In Defense of the Influence of 'Difficult Men'
Brett Martin's latest book serves as a reminder of how enlightening dealing with darkness in television can be.
Difficult Men: Behind the Scenes of a Creative Revolution: From The Sopranos and The Wire to Mad Men and Breaking BadPublisher: Penguin
Author: Brett Martin
Release date: 2013-06
Maybe the most telling moment in Brett Martin's recent book, Difficult Men, comes within the text's seventh chapter, "The Magic Hubig's". On page 143, the author cites a moment when David Simon, the bombastically antagonistic (yet brilliant) co-creator of HBO's The Wire, was working on the follow-up series (Treme) to his masterpiece.
A Hubig's pie, as Martin tells it, is the New Orleans equivalent of a Hostess fruit pie, a snack food offered almost exclusively in the bayou. In Treme's first season, one of its main characters offers up a Hubig's to her restaurant's customers because Hurricane Katrina, in addition to washing away an entire city, left her eatery without any dessert.
The detail, as Martin points out, is a thick one -- the kind of intricacy only the most educated and well-studied writer could pull off. Even so, there was a problem: The Hubig's factory had not yet reopened after the storm by the time this scene was said to have taken place. Keeping true to his journalistic pedigree -- Martin is also a correspondent for GQ -- the author asked Simon about the Byzantine error. Naturally, the showrunner responded with some of his signature wit and hubris: "Well," he told Martin, "it was a magic Hubig's."
A play on that sequence continues when the author talks about how frustrated co-creator Ed Burns, an ex-cop, would become with Simon because of his background in journalism and obsession with detail. "There's a difference between fact and truth," Burns tells Martin. "If you stick with fact, you're fucked."
And thus the axis on which the world of difficult men turns becomes so blatantly obvious. To even suggest exploration of whatever difference lies between fact and truth takes a certain level of intellect and ego. Burns, who Martin paints as a tough-guy, no-nonsense thinker, is put off by how obsessive Simon can be when it comes to detail.
Simon, meanwhile, can't even stomach the thought of flirting with inaccuracy without submitting to practicality and a television world dictated by time and budgets. The only feasible way he could justify allowing that Hubig's into a Treme episode was "magic", which itself is an extraordinarily abstract precept, therefore allowing him to confront the misstep with equal amounts of flippancy and hauteur.
It's not a mistake if you knew you were making it, he suggests. Mistakes, the implication seems, don't exist in the purgatory between fact and truth.
Therefore, the entire dispute can be boiled down to this: Burns doesn't stick with the thing that ensures him his definition of failure because he can't stand to lose. Simon, on the other hand, might lose, but has a hard time ever fully admitting it.
Yes. Difficult men, indeed.
Such is why Martin's book, at its best, works on multiple levels. Complex, flawed television characters can exist only if complex, flawed television writers dream them up. The author takes that reality and forms a compelling argument around the notion that the anti-hero's recent meteoric rise in entertainment has led to somewhat of a Third Golden Age for television, a time when TV's creative revolution has leaned extensively on the blurry side of morality.
He's not wrong, of course. The current day is a good day to be an enthusiast of quality TV. Watching good people behave badly hasn't just reinvented a medium once reserved for happy endings and laugh tracks; it's also transcended the very real internal dialogue we often have with our private selves whenever we are confronted with the need to feel better about who we've become. It's therapy for both those who wrote it and those who watch it.
Herein lies the brain-trust of what it takes to create something equally humanizing and artful: misery. As Martin asserts multiple times, a good chunk of the difficult men who created difficult men were aiming for higher things than what they got. Sopranos creator David Chase, the most miserable of them all, detested television and ended up on HBO only because his desire to make movies never really worked out. By all accounts, he was disgusted with not only the notion of slumming it on the small screen, but also with himself for selling-out to what he considered an institutionalized, watered-down vehicle for entertainment.
David Milch, the genius behind Luck, Deadwood and even part of what the author argues was the starting point for all this, Hill Street Blues, left for Yale after growing up in Buffalo, New York, and, as he puts it, "never looked back." He studied literature and wanted to become a novelist (page 172).
The problem? He developed severe obsessive-compulsive deficiencies and once wrote the same 13 pages of a story over and over and over and over for an entire year before falling into drug and alcohol addictions. TV was frowned upon by the intellectuals under which he was studying at Yale, dismissed as a cheap way to comprise narratives and prose. Torn, Milch eventually opted for what he called the "salvation" of television.
And it's a good thing he did. Actually, it's a good thing all the people behind all the shows discussed in the book somehow migrated to the spots at which they ended up. Because without them, the ability to create thoughtful, elaborate stories through something once insultingly labeled "The Boob Tube" may at best have been stifled, and at worst, been impossible.
Of all the many virtues the anti-hero's popularity has accentuated, the most lasting and germane affect has been substance. That's not to say there isn't room for the Fresh Princes or the New Christines of the world; it's just to say that this brand of thickly layered entertainment has proven valuable when both discovering and then subsequently analyzing our own personal subconsciousness.
The success of shows from Hill Street Blues all the way up to the Americanized House of Cards has simultaneously allowed viewers to unearth private revelations all the while making them feel accomplished for doing so. It's not easy to understand what's happening in Baltimore by watching The Wire in much the same way it's not easy to understand what goes through a man's mind as he leads countless double lives in Mad Men.
We, as consumers, buy into the journeys with hopes of enlightenment and expectations we think mirror our own self-intellect. And much like true life itself, watching this kind of television often forces us to walk away without ever really feeling like we fully comprehend all that's happened. Things don't end in real life; they move on. They take different shape. They morph into situations we never imagined. They are a product of exactly where we are and who we've become during a very concise moment in time, regardless of perception or regardless of experience.
They are, without question, difficult.
Martin takes that idea with his book and locates the dark soul that at some point formulated in the midst of the uniquely layered world in which all these complex characters are born. If nothing else, Difficult Men is a reminder that it takes a certain kind of sadness to allow room for introspection, a certain kind of anger to allow room for admission. Indeed, Martin isn't wrong when he says that the anti-hero's recent meteoric rise in entertainment has led to a Third Golden Age for television.
Yet, maybe more importantly, it's also led to a Golden Age for self-worth -- and how much or how little the common, difficult man may actually possess. With too much of it, we appear obnoxious, disillusioned by our own perception of what we want so badly to believe we can one day become. With too little of it, we concede all rationality, succumbing to a label marred by assumed valueless attributes, a shadow of a real person.
Every individual tied to the bounds of exaggeration is tied as well to consequence. Every individual tied to the bounds of doubt is tied as well to existence. It's hard to get people to genuinely enjoy our presence, but oftentimes it's even harder us as individuals to enjoy the company of ourselves.
It's that prison where some of the most divisive, provocative art originates. It's that prison where our best revelations float into our minds. And it's that prison where, despite the unpleasantness that they often exude and despite how unforgivingly rude, mean, offensive, impossible or unhappy they appear, difficult men both fake and real, for better or for worse, strive.