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A riveting and revealing look at the shows that helped cable television drama emerge as the signature art form of the twenty-first century

In the late 1990s and early 2000s, the landscape of television began an unprecedented transformation. While the networks continued to chase the lowest common denominator, a wave of new shows, first on premium cable channels like HBO and then basic cable networks like FX and AMC, dramatically stretched television’s narrative inventiveness, emotional resonance, and artistic ambition. No longer necessarily concerned with creating always-likable characters, plots that wrapped up neatly every episode, or subjects that were deemed safe and appropriate, shows such as The Wire, The Sopranos, Mad Men, Deadwood, The Shield, and more tackled issues of life and death, love and sexuality, addiction, race, violence, and existential boredom. Just as the big novel had in the 1960s and the subversive films of New Hollywood had in 1970s, television shows became the place to go to see stories of the triumph and betrayals of the American Dream at the beginning of the twenty-first century.

This revolution happened at the hands of a new breed of auteur: the all-powerful writer-showrunner. These were men nearly as complicated, idiosyncratic, and “difficult” as the conflicted protagonists that defined the genre. Given the chance to make art in a maligned medium, they fell upon the opportunity with unchecked ambition.

Combining deep reportage with cultural analysis and historical context, Brett Martin recounts the rise and inner workings of a genre that represents not only a new golden age for television but also a cultural watershed. Difficult Men features extensive interviews with all the major players, including David Chase (The Sopranos), David Simon and Ed Burns (The Wire), Matthew Weiner and Jon Hamm (Mad Men), David Milch (NYPD Blue, Deadwood), and Alan Ball (Six Feet Under), in addition to dozens of other writers, directors, studio executives, actors, production assistants, makeup artists, script supervisors, and so on. Martin takes us behind the scenes of our favorite shows, delivering never-before-heard story after story and revealing how cable television has distinguished itself dramatically from the networks, emerging from the shadow of film to become a truly significant and influential part of our culture.

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Quotes & Awards

  • “Brett Martin has accomplished something extraordinary: he has corralled a disparate group of flawed creative geniuses, extracted their tales of struggle and triumph, and melded those stories into a seamless narrative that reads like a nonfiction novel. With characters as rich as these, you can’t help but reach the obvious conclusion—Difficult Men would itself make one heck of a TV series.”

    Mark Adams, New York Times bestselling author of Turn Left at Machu Picchu

  • “The new golden age of television drama—addictive, dark, suspenseful, complex, morally murky—finally gets the insanely readable chronicle it deserves in Brett Martin’s Difficult Men. This group portrait of the guys who made The Sopranos, Six Feet Under, The Wire, Deadwood, Mad Men, and Breaking Bad is a deeply reported, tough-minded, revelatory account of what goes on not just in the writers’ room but in the writer’s head—the thousand decisions fueled by genius, ego, instinct, and anger that lead to the making of a great TV show. Here, at last, is the real story, and it’s a lot more exciting than the version that gets told in Emmy acceptance speeches.”

    Mark Harris, New York Times bestselling author

  • “This book taught me a thing or two about how a few weird executives enabled a handful of weirder writers to make shows I still can’t believe were on TV. But what I found more interesting—and disturbing—is how it helped me understand why an otherwise lily-livered, civic-minded nice girl like me wants to curl up with a bunch of commandment-breaking, constitution-trampling psychos—and that's just the cops.”

    Sarah Vowell, New York Times bestselling author

  • “Sometime in the recent past the conversation changed. My friends were no longer talking about what movie they’d been to see but what television show was their latest obsession. Brett Martin’s smart and entertaining book illuminates why and how this happened—while treating fans to the inside scoop on the brilliant head cases who transformed a low-brow medium into a purveyor of art.”

    Julie Salamon, New York Times bestselling author

  • “Mr. Martin, a correspondent for GQ, provides vivid glimpses of these show runners at work, and the high-stress writers’ rooms they presided over. He also deftly situates their shows within a larger cultural context.”

    New York Times

  • “A lucid and entertaining analysis of contemporary quality television, highly recommended to anyone who turns on the box to be challenged and engaged.”

    Kirkus Reviews (starred review)

  • “Martin deftly traces TV’s evolution from an elitist technology in a handful of homes, to an entertainment wasteland reflecting viewers’ anomie, to ‘the signature American art form of the first decade of the twenty-first century.’”

    Publishers Weekly

  • “Fascinating…Martin combines standard making-of stuff (behind-the-scenes production battles, stories about the stars, etc.) with in-depth profiles of the people who, in a very real sense, changed the modern face of television. Fans of the shows he discusses, and especially those interested in television history, should consider this a must-read.”


  • “Aptly titled, and written with verve, humor, and constant energy, Difficult Men is as gripping as an episode of The Sopranos or Homeland. Any addict of the new ‘golden’ television (or extended narratives on premium cable) will love this book. Along the way, it is also one of the smartest books about American television ever written. So don’t be surprised if that great creator, David Chase (of The Sopranos), comes out as a mix of Rodney Dangerfield and Hamlet.”

    David Thompson, author of The Big Screen and The New Biographical Dictionary of Film

  • A Los Angeles Times Bestseller
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About the Author

Brett Martin is a correspondent for GQ and a 2012 James Beard Journalism Award winner. His work has appeared in Vanity Fair, Gourmet, Bon Appetit, the New York Times, the New Yorker, Esquire, Food and Wine, and multiple anthologies. He is a frequent contributor to This American Life and the author of The Sopranos: The Book.