The unexpected death of James Gandolfini, who was best known for his work on the series “The Sopranos,” recently re-ignited the conversation over How Much Television has Changed, which has become so intense and widespread in the last few years that books are now being written about it.
Last year, critic Alan Sepinwall self-published “The Revolution Was Televised: The Cops, Crooks, Slingers, and Slayers Who Changed TV Drama Forever” to such attention it has just been re-issued by Simon & Schuster’s Touchstone imprint. This summer, magazine journalist Brett Martin follows with his own book, “Difficult Men: Behind the Scenes of a Creative Revolution: From The Sopranos and The Wire to Mad Men and Breaking Bad.”
Along with the r-word and those regrettably long subtitles, Sepinwall and Martin share the same initial thesis: Television is the most significant voice in popular culture because that is where writers are allowed the most freedom.
Not surprisingly, the two trip over each other’s feet more than occasionally. As with the WGA’s recently released list of the 101 Best Written Television Series, “The Sopranos” is rhapsodized as this revolution’s shot heard ‘round the world. HBO in general gets a lot of attention, as does “Mad Men” and AMC. The crankiness of David Chase (“The Sopranos”), the mood swings of David Milch (“Deadwood”) and the control issues of Matt Weiner (“Mad Men”) are discussed in both books, and each author pays homage to the grandsires of this age of enlightenment, including Grant Tinker and Steven Bochco — without “Hill Street Blues,” there would be no “Sopranos,” premium cable be damned.
But while they spring from the same fertile soil, “The Revolution Was Televised” and “Difficult Men” follow very different paths. Sepinwall goes broad and analytical, explaining the narrative importance of 12 shows he considers influential, while Martin goes deep and personal, arguing that the fractured psyches and outsized worldviews of a talented few once again changed cultural discourse. Both provide clear and tantalizing windows on the creative process, and prove, by their very existence, how much things have changed — once upon a time, these sorts of reported analyses were reserved for theater and film.
A pioneer of the art form now known as recapping, Sepinwall was an early chronicler of the revolution; while writing about television for the Star-Ledger in Newark, he started the blog “What’s Alan Watching,” which became a template for the episode-by-episode analysis that helped create the obsessive audiences so many shows now seek (often in lieu of high ratings). Enthusiastic and informed, he begins his book by essentially debunking the hook for Martin’s — the notion that quality television began with “The Sopranos.”
Plenty of terrific television pre-dated its arrival on HBO and continues to exist outside the premium cable universe, including, according to Sepinwall, “Lost,” “Buffy the Vampire Slayer,” “24,” “Battlestar Galactica,” and “Friday Night Lights,” which he includes along with the pantheon of heroic usual suspects: “The Sopranos,” “Oz,” “The Wire,” “Deadwood,” “The Shield,” “Mad Men” and “Breaking Bad.”
Each chapter tells the story of a particular show, combining interviews and behind-the-scenes anecdotes with a critical analysis studded by exquisite detail. Reading “The Revolution” is a rewarding but often exhausting experience, like binge-watching 12 very different shows with a smart, knowledgeable and over-caffeinated friend.
Fortunately, Sepinwall’s knowledge is so vast, his enthusiasm so infectious that he leads the reader over some typographical road bumps — the text is littered with foot-noted asides in italics — and in my case complete and utter disagreement with some of his opinions. (“Lost?” Really?) As people in- and outside the industry often note, he knows his stuff.
A correspondent for GQ, Brett Martin’s knowledge of television is less encyclopedic; he describes the genre as having “a reputation somewhere beneath comic strips and just above religious pamphlets.” But after being hired by HBO to write a book about “The Sopranos” (2007’s “The Sopranos: The Book”), he became “convinced that something new and important was going on,” experiencing a personal journey that mirrors that of the many-similar-minded Americans who still can’t quite believe how good TV has gotten, no matter how many times we critics point it out.
Not surprisingly, “Difficult Men” is quite HBO-centric, opening with the 2002 disappearance of the always mercurial James Gandolfini from the set of “The Sopranos.” (With the actor’s recent death, that story and indeed all the stories and details gathered during his initial reporting feel elegiac and epic.) As the title suggests, Martin branches out to include “The Shield” (FX) and “Mad Men” and “Breaking Bad” (AMC) — or rather their creators, the difficult men of the title whom Martin presents as the Continental Congress of this particular revolution. (Indeed, as you read you can almost imagine Weiner or “The Wire’s” David Simon griping about Chase’s status the way John Adams complained about Ben Franklin’s.)
Having narrowed his field to “the open-ended, 12- or 13-episode serialized drama” he would compare to the films of Scorsese and the novels of Mailer (i.e. tough-guy shows), Martin leans heavily on a Wild West motif in which men too long confined by the traditional networks were allowed to release their inner mavericks. Fueled by tales of inner and on-set turmoil, “Difficult Men” treats show runners with the sort of bad-boy admiration most usually associated with profiles of Jack Nicholson or books about John Huston.
As a portrait of a particular group of men at a particular time, it’s fascinating stuff, if a bit over-traveled. Certainly the careers of the boy band Three Davids and a Matt (Chase, Simon, Milch and Weiner) have been chronicled to the point of over-saturation. The utter maleness of it all is also a bit overwhelming; thank God for HBO’s Sheila Nevins, who at least ensures a few uses of the female pronoun in the discussions of the history and meaning of certain shows.
Indeed, masculinity is as much a theme of the book as television. Martin is a thorough reporter and artful storyteller, clearly entranced with, though not deluded by, his subjects who are all brilliant, literate and difficult in that swaggering, waddaya lookin’ at way that we invariably demand from our mavericks.
In between the delicious bits of insider trading, the book makes a strong if not terribly revelatory argument for the creative process — if a network is willing to spend money, take chances, and offer as much freedom as possible, great things can happen.
Also not so great things, as HBO has found over the years, rolling out just as many duds as hits, often from some of the same creators. Because there is no real formula for success or revolution, no writer with a magical golden touch, and television is far more collaborative than Martin leads us to believe.
The auteur theory, while an excellent organizing tool for magazine articles and books, is even less true in television. But as with any cultural shift, the chronicle must begin somewhere, and if the shows Martin has chosen do not constitute the entire revolution, he has certainly given us a fine and thorough look at Lexington and Concord.
Behind the Scenes of a Creative Revolution: From The Sopranos and The Wire to Mad Men and Breaking Bad
Penguin Press: 320 pp, $27.95
The Revolution Was Televised
The Cops, Crooks, Slingers, and Slayers Who Changed TV Drama Forever
Touchstone: 400 pp., $16.99 paper