News Column

Jeff Baker: Tony Soprano, Don Draper and the other 'Difficult Men' of TV's golden age

July 13, 2013

YellowBrix

July 13--A few years ago, I interviewed John Irving. Rather than read his latest novel, an 848-page ho-hummer called "Until I Find You," I rented "The Door in the Floor," a movie based on the first half of "A Widow for One Year."

It turned out to be a great decision. "The Door in the Floor" is excellent, with an especially strong performance by Jeff Bridges, and Irving was happy to talk about the challenges of turning his fiction into screenplays. Things were going so well that I asked him whether he thought episodic TV, as presented in box-set DVDs, is to the 21st century what novels were to the 19th. They have a narrative arc that covers a season, the individual episodes are like chapters in a novel, characters are introduced and conflicts are set in motion in the same way as a novel by Charles Dickens or his biggest fan, John Irving. It all makes sense, right?

Right, Irving said. The writing and storytelling on TV are better than ever, he said, and there's one show on HBO that really stands out.

"The Sopranos," I said, without waiting for an answer. And "The Wire" and "Deadwood." Those are the three best shows on HBO, at that time and ever after.

Irving brushed all three aside as "genre stuff" and said "Six Feet Under" was the best thing he'd seen on TV in years. If there's a show that expands the narrative possibilities of TV, he said, it's the one set in a funeral home run by a dysfunctional family.

All due respect to the author of "The World According to Garp" and to "Six Feet Under," a groundbreaking series that fizzled out in its third season, but "The Sopranos" and "The Wire" and "Deadwood" are the ones worthy of Dickens. "The Sopranos" is as ambitious and as artful as "Great Expectations," and "The Wire" is every bit as successful a political and social critique and a reflection of its time as "Bleak House." (There's no easy comparison between "Deadwood" and a Dickens novel. Its creator, David Milch, a star literature student at Yale before going into the TV business, could surely expound on that topic.)

The three HBO series are at the heart of "Difficult Men," a fascinating new book by Brett Martin. The title refers both to the main characters on them, and on "Mad Men," "Breaking Bad" and other shows, and to the creators who shape them. These "showrunners" are talented, ambitious, controlling and insecure, often working out their personal issues and neuroses through their leading men. All are brilliant writers who took advantage of a rare opportunity when HBO (and later its basic cable imitators, FX and AMC) was looking for original series and willing to take a chance on material too risky for the networks. All of them are men; Ann Biderman, the force behind "Southland" and "Ray Donovan," is the only woman in charge of a comparable dramatic series, and the lack of women in power positions is reflected in the way male characters dominate onscreen. All except Matthew Weiner of "Mad Men" were willing to talk to Martin, and his book is at its best when he lets them do what they do best, take control of the material and shape it into something special.

"Difficult Men" opens with a poignant and telling scene. James Gandolfini, the actor who made Tony Soprano into an antihero for all time, disappeared in 2002, when "The Sopranos" was at the peak of its popularity. Gandolfini was a reserved man who fully inhabited his role and worked himself into emotional fits for the difficult, violent scenes he had to play. It was hard for him to get out of character and to deal with the pressures of sudden fame and he sometimes took unannounced days off. No one was particularly alarmed until Gandolfini's absence reached its fourth day, when Terence Winter, a producer on "The Sopranos" who went on to create "Boardwalk Empire," heard a radio report about a celebrity death and worried it might be Gandolfini. It was a false alarm, that time. Gandolfini called from a beauty salon in Brooklyn and returned to finish that season and three more. His death last month shocked the world but maybe not those who worked with him.

Tony Soprano is the epitome of the Difficult Man, tougher and funnier and more conflicted than Jimmy McNulty and Al Swearengen and Don Draper and Walter White and all who came after him. His creator, David Chase, is Soprano's other half, the most driven, dictatorial, micromanaging showrunner of them all, and Martin gives much of the first half of his book over to Chase's improbable path to glory. A talented writer with a flinty personality, Chase labored for decades on "The Rockford Files" and "Kolchak" and "Northern Exposure," rightly believing that the material was beneath him and longing always to write and direct movies. (Even after "The Sopranos" became a hit, Chase complained that he should have spent his time on films. Alan Ball, the creator of "Six Feet Under" and "True Blood," had the right response. "Really?" Ball said. "Go ask him, 'Which films?'")

"The Sopranos" got on the air because HBO needed programming that would make viewers pay its monthly subscription fees and set it apart from its previous model (live sports and recycled movies) and from basic cable (pretty much the same thing). Its antecedent at the network was "Oz" and it hit a year after "Sex and the City," a phenomenon of a different kind and a show Martin ignores. Chase and his team of writers and actors had no idea what would happen when they made the first season and went for broke with the certainty that if they failed they'd never get another chance.

Its success made Chase a superstar and a despot who often treated those who worked for him harshly but kept the show's quality high until the very end. Showrunners are unusual hybrids, writers whose backgrounds might be in literature (Milch) or journalism (David Simon of "The Wire") and whose personalities don't always work with the power they're given. One unnamed TV veteran told Martin "This isn't like publishing some lunatic's novel or letting him direct a movie. This is handing a lunatic a division of General Motors."

Ball and Vince Gilligan, the showrunner for "Breaking Bad," are known for their evenhanded dispositions and for creating a convivial work environment. Milch is considered a genius (just ask him) who goes into a trance and spits out dialogue in a darkened room while young women assistants -- "vestal virgins," Martin calls them -- watch him and get it all down. Simon is pugnacious, a man who loves an argument so much that HBO renewed "The Wire" one season so it wouldn't have to have any more meetings with him. His stable of writers, including George Pelecanos, Richard Price and Dennis Lehane, was so strong that "The Wire" maintained its focus and stayed great throughout its run better than any show in the history of TV.

I would have told Irving but he didn't seem interested. I would have told him about what Dickens wrote in his journals -- "I MUST write!" -- but I'm sure he already knew it.

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