Brett Martin's Difficult Men tells the story of how television drama has transformed itself over the past 15 years. Once a medium despised not merely by critics but by the very people who made it, television dethroned the cinema as the place you go if hungry for quality adult drama, such as The Wire, The Sopranos, Breaking Bad, Mad Men, Deadwood, Six Feet Under, Boardwalk Empire or The Shield. In the way novels were in the 1960s and film was in the 1970s, today TV is, Martin argues, "the signature American art form".
The story of the "third Golden Age of television" (after spurts of quality in the 1950s and early 1980s) begins with cable, specifically HBO. A channel that broadcast vintage movies and pay-per-view boxing matches, HBO took the decision to attract more subscribers by making their own content.
With nothing to lose, in 1999 they commissioned David Chase, a talented scriptwriter with a shaky track record (then known in the industry as "the most talented failure in television") to produce a series about New Jersey mobsters, The Sopranos. It was a pattern repeated at other ambitious cable stations, including AMC (Mad Men, Breaking Bad) and FX (The Shield).
Chase's show became a phenomenon that belied its ratings. It got 10 million viewers an episode, astonishing for cable but modest when up against the free-to-air networks; in the period The Sopranos aired, reality TV programme Survivor had 30 million viewers. That no-one mentions Survivor now while a recent issue of Sight and Sound ran an article about the final episode of The Sopranos' enigmatic fade-to-black six years after it aired is key to understanding the success of the television revolution. The cable shows are watched - and rewatched - and tweeted and blogged and endlessly discussed by exactly the demographics that advertisers want to hit: moneyed professionals frozen out of the cinema chains by superhero flicks and One Direction concert films.
The revolution was sparked by changes in technology and how we consume television. No longer obliged to watch shows when they were scheduled, viewers were freed to consume them over a number of platforms, often in the form of binges: DVD box sets, downloads, streaming, TiVo and illegal file-sharing. That last one aside, each of the platforms brought with it a new way of generating revenue. Stations were no longer as dependent on advertisers; previously, they tended not to pay for airtime if they suspected the programme was not one they wanted to associate with their product. The Sopranos season one episode College, in which Tony garrottes an informer - the first time we see him kill, leaving no doubt as to the kind of man he is - would have been impossible before the current era of brand, buzz and niche marketing.
Cable could feature levels of nudity, violence and profanity the networks couldn't match. The adult qualities of the programmes, however, were not registered merely in boobs, blood and swearing. Chase's vision was literate, cinematic and mature. Martin likens Chase's gangster protagonist Tony Soprano to Updike's Rabbit Angstrom in his moods, suburban malaise and woundedness. With the advertisers' veto nixed, programme-makers could create characters conventional wisdom would describe as "unlikeable". Tony, as played by the late James Gandolfini, embodies the title of Martin's book, which pictures "the Troubled Man as the Third Golden Age's primary character". Think of Don Draper's tormented philandering, The Shield's corrupt cop Vic Mackey and the madness of Walter White.
The characters aren't the only difficult men. We must consider the programme's showrunners (writer-producers). It wasn't just David Chase's gangsters who pursued vendettas; The Sopranos was Chase's revenge on television. Described as possessing epic qualities of "gloom, pessimism, anxiety, paranoia, grudge-holding, [and] misanthropy", Chase told one of his team of scripters over coffee, "I realized … that I'll never truly be happy in life … until I kill a man. Not just kill a man … but with my bare hands." Mad Men's Matthew Weiner is known within the industry as extraordinary self-regarding, to the extent that other shows (30 Rock) have made in-jokes about it. Known on set as "Caligula", Deadwood's drug, drink and gambling addict David Milch bewildered his cast by extemporising scripts on set.
While Martin is correct in judging the change in TV drama a "revolution", his take is partial, one that ignores or over-promotes shows according to the degree to which they meet his criterion of "difficult men".
He praises showrunners for reinventing genre staples, but it's clear some genres are more acceptable than others. The western and crime genres fit Martin's thesis, but science-fiction and comedy are out. When assessing the excellence of recent American television, do Rescue Me and The Shield really figure higher than Curb Your Enthusiasm and Battlestar Galactica? The Shield is praised for a season-long allegory of the invasion of Iraq, which BSG also did, arguably with more wit and daring. And quite how you can title a book about modern television masterpieces Difficult Men and not feature Larry David is puzzling.
The chief problem is that the book has been written too soon. With some of the shows under consideration not yet complete, it's hard to assess whether they will be satisfactorily brought off; you don't review a book halfway through, after all. There is also the question of how embedded a revolution it is. The model for Difficult Men is Easy Riders, Raging Bulls, Peter Biskind's account of the 1970s New Hollywood. That era's auteurs were brought down through budgetary and pharmaceutical excesses before being killed off by a juvenile but hyper-profitable strain of films headed by Jaws and Star Wars. How long can cable keep delivering the goods? Don't touch that dial.