The subtitle of this, one of the genuinely important books of 2013, is “Behind the Scenes of a Creative Revolution: From ‘The Sopranos’ and ‘The Wire’ to ‘Mad Men’ and ‘Breaking Bad.’ ”
On Page One, we are told about “the cold winter’s evening in January 2002” when “Tony Soprano went missing and a small portion of the universe ground to a halt.”
It wasn’t Tony Soprano who was missing, though. It was James Gandolfini.
“Ever since ‘The Sopranos’ had debuted in 1999,” writes Brett Martin, “turning Tony – anxiety-prone dad, New Jersey mobster, a suburban seeker of meaning – into a millennial pop culture icon, the character’s frustration, volatility, and anger had often been indistinguishable from those qualities of James Gandolfini, the actor who brought them to life. The role was a punishing one, requiring not only vast amounts of nightly memorization and long days under hot lights but also a daily descent into Tony’s psyche – at the best of times a worrisome place to dwell; at the worst ugly, violent and sociopathic … Playing Tony Soprano would always require to some extent being Tony Soprano … The heavy bathrobe that became Tony’s signature, transforming him into a kind of domesticated bear, was murder under the lights in mid-summer, but Gandolfini insisted on wearing it between takes.”
Martin continues. He is true to the story of a sea-change in American culture, the shocking advent of cable television as America’s most exciting and ambitious dramatic medium, by far. “In papers related to a divorce filed at the end of 2002, Gandolfini’s (first) wife described increasingly serious issues with drugs and alcohol as well as arguments during which the actor would punch himself in the face out of frustration.” 2002 was the year Gandolfini began “refusing to work … claiming to be sick, refusing to leave his TriBeCa apartment.” Then he’d show up, and give “extravagant gifts” to cast and crew.
Writer-director Terence Winter, we’re told on Page 17 of this book, actually presumed – prematurely – that Gandolfini was dead.
Not quite. The actor finally called in to the production’s main telephone number – the only one he remembered – from a “nail salon” in Brooklyn. He had no money or identification (not that, by this time, his face wasn’t instantly identifiable). He asked for a car service to drive him home.
It comes as no surprise to any of us now that many of the things going on behind the camera at “The Sopranos” exceeded in drama much of what happened in front of it. If you thought about it at all – and so few of us had reason to or the proximity to aid us – you’d have to realize the torments of James Gandolfini. Who arrives at such extraordinary fame and public idolatry that way? Very few. Before the show, according to Martin, the show’s creator David Chase wasn’t sure Gandolfini was right for Tony. He held out for the longest time for Steven Van Zandt, who became Silvio.
It isn’t Gandolfini, though, that Martin writes about so brilliantly and so nominally in “Difficult Men” but rather Tony Soprano’s remarkable creator David Chase, who was one of those responsible for the cultural metamorphosis we watched in the ’90s and the aughts, i.e. the total qualitative transformation of television from America’s “vast wasteland” (as mandarin FCC commissioner Newton Minow once called it) to the focus of so many of America’s most brilliant writers and performers.
Hence, the roster of Martin’s “Difficult Men” – the creators and show runners and the men who transformed television from the guiltiest of pleasures in the homes of well-educated America to the very center of so much of the country’s most advanced and culturally informed interest.
Television’s “Third Golden Age,” Martin calls it. His main subjects, for obvious reasons, are the Three Davids – Chase, Milch (of “NYPD Blue,” “Deadwood,” “John From Cincinnati” and “Luck”) and Simon (“The Wire,” author of the book that turned into TV’s “Homicide”) as well as Alan Ball (“Six Feet Under,” “True Blood”), Simon’s “Wire” cohort Ed Burns, Shawn Ryan (“The Shield,” “Nip/Tuck”), Vince Gilligan (“Breaking Bad”) and Matthew Weiner (“Mad Men”).
But what Martin is writing is history’s journalism – call it the final version of history’s first draft. What that means, then, is that he knows he has to start in the offices of Grant Tinker’s MTM (from which once sprang “Hill Street Blues” and the Altmanesque medical show overlaying its template “St. Elsewhere”). And too he needs to understand the crucial place of the likes of Stephen J. Cannell – and he does.
Good dramatic television is now a subject that triggers a lot of ripples. But as an award-winning freelance journalist for the likes of Vanity Fair, Gourmet, the New Yorker and the New York Times (and a frequent contributor to NPR’s “This American Life”), Martin knows how much of a novelist’s social acuity is required of a long-form journalist who is doing history’s preliminary work “in the white hot center of the pop culture universe.”
“It was not an especially heroic-looking bunch,” he says of his “Difficult Men.” “Not a barrel-chested Balzac or Mailer-like wrestler of words among them. Generally speaking, they conformed to the unwritten rule that the more power you have, the more aggressively terribly you dress. A similar working-class ethic – part affectation, part genuine (it is, after all, a business dominated by teamsters) – combined with a fatalistic sense of any show’s provisional life span, prevailed in showrunners’ offices. Some of the most powerful men in television worked in digs that would draw a labor grievance from assistant editors at lesser Conde Nast magazines.”
That telling and writerly understanding of “affectation” on the fly is key to Martin’s later – and unusual – understanding that Milch, whom Stephen Bochco termed “a big piece of equipment” on meeting him – is “the son of an eminent but volatile, hard-drinking and horse-playing surgeon. He described himself as a ‘Jewish country-day school boy.’ ” (A matter-of-fact description which I know because – customary open disclosure – I was a friend and classmate of Milch’s at Nichols School, which indeed described itself at the time as “a country day school for boys,” no doubt to distinguish it from everything that might be worrisomely “urban” to parents about a day school. In Milch’s case, his Hallam Road, pre-Yale childhood was indeed almost as privileged in every way as the school afforded at the time – one key factor, no doubt, explaining why Milch, when he left Buffalo “never looked back.” And too, says Martin cunningly, “for all his craziness, Milch had always played relatively well with suits.” How else could “John From Cincinnati” ever have existed?)
Martin’s book – like Alan Sepinwall’s less acute but equally necessary “The Revolution Will Be Televised” – is the reportage that needs to be done because in this “white hot center of pop culture” there was no one to do what critics Pauline Kael, Andrew Sarris, Susan Sontag (among many others) were doing for film culture four decades ago.
The only truly extraordinary agreed-upon heavyweight critics TV had were Michael Arlen in the New Yorker, James Walcott in the Village Voice and John Leonard in New York magazine. (And Walcott and Leonard as “heavyweights” would elicit much argument.)
Pulitzers went to the precious few orthodox TV critics with a large sense of reference who came and went quickly because the management presumption of TV as a second-rate subject was dominant.
It could no longer be countenanced for a minute in Martin’s “Third Golden Age” of television. Here, for instance, is Library of America editor-in-chief Geoffrey O’Brien writing about “The Sopranos” in his collection “Stolen Glimpses, Captive Shadows” (Counterpoint, 322 pages, $25).
“Not all rebellions are youth rebellions. ‘The Sopranos’ seemed to retain at its core some early vision maintained and deepened in secret through a long period of waiting, along with the anger attendant on being forced to wait …Chase’s having come late to the point of making ‘The Sopranos’ probably accounts for the impulse to make it a show about everything, including everything television had always left out, most strikingly the toll of age and the limits of the body, explored with a detail that made the show a beauty pageant of the body in decline, with a staggering number of scenes set in hospital rooms, retirement homes and funeral parlors.”
A show whose lead died at the age of 51.
“Difficult Men” is the preliminary work journalism needs to do, as was Sepinwall’s book. Given the current business of journalism, a Pauline Kael or Andrew Sarris writing on TV isn’t likely. Tragic, but it makes “Difficult Men” that much more important.
Jeff Simon is The News’ Arts and Books Editor.
By Brett Martin
The Penguin Press
303 pages, $27.95