By Brett Martin
In his latest book of musings on pop culture, I Wear the Black Hat, Chuck Klosterman allows that he’s been genuinely surprised by one recent media development. “A lot of unforeseen things happened to television at the end of the twenty-first century, the strangest being that it actually became good,” he writes. “In one ten-year span, high-end television usurped the cultural positions of film, rock, and literary fiction. The way people talked about TV radically changed, and so did the way we judged its quality.”
One can usually argue with Klosterman’s take on just about everything, but in this case he’s on safe ground. Television did take off in this period, to the point where A-list film director Steven Soderbergh declared just this year that he was giving up on movies and switching to television. And he even his reasons:
American movie audiences now just don’t seem to be very interested in any kind of ambiguity or any kind of real complexity of character or narrative . . . I think those qualities are now being seen on television and that people who want to see stories that have those kinds of qualities are watching television.
Brett Martin’s Difficult Men tells the inside, behind-the-scenes story of this “Third Golden Age” of television, one that has seen the “open-ended, twelve- or thirteen-episode [per season] serialized drama” become “the signature Ameican art form of the first decade of the twenty-first century.” His focus is on the development of the major cable series that have defined what he calls the New TV (shows like The Sopranos, The Wire, Six Feet Under, Mad Men, and Breaking Bad), as well as the personalities of their creators and principal “showrunners.”
If that makes it sound like it’s going to be a similar book to Peter Biskind’s account of the creative renaissance in American movies a generation earlier, Easy Riders, Raging Bulls, that’s not by accident. Many of the showrunners, chief among them The Sopranos‘ David Chase, idolized that period in American film, and Martin sees them as direct inheritors, their work being “the equivalent of what the films of Scorsese, Altman, Coppola, and others had been to the 1970s or the novels of Updike, Roth and Mailer had been to the 1960s.”
As a series companion and general backgrounder on shows that are now household names and watercooler material, Martin’s book covers the field nicely and even fans will find it informative. But as a cultural history of this period it is even more intriguing.
How, we have to ask, did such a seismic creative shift happen in the first place?
There were many reasons. Starting with the technology, televisions themselves were bigger and better, making watching TV a preferable alternative to going out to see a movie. Then the splintering of the television audience into smaller segments made it possible to take risks with edgier, darker material because there wasn’t such a need to pander to advertisers. It’s noteworthy that the networks all passed on The Sopranos when it was offered to them.
Another development that immediately paid huge dividends was that the demand for large amounts of original content on the cable networks put writers, at least temporarily, in the driver’s seat.
As the saying goes, if you have a good script you’ll always have an at least decent film, but if you have a lousy script you’re only ever going to have garbage. But by the late 1990s television was moving away from scripted programming altogether with “reality TV,” and in Hollywood the screenwriter had long since ceased to matter. For the New TV, however, the writers (Martin’s “difficult men”) were masters of their domain.
But in the end the main reason cable drama took off is a negative one: these shows filled a vacuum. Both network television and mainstream moviemaking had become a vast wasteland of juvenile, formulaic entertainment in the ’90s. For adults, there was literally nothing to watch either at home or at the local multiplex.
The New TV’s adult-oriented, morally ambiguous, long-form storytelling saved the day. Yes, these shows could sometimes stray into soap opera territory (I still think of The Walking Dead as essentially a soap opera with zombies lumbering around in the background), but at their best they really were, as Martin argues, the best and most interesting filmmaking being done anywhere. And all of this with limited budgets and largely unknown casts. James Gandolfini’s recent death was major news, but before The Sopranos he was only a minor supporting actor. As for the rest, all of those who had heard of Dominic West, Jon Hamm, or Bryan Cranston before their series took off, please raise your hands.
How long will the good times last? Martin isn’t sure, and no one else is either. Some veteran big-name talent has been drawn in to the game (Scorsese’s Boardwalk Empire, Jessica Lange in American Horror Story, Dustin Hoffman in Luck) but with mixed results. As with any artistic form or medium you have to expect peaks and troughs. Of the giants Martin discusses, The Sopranos, The Wire, and Six Feet Under have come and gone, and Mad Men and Breaking Bad are down to their final seasons. Surfing channels today reveals no clear inheritors, and there is even some early evidence that success is spoiling the cable networks, with a tendency for some of the newer programs to slip into now established formulas. Meanwhile, the environment continues to change at a rapid pace, leading to different creative opportunities and perhaps creating the conditions for another revolution. In his conclusion, Martin points to the “ever-multiplying, ever more fragmented platforms and systems used to deliver media,” and singles out Netflix (not previously thought of as a content producer) as an example. As if to prove his point, House of Cards, which premiered on Netflix, recently became the first Internet show to be nominated for an Emmy (gathering nine nominations in all, including outstanding drama).
My only fear is that in order for another real revolution to happen we’re going to first have to enter another wasteland. Until then, the best advice is to sit back and enjoy the shows.
Review first published in the Toronto Star, July 12 2013.