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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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.

The new era in television presented viewers with a "humanized red state," featuring male leads who were working-class, gangsters, firemen, and Republicans. How did these ideas fit into America's cultural/political context in the late '90s?

If you look at the first wave of shows, which happened at a time when the right was ascendant in American politics, in which we were in an anxious state in the world, and the question of American power and male power was very much front and center, if you look at those heroes, they were not HBO's audience. They were not your average coastal, generally liberal viewer. I'm generalizing tremendously, but I think that there was a way in which, sub-textually, it was comforting to recognize that the monsters among us could also be human. It's your Tony Soprano/Dick Cheney. The attraction/repulsion to that was in the air. I think it's striking that post-Obama, what you have on these shows are things like Girls and The Newsroom which are showing the audience themselves. I'm not totally sure I understand why, but it's notable that the mission of showing the viewers something other than themselves seems to have evolved into something else.

How did emphasis shift from ratings to the ideas of brand and buzz that drove the creative movement in cable TV?

That's the key in many ways. In cable landscape, where there are thousands of channels, the worst fate for a station is not having low ratings--it's disappearing. It's not being picked up and ceasing to exist. In order to be valuable, more important than having a lot of people watching your show is having people who know about your show. It's identity, brand, people needing to watch the show because it's culturally illiterate not to. That invites new, risky, exciting work.

So networks can't really compete.

They tried with Friday Night Lights, which was ambitious and smart, and tried to do a lot of the things these cable shows did, but it simply couldn't work. [They] couldn't get enough people to watch it. Their imperative to have the largest possible ratings remains. There was a time, in the Second Golden Age, when networks believed it was part of their mission to have a small sliver of the dial set aside for prestige, for Emmy-winning shows, but they've ceded that to cable. That said, they've been much better at cultivating and sustaining almost revolutionary comedy during that period.

How are these television series more like films than earlier shows?

You used to have a conversation that was ping-ponged, one shot, one shot, two shot, two shot, and there's no question that television shows now look cinematic, and the people doing them insisted on them looking like film. We were getting long, beautiful shots, shots where you'd get the reaction of a character instead of the character talking. It looked like film. By the time you got to Breaking Bad, some of that stuff looks like it's coming out of a John Ford Western. At the same time, there's the recognition that this is where the good work is. You get film people--actors, directors, cinematographers, editors--who would never have in a million years, their agents wouldn't have allowed them to audition for television. That's clearly broken down.

What was it like to work on Difficult Men without having been a TV critic?

There were periods when I was working on this where I needed to mute all the TV critics because it was too much for me. This is a river that keeps running, and the pressure to watch everything became hard. The sea of words every Monday morning on these shows is dazzling and intimidating. I personally do better with some distance. I had to come to a point where I thought it was a virtue rather than a handicap.

What do you think about the state of television criticism today?

There's no question at this point that there should be no difference in stature between a TV writer and a film writer, despite the age-old prejudice. There's some amazing stuff, and there's also more stuff than ever.

Alan Ball, show runner for Six Feet Under, said, "Heroes are much better suited for movies. I'm interested in real people. And real people are fucked up." Does TV lend itself to complex characters?

When you have the time to tell a 13-hour, 26-hour, 39-hour story, when you don't have to end artificially, that lends itself to serious work. Film in the last ten years, by and large, is more analogous to the networks--they still need a massive audience. I think there's something innate in television--the open-endedness--that makes it suited to evolve as long as the show can sustain, and that necessitates a dark view of life. One of the great themes of these shows is addiction and falling back into it. Nobody gets better. It keeps the story-engine moving.

Creating these shows is such a collaborative effort. How much credit should show runners get?

I think it's a bit of a false divide. You can believe that a show wouldn't exist without the show runner, that they are the creator with a capital "C," while also understanding that other people bring it to the mix. But ultimately it's the show runner's call. Fostering the right environment. Knowing when to say no and when to say yes. Hiring and firing the right people. All that is part of the collaboration and also doesn't take away from the authorship that belongs to the show runner. Even the most autocratic show runners would tell you that other people are vital to their success. And the most democratic ones, like Vince Gilligan, are still the final arbiters.

What about the women behind these shows--both behind the scenes and onscreen?

There have never been as many opportunities for women as there have been for men. But there are women that play vital roles in the story, whether it's Carolyn Strauss at HBO or Susie Fitzgerald, now at AMC, who was a huge part of the creation of The Sopranos, or the female writers in all the writers' rooms. The simple truth is that not only were all the top dogs behind the shows all men, but their shows were anchored by male characters. That said, Carmela Soprano is a rich, deep, complicated and heroic character. Skyler White, Peggy Olson, Joan Harris, and Betty Draper are all incredible roles that the actresses bring enormous depth to. So even in this mostly-male world, women are everywhere.

But where are our female antiheroes? Would viewers tolerate a woman strangling someone with her bare hands like Tony Soprano, or aren't we there yet?

I think that there are different boundaries, but once they're crossed, it will be an exhilarating artistic day. There was the boundary before Tony killed that guy. It blew up everything we thought television could be. I think we have trouble with certain behavior, but that's where exciting art gets made.

Of all the shows you write about, is there one that stands out for you personally?

Even though I spend the entire book arguing that they should be considered together, they're each very different experiences. All highly ambitious, but ambitious in different ways. There should be no American that hasn't watched The Wire. Fifth season notwithstanding, The Wire is mandatory viewing. Period. Is it my favorite? I don't know.