Breaking Bad returns this weekend for its final 8-episode run this weekend. You can find an answer to why the show has joined the pantheon of greats including The Sopranos, The Wire, Mad Men and more in TV’s current Golden Age, in Brett Martin’ s new book, Difficult Men: Behind the Scenes of a Creative Revolution. Brooke talks to Martin about how we ended up in this TV renaissance.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: AMC’s Breaking Bad returns this weekend for its final eight-episode run. It’s about the cancer-ridden chemistry teacher, turned meth kingpin, Walter White and his downward spiral from milk toast to monster, unless, of course, he always was a monster. Anyway, the critics love it. I love it. You can find an answer to why creator Vince Gilligan's Breaking Bad has joined the pantheon of great series, including The Sopranos, The Wire, Mad Men and more in TV’s current Golden Age, in Brett Martin's new book, Difficult Men: Behind the Scenes of a Creative Revolution. With that title, he refers both to the main characters in those episodic dramas and the men who gave birth to them.
BRETT MARTIN: And they were making television about men, about masculinity and about men in combat. The heroes that they brought us, the, quote, unquote, “heroes” were engaged in a constant kind of battle between their most primal male urges and civilization, so to speak.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Why don’t we play that most-often played clip from Breaking Bad?
BRYAN CRANSTON AS WALTER WHITE: I am not in danger, Skyler. I am the danger!
A guy opens his door and gets shot, and you think that of me?
No. I am the one who knocks!
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Is that what all these characters, not just Breaking Bad's Walter White, but Mad Men's Don Draper and Tony Soprano, is that what they're all striving for, to be the one who knocks?
BRETT MARTIN: In some way, yeah. And I think that’s the button they push in viewers, for sure. We’re both attracted to the idea of assuming that kind of male power, and we’re repelled by it. It’s an extraordinarily powerful seductive thing to watch.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: And we started watching it with The Sopranos. As you note, it couldn't of been made without any number of groundbreaking predecessors, but this is the one that really changed the landscape of television, I think. HBO gave David Chase, a notorious chronic misanthrope, a chance to make this. And it – and it wasn’t an easy show to make.
BRETT MARTIN: It was extremely hard. I mean, it was very hard on its star, who was as responsible as anybody else for creating this Golden Age, in, in James Gandolfini. And what we've got as viewers, this incredibly fully realized portrayal that not only was very fearless in portraying Tony's ugliness and his rage and his terribleness, but also give you a kind of soulful relate-ability.
JAMES GANDOFINI AS TONY SOPRANO: But trust me, there's millions of girls that are dyin' to meet a guy like you. I see 'em every day.
ROBERT ILER AS ANTHONY SOPRANO, JR.: Oh, right. No, I'm so special.
TONY SOPRANO: You're damn right you are. You're handsome and smart and a hard worker, and - let's be honest - white. That's a huge plus nowadays…
BRETT MARTIN: Gandolfini really had to dive into that character, and it was a hard character to live in. I begin my book with the story of him disappearing for about three days in the middle of sort of the peak of The Sopranos, and eventually finding himself in a Brooklyn beauty parlor without any identification.
I tell that story to talk about the size of the production. People who were around it, one person suggested to me that it was like being around the Beatles. It had that kind of white hot center-of-the-universe feeling about it.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: And Gandolfini was fundamentally a shy guy.
BRETT MARTIN: A shy guy who, who looked like Tony Soprano - [BROOKE LAUGHS]
- when he went out on the streets and couldn't really escape that. You know, he made a lot of people's lives at that time rather difficult, and to a man and a woman, when I talked to them, they understood and they really loved him.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Now let’s switch to the showrunner, the creator, David Chase. He doesn’t understand why he's always being depicted as so grumpy. On the other hand, you do report that he once told a colleague he would never be happy ‘til he killed a man with his bare hands.
BRETT MARTIN: Yeah, it’s, it’s hard to know what to make of David Chase when he says that it's a mystery to him why everybody think he's such a misanthrope, because it's really his identity, you know, a very troubled guy, grew up in New Jersey, a devotee of the great film auteurs, believed he was here to make the films that he loved from, you know, the Italian new wave, and Scorsese and, and Coppola, and was absolutely filled with self-loathing for having sold out, as he saw it, and gone to television –
- and continued to feel that way, even having transformed television and, and arguably made one of the great works of art of the 21st century. I call him the reluctant Moses of the third Golden Age, which is that he sort of opened the door, led everybody to the promised land, but – but couldn’t quite go in himself.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: And he created the show, as the other difficult men, with autocratic creativity, which really did seem to reflect the concerns and obsessions of the creators. In The Sopranos, you can see some of David Chase’s vision for the show laid out in the first episode, right? You mention when Tony tells his therapist, Dr. Melfi, that he feels he was born too late.
TONY SOPRANO: But lately, I’m getting the feeling that I came in at the end. The best is over.
LORRAINE BRACCO AS DR. JENNIFER MELFI: Many Americans, I think, feel that way.
TONY SOPRANO: I think about my father. He never reached the heights like me. But in a lot of ways, he had it better. He had his people. They had their standards. They had pride. Today, what have we got?
BRETT MARTIN: As David Chase became the boss of this, you know, ever-increasing world, so too did Tony, and his stress mount. And, in many ways all these shows wind up being about making television shows.
And the other thing about that clip is that it’s the moment when you realize that the ambition here is not just simply to have a show about funny New Jersey mobsters, but really say something about America. And from that moment on, you could watch for both things. You could watch for the kind of frisonne of the blood and all the things of the great mob genre story give you but also, because it was really a great story about, you know, the emptiness of the American dream. And that's the kind of connection to the audience that marked that show and, and all these other really bad guys we wound up rooting for.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Let’s switch for a second to Mad Men, which comes from Matt Weiner's head, a former Sopranos writer. You said that, in some ways, these shows are really about making shows?
BRETT MARTIN: Certainly, that is true of Mad Men, which is, after all, about a, a group of creative people stuck together in an office, forced to collaborate and make their talents subsidiary to some great visionary, like Don Draper.
One of the things that began to happen, first on The Sopranos and then more pronouncedly on Mad Men, is that it had traditionally always been part of a showrunner’s portfolio to rewrite their writers. George Pelecanos, who was a, a great novelist in his own right when he wrote for The Wire, couldn’t believe how much David Simon had rewritten his stuff, and Simon said to him, well, you know, how much do you think was there, and he said, probably 30 percent. And he said, you’re doing pretty good -
- which is not something that novelists are used to. But in, in any event, it’s a given that you’re gonna be rewritten a lot. And since sort of time immemorial, you would, nevertheless, get sole credit on a script. And David Chase began to get very fed up with this and began putting his own name on scripts as a co-writer. And Matt Weiner, as he did with many things that he learned in The Sopranos writers’ room, took that to a – yet another level. And I believe it’s something like 90 percent of the Mad Men scripts share credit with whoever the original writer was, and Matt Weiner. That’s a long way of saying that that tension showed up on Mad Men itself as Peggy, the young copywriter, complains about not getting sufficient credit for a commercial that she’s written.
JON HAMM AS DON DRAPER: You gave me 20 ideas and I picked out one of them that was a kernel that became that commercial.
ELISABETH MOSS AS PEGGY OLSON: So you remember?
DON DRAPER: I do. It was something about a cowboy. Congratulations.
PEGGY OLSON: No, it was something about a kid locked in a closet because his mother was making him wait for the floor to dry, which is basically the whole commercial.
DON DRAPER: It’s a kernel.
PEGGY: Which you changed just enough so that it was yours!
DON: I changed it into a commercial. What, are we going to shoot him in the dark in the closet? That’s the way it works! There are no credits on commercials!
PEGGY: But you got the Clio!
DON: It’s your job! I give you money, you give me ideas!
PEGGY: And you never say thank you!
DON: That’s what the money is for!
BROOKE GLADSTONE: So in this instance you think maybe Weiner’s owning up a little bit to that tension?
BRETT MARTIN: I think so. I think – I mean, I, I think that in many ways, unlike a movie which say will be – will shoot for a year, two years or something like that and then be over, these shows are meant to last for a very long time, and it means that as they develop, so too do the people writing them.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Let me ask you about a scene from The Wire. A witness tells a cop that a character named Snot Boogie, who was murdered, always stole the money from their weekly dice game. Finally, someone shot him.
DOMINIC WEST AS DET. JAMES 'JIMMY' MCNULTY: I got to ask you, if every time Snot Boogie would grab the money and run away, why'd you even let him in the game?
SNOT BOOGIE'S FRIEND: What?
DET. JAMES 'JIMMY' MCNULTY: If Snot Boogie always stole the money, why'd you let him play?
SNOT BOOGIE'S FRIEND: Got to. It's America, man.
BRETT MARTIN: I mean, the ambition of, of The Wire, you know, was nothing less than, than really portraying an, an entire American city,
BROOKE GLADSTONE: And this was David Simon’s vision of America.
BRETT MARTIN: That’s right, David Simon who had been a great journalist, who saw suddenly this opportunity to do something in television that one would never have imagined could be done before.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: And was he a difficult man?
BRETT MARTIN: Some might say that, [LAUGHS] yes. David Simon has no shortage of ego and, in particular, believes in the power of argument as a creative force, and so surrounded himself with brilliant minds and sort of created a kind of combative atmosphere in the writers’ room from which The Wire sprang.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: But he would bring in people, specifically to argue with.
BRETT MARTIN: Right. You know, he had been raised in a very loud, argumentative - the way he described it to me was one of his brothers brought over a girlfriend who thought, boy, this family hates each other.
And that was just a normal Friday night dinner. And he had the gift of the confidence to have opposing viewpoints in the writers’ room.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Surprisingly, though, you say that Breaking Bad is, in many ways, the culmination of everything that the Golden Age made possible, and yet, it was created in what you call “the happiest room in Hollywood” by the least difficult of these difficult men. You could draw up a tremendous contrast between David Chase, who launched The Sopranos and Vince Gilligan, who launched Breaking Bad, I mean, aside from the fact that he's just one guy who isn’t named David.
BRETT MARTIN: Right. No, you couldn’t have more – two more different people in, in that way. Vince Gilligan insists on collaboration as the most important aspect in what’s made Breaking Bad what it is. Now, David Chase was notorious for dismissing writers that had been large parts, arguably, of, of creating The Sopranos. Probably that stemmed, to some extent, from the frustration of having to have collaboration at all, of not doing what his film heroes could do and be the sole author.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Could we talk about legacy? I mean, you observe that the creator of HBO's Girls, Lena Dunham, was only 13 when The Sopranos came out, and the notion of TV as a wasteland probably seemed like a rumor from another universe.
BRETT MARTIN: In fact, if anything, you know, a writer starting out now would, would probably be pointed more towards television, if he or she wanted to do good work, than in film.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Would you want to work for these guys?
BRETT MARTIN: Well, even the nicest one of them I don’t want to work for.
Writing – writing in a writers’ room is an – is an incredible task of finding a way to express yourself, while being almost completely subsidiary to another man or another woman's vision. So that doesn't suit me terribly well. But do I envy the, the ability to create an entire universe and see it through to the end? Of, of course, any writer would.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Brett, thank you very much.
BRETT MARTIN: Thank you so much.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Brett Martin is the author of Difficult Men: Behind the Scenes of a Creative Revolution, From The Sopranos and The Wire, to Mad Men and Breaking Bad.
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BOB GARFIELD: That's it for this week’s show. On the Media was produced by Jamie York, Alex Goldman, PJ Vogt, Sarah Abdurrahman and Chris Neary. We had more help from Molly Buckley and Olivia Weitz. And the show was edited - by Brooke. Our technical director is Jennifer Munson. Our engineer this week was Andrew Dunne.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Katya Rogers is our Senior Producer. Jim Schachter is WNYC’s Vice President for News. Bassist composer Ben Allison wrote our theme. On the Media is produced by WNYC and distributed by NPR. I’m Brooke Gladstone.
BOB GARFIELD: And I’m Bob Garfield.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: And I’m the one who knocks.