Monday, 22 July 2013

An entertaining, informative look at TV's new golden age in Difficult Men

From The Week of July 15th, 2013

Though art has always been, to some degree, shaped by patronage, money that flowed from rich donors interested in vanity and beauty, it has never been more captured and regulated by financial interests. For only they have had the means by which to distribute art globally through the mediums of television and film, concerts and art shows. Though many of them would have initially promised otherwise, this has naturally lead to such investors gaining a significant say over what kind of art is made. After all, if the primary means for the artist to make money is to put their art before the eyeballs of millions, and if it is all-but-impossible for them to own the means of this distribution, then the artist has no power and is forced to yield to the investor. But now, slowly, painfully, this model, so dependent on the whims of the rich and the entitled, is changing, allowing in a new era of style and expression that is mesmerizing audiences with stories no one has been able to tell. This transformation, and its results, Brett Martin explores in this excellent, cultural investigation.

For the first fifty years of television's existence, the consumer was all-but irrelevant. From his perspective, he would sit down in his living room and watch a narrow selection of programs broadcast to him by powerful, unknowable network s whose executives he'd never meet, and whose programming motives he'd never understand. For to those same executives, he was just a poorly understood data point lumped in with millions of other data points to create the audience, a captive collective they could present to advertisers as millions of people just waiting to buy their products. This was television, entertainment sponsored and shaped by a single stream of revenue (ads) which not only determined the kind of programs that these networks would air, but governed the morals and the attitudes the programs would represent.

Over the last 20 years, with the rise of Cable, this old, decaying model has begun to collapse, replaced by a new and vigorous view of television programming that has electrified audiences. Though ads are still present in the economic calculus used to create new TV, they are just a part. New sources of funding, from DVD box-sets to Carriage Fees, have liberated cable channels from the tyranny of advertisers, looking to hawk their products to primed audiences, and allowed them to create shows that sound out the dark depths of the human soul while reflecting the modern world in a manner that is, at times, so realistic it borders on the ideological. From The Sopranos to Louie, from The Wire to Veep, this new golden age of television has asked questions no one has been able to ask, not in this here-to-for constricted medium. And in doing so, they have left an indelible mark on the culture that will not be forgotten.

From HBO to FX, from from executives to creators, Difficult Men is a vivid exploration of the transformative programming broadcast in the Cable age. Throughout these 300 pages, packed with gossip and biography, history and new technology, Mr. Martin introduces us to the complicated artists frustrated by television's narrowness, the ambitious executives who sought to use Cable as a means of freeing them, and the unforgettable works of dramatic art born by this revolution. Dividing his chronicle into three, roughly five-year blocks of time, the author begins with HBO's early, powerfully disruptive successes (The Sopranos, The Wire, Six Feet Under, Deadwood) and concludes with those who've taken up the torch HBO lit and then fumbled: Fx with The Shield, Rescue Me and Justified; AMC with Mad Men and Breaking Bad. And in this, he has touched on virtually every significant TV product that has delighted and disturbed the culture over the last 20 years.

Though the work succeeds in providing the necessary background to understand why TV has changed so much since the early 1990s, Difficult Men is at its best when illuminating the powerful, conflicted personalities that have driven these cultural touchstones. Writing with a mixture of reverence and amusement, Mr. Martin examines the politics, the dispositions and the working habits of chase and Milch, Ball and Weiner, all as a means of connecting their issues and their passions to the iconic characters they've created. In this, we come to an understanding of Tony soprano and Don Draper, the Fishers and the Whites, that borders on the profound. For these were not simply pieces of fiction conjured into existence by men newly freed to tell stories. They are outgrowths of drive and obsession, anger and confusion, that we all experience but that has been more deeply concentrated in these Showrunners.

While Difficult Men's stumbles are few, there are disappointments here. Mr. Martin spends virtually no time discussing the archetype of the anti-hero alpha male represented by these shows and the way in which the culture will eventually grow tired of him. He makes it clear that this particularly American view of the modern man can be directly traced back to the men who created them, and so we can infer that the preponderance of male artists in the world of television is responsible for this. But he fails to grapple with the central question here. When, two years from now, audiences are sick of seeing yet another version of the same, conflicted white man in his 40s, and turn away from such programs, will Television decide that the Cable revolution was unsustainable, or will it realize that it needs to seek out newer, more diverse talent? Moreover, Mr. Martin gives almost no time here to the role Showtime played in this revolution. Dexter is winked at, but Homeland, Nurse Jackie, The L Word and Weeds are all neglected, likely for not fitting into the alpha-male narrative.

Notwithstanding its occasional omissions, this is an excellent and deeply entertaining look at products and people that have shaped our culture since the late 1990s. A must-read for anyone who has watched even a few of these shows... (4/5 Stars)

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