Book Review: Difficult Men: Behind the Scenes of a Creative Revolution: From The Sopranos and The Wire to Mad Men and Breaking Bad, by Brett Martin

Difficult MenDifficult Men: Behind the Scenes of a Creative Revolution: From The Sopranos and The Wire to Mad Men and Breaking Bad, by Brett Martin
The Penguin Press
292 pages
Audio narrated by Keith Szarabajka
10 hours, 18 minutes

Whether it’s intentional or not, the very first sentence of Difficult Men delivers an immediate jolt to the heart – that kind of bittersweet realization that happens when you hear an ironic reference to someone who is dead.

“One cold winter’s evening in January 2002, Tony Soprano went missing and a small part of the universe ground to a halt.” (Prologue, pg. 1)

Mr. Martin is writing about James Gandolfini’s abrupt departure from the set of HBO’s Emmy-awarding drama The Sopranos, but the irony is a bit eerie – for Tony Soprano is missing and has been, most sadly so, since Mr. Gandolfini’s untimely death in June 2013. (Difficult Men was written while he was still alive and published mere days after his passing.)

The Sopranos was one of my favorite shows – not just on HBO, but of all time. Six Feet Under, Rescue Me, and Mad Men are also on that list and Mr. Martin examines all of them to some varying degrees in his book. These shows were different than their predecessors in many ways. They were groundbreaking for television. They “dramatically stretched television’s narrative inventiveness, emotional resonance, and artistic ambition.” (from the book jacket)

While a major part of that had to do with the male protagonists  – Tony Soprano, Tommy Gavin, Don Draper, et al were some of the most memorable characters of an era – it had much to do with the writers, directors, and producers of the very shows themselves. The “show runner”  really ran the show in more ways than one; all of his personal baggage and therapy fodder was imprinted on the show like an epitaph.

What’s absolutely fascinating is that this isn’t the case with one show.

It’s all of them.

That’s especially true with David Chase of The Sopranos, and sometimes it can be hard to tell where Tony Soprano’s life begins and David Chase’s biography ends. That’s intentional on writer Brett Martin’s part, I think; one of the main premises of Difficult Men is that the creators of these shows were as deeply flawed and nuanced as the characters they brought into our living rooms every week. Some of this is also due in part to the writers and show runners having cut their teeth on some of the same shows. For example, it’s well known that Matthew Weiner worked on The Sopranos before Mad Men. This is a small circle and as the subtitle promises, Brett Martin gets behind the scenes and brings his reader the inside scoop on the backstories, the dramas that we viewers didn’t see, the conflicts in the writing room, and much more.

Difficult Men is a very entertaining book; however, there is one caveat. If you’re not a fan of The Sopranos, you’ll want to consider skipping this one. To a lesser degree, that’s true about The Wire, too. I haven’t seen a single episode of The Wire, but since I was listening to this on audio, I just fast-forwarded through those parts (and chapters). That would be difficult to do regarding The Sopranos‘ references because Difficult Men focuses so heavily on that show. It’s not just a chapter or two, as is the case with The Wire and Breaking Bad, another show that gets a decent amount of play in the book; it’s that The Sopranos‘ influence is woven throughout. Again, this didn’t bother me – but if you’ve never watched the show or didn’t like it, this won’t be the book for you.

I listened to Difficult Men on audio and thought it worked well in that format. It kept my attention and Keith Szarabajka’s narration is excellent.

4 stars out of 5

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