'The testosterone comes off Bret Martin’s new book, Difficult Men: Behind the Scenes of a Creative Revolution like wafts of Brut. A short, stocky account of the rise of such shows as The Sopranos, The Wire, The Breaking Bad, Mad Men, it comes with the muscular thesis that cable TV has “become the significant American art form of the first decade of the 21st century, the equivalent of what the films of Scorsese, Altman, Coppola, and others had been to the 1970s or the novels of Updike, Roth. And Mailer had been to the 1960s.” You see? Now that’s what I call a thesis: beefy with name-drops, and a cultural frame of reference that could stun a herd of bison at 30 paces.
Martin corrals as hairy a group of alpha-males as have graced the pages of a book since Peter Biskind’s Easy Riders’ Raging Bulls. Here is David Chase, creator of The Sopranos, Eeyorish grump and attacker of desks, determined to “stick it to the bastards in their own house, right under their noses, and make them thank-you you for it,” in Martin’s words. Here is David Milch, veteran of NYPD Blue and creator of Deadwood, peeing out of a second-floor window onto flowers, showing off his drawer full of money, and — his party piece — whipping out his dick. Here is David Simon, future creator of The Wire, wearing ponytail and ripped jeans, thrusting his crotch into the face of colleagues at the Baltimore Sun. And here is his Wire star, Dominic West, working his way through his female fans. “A man could live off his leftovers” said Wendell Pierce. As Andre Royo, who played Bubbles put it, “I look at Idris? Nothing but bitches outside his trailer. Dom West? Nothing but Bitches. Sonja? Dudes and bitches. Me? I’d have junkies out there. They fell in love with Bubbles.”
All this horse-play was, says Martin, par for the course for a creative revolution so fragrant with male pheromones you could float a jock-strap down the corridor on the thermals. “Not only were the most important shows of the era run by men, they were also largely about manhood,” he writes, “ in particular the contours of male power and the infinite varieties of male combat”, an unpersuasive bit of bluster the first time we come across it — really? infinite? — but by the time we read that Mad Men, too, is about the “infinite varieties” of male combat, you get a little impatient for specifics. There’s “bald stocky, flawed but charismatic” Tony Soprano; also The Shield’s bald, stocky, flawed but charismatic Vic Mackey. We have The Wire’s alcoholic, self-destructive cops; or Rescue Me’s alcoholic, self-destructive firefighters; and so many “dark,” “flawed”, “morally compromised” anti-heroes that shades of grey begin to seem merely the new black — spray-on cynicism, a fake tattoo of cosmetic morbidity. All belong “to a species you might call Man Beset or Man Harried — badgered and bothered and thwarted by the modern world,” writes Marti, for whom “men alternately setting loose and struggling to cage their wildest natures has always been the great American story.”
Doubtless, this sort of flattery slips down a treat at GQ, where Martin is correspondent, but it will come as news to anyone who thought Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird, or Bette Davis’s Margo Channing, or Joni Mitchell’s Blue, or Marilynne Robinson’s Housekeeping told American stories. You could argue that they’re not great American stories, of course, and Martin gives every impression of a man ready for the challenge. There is a consistent denigration of female achievement throughout Difficult Men, and only the skimpiest mentions of Homeland, Nurse Jackie, Sex and the City and Girls. As Emily Nussbaum noted in The New Yorker, Martin gives Sex and the City “credit for jump-starting HBO, but the condescension is palpable, and the grudging praise is reserved for only one aspect of the series—the rawness of its subject matter,” but his condescension swells even more ostentatiously for Girls, which garnered attention, he says, “because a) it was good — though not hefty enough to support the weight of all the Rorschach-like baggage commentators bring to it b) it was created by a woman”. The chauvinism aside, you’d think that someone who refers to The Rockford Files as being “post-Watergate, post-Vietnam” in sensibility, and spritzes every room with the word “auteur” as if laying rose petals for the Queen of France, would think a little more carefully before skewering others for “Rorschach-like baggage.”
In it’s own way, Martin’s book reminded me of all that I don’t like about many cable shows. There’s certainly an off-putting sweat stain of machismo at HBO; poor Kelly McDonald cannot open her mouth on Boardwalk Empire without channelling the writer’s-room funk of men stymied for the sort of thing woman are rumored to say. The Emmies distract themselves with rewarding every performance on Mad Men except the one that really counts — Christrina’s Hendrick’s Joan Harris, an extraordinary alloy of bombshell armor-plating and plush Monroe-like vulnerability. (“Of course Joan is the bitchiest character,” one of Matthew Weiner’s colleagues tells Martin. “ And Matt is a quintessential Queen bitch. He could write that character for days and days.”) It’s no accident that Hendricks is one of few Mad Men cast members, other than Hamm, to enjoy a successful transition to the big screen; or that cable has provided a platform for such actresses as Claire Danes, Glenn Close and Edie Falco to deliver career-defining performances, while David Chase’s determination to swing his Sopranos gravitas into a movie-directing career faltered with last year’s Not Fade Away. Even Chase still wanted into the movies.
Cable TV is going enjoying an uptick in quality at the moment, but I wouldn't exchange the entire 5 seasons of The Sopranos for a single reel of Goodfellas, which it cribbed so mercilessly (and which is mentioned only once in Martin’s book). Of the rest, only The Wire really stands out, a masterpiece of flinty, impassioned journalistic fabulism in the vein of Dickens and Orwell, but — and this feels almost like it goes without saying — there is no visual stylist to be found amongst Martin’s show-runners to match Scorsese or Coppola or Malick, no visual storyteller to match Spielberg or James Cameron or Ang Lee. Hollywood can breathe easy.'
Aug 2, 2013
Mad men and the single girl
My Guardian column this week finds me in a testy mood.