I read Difficult Men with the binge-like intensity of discovering Deadwood on DVD -- in three days, to the neglect of other responsibilities -- which makes sense, since the book is the story of all my favorite shows in one, a look at the great '00s revolution, when TV got good or, as Martin writes, "became the signature American art form of the twenty-first century."
As a true believer in the new TV-as-art, I've been waiting for years for someone to write an Easy Riders, Raging Bulls for the HBO era. It's one thing to rant over cocktails about the genius of today's TV, it's another to go out and do the research, explaining exactly what happened and why, what the technological and commercial forces were, who the visionaries were, why they had these particular visions, why their creations resonated with viewers, and how it all came together and spawned more.
Martin does all that, with dry wit and a flair for juicy detail. This is the book for people who want to know how Breaking Bad showrunner Vince Gilligan discovered Bryan Cranston when casting a particularly difficult bad-guy role for a one-off X-Files episode. Or who have always subconsciously wondered why and how The Sopranos had that particular theme song, in somewhat a weird genre for a mafia show.
The author takes us from the "picturesque but receptionless" hills in eastern Pennsylvania where cable television was born to the detailed behind-the-scenes politics of the writers' rooms of the shows that defined a new era.
The era, according to Martin, is of the antihero and the "difficult man" writer or showrunner behind him. It's a useful organizational theme, if limiting. Tony Soprano, the argument goes, proved that viewers would watch "unhappy, morally compromised, complicated, deeply human" characters and, TV being what it is, spawned a legion of such characters, from Nate Fischer and Vic Mackey to ultimate antihero, Walter White from Breaking Bad. It's all true. And of course, there are things you can say about how antiheros resonate in insecure, post-9/11 America. But for me, that's where the book skated on thinner ice. The antihero is just the gimmick that allows television to ask serious questions about morality and contemporary society. As David Simon, creator of The Wire said to Martin, the show was supposed to be "a piece of social activism." Viewers do watch Tony Soprano or Don Draper as wish-fulfillment, because these characters break rules that ordinary men can't, but that truth can obscure the deeper ways both shows are about rules, and how we as a society make them, and what they mean.
Still, Difficult Men is an authoritative and downright riveting account of the stories behind these shows. This is especially important to note since the book was robbed in its NY Times review by Michiko Kakutani, which claims, unfairly, that "large swaths of Mr. Martin's new book, Difficult Men, will be familiar to readers of Alan Sepinwall's popular blog, What's Alan Watching?, and his astute 2012 book, The Revolution Was Televised," and then goes on to complain that the book's thesis is too narrow to include other shows Michiko Kakutani likes.
I've read part of the Sepinwell book and, while they're both about some of the same shows and the same time period, they're very different in execution. Sepinwell has written a collection of essays about nine or 10 supposedly great shows of the era (Buffy?), rich in fan lore and the anecdotal benefits of real time coverage -- he interviewed David Chase right after The Sopranos final episode aired, for example -- but without a sustained reportorial approach to "the revolution."
Here is the same anecdote about David Chase casting James Gandolfini, told quite differently in the two books:
Sepinwell: ...Chase found it to his advantage to have a pair of actors at the center that the audience had no expectations for. ... And it helped that Gandolfini himself never tried to protect his image.... If anything, Gandolfini often took things further than Chase had planned, like a scene in the pilot where Tony discovers Christopher has sent a mob-movie script to a cousin who works in Hollywood. The scene called for Tony to slap Christopher lightly across the face; instead, Gandolfini picked up the smaller Imperioli to make his displeasure clear. And I went, 'all right, I got it. This is big shit, this is serious,' says Chase."
Martin: "Within days, Chase received powerful confirmation that casting Gandolfini had been the right move. He was directing a scene in which Christopher is complaining to Tony about not receiving enough credit for a job. As written, Tony gives him a quick slap, but instead, "Jim fucking went nuts -- picked him up, and grabbed him by the neck and just about throttled him." Chase had to catch his breath. "I thought, 'Wow. Right! That's exactly right!"
I don't know which one is more correct in terms of the scene/location of the slap but the Martin anecdote is clearly more detailed and serving a more coherent narrative point. (Also, disclosure, I worked with Brett Martin years ago and have personal knowledge of his excellent writing and reporting skills.)
In any case, both books make valuable contributions to the lore, and Martin's for me, provides answers to questions I started having over 10 years ago, when shows became baroque and obscene and wise, and us hoopleheads had to wonder, "If TV is suddenly art, who is the artist? And what changed to make this possible? And holyfuckingshit, did they just do that?"