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A Deeper Dive Into Television's 'Difficult Men'

Jesse Pinkman (Aaron Paul) and Walter White (Bryan Cranston) are plenty difficult themselves on AMC's <em>Breaking Bad</em>, one of many cable shows Brett Martin discusses in his book.
Frank Ockenfels
Jesse Pinkman (Aaron Paul) and Walter White (Bryan Cranston) are plenty difficult themselves on AMC's Breaking Bad, one of many cable shows Brett Martin discusses in his book.

Difficult Men: Behind the Scenes of a Creative Revolution from The Sopranos and The Wire to Mad Men and Breaking Bad, explores what the author Brett Martin describes as the "Third Golden Age of TV," based on a new kind of television character.

Subscription cable channels don't have sensitive sponsors, commercials or concerns about language or violence. In the book, Martin argues that this relative freedom, combined with the old-fashioned appeal of serial storytelling, creates a new kind of high-quality television programming.

As he tells Weekend Edition Sunday guest host Linda Wertheimer, this new/old form of television is proving to be financially viable, even successful. HBO pioneered this kind of programming starting with, among other programs, The Sopranos, and in 2000 it made more money than all the broadcast networks combined.

Interview Highlights

On how Tony Soprano represents the new kind of hero

"My title, Difficult Men, really refers to this new kind of hero — or anti-hero — what [James] Gandolfini brought to Tony Soprano, making him, not just sort of a monster, which he is in many ways, but a person that we rooted for and cared for despite his monstrosity. That became the model for the next 10 years of television and beyond, right to where we are now ... so you started to have Tony Sopranos all across the dial, whether it was narcissistic adulterer on Mad Men, the serial killer on Dexter, and so on."

On the creator of The Sopranos

"In many ways, the drama of this book is whether David Chase, a signature creator of The Sopranos, is ever capable of appreciating the magnitude of what he was able to do on television. David Chase ... grew up worshiping film, worshiping the authors of the French New Wave, and then Scorsese, and the old movies of the early '70s, and he believed that being in television was a sell-out, was hack-work, that he had compromised himself fatally somehow. And he continued to feel that way, even while creating perhaps one of the greatest works of art of the first part of the 21st Century."

On how the popularity of HBO's Deadwood reveals how Americans are now more comfortable watching disturbing programs

"It's hard to believe how quickly we went from Tony [Soprano] to Al [Swearengen], who is one of the most unreconstructed, cretinous monsters to crawl out of the mud that we've ever seen. You know, originally the common wisdom had been that Americans might appreciate, or viewers might be able to accept, difficult characters — complicated characters — when they went out to the movies, but that there was some magical thing that happened when you came home, that you didn't want these men in your living room, that it was too intimate, and that turned out to not be true, because we invited [Al] every day, we invited Tony every day."

On how other networks eventually followed HBO's lead

"By the time we get to Breaking Bad (on AMC) the stated project of that show is to take, at every stage, Walter White down this rabbit hole and make him worse and worse, taking away every possible justification that the audience would have for continuing to root for him. And then by implication, asking the audience, 'Well, why are you still rooting for him?' "

"The implication there is it could be any of us, that given the proper set of circumstances, we could all become murderous meth dealers."

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

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