Bruce Springsteen was wrong about television!

So I bought a .44 magnum, it was solid steel cast

And in the blessed name of Elvis well I just let it blast

‘Til my TV lay in pieces there at my feet

And they busted me for disturbin’ the almighty peace

Judge said “What you got in your defense son?”

“Fifty-seven channels and nothin’ on”

The Boss may be a great performer, but his analysis of audiovisual culture in late twentieth/early twenty-first century America was off the mark. You will remember that Springsteen released 57 Channels (And Nothin’ On) in 1992. Poor Bruce had had cable and satellite installed, but was unable to find anything to satisfy his aesthetic yearnings. Perhaps he should have been a bit more patient because in 1999 things would be shaken up. This was the year when HBO began to change the perception around television with the first season of The Sopranos. Curiously, Steven Van Zandt, a member of Springsteen’s own E-Street Band, had a major role in that series as gangster Silvio Dante. We are now living in the year 15 A.S. Television had had a bad rap for many years. The prevailing attitude is captured in these quotes that I featured in an earlier post:

  • How can you put on a meaningful drama when, every fifteen minutes, proceedings are interrupted by twelve dancing rabbits with toilet paper?  Rod Serling
  • I find television to be very educating.  Every time somebody turns on the set, I go in the other room and read a book.  Groucho Marx
  • The smallest bookstore still contains more ideas of worth than have been presented in the entire history of television.  Andrew Ross
  • Theatre is life.  Cinema is art.  Television is furniture.  Author Unknown

How was television able to transform itself? Firstly, we need to revisit Chris Anderson’s concept of the long tail. New distribution models allow companies to sell limited quantities of many products and still make a profit. In the old days you had to sell millions and the lowest common denominator was what sold. Programmes were indeed made to sell toilet paper. But all this has changed. Cable, satellite and online streaming channels have altered the economics of television and the way we consume it. HBO, AMC and Showtime have become synonymous with what was once considered an oxymoron, quality television. The shows I mention below have not been mass phenomena in the way that Dallas was. But, they don’t need to be, which gives their creators much more artistic freedom. And we mustn’t forget the new big-screen HD TVs. They have allowed directors to be able to experiment with more innovative, cinematic techniques. Anyone who has seen Breaking Bad will recognise this.

All this came to mind recently when I was reading Difficult Men, a book which looks at the creative renaissance of American television in the last fifteen years or so. Although he does look at many of the successful shows of the last fifteen years, the author, Brett Martin, really focuses on five of these series – The Sopranos, The Wire, Mad Men, Deadwood and Breaking Bad. The book’s title refers both to the male characters who appear and the men who were the creative forces. Martin wants to focus not on the plots but on the writers behind these shows.

The importance given to writers in television is in marked contrast to their disposable status in Hollywood. Martin argues that this predominance is down to the insatiable appetite for content that television has; it’s a train that is always rolling and writers provide the coal. These demands also make collaboration essential, as no one person can do it all. So, you get this peculiar institution that is known as the writers’ room, where talented professionals come together to produce a unified product designed by committee. I like a point made by Vince Gilligan, the creator of Breaking Bad. In it he says that even the crummiest TV show was horribly hard to make. So imagine what it is like to make a great show. I suppose we have all sat through the credits of some Hollywood turkey and wondered how so many people were needed to create such a shitty final product.

What tends to characterise all these shows are complicated, morally compromised, male characters. Tony Soprano, Stringer Bell, Al Swearengen, Don Draper and Walter White are not moral exemplars. Yet somehow we end up rooting for them. They are really good at what they do. All these characters are men – it would be nice to see more women as protagonists in the future. Having said that, Carmele Soprano, Peggy Olsen and Skyler White are all very strong characters. Incidentally Livia Soprano, Tony’s mother, is apparently based on the mother of show’s creator, David Chase.

I have to admit I came late this party. Apart from Mad Men, which I began watching from the beginning, it took me a long time to appreciate what was going on. However, I have made up for lost time and have now seen all five of them. The only one I have been unable to get into was Deadwood, which I saw four episodes of. I just couldn’t get into it. I started watching both the Sopranos and Breaking Bad some two years ago and had finished both by the end of 2013. I am now halfway through the first series of The Wire. What I don’t do is binge viewing. I prefer to keep various series in the air at the same time.

One word I was not familiar with before reading Difficult Men was showrunner. This term, which appeared in the OED’s new words list in June 2013, refers to person who is responsible for the day-to-day operation of a television series – creating story lines, writing scripts casting actors, hiring and firing writers and crew members, keeping track of budgets and dealing with studio and network bosses. The term was necessary to distinguish its functions from that of executive producer. If you watch the opening credits for the Sopranos, you will see a total of five executive producers. With so many names appearing on the credits it is necessary to know who the person ultimately responsible for the show is. It is the showrunners who decide the creative direction of the show, the characters’ arcs (the status of the character as it unfolds throughout the story), the production look and even the soundtrack. Unlike Hollywood, where directors are in creative control of a film, in the world of TV series, the showrunner outranks the director.

In Difficult Men Martin focuses on five showrunners: David Chase, David Simon, Matthew Weiner, David Milch and Vince Gilligan. They may not always come across as likeable, most seem to be dictators and control freaks, but I judge them by work they produced. Here is a little bit about the five of them:

David Chase, the pioneer of  this movement, grew up worshipping film. He loved the auteurs of the French new wave and the highly personal directors who made the 1970s such a creative decade. Martin Scorsese and Robert Altman were talents he could aspire to emulate. Alas, he ended up in television, which he felt was a sell-out. He never really shook off those feelings even after he created what many consider the greatest TV show of all time. After the pilot of The Sopranos had been finished Chase was half-hoping that HBO wouldn’t actually pick it up. What he really wanted was for the studio to give him the cash to turn it into a feature-length film. I wonder what he thinks about it all now

David Simon who did The Wire, believed in creating an atmosphere of intellectual combat in the room. He looked for writers who thrived on being challenged.

David Milch, the man behind Deadwood and Luck, was a loose cannon who had problems finishing series. His style was described thus in the New York Observer:

“After witnessing this process on several occasions—the ambience in the room seems equal parts master class and séance—the comparison that strikes me as most apt is channelling. The only sounds are the hum of an air-conditioner and Milch’s voice, or, more precisely, the voices of his characters speaking through him.”

Matthew Weiner, Mad Men’s showrunner, is renowned for his autocratic rather intimidatory style. Everything that comes out of the writing room must serve his singular vision.

Vince Gilligan, of Breaking Bad, however, prefers to foster a more open and collaborative atmosphere. He is known to hate the concept of an auteur, arguing that collaboration is the best way to make a show.

These showruuners and the characters they created were indeed difficult men. How long will this period of intense creativity last? The 13-episode season offers great scope for the development of characters.  But all good things come to an end. I do miss Breaking Bad and The Sopranos. I don’t want to exaggerate what has been going on here. There were great programmes before and I’m sure there will be again. There are also great shows being produced in many other countries too, but there is something special about the programmes made in this new Golden Age of television. Long may it continue!

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