Following the death of James Gandolfini on June 19, GQ writer Brett Martin wrote on the magazine's website, "If and when I have grandchildren, I will tell them that I saw Michael Jordan play basketball, Jacques Pepin make an omelet and James Gandolfini act."
Martin watched Gandolfini on set during the filming of the final season of The Sopranos, and he interviewed Gandolfini at the very end of production. The actor who had animated the volatile Tony Soprano hadn't been eager to talk to him.
"Once we sat down, his pose was somehow, 'I have nothing to say. I am just this big dumb guy from New Jersey,'" Martin says via phone from his Marigny home. "He very quickly gave lie to that as he started to talk. He wasn't remotely interested in talking about craft or even really the character, but it was clear that he understood it very deeply. ... He wasn't the kind of actor who believed in talking about the work in that way."
With its tortured and violent antihero, who at times meted out death sentences with his bare hands in the HBO series about a New Jersey Mafia family, The Sopranos ushered in the "Third Golden Age" of TV. That's the argument Martin makes in his new book Difficult Men (Penguin), a behind-the-scenes chronicle of a wave of high-quality cable TV shows including David Simon's The Wire, Mad Men, Deadwood and Breaking Bad. Each show was built around an antihero — some violent like Soprano, some mysterious like Mad Men's Don Draper. They were often bad spouses and poor parents, and sometimes psychologically distraught, but audiences were fascinated by them.
The draw of reading about Gandolfini and other on-screen personalities may provide the initial spark of interest, but the creators of the shows are as brilliant and troubled as their protagonists, and the book title refers to both. It briefly mentions two series focused on women: Sex and the City and Girls.
Difficult Men has the page-turning allure of true crime stories as it follows the plots and egos involved in some of the most acclaimed shows of the past 15 years. It also puts a rare period of converging artistic and commercial success in perspective.
The Sopranos' Emmy-winning, first-season episode "College" is thoroughly discussed and referred to often in Difficult Men. In it, Tony Soprano takes his daughter Meadow to tour a college in Maine, where he sees a "rat," a mobster-turned-informant, whom he feels obligated to kill for his transgressions. Network executives originally objected to a scene of Soprano strangling the man with his bare hands. It was a perverse family drama-meets-cop show tale, but the network suits were afraid the show wouldn't last long with a murderer for a hero. Show creator and writer David Chase insisted that the show wouldn't work without Tony killing that rat, and he eventu- ally prevailed.
Gandolfini and Chase were far from gangsters in their personal lives, but in writing the show, Chase infused it with his own tortured psychologies. He was always open about relating Tony's rivalry with his mother Livia to his relationship with his own mother.
One of the fascinating focuses in Difficult Men is how similarly the show's main creator/writers managed their own complex personalities while running very successful series.
"It's interesting to hear about the inner workings (of the creators)," Martin says. "It helped that they're writers and so they talk about this stuff. It's part of their writerly personality to examine themselves. Therapy is a huge theme of these shows and these guys' lives. ... The writers' room becomes this intense therapy session. Everybody is psychoanalyzing the showrunner (the writer/creator in charge, like Chase) because they have become this all-powerful father or mother figure. It's designed for everyone's worst neurosis to come out."
TV writing isn't a literary endeavor, and almost all the writers discussed were as prolific as they were dictatorial. Chase sometimes fired writers on the heels of their best work. While there are egotistical battles involved in the art of any of these shows, TV also is a business with a lot of money at stake. All the showrunners have to balance being auteurs with being managers.
"It's a really, really hard job," Martin says. "It's being a CEO and an artist simultaneously. It requires a sense of interior confidence and a sense of mission and vision that most people don't possess. That's what ties them all together. You don't have to be an asshole. You have to be really ambitious. And you have to be a boss."
On the business side, these shows flourished in a new niche — most were on subscription cable. HBO got into creating original programming to establish a brand, and to give viewers a reason to subscribe and stay subscribed. Merely good ratings could keep a show on network TV, but cable channels had to stand out in another way to make sure they got carried by pay-TV providers. At its best, The Sopranos drew half the viewers of popular network shows, but it became influential in a way none of those shows ever came close to approximating.
"The biggest thing is you don't need one-third of America to watch you," Martin says. "That's the largest single business component of this. Once you don't need to address the lowest common denominator, you have tremendous ability to do good work."