the best sections of the book discussed David Simon, creator of two of my favorite TV shows, Homicide: Life on the Streets and The Wire. Martin writes about Simon’s dismay that people viewed The Wire as entertainment and didn’t focus on the political message he was trying to get across. He said, “It’s our job to be entertaining. I understand I must make you care about my characters. That’s the fundamental engine of drama. It’s the engine. But it’s not the purpose.”
- One of my favorite quotes from the book is by Martin who writes about fans of The Wire trying to get their friends to watch it by overcoming “the suspicion that it was homework, TV that was good for you but not at all a good time.” He then goes into a paragraph about season four of The Wire which is the one I always tell people I’m recommending the show to to “email me when you watch that. You’re going to need someone to talk to.” That season wrecked me. I’ve rewatched The Wire twice and skipped that season because I could not handle it. (It’s excellent writing and acting and you should watch it.)
- Books led to some of these shows being made. Simon’s books Homicide: A Year on the Killing Streets and The Corner were the influences of Homicide and The Wire. The books The American Way of Death by Jessica Mitford and The Undertaking: Life Studies from the Dismal Trade by Thomas Lynch influenced Alan Ball’s creation of Six Feet Under.
Even if you only enjoy one or two of the shows Martin writes about, this book would still be a wonderful read because it illustrates much of what it is to create and the various ways in which some of the really dark and complex TV shows that are popular now came to be.
Here are some other books about TV that you might find interesting:
Happier Days : Paramount Television’s Classic Sitcoms, 1974-1984 by Marley Brant
Television’s Second Golden Age: From Hill Street Blues to ER : Hill Street Blues, thirtysomething, St. Elsewhere, China Beach, Cagney & Lacey, Twin Peaks, Moonlighting, Northern Exposure, L.A. Law, Picket Fences : with brief reflections on Homicide, NYPD Blue, & Chicago Hope, and Other Quality Dramas by Robert J. Thompson
Those Guys Have All the Fun: Inside the World of ESPN by James A. Miller
Top of the Rock: Inside the Rise and Fall of Must-See TV by Warren Littlefield
Top of the Morning: Inside the Cutthroat World of Morning TV by Brian Stelter