Review – Difficult Men by Brett Martin


Who knew the land of quality television could be so intriguing?  I’ve dabbled with books discussing the evolution of TV into a medium capable of showcasing intelligent and quality work.  Everything Bad Is Good For You by Steven Johnson discussed the development of the multi-story arc, describing the complicated story lines once reserved for soap operas which began to drift into primetime dramas with Hill Street Blues.

Difficult Men: Behind the Scenes of a Creative Revolution: From The Sopranos and The Wire to Mad Men and Breaking Bad by Brett Martin (I’m not kidding, there are really two subtitles there) takes this concept further, covering what he calls TV’s “third golden age”:  the era that began with The Sopranos, continued with The Wire and Mad Men, and finally crescendoed with Breaking Bad.  The title stems from not only protagonists of the third golden age, like Tony Soprano and Walter White;  but also from the intense and exacting personalities behind these characters, like David Chase, David Simon, and David Milch (yes, the number of Davids discussed gets confusing).

I love stories of the persistence required to reach success, as it reminds me that great things don’t just seem great to everyone and blossom easily, and a lot of the tales behind the most popular TV shows today are full of rejection and stumbling blocks.  Breaking Bad was passed over by several networks and almost didn’t get aired after the pilot was filmed, but AMC gave the show a chance after everyone else said no.  Matthew Weiner stewed over the pilot of Mad Men for eight years, at times literally carrying it around with him wherever he went.

I was mainly drawn to this book because of The Wire.  I thought it was so audacious and smart, and it illustrated how systems can just not work in a way only illustrated by books and movies in the past.  The poignance of the one-liners, and the level to which the writers let things play out (legalizing drugs?) seemed more akin to the complicated plot development of novel than the forgettable actions taken on traditional TV shows.  The Wire’s creator David Simon has had an incredible life: he seemingly forced his way into journalism first in college and then at the Baltimore Sun, and then embedded with Baltimore police for a year and wrote books about his experience in the city.  The first book, Homicide: A Year on the Killing Streets inspired the boundary-pushing TV show Homicide: Life on the Street; the second book, The Corner: A Year in the Life of an Inner-City Neighborhood inspired The Wire.  I hadn’t realized the level of research Simon had done before creating The Wire, and now I realize it shows in the work.

Difficult Men manages to examine the success of these shows from many levels.  Martin discusses the history of the cable business with the same ease as he analyzes our fascination with Tony Soprano.  This book shows that at the core of most TV, there are writers yearning to create stories of a certain quality.  These guys are studying Chekhov and hoping to create art in the truest sense of the word.  As movies keep devolving into blockbuster action flicks and series based on teen novels, it is easy to see why TV has been forced to step up to the plate as an outlet for intelligent and complicated work.  This was a timely read for me, as Breaking Bad was ending shortly before I read this and it seemed like everyone was talking about the show everywhere I went, to a level I’d never experienced before.  TV seems to be the most evolving genre of our time, with companies like Netflix and Amazon now financing their own shows.  It will be interesting to see what sort of masterpiece the brilliant and difficult writers of the TV world come up with next.

Difficult Men: Behind the Scenes of a Creative Revolution: From The Sopranos and The Wire to Mad Men and Breaking Bad by Bret Martin on

Difficult Men on IndieBound

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Review – Everything Bad Is Good For You by Steven Johnson


Steven Johnson begins Everything Bad Is Good For You with a claim:  “This book is an old-fashioned work of persuasion that ultimately aims to convince you of one thing:  that popular culture has, on average, grown more complex and intellectually challenging over the past thirty years.”

This is a brave stance to take, as we’ve all been calling television a wasteland for years, shaking our heads at kids who stay glued to a screen playing games and watching shows.  Johnson avoids covering well-trodden ground by refusing to discuss the morality of content.  As he explains, “No one complains about the simplistic, militaristic plot of chess games.”  If you can get past this purposeful exclusion (it seems like a lot of other reviewers can’t), this is a book of simple and brilliant concepts.  Flash bulbs were going off in my head on each page.

A book that covers current culture dates itself quickly – Everything Bad is Good For You was originally published in 2005, and although the games and TV shows cited may not be relevant today (Joe Millionaire?) the ideas presented here seem timeless.  Other media theorists, such as Marshall Macluhan (who Johnson cites), presented concepts 40 years ago which we still refer to today.

Everything Bad Is Good For You is at its best exploring the evolution and cognitive advancement of games, television, and reality television.  Film and the internet are mentioned briefly, almost in passing.  As a reader of The Shallows by Nicholas Carr, Johnson’s stances on the internet made for a great opposing argument.  Johnson does come across as theoretical, and I think this works well as many of his arguments are simple and make sense.

Johnson points out the development of multiple threading in prime time television – television’s increasing use of weaving many complicated threads throughout a show rather than having a single narrative plot.  When he compares Dragnet (from the 1950’s) to the Sopranos (of 2000’s) the difference is striking.  He talks about reality shows as tests of social skill, sort of live action video games.  Drop a group of people in a controlled but unpredictable environment and see how they behave, and observe how they use their emotional intelligence to deal with those around them.  This explains to me the appeal of reality television much more plausibly than other claims out there (we’re all watching to zone out, we’re all watching people be humiliated).  Everything Bad Is Good For You also points out that as a nation our intelligence is rising – would it make sense if our entertainment didn’t advance with us?

I love to think serious thoughts and read big books, but I’m hooked on The Bachelor and Game of Thrones like everyone else.  Arguments which state I’m watching this stuff because it is violent garbage, exploitative and simple-minded, don’t ring true to me.  This book helped me feel a little less guilty about what I’ve always considered my “bad” habit of TV watching.  I also downloaded Lumiosity for my phone, an app that claims to build your brain with simple mental games.  They are fun, and who knows?  Gaming could be good for me.

Everything Bad Is Good For You by Steven Johnson on

Steven Johnson’s website