‘Your favourite television programme right at this moment is Breaking Bad, you’ve been watching the boxset, it’s coming to an end… What is it about Breaking Bad that endears itself to you?’
‘I remember watching the first episode and you can’t believe what is happening, that this fundamentally quite decent man who goes quite terribly wrong… It is rather addictive, and I think what’s attractive about it is that it is so different to other things you see on television.’
‘And from the moment TV became a mass medium, it was a reviled medium,’ Brett Martin writes in Difficult Men. ‘At best, it was the ‘glass teat’ dispensing anesthesia to the conformist masses; at worst, it was a sinister conspiracy of the capitalist Mind Control Machine’. Masters of the old form added to this critique: the great horror writer Ray Bradbury called TV an ‘insidious beast, that Medusa which freezes a billion people to stone every night, staring fixedly, that Siren which called and sang and promised so much and gave, after all, so little.’ His 1951 dystopian short story ‘The Pedestrian’ featured an out of work writer, Leonard Mead, walking alone through a town at evening: ‘Sudden gray phantoms seemed to manifest upon inner room walls where a curtain was still undrawn against the night, or there were whisperings and murmurings where a window in a tomblike building was still open.’ For the crime of walking outside at night Mead is picked up by the secret police and thrown into a psychiatric prison.
As Martin says, intellectual critiques of what was then new media had a primitive and superstitious element, but also a fear of professional competition. Mead reflects that ‘Magazines and books didn’t sell any more. Everything went on in the tomblike houses at night now.’ There is a spookily similar passage in John Irving’s The World According to Garp, where the writer-hero walks down a suburban street at night, noting the glow of televisions behind drawn blinds. Garp wonders why he dislikes television so much, then realises: ‘Where the television glows, there sits someone who isn’t reading.‘
The elitist critique of television is mostly correct. Most TV is awful. But in the late nineties through to the 2010s something began happening: networks began to take risks, commissioning slow-burn dramas filled with moral ambiguity and tough questions, addictive and visceral. The Wire, The Sopranos and Breaking Bad became talking points of choice for boxset literati. A strange reversal had taken place: TV was producing great involving epics of deep character development, subversive viewpoints and strong story values, while publishing houses went crazy for the Da Vinci Code, PippaTips and self-published faux-BDSM.
‘The worst thing the French ever gave us is the auteur theory,’ says Vince Gilligan, creator of Breaking Bad. ‘It’s a load of horseshit. You don’t make a movie by yourself, you certainly don’t make a TV show by yourself. You invest people in their work.’ HBO and ACM television runs on the showrunner theory – one man has the vision for the show, then recruits a team of writers to produce the actual script. It’s a communal effort, but rather than the incapacitating grind of committee, this is a more coffee and beta-blockers vibe, noisy jokes, food fights, a table packed with foolscap and pizza rinds: ‘a kind of creative communion.’
And yet the difficult men of Martin’s book do come off as auteurs. A Sopranos writer, Todd Kessler, once found himself alone in the writers’ office with the show’s creator, David Chase. Chase walked in and said he had had an epiphany. ‘We were sitting across a table that was probably two and a half feet wide… He said, ‘Well… I realised… that I’ll never be truly happy in life… until I kill a man.’ And then he leaned across the table and said, ‘Not just kill a man’ – and he raised his hands right on either side of my head – ‘but with my bare hands.” Oh-kay. Deadwood showrunner David Milch comes across as a slightly more civilised version of Al Swearengen. The furious hedonist was immortalised as ‘Caligula’ in a book by playwright and colleague Theresa Rebeck: ‘When he wasn’t being a completely abusive, chaotic nightmare, Caligula was exquisitely charming… He had a prodigious hunger to believe that not only was he a good writer, he was a great writer’. Brett also has the only portrait of Wire showrunner David Simon I have seen that is not completely sympathetic. Brett has him as a brilliant man but also an agitprop visionary who intended The Wire purely as a piece of social activism: ‘As late as 2012, he would complain in a New York Times article that fans were still talking about their favorite characters rather than concentrating on the show’s political message.’
The creative revolution wasn’t bloodless. The boxset shows tend to focus on the struggles of Great Flawed Men – Tony Soprano, Don Draper, Walter White – with female characters sidelined. (I can’t even begin to account for the creepy misogynistic rage directed at Walter’s combative wife Skyler, or the actress that portrays her.) Martin climbs into the boys’ treehouse to some extent, dismissing Lena Dunham’s superb Girls as ‘perhaps not hefty enough to support the weight of all the Rorschach-like baggage commentators brought to it’. He also barely acknowledges the influence of Tom Fontana’s phenomenal prison drama Oz, without which probably none of the other shows would have been commissioned.
Fontana was told by an unnamed HBO exec that ‘Your characters do not have to be likeable. But they do have to be compelling.’ That’s one piece of storytelling wisdom that should be framed above every writers’ desk in the UK, and in the offices of commercial publishers, too. Also the advice scrawled on an early draft of Alan Ball’s Six Feet Under: ‘Can it be more fucked up?’ I repeat: if writers and publishers were prepared to make things a little more fucked up, perhaps there would be less screenglow in suburban houses, and inside these houses would sit people who are reading.