The New Golden Age of Television is defined onscreen by the anti-hero: the family-man mobster; the foul-mouthed pimp with a heart of gold; the cop willing to kill a cop; and the science-teacher-turned-meth-dealer. And if Brett Martin’s Difficult Men is to be believed, off-screen anti-heroes have been just as important.
A “show-runner,” typically a television series’ executive producer, is part writer, part producer, and part visionary. The other writers are expected to sublimate their individual voices to his. There is collaboration, certainly. Plot points are discussed and individual writers script individual lines of dialogue. But the show-runner has final say over which plot points see the light of day and which lines of dialogue actually get uttered, frequently rewriting entire scripts so as little as 20 percent of what was originally scripted remains.
Over the course of just under 300 pages, Martin introduces us to a neurotic, self-loathing writer with mommy issues (David Chase, The Sopranos), an angry, boisterous writer railing abrasively against the corruption he sees around him (David Simon, The Wire), a writer who so hates the idea of others failing to see his genius that he puts his name on more or less every writing credit of his shows (Matthew Weiner, Mad Men), and a brilliant but unfocused writer whose method wows execs but frustrates peers (David Milch, Deadwood).
These are the auteurs of the TV age. And it’s an odd breed. Consider this tidbit from one-time Sopranos writer Weiner on Chase:
“We were exorcising David’s demons. Do you know how many decisions were based on some meeting when he was on Northern Exposure, or Rockford, or Kolchak, or some other show you’ve never heard of where he worked for three years and somebody told him ‘You can’t do that’?”
Chase, for instance, banned “walk and talks”—in which two characters in the frame together, exchange information while heading toward their next destination—because it was a common network money-saving technique.
Spending HBO’s money to spite execs he disliked years ago at networks he no longer had to work. Seems odd.
Now consider this tidbit on Weiner a few sentences later:
Weiner never shied from expressing his gratitude and admiration for Chase, his show-running mentor. Nevertheless, it’s worth noting that another Chase pet peeve was shots that showed the backs of actors’ heads. And that the first shot of Mad Men—indeed, its iconic logo—was the back of Don Draper’s head.
Weiner comes in for special abuse in Martin’s book. He is described as “a classic bully: obsequious toward those above him, condescending and harsh toward those he perceived as having less power to help or harm him. … Indeed, for somebody who had not grown up, say, in the wilds of Africa and who was not obviously autistic, Weiner could be shockingly oblivious or indifferent to how the things he said and did appeared to others.”
One of the show’s writers notes that Weiner would pace about, reciting lines in the voices of Man Men’s characters, in particular office manager Joan (Christina Hendricks). “Of course Joan is the bitchiest character,” said Chris Provenzano. “And Matt is a quintessential Queen Bitch. He could write that character for days.”
For his part, David Milch comes across as a difficult genius, whose natural brilliance allows him to rewrite scenes in his head and read lines to actors on the day of shooting. For all its brilliance—and Deadwood is a brilliant show, half-Shakespeare, half-Peckinpah—producing the program was no cakewalk.
“If you’re an actor who can’t go with the flow, you’re fucked,” said Mark Tinker, who worked with Milch on NYPD Blue and Deadwood. “If you’re a producer who must have everything in order, you’re fucked. But if you can relate to the creative process and you get enthralled with David’s brain and his approach to work and the heart that he exhibits, then you’re going to be fine. … For a while.”
Martin’s book is heavily researched, featuring interviews new and old with many of the minds behind the best shows of the New Golden Age. He also takes us into the writer’s room of Breaking Bad, a rare treat that provides a firsthand glimpse of the creative process.
The new show-runners are not all monsters or nutcases. Breaking Bad, current holder of the “best show on television” trophy, is run by “Vince Gilligan, [who] was known as a good man to work for—someone who managed to balance the vision and microscopic control of the most autocratic show-runner with the open and supportive spirit of the most relaxed.”
Alan Ball (Six Feet Under, True Blood) also “exhibited few of the autocratic impulses of other show-runners.” Whereas Simon is disdainful of viewers—“If you go with the audience, they’ll always ask for ice cream. … The audience is a child”—others, like The Shield’s Shawn Ryan, “believed in a brand of proud TV populism.”
Still, one can’t help concluding that the mentally balanced show-runner seems to be an oddity in an industry run by Difficult Men.