Todd A. Kessler was the boy genius of the Sopranos writers’ room. In 1999, he wrote a teleplay, “D-Girl,” about a gangster who writes a screenplay (You Bark, I Bite) that was so good, it changed the rules of dark comedy on television. He was 26. It was the first Sopranos episode he’d done. By 2000, his standing at the show had risen to the point that rumor named him as the successor-in-waiting to David Chase, the Sopranos creator. The two became friends. That summer, when an episode they co-wrote was nominated for an Emmy, Mr. Kessler was elated. Still, he can’t have been much surprised. The episode, “Funhouse,” the last of the second season, is a brilliant piece of writing. The surprise came 10 minutes after the nomination was announced, when Mr. Chase phoned up Mr. Kessler and fired him. He was stunned. “The timing isn’t great,” Mr. Chase admitted during the call. Mr. Kessler wept, and although he obtained a reprieve, it didn’t last.
Had he been fired for being too good? The next act of Mr. Kessler’s career suggested that this possibility hadn’t escaped him. In 2007, he created Damages, an Emmy- and Golden Globe-winning drama about a litigator who brutalizes her protégé. It was “based,” Brett Martin writes in his new book, Difficult Men, “in no small part on [Mr. Kessler’s] experiences working on The Sopranos.” Nor was its creator the only Sopranos alumnus whose later success involved getting even. Mr. Chase had a talent for inflicting the kind of trauma that results in a trip to the podium.
Mr. Martin tells the story of Matthew Weiner, who wrote for Mr. Chase during The Sopranos’
final two seasons. When Mad Men, the show he created, won its first Emmy for writing in 2008, he gave a speech at the Chateau Marmont: “This is what you wait for … so you can tell all those people who ever said anything bad to you to go fuck themselves!” Who did he have in mind? Payback could be as blatant as making the boss who wronged you into the villain of your hit show. It could also be more subtle. It could be cinematographic. Mr. Martin relates that on The Sopranos, Mr. Chase had outlawed “back-of-head shots,” which he despised as clichés. Mr. Martin makes an observation: “The first shot of Mad Men—indeed, its iconic logo—was the back of Don Draper’s head.” In our era of tasteful television, such are the semiotics of go fuck yourself.
Difficult Men presents itself as a history of the showrunners who made the “open-ended, twelve- or thirteen-episode serialized drama … the signature art form of the first decade of the twenty-first century.” And on one level, it is just that: a saga of “big personalities,” with their creative juices and cost overruns and cocaine. At times, it resembles a cautionary tale about what happens when writers get paid. “He had a drawer full of money,” one writer recalls of Deadwood showrunner David Milch, “and he liked to whip his dick out.” “Ego suppression,” Mr. Milch later says, “can be an unhealthy act of ostentation.”
Amid all this self-love, it comes as something of a surprise to see Mr. Chase, the New Jersey masochist, emerge as the exemplary figure. Mr. Martin calls him the “Reluctant Moses” of original programming. He had wanted to make movies like Federico Fellini. He followed the money into television instead. On shows like Kolchak and Northern Exposure, he honed his contempt for the generic. This went on for 20 years. By the time The Sopranos arrived, “[w]e were exorcising David’s demons,” recalled Mr. Weiner. “You know how many decisions were based on some meeting when … somebody told [David], ‘You can’t do that’?” The Sopranos was Mr. Chase’s televised revenge on network television. The irony was that exorcising the demons of prime time turned out to be a formula for really great cable.
Though dozens of shows meet his criteria, Mr. Martin largely confines himself to six: The Sopranos, Six Feet Under, The Wire, Deadwood, Mad Men and Breaking Bad. These dramas managed, he argues, to transcend the philistinism of the medium and tell complex stories to big audiences. The proliferation of channels, falling ratings and the “market” for antiheroes are all cited as causes. Mr. Martin describes The Wire as “literature with the nutrition of broccoli
and the flavor of ice cream.” It’s a telling analogy. In America, the only thing better than great art is great art that tastes like junk food.
It’s become a commonplace to compare cable dramas to the serialized novels of Charles Dickens, and Mr. Martin repeats it. But he also explains the newness of the new television in a novel way: “In the new world of television … nothing is more unnatural than an ending.” He describes the writing of these shows as “a unique and terrifying trapeze act, in which the creator goes swinging out into a narrative abyss.” Elsewhere, the theorizing is less dizzying. Mr. Martin hails Mad Men for “portraying how the passage of life feels” (his emphasis). Some of the scholarship has a junk-food tang, too. “[The Wire’s co-creator, David] Simon, then, was a Trojan who found himself perturbed by the artistry of his own horse.” Mr. Martin thinks the Trojans built the Trojan horse.
My guess is that one’s willingness to admit television to the citadel of High Art will be identical to one’s willingness to believe that serious writing can be a social experience. Difficult Men is really a collection of anecdotes about writers’ rooms—“somewhat intense workplaces,” where “the kind of fitful process … most writers experience alone and in silence” is instead experienced out loud, with snacks. As Mr. Martin describes them, writers’ rooms are in practice allegorical plays about the mental problems of the people who run them. Styles differ like symptoms. Mr. Chase’s was clannish and hierarchical, Mr. Milch’s self-adoring. The empathic Alan Ball, of Six Feet Under, led group-writes like feel-ins, while Mr. Weiner, “the quintessential Queen Bitch,” was capable of speaking “almost nonstop” for a week. Even these speech habits were relatively self-effacing. Mr. Martin dubs David Simon the “ranter in chief.”
The exception is the writers’ room of Breaking Bad, “the most coveted workplace in Hollywood.” On the day Mr. Martin drops by, it is 120 degrees outside, but coolness prevails within, a climate control that extends to the interpersonal. It is the “culmination of everything that [the era] had made possible.” Vince Gilligan, the showrunner, never wanted to be an auteur. He is not a neurotic, not a backstabber, not a brooder. He is also not strikingly literary. “The show is obsessed with the concrete and the literal,” Mr. Martin writes, with “How Things Work.” Mr. Martin tells the story of a Breaking Bad writer who thrilled Mr. Gilligan by producing a draft featuring five pages without a spoken word. That’s about as Dickensian as a car commercial, which isn’t to say it’s bad television.