Brett Martin’s Difficult Men (Penguin Pr.) examines the rise of the showrunner in the television industry in the late 1990s and early 2000s, how the role came to exist, the ways various showrunners manage their writers’ rooms, and the work they produced as a result, for example, The Sopranos, The Wire, Six Feet Under, Mad Men, Deadwood, and The Shield.
Why are writers so important to television?
Television is this all-consuming beast that needs constantly to be fed content. So unlike film, where the director is the king, television writers are in charge—the train has to keep running and they are the ones who provide the coal. That is what has allowed this new auteur, the showrunner, to show up among writers in a way it never has in film. Unfortunately, the downside is that there’s so much that needs doing that it’s impossible for any man or woman to do it alone. So the idea of the writers’ room became institutionalized around the time of Hill Street Blues, which was the first time there were ongoing, wide-canvas, serious dramas on television. It became clear that you needed an institutional memory, that you needed writers in a room to work together and put content out, especially when it was a network show that required 22 episodes.
The nut of the book [chronicles] in hopefully an entertaining way one of these rare cultural moments that allowed creative people to have some power. That happens once in a while—you saw it happen in the 1970s with film. That’s what I hope the book is about, not only what created that moment, how that moved to television, but also what it did to the people who got to take advantage of it, the costs and also the benefits of it. That’s the mission statement of the book, but I also aim to make it an entertaining book of stories. It’s meant to be a good read and is filled with real characters. It’s not just a dry book of criticism.
As part of your research, did you spend time in any writers’ rooms? What are they like?
The writers’ room is really the central scene in the book, and delving into the ways that that unique creative laboratory works was one of the most fascinating things about my research. In many ways, one of the central dramas of the book is how each of these showrunners adapts the writers’ room to his own purpose. It’s a very strange atmosphere, very professional yet also totally fraught with every kind of neurosis and complication that you’d assume you’d get if you took a bunch of writers and put them in a room and told them to collaborate and quash their own creative impulses in the service of another man’s vision. Every one of those men and women was the smartest one in their class, is used to being the funniest, got into the business in order to tell their own stories, and is completely at the will of a total autocrat. They’re charged with both bringing something of themselves to and also giving themselves totally over to someone else’s vision and that creates very intense, messed-up, complicated working situations.
Of the major shows that I cover, only two were still running when I was working on this book. I was allowed to go into the Breaking Bad writers’ room. Not by any stretch the Mad Men writers’ room.
When you say showrunners use writers’ rooms for their own purposes, what do you mean?
It’s almost like how a president puts together a cabinet. Some presidents believe in the power of argument, others want people who say yesw all the time, others want to be told the ruthless truth all the time. Even though the president, of course, ultimately makes every decision, there are different ways to approach it. Similarly, each writer, depending on his taste for collaboration, sort of adapts that.
You’ve got Breaking Bad, which from what I can tell has a truly collaborative atmosphere, in which Vince Gilligan empowers his writers to be his coauthors, and you have ones like Mad Men, where it’s a much more ruthless process of Matt Weiner paying people for ideas and then turning them into his own scripts. David Simon [The Wire; Treme] had a much smaller room filled with very strong, combative, argumentative voices. Then you have completely strange ones like David Milch [NYPD Blue; Deadwood] for whom fellow writers almost act like a sort of creative, conductive jelly that he surrounds himself with as a way of composing in public. He reclines on the floor surrounded by other, younger writers and dictates to a transcriber. That is his method. And everything in between—you go to writers’ rooms and find everything in between. The most fascinating thing is that in each of those cases, great work comes out of that. There isn’t one way to do it.
Do you think managing a writers’ room is different from managing a graphic design firm or ad agency or any other small group of creative people?
It’s funny that you say that because someone said to me, there should be a show about crazy people trying to put together a television show. I said, yeah, it’s called Mad Men. There was a scene a couple of seasons ago where Peggy is complaining to Don about not getting credit on a commercial, He says, “That’s how it works. I give you money, you give me ideas,” and she says, “You never say thank you.” And he says, “That’s what the money is for!” That might as well be a conversation between Matt Weiner and his writers about credit on the scripts.
Do you consider the titular difficult men to be the shows’ creators, characters, or both?
Both, absolutely. The most obvious meaning of the title is the men who are on the cover, Walter White and Tony Soprano. The dominant characters of this Golden Age have been conflicted male antiheroes who are both relatable and reprehensible. Viewers have an exciting, challenging relationship with these guys; we both root for them and then ask ourselves why we root for them. But it very quickly became clear that the title was going to do double duty. If the creators are not killers and mobsters and meth dealers themselves, they are nevertheless complicated, neurotic, confused, brilliant men to reckon with.
Are the showrunners themselves difficult?
I think, yes, generally. The major showrunners have had the opportunity to fulfill their visions in a more complete and realized way than anyone else has perhaps in any medium before, to be the Creator-with-a-capital-C of their respective universes. It is an extraordinarily difficult job that requires a kind of ruthless vision; even the nicest guys are forced to be hypervigilant against any interference and must ultimately be the deciders of anything that happens in that universe. That necessarily makes you into a jerk sometimes. Some are bigger jerks than others. I think I’m pretty clear in the book who those guys are.