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Difficult Men

Television today is full of complex drama, damaged characters, and questionable moral compasses – and we can't get enough. Journalist Brett Martin examines TV's "new Golden Age."

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There are many nifty details in "Difficult Men": Cable allowed shows to escape the rigid four-act structure of shows that had to fit in commercials and end in an hour on the dot. HBO producers spend wildly on cinematic shoots while the creator of "The Shield" cast his wife in a crucial role because she wouldn't abandon the fledgling show for another gig.

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And the late, great James Gandolfini faced personal demons as he wrestled with Tony Soprano, one of the most complex and fully drawn characters to ever appear on a screen. (He had company: Two of the stars of "Six Feet Under" also drooped under the weight of their deeply damaged characters.)

This isn't a book about actors, and they don't appear much more in "Difficult Men." No matter. What the book lacks in juicy Hollywood gossip it makes up in smart analysis and a comprehensive big-picture view of what makes shows precious in the best meaning of the word. In other words, not Northern Exposure-style "precious."

In his most elegant and moving passage, Martin describes shows like "Deadwood," "Six Feet Under," and "Rescue Me" as being about "death and love, parenthood and power, loss and longing, and, above all, the search – usually frustrated – for some form of human connection, down in the muck."

Martin also provides plenty of fodder for argument. The most obsessive fans of high-quality TV – the ones who consume and contribute to to the scads of online commentary – will read and quibble. Martin ignores or gives short shrift to influential shows like "Oz," "Southland," "Justified," and "Lost," the sole non-cable juggernaut drama. And did "The Sopranos" actually create the quality-TV revolution, as Martin contends, or simply serve as a link from past to present?

The shows themselves raise questions that aren't answered here. Is there a line between exposing the high cost of violence, a la "The Sopranos" and "Breaking Bad," and turning gore into a breathtaking visual feast as in the ultra-bloody "Dexter"? Why aren't women the creators and main stars of more of these shows? And where's the incubator for the next generation of quality TV as trailblazers like "Mad Men" and "Breaking Bad" call it quits?

Other authors can tackle those topics while I ponder the men who brought these shows to life.

Why couldn't success and loving families bring them happiness? How did they manage to be, to use the words of David Chase from another context, men who did bad things but were still good at their jobs and the smartest guys in the room? Do their stories about deep spiritual voids fill our own?

Somebody get me HBO on the line. I have a great idea for a new series.  

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