Few tidy endings, rarely a lesson learned, and not a thin drop of whimsy. No white or black hats, just shades of gray that pulse by the minute. And all-too-human humans, brimming with contradiction and complexity, lost in halls of mirrors that bend and crack, distort and reflect.
Sounds like a literary concoction, missing only a variation on "borne back ceaselessly into the past." But throw in a few other ingredients – like some of the best scripts since a show-runner named Shakespeare roamed a stage – and you've got a recipe for a revolution.
For more than a decade, a steady stream of ground-breaking shows have produced a new Golden Age of Television, at least for the few million viewers who watch them. Segregated in basic and premium cable, they spawn more buzz than bucks. But those who do tune in are won over by "ruthless" storylines that are "more ambiguous and complicated than anything that television ... had ever seen."
To borrow a term from the comic-book world, what's the origin story? How did the producers, networks, directors, and "show-runners" – whatever the heck they are – produce the "signature American art form" of this century? Journalist Brett Martin unspools the fascinating tale in Difficult Men: Behind the Scenes of a Creative Revolution from The Sopranos and The Wire to Mad Men and Breaking Bad.
Pay no attention to the unwieldy title but do take note of the first two words and their sly double-meaning. Sure, the male stars of these shows are intensely and even maniacally difficult. More importantly for the book's purposes, so are the men behind them. "Damaged Men" is an even better description (almost as good as "Tormented Geniuses") for almost-household-names like David Chase, Alan Ball, and David Simon. The book is rife with tales of arrogance, insecurity, and whisper-thin skin. Just like on their shows, happy workplaces are rare and personal pasts loom large.
David Chase, the creator of "The Sopranos," draws upon his own wretched relationship with his mother to create the show's murderous matriarch. Other characters in these shows – Don Draper in "Mad Men," most notably – are driven and repelled by their personal histories.
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.
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.