Newspaper article Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (Pittsburgh, PA)

The 'Difficult Men' of Cable's Revolution

Newspaper article Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (Pittsburgh, PA)

The 'Difficult Men' of Cable's Revolution

Article excerpt

When HBO premiered a new mob drama 14 winters ago, there was no reason to anticipate a seismic shift in the way we watch television. Then "The Sopranos" became a pop culture phenomenon and storytelling marvel. You realized if you didn't keep up, you were dead meat at the water cooler. Cable realized if it didn't follow up, a golden opportunity would be squandered. And just like that, a new age of TV- watching took flight.

Brett Martin's "Difficult Men" (Penguin, $27.95) explains and delights in what he calls this Third Golden Age of television. The first, by his reasoning, was the 1950s-era flowering of quality in programs such as Sid Caesar's "Your Show of Shows"; the second was the 1980s' run of prestigious network offerings such as "Hill Street Blues."

Among the difficult men of this ongoing Golden Age are the characters at the dark heart of cable's best series, including "The Sopranos'" Tony Soprano, "Deadwood's" Al Swearengen and "Mad Men's" Don Draper -- and the demanding, generally insecure masterminds of such shows.

"Thematically there has been this strain of antihero, which is part of what 'Difficult Men' refers to," said Mr. Martin. "That's the defining character of this period: the hero who's seductive, complicated, very difficult to love but lovable nonetheless."

Lovable, almost impossible to quit and entirely a byproduct of the cable model. The lack of content restrictions on pay TV obviously allows for riskier, more mature material.

There's less pressure from advertisers (or no pressure on premium outlets like HBO and Showtime).

Just as important is the 13-episode cable season -- compared with the standard 22-episode network season -- which leads to tighter writing and an open-ended storytelling structure and logic perfect for serialization. Mr. Martin actually considered calling his book "The Power of 13."

A single episode of, say, "Breaking Bad," the AMC series that kicks off its final season Aug. …

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