Why Is the Golden Age of TV So Dark?

A new book explains the link between the rise of antihero protaganists and the unprecedented abundance of great TV (and what Dick Cheney has to do with it).
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HBO; AMC

Brett Martin has always been a magazine writer, not a TV critic. But after writing a behind-the-scenes companion to The Sopranos for HBO in 2007, he felt sure that something profound was happening in the world of television: Since the late 1990s, a wave of hour-long dramas had been scrapping the rules of traditional TV by introducing complicated characters and raising the quality--in terms of production, writing, and visuals--to a cinematic level.

In his new book, Difficult Men, Martin calls this era the "Third Golden Age" of TV (following its early days in the '50s and the birth of network dramas in the '80s).

According to Martin, The Sopranos' James Gandolfini was "the man on whose broad, burdened shoulders the Third Golden Age was borne into our lives." Tony Soprano was the first in a line of male antiheroes--followed by several more of what Martin refers to as "difficult men," like The Wire's Omar Little, Dexter's Dexter Morgan, Mad Men's Don Draper, Breaking Bad's Walter White, Boardwalk Empire's Nucky Thompson, and others--who challenged audiences' expectations of a main character. These were complicated male leads whose actions can be described as morally ambiguous at best. And not only have viewers tuned in to watch these men, but they actually root for them--questionable behavior and all.

But just as complicated as the characters themselves, Martin argues, are the men who created them: David Chase (The Sopranos), Matthew Weiner (Mad Men), David Milch (Deadwood) and Vince Gilligan (Breaking Bad). Martin offers readers a look at the process behind the shows, headed by a group of ambitious, creative, and, yes, often difficult men.

The response to Gandolfini's death illustrates the extent to which The Sopranos marked a major turning point in TV history. Television in the first decade of the 2000s became "the signature American art form," Martin writes--"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." I spoke with Martin about how this transformation has unfolded, how these shows humanize characters that would historically have been cast as villains, and whether there are any "difficult women" in television's near future.


What circumstances came together to bring us the Third Golden Age in TV?

What is usually required for this kind of revolution is a confluence of business, technological, and artistic currents, and that's what you had beginning around the time of The Sopranos. Television was becoming more and more diversified. The big networks were ceding some of their monopoly to cable. Cable was proliferating like crazy. Televisions themselves are becoming better all the time; they were something you could view cinematic work on. And the beginning of a stream of technologies that allowed you to watch at any time. So the network telling you when to watch was starting to fall away. And you could return to a serialized format. It was on DVRs, on demand, and so on--different ways that television came into our lives. These were the preconditions. The thing that had ruled television from the time it was born--the advertiser--and the need for massive ratings no longer is the most important thing. When you take away that, an enormous new universe of artistic possibility opens up.

You wrote a behind-the-scenes companion about The Sopranos for HBO in 2007. What was that experience like?

They were interested in doing a celebration of what the show had been, something that was commensurate with the status of the show, at a point when it was clear that the show would be remembered forever. I treated it like a reporting job, interviewed everybody, and found myself in this world of incredible artistry and incredible work. In a medium they had gone into without the expectation that they would ever be allowed to do that. The striking thing, which I said to David Chase, and I don't think he really understood what I meant, was that it gave me anxiety to be there, to be in the costume department. If it wasn't for this accident of faith, all these people doing this great work would have been doing it for shows I'd never heard of. I got to watch Gandolfini work, which was one of the great pleasures of my career. To watch him play that role was like watching a great violinist at the top of his game, or a great athlete. I left believing that I had been privy to something special.

How did Tony Soprano mark the beginning of the Third Golden Age in TV?

You know how much it changed things because of how commonplace it seems now. There are certain moments that so completely transform your expectation that it's hard to remember how radical they were at the time. People still talk about Ozzie and Harriet sharing a bed. It's hard to remember that it was radical. If you leave aside for a moment what Tony did for a living, to have a leading man who was 40 and looked older, heavy, balding, breathed heavy, and was sleeping with a bunch of women other than his wife and dressed like Tony Soprano did, that alone--to have Gandolfini as a leading man--was completely radical. To have him kill a man with his bare hands while taking his daughter on a college trip--again, in an era of post-Dexter and Deadwood and Breaking Bad, it may not seem like a big deal--was a huge deal. It went against everything that people thought they knew about television. People would reject a complicated hero in their own houses. There might be a small sliver that would be entranced by it in films, but you couldn't have a hero be a killer and be that complicated. David Chase played a large part in that, the writing played a large part, but it's become clear as we've seen more and more--we've had this chance, a very sad chance, to revisit the work--that it is the completeness he brought to the role that allowed that to happen. That he didn't mask any of the ugliness of Tony at all, but he brought a kind of soulfulness to him. That's why it worked, and that opened the doors to everybody.

Tony Soprano was in therapy, which was a central aspect of the show. Unraveling identity is fundamental to many of the other shows--Mad Men, Breaking Bad, etc.--as well. How do these characters represent a more nuanced concept of masculinity?

These characters are male (and to some extent, female) wish fulfillments. At the same time, they make us question why that is. There's no doubt that a large part of men watching Tony wanted to be Tony. What that made us think about ourselves was part of the tension of watching that show. And women who wanted to be Tony, or found Tony sexy, had good reason to question themselves about why that might be. I've just re-watched the pilot, of Breaking Bad, and I know where this is headed, but I still root for Walter White in that pilot to get up off the ground and kick some ass. That is how powerful that fantasy of seizing the masculine power is. In part, it's because the earlier stuff was made by men who had lived through huge upheavals in the definition of what it meant to be a man.

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Hope Reese is a writer and editor based in Louisville, Kentucky. She writes for The Boston Globe, The Chicago Tribune, and The Paris Review. She also hosts a radio podcast for IdeaFestival. Her website is hopereese.com.

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