Tag Archives: Mad Men

Reading about TV

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     Television's Second Golden Age     Those Guys Have All the Fun      Top of the Morning

Happier Days : Paramount Television’s Classic Sitcoms, 1974-1984 by Marley Brant

The Revolution Was Televised: The Crooks, Cops, Slingers, and Slayers Who Changed TV Drama Forever by Alan Sepinwall

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

What Would Murphy Brown Do?: How the Women of Prime Time Changed Our Lives by Allison Klein



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What price hike?

I have a reputation for not watching anything, ever.  I hate going to the movie theater.   I’ve never had a Netflix subscription.  And I was one of the first people I know to cancel my cable TV.

But I have a secret: I watch stuff from the library all the time.

Right now I’m in the middle of a Terminator marathon.  I’d already seen The Terminator and Terminator 2, but last night I watched Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines for the first time.  I’m going to stick it out and watch Terminator: Salvation, for completeness’ sake.  After that my queue includes refreshing my memory of Ghostbusters, catching up on the Harry Potter movies, and revisiting the current Batman arc before the next one debuts.

I also feel like I watch a lot of TV, even without cable.  Slowly but surely, I’ve been working my way through Mad Men.  But now I’m waiting for the most current season, so I have to decide what to order next.  Before Mad Men I was on a Big Love kick, but I ran out.  There’s finally a new season, so I might go back to it.  And before Big Love, I was about halfway through The Sopranos, but I lost interest.  I had just watched The Wire, which was a tough act to follow… and okay, perhaps I was getting a little violence fatigued.

And here’s my biggest confession – I’ve even been to the theater recently, to see X-Men: First Class (which isn’t available from the library yet, but you can read the comics while you wait).  But it was only for the air conditioning, I swear!



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Why Anne Sexton Matters

So far, this year has been “The Year Without Fiction” for me, or nearly so.  Since I usually read a couple of novels a month, to have read less than a handful by this time of year is pretty much unprecedented.  There are a variety of reasons for this, some work-related, some otherwise, so I’ve had to make a choice when it comes to reading and my choice has resulted in “The Year Of Reading Poetry.”


Anne Sexton

This summer I determined that it was time to revisit the complete poetry of Anne Sexton, partly in preparation for next month’s session of the 3 Poems By … Discussion group and partly to return to someone whose work I’ve always admired and been deeply moved by since reading her complete poems over 20 years ago.

Sometimes when we revisit the work of an author we cherished when we were young, we come away vaguely or totally disappointed, the reading equivalent of “you can’t go home again.”  And then there are times we are still greatly moved and the experience deepens and is richer the second time around, as in the old Sammy Cahn penned, Frank Sinatra sung tune, “The Second Time Around.”

If anything, the work of Anne Sexton is more powerful and resonant today despite, or perhaps because of, the passing years and the now antiquated cultural mores.  Like her friend and fellow poet Sylvia Plath, Sexton was very much a product of American pre-women’s liberation culture and, like her friend, was, in effect, broken on the wheel of that culture.  The cliché of endless cigarettes and neat whiskey evoked by the Sinatra song give the lie to a romanticized version of America that is currently being deftly chronicled and just as precisely eviscerated on the AMC award winning series, Mad Men, a virtual filmatic expose of 50’s and 60’s life.  Alcoholism, madness, unwanted pregnancy, and abuse were the dark underside of those times.  Many, if not all of these elements, played a part in Sexton’s life and trials.

I can’t begin to imagine the courage it took for this lone woman to stand up and confront her madness in a public way at a time when most did not want to hear.  The cusp of change was rapidly approaching and perhaps the single greatest accomplishment of Sexton’s life was to bring these issues, with the help of psychoanalysis, into the public forum to be engaged, debated, and addressed.  She herself did not survive the battle but she helped pave the way for women to come through via the wide ranging influence and unflinching honesty of her work.

When we look at the legacy of that work, the most “important” poems, in fact, deal with madness and her heroic attempt to transcend it, in great part through her verse.  Poems such as “You, Doctor Martin,” “Her Kind,”  “For John, Who Begs Me Not to Inquire Further,” “The Truth the Dead Know,” “All My Pretty Ones,” “Music Swims Back to Me,” and “Wanting to Die” are that legacy, and rightly so.

But rather than concentrate, at least for the duration of this post, on the well-known work of the foremost practitioner of the “confessional school of poetry,” I would rather remember her for a less famous piece which, though it carries a vaguely ominous undercurrent of things to come, concentrates predominately on a moment in time in a young woman’s life when the promise of possibility still lay ahead.


A thousand doors ago
when I was a lonely kid
in a big house with four
garages and it was summer
as long as I could remember,
I lay on the lawn at night,
clover wrinkling under me,
the wise stars bedding over me,
my mother’s window a funnel
of yellow heat running out,
my father’s window, half shut,
an eye where sleepers pass,
and the boards of the house
were smooth and white as wax
and probably a million leaves
sailed on their strange stalks
as the crickets ticked together
and I, in my brand new body,
which was not a woman’s yet,
told the stars my questions
and thought God could really see
the heat and the painted light,
elbows, knees, dreams, goodnight.

If only the feeling of this moment, poised as it is on the edge of epiphany, might have lasted forever … but, of course, how could that ever be?

Perhaps that feeling is captured in a few lines of acutely rendered, poignant verse … .

– Don


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