After first starting it, I actually didn't think I would end up reading Brett Martin's Difficult Men: Behind the Scenes of a Creative Revolution--From The Sopranos and The Wire to Mad Men and Breaking Bad.
But I did. I'm helpless when it comes to books about television. I did read the whole thing, although I'll admit to skimming quite a bit as well. The basic idea is this: TV has been evolving to the point where we are seeing a wide variety of characters that are really not that likable. And this is a good, nuanced thing. Here's some of the jacket copy, to give you a better idea of what this book is all about:
"In the late 1990s and early 2000s, the landscape of television began an unprecedented transformation. While the networks continued to chase the lowest common denominator, a wave of new shows, first on premium cable channels like HBO and then basic cable networks like FX and AMC, dramatically stretched television's narrative inventiveness, emotional resonance, and artistic ambition.
A new breed of auteur--given the chance to make art in a famously maligned medium--took full advantage, sometimes proving to be nearly as conflicted, idiosyncratic, and 'difficult' as the complicated protagonists that came to define the genre."
Everything I read about television lately seems to suggest that we are currently in a great age for high-quality storytelling. (And after getting sucked in to re-runs of "MacGyver" on MeTV the last couple of weeks, okay, I can see their point that there was a lot of dross TV in the 80s and 90s. Although I still find Richard Dean Anderson super-cute, even with a mullet.)
So far so good. But I find that I am tiring just a bit of all the glowing reviews and study of television programs that almost exclusively feature (and are created by) "difficult men." Perhaps I am not being fair to these programs, as I am largely uninterested in them. Of the shows listed in the book's subtitle, I know I had NO interest in "The Sopranos" because Mr. CR watched that series long before we had kids and I certainly would have had time to watch with him. I really don't want to watch "Breaking Bad," although I have loved Bryan Cranston since he played the hilarious dad Hal on the sitcom "Malcolm in the Middle" (which was more my speed than a program about a teacher-becoming-a-meth-lord). "The Wire" sounds somewhat interesting but I think it's going to be as depressing as hell. I have seen most of "Mad Men" and it was okay, but I haven't seen the last two seasons and I can't say I'm in any hurry to correct that situation.
So I am not really the target audience for this book. I can't fault its writing; it's interesting and there's a lot of interview material and behind-the-scenes information about how these (and more) shows were created and filmed. It jumps around a bit and I don't really know what the author made his case that these "difficult men" are making TV shows about difficult men that are among the best ever made.
But at the end of the day I think I'm just kind of tired of everything that men touch and watch and create, particularly when such creations focus on such traditionally "male" worlds as crime, advertising, the mob, etc. (I'm also really tired of no one but men rating movies and doing TV writing.) And I really don't need to hear about such men complaining about their mid-life crises. Here's a quote from this book about Matthew Weiner, creator of "Mad Men," on how the show came about:
"As he told Terry Gross on National Public Radio's Fresh Air, he remembered the thought that led him to first hearing Don Draper's voice: 'I was 35 years old; I had a job on a network sitcom; it was rated number nine...there's 300 people in the country that have this job, and I was one. I had three children, and...this incredible life--you know, I was like, 'What is wrong with me? Why am I unhappy? Why is there so much going on in my head that I can't express to other people because it's all awful? And what is enough? And I'm going to die one day.' And I'm looking at it and saying, 'This is it?'" (p. 242.)
And I'm looking at THAT and saying, yeah, Matthew Weiner, why were you so unhappy? If that's the impulse that led to the creation of that show (and may be leading to the creation of a lot of similar shows), well, I guess I can see why I'm not too interested. Let me close by quoting a truly great movie, "Broadcast News." It's the exchange between William Hurt, the hot but stupid news anchor, and Albert Brooks, the smart but decidedly not-hot reporter:
Hurt: "What do you do when your real life exceeds your dreams?"
Brooks hisses: "Keep it to yourself."
I guess that's where I am right now. Are your real lives exceeding your dreams, boys? Keep it to yourselves.