Friday, December 6, 2013

Difficult Men, by Brett Martin

Difficult Men is not a handbook about how to deal with unreliable boyfriends, horrible bosses, or Anthony Wiener. Instead, journalist Brett Martin's book is a smart, immensely entertaining study of the difficult male characters that inhabit the worlds of many of the best television dramas of the last two decades, and the difficult men who created those programs. The former group includes the Jersey mobsters of The Sopranos; the drug dealers and compromised police of The Wire; the meth producers and sellers of Breaking Bad; the corrupt cops of The Shield; the lying, cheating (but oh so good lookin') ad executives of Mad Men; and the serial killer known as Dexter. Among the later group are The Sopranos' David Chase; The Wire's David Simon; and Matthew Weiner, who wrote for The Sopranos before creating Don Draper and company.

You do not have to have seen any of these shows to enjoy this book (but it helps). Stories about the prickly personalities and how they often clashed with their staff and network honchos in the service of these groundbreaking shows make Difficult Men such an easy read. Take the relationship between David Chase and young writer and Harvard graduate Todd Kessler. Kessler threw himself into The Sopranos, bonding with Chase and often going to dinner with him and his family. He and Chase even co-wrote the episode "Funhouse" in which Tony Soprano’s long fever dream results in his subconscious revealing that one of his deputies is a traitor. “Funhouse” won the pair an Emmy nomination. Martin writes that after the nomination was announced, "Kessler spent the next ten minutes fielding congratulatory phone calls. Then came a call from Chase's assistant, saying that Chase wanted to see him in the office. When Kessler arrived, still buzzing from the news, Chase closed the door and sat down. 'I guess the timing isn't great,' he said, 'but I think I need to end this relationship. . . I think you've lost the voice of the show.'" Kessler went on to write the pilot for a new series of his own called Damages that "revolved around a terrible boss--brilliant but manipulative, vain, imperious, unpredictable."

Want more? How did Matthew Weiner, who could "be funny and charming, colleagues said, but also childishly underhanded (and) at times . . . a classic bully" survive working for Chase and then go on to create Mad Men? First of all, he was a brilliant writer, but he was also thick-skinned and thrived on the competitive atmosphere of the writers' room. Martin quotes Weiner as saying, "I think that part of my success climbing the hierarchy of the writers' room was that I knew that when the boss came in, no matter what mood he was in, I was not going to take it personally. I'd be like, ‘You don't like that? Okay. Well, I've got something else. No? I've got something else. Did you actually say F you to me? Okay. Well you don't mean it.’" Weiner had no problems dealing with the boss, nor, when the time came, to being the boss on Mad Men. Once told that when working with writers, ego suppression could be an unhealthy, Weiner replied, “Well, I’m very healthy.”

David Simon, too, battled famously with his writers, perhaps especially with Ed Burns, his co-showrunner on The Wire. However, Martin writes, the arguments were what Simon, "the lifelong believer in the positive powers of argument, wanted.” In the book, Simon is quoted as saying, “I never liked fighting with Ed because it was tiring and slowed the process down, but I never had a fight with him that, in the end, didn't make the show better."

Along with providing a history of HBO shows and other cable successes, Difficult Men is a sort of text book on how to get along in Hollywood. It also provides plenty of back stories on individual episodes of shows, as well as on how key actors were hired and how they interacted with other actors and with writers. For example, actor Michael Chiklis really wanted the lead role in The Shield. However all the writers could think was, “The fat guy from The Commish is NOT our (lead) guy,” said FX programming head Peter Liguori. But Chiklis was persistent, and an audition was arranged. Martin writes, “On his way in (to the audition room), Liguori passed a bald, buff guy in a skintight black T-shirt.” ‘Where’s Chiklis?’ he asked the room. ‘You just passed him,’ was the answer. The actor came in, gnawing on a mouthful of Nicorette, and proceeded to blow the room away.”

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