A review of Brett Martin’s Difficult Men

[The New Republic]

Today, on The New Republic‘s website, I’ve got a review of Brett Martin’s very good (and very subtitled) new book Difficult Men: Behind the Scenes of a Creative Revolution: From The Sopranos and The Wire to Mad Men and Breaking Bad.

The review’s also an argument that we — TV fans, TV critics, and the journalists who write about TV — need to stop fetishizing showrunners and to start focusing on how TV actually gets made. That process, I note in my review, is “less celebrity chef than crockpot.” Yet most TV coverage continues to trot out anecdotes about the heroic showrunner, standing up the clueless executive. I figured one way to counter this is through a few anecdotes of my own — some from Difficult Men; some from Alan Sepinwall’s recent book, which makes a solid chaser to Martin’s; and some from my own research.

Taken together, these anecdotes remind us that, in many cases, the best things about the best shows can result not from genius showrunners but from a blend of contingency, collaboration, and dumb luck.

  • On Deadwood, showrunner David Milch entrusted the pilot to Walter Hill, a noted director of Westerns. Hill pushed for a rewrite of the pilot’s opening scene — from an original take, which focused on an angry mob outside a jail, to a new one centering on the interactions inside the jail. Milch agreed to reshoot the opening, and to my mind the new one’s the best start to a show in TV history.
  • Also on Deadwood, William Sanderson, the actor who played E. B. Farnum, was terrified of long monologues. So showrunner David Milch decided to write Sanderson speech after speech, with the result being the jittery masterpiece that is Farnum’s character. Do you credit that result to Milch or to Sanderson or (and here’s my vote) to both?
  • On Mad Men, Don hurries home at the end of season one to join Betty for a Thanksgiving trip to her parents’ home. In Matt Weiner’s original script, Don arrives just in time to accompany his family. But AMC exec Christina Wayne pushed him to reconsider: “It’s cable. Nobody should be happy.” Wayne says Weiner started “screaming and yelling” at her, but later that night called back and agreed to turn the scene into a dreamy but depressing fakeout. “I just wanted my characters to be happy,” Weiner told Wayne. “I love them so much.”
  • On Breaking Bad, Wayne made a similar stand. Here’s how showrunner Vince Gilligan remembers it: “[Wayne] said I used too much music in my first cut of the pilot episode — I had just brought my iPod into the editing room. This executive said, ‘Don’t you trust your material? Do you think you need music to sell it?’ I got so bent out of shape that I wrote an e-mail to her boss, which I really regret, trying to get her in trouble with him. But in hindsight, she was in the right, and if you watch Breaking Bad now, there’s more silence than music.”
  • On Breaking Bad — and the collaborations on this show could fill an entire post, in part because Gilligan is such a gracious interview — a director created the uncanny season-four shot of Walt howling in his crawlspace. Here’s Gilligan again: “We had a wonderful director, a guy named Scott Winant, for whom this was his second Breaking Bad episode as director. . . . It was his idea to end with that shot, all credit goes to him. . . . When Scott pitched that idea to our director of photography, Michael Slovis, Michael got to working with our grip department and they created this mechanism that was built out of a bunch of speed rail and mounted the camera so it was pointed straight down at the ground. And then this contraption was raised up into the rafters of the soundstage ceiling with a series of electric winches.”
  • On Breaking Bad . . . those electric winches saved money, which was always a concern on set, but they also made the shot sway back and forth — and that accidental effect is arguably the best part of the scene. Now consider the show’s amazing use of its New Mexico setting — it was supposed to be set in southern California, but New Mexico offered better tax incentives. Or consider Mike the Fixer, whom the writers created because of a scheduling conflict with the actor who played the show’s sleazy lawyer. It was supposed to be a single-episode affair, but Jonathan Banks’s stony professionalism convinced them to keep Mike around until he became one of the show’s most beloved characters. In these and many, many other instances, the show took shape through a series of small but accretive choices. And those choices (and all the people who make them) are what we should be excited about when it comes to TV.
  • On Six Feet Under (and it seems right to end with another example of an executive doing good), Carolyn Strauss of HBO came up with the original concept. In 1999, after Alan Ball’s script for American Beauty had earned him lots of attention, Strauss called Ball in for a meeting and told him that she’d been mulling a “dark” show about a “family funeral home.” Ball read some Jessica Mitford and fleshed out the concept. He drew on his own biography, too, for the show’s southern twist. But it wasn’t the showrunner who came up with the original idea — it was Strauss.

9 thoughts on “A review of Brett Martin’s Difficult Men

  1. You’re right — most TV journalism fundamentally misunderstands the business of television. But your argument is a little wobbly. There’s no question that the success of Breaking Bad owes a debt to John Toll’s cinematography — just as Mad Men owes a debt to Janie Bryant’s costume design, just as any successful show depends on the collective talents of hundreds of staffers, above- and below-the-line. In fact, if you work in TV (I write for a show very much like the shows you name-check in your review), you realize what a miracle it is that television is ever any good. So much can go wrong, and usually does. Here’s the thing: when TV succeeds, it’s largely due to the vision and often suicidally hard work of an excellent showrunner. It’s true that a show like Breaking Bad or the Soprano’s is the sum total of a series of accretive choices. But TV isn’t a crockpot any more than the great showrunners of this world are master chefs. What they are, to quote a lousy president, is “deciders” — responsible for the thousand choices, small and large, that determine the success or failure of their shows: whom to hire and fire, when and how to delegate responsibility, when to accede to studio or network notes, when to fight, etc etc. That’s on top of their considerable writing duties. Which isn’t to say that the showrunner is the source of every good idea on his or her show — though, as a rule, the showrunner writes more than anyone else on staff (episodes credited to other writers always cross the desk of the showrunner, who usually makes at least superficial polishes to ensure consistency of style and voice, and often rewrites wholesale — who do you think was responsible for the other 70% of George Pelecanos’s Wire scripts?). But it’s up to the showrunner to create an environment where directors and actors and production-designers and DPs and first ADs can do their best work — and to intervene when they don’t. For every Justified saltshaker scene there are a hundred ideas that fail — that’s the Darwinian nature of creative work — and it usually falls to the showrunner to separate wheat from chaff. That’s all a long winded way of saying that although the trope of the “Difficult Man” showrunner is a worn-out cliche (and oddly reminiscent of the cult of the difficult man in American fiction — Mailer, Roth, Updike, etc), and although I’m all for a corrective approach to TV journalism that highlights the often-overlooked contributions of DPs, designers, hair and makeup, even network execs (Christina Wayne is brilliant), there is, alas, more than a kernel of truth to the myth of the auteur showrunner. And the anecdotes you cite above don’t really undermine it. Here’s a not-entirely-specious analogy: Steve Jobs (another difficult man) may not have designed the iPod click wheel. But there’s a reason his face is on the cover of the book.

    1. Hey there,

      Thanks for a detailed and perceptive comment. If there’s one thing I wish I’d done better in my original story, it’s articulate what a better approach would look like. I was aiming my criticism at TV coverage — and not necessarily at TV critics and their reviews, but at the reported stuff that exposes how TV works. I still don’t think most consumers understand how TV shows get made in the same way they understand movies or books or even video games. I’d like to see more journalists attempt to solve that, instead of writing yet another Great Man profile of a showrunner. And one way to solve that is to highlight all the other players in the process, even if the showrunner remains the most important.

      Anyway, your comment does a great job at sketching that dynamic. Thanks for taking the time to write.


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