When I was a kid growing up in the 1970s, television drama fell into two categories: there was the homegrown mix of high-quality worthy but stagey UK productions that ran for between six and 13 episodes per series; and then there were the fun, flashy American imports which had little nutritional value but were handy for network schedulers as they came in seasons of 22 or more episodes that they could be shown in any order you wanted, as the events in one story were forgotten about by the start of next week’s instalment.
This sense that the US television networks just churned out endless mass-entertainment procedurals week after week – never mind the qualify, just feel the number of episodes available for syndication – persisted for two decades more, despite a brief false dawn when we had Hill Street Blues, St Elsewhere and other series from the MTM production company which seemed to show that intelligent writing with story and character progression really was possible even within the grinding 22-episode production line system. But eventually those shows faded away, with ongoing plot development a luxury relegated to the ghetto of the primetime ‘soaps’ such as Dallas in order to allow the easier-to-produce mundanity to resume elsewhere.
That is, until the end of the 1990s. The cable company HBO was starting to get anxious about the churn rate of subscribers who were cancelling after seeing all the movies they wanted on the service and feeling there were no other reasons to hang around. The executives at HBO realised they needed something fresh and original, something ongoing and exclusive to their channel alone, something that would force subscribers to stick around if they didn’t want to miss out on the talk around the watercooler the following morning. (It’s interesting to see a resurgence of this attitude today with the streaming companies like Netflix and LoveFilm/Amazon all investing in new original programming in order to get a jump on their competitors in the battle to sign up new subscribers.)
HBO took the plunge on a project that could easily have been a motion picture itself: the story of a mob boss so unhappy and anxious about his life that he is forced to see a psychiatrist. The mob boss was Tony Soprano, and when HBO commissioned David Chase’s series they not only created one of the greatest TV dramas and characters in history, they changed the way that the television industry itself works and understands itself.
Difficult Men is the story of this change, using The Sopranos as its jumping off point to show how the revolution at HBO swept out to transform other cable networks and led to the creation of some of the best drama ever made for television. It’s so good in fact that in many ways the small screen has finally succeeded in toppling cinema as the pinnacle of the entertainment world, leaving the movies showing big dumb blockbusters featuring fighting robots for the kids while the adults stay in and watch vastly better quality fare in the comfort of their own homes.
The focus of much of the early part of the book is on HBO and the way that it followed up the breakthrough success of The Sopranos with the likes of Six Feet Under, True Blood and of course The Wire. But it’s also a sad tale of how the success of HBO also started to make the company afraid of failing in public, and how they stopped taking the chance of backing creativity for its own sake – so much so that they went on to pass on shows like Mad Men and Breaking Bad which have become today’s shining stars of the quality television firmament for other networks still young and hungry enough to take the risk and reap the rewards.
Most of all, Difficult Men is about the men (and they’re almost exclusively male) who created these game-changing shows: David Chase being the prototype but soon followed by David Simon, David Milch, Matthew Weiner, Vince Gilligan and Alan Ball to name but a few. Brett Martin’s book is in large part a biography and character profile of these people, and what fascinating subjects they prove to be – each of them worthy of being the fatally flawed central character of an HBO drama themselves. Few of them come across as people you’d want to know, Chase portrayed no better in print than he does in his famously curt and churlish TV interviews but still sounding like a saint next to the accounts of some of the others such as Milch whose incredible talent was matched in his heyday only by his spiralling vices.
And that’s one of the key questions at the heart of this fascinating, compelling and highly revealing account of the rise of the showrunner phenomenon and its impact in the US television industry. Does the fact that so many of these creative geniuses seem simultaneously capable of some really quite despicable mean-spirited behaviour undermine their artistic successes? Or is such a blinkered, bulldozer approach not only forgiveable but absolutely mandatory for achieving that success in the first place? Chase, for example, remained utterly intransigent over HBO’s request to change the title of the show to the twee “Family Man”; he gave ground to the company when they wanted changes to the script for the show’s most famous first season episode “College” but regretted it ever after and refused to do so again – although by that time HBO had come to realise that when Chase dug his heels in about something he was invariably correct and were now happy to back well off rather than risk another brutal battle that they would lose anyway.
In television it seems you don’t just need to be the smartest and most creative guy in the room, but also the most mean, bull-headed, intransigent and bloody-minded one as well if you’re going to successfully see off the myriad encroachments from the besuited executives who would peck and pick any project under their purview to death – just like always happened at one of the Big Four networks. But there are exceptions, people who can be successful showrunners able to shepherd their vision to the screen without also having to turn themselves into horrible people to be around in the process. Alan Ball is not without his faults but comes out of Difficult Men well, although even he is outshone by Breaking Bad creator Vince Gilligan whose considerate and collegiate ‘southern gentlemen’ way of running the writing room is a breath of fresh air and proof that decency is possible and not automatically incompatible with achieving success.
The more you read about these people and the environment in which they work, the more you find yourself asking whether you’d put up with the Faustian bargain of working for one of more challenging showrunners in exchange for the chance to produce perhaps the best work you’ll ever do in your entire career as a result of that crucible. Time and again you read about how horribly someone had been treated, and read their words raging against their former boss, but in almost every case the subject will follow it up in the same breath with an admission that it was one of the best experiences of their lives and an invaluable education in how to get things done – and most of all, a privilege to work with true unalloyed genius no matter how sour things had got later on.
Difficult Men depicts a fascinating world that has little parallel to the UK as far as I am aware. The phenomenon of the writers room let alone the showrunner is still a comparitively rare presence limited to the likes of the year-round soaps like Coronation Street and EastEnders. In the drama field, Paul Abbott’s Shameless might perhaps be the production to have gone furthest down this road to date. It’s also quite striking that while the US model has moved toward the shorter 10- or 12-part series that used to define the drama output of the UK, we on this side of the Atlantic seem to have learned few of the corresponding lessons from the States – which might explain why our biggest TV export is the timeless Downton Abbey, a show that could easily be mistaken for the 1970s Upstairs, Downstairs with a creative process supporting it similarly stuck in aspic.
Russell T Davies was famously described as the showrunner for the 2005 Doctor Who reboot and it’s true that his fingerprints were over every aspect of the show during his tenure. However, that show works more as an ongoing anthology series in which each episode is mainly a standalone effort by an individual writer getting notes and a final polish from the top man, rather than the US model depicted in Difficult Men. Davies’ successor in the post Steven Moffat has more fish to fry (including simultaneously running Sherlock) and has redefined the role to that of head writer and talent scout, handing out story ideas to proven writers and trusting them to deliver the goods without too much hand-holding – something that might explain the more uneven and frustrating experience of recent seasons of the show, whereas with Davies you always knew the tone of what you were going to get at the end.
Of course, Difficult Men doen’t cover any such UK aspects, but the good news is that it doesn’t think that the revolution in the industry started with HBO alone. I was very pleased to find that the book also gives proper coverage to some of the ground-breaking pre-HBO talents like Stephen Bochco and Grant Tinker from the MTM days, and even Chris Carter with the 1990s The X-Files. That helps Brett Martin deliver a full history of the last four decades of the US TV industry alongside all the other treats in the book.
It’s not a work that will appeal to everyone – if you have no interest in TV production and the great US dramas of the last 15 years then you will absolutely want to give this one a miss. But if those topics have any appeal to you whatsoever then this is pretty much a must-buy, one that’s well-written, startlingly quick and easy to read, and packed with eye-opening backstage details about how your favourite American dramas came to the screen in the way that they did.
Available from all good book sellers for £14.99 RRP, and also in e-book format for the Kindle from Amazon.co.uk for about half that.