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'Difficult Men' explores TV's 'Third Golden Age'

David Chase, creator and producer of "The Sopranos,"

David Chase, creator and producer of "The Sopranos," on a set at Silvercup Studios in Queens in 2006. Credit: ASSOCIATED PRESS DIANE BONDAREFF

DIFFICULT 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, 303 pp., $27.95.

Anyone who came of age BTS -- that is, Before Tony Soprano -- will remember when television's standing was "somewhere beneath comic strips and just above religious pamphlets." But by the first decade of the 21st century, serialized cable dramas such as "The Sopranos," "The Wire," "Mad Men" and "Breaking Bad" had become "the signature American art form." Or so claims magazine writer Brett Martin in his "Difficult Men," an engaging, entertaining and utterly convincing chronicle of television's transformation.

The era Martin dubs the Third Golden Age of television marked a revolution in both how and what America watched. (The earlier gilded periods came at the dawn of the medium's creation and in the 1980s, when network shows such as "Hill Street Blues," "thirtysomething" and "St. Elsewhere" appeared.) The increasing availability of DVDs, DVRs, online streaming and on-demand cable in the late 1990s meant viewers could watch on their own schedules. They could pause, rewind and replay if a complicated narrative demanded it. And they could watch entire seasons of television in what Martin calls "compulsive orgies of consumption."

This period also marked the ascendancy of the "showrunner": writer-producers who were given extraordinary power to shape the shows they created. The germ of the idea for "The Sopranos" occurred to David Chase as he sat in Los Angeles traffic: "Mafia Mother and Son -- The father dies. Junior is in charge. His only rival is his mom." After CBS, NBC and ABC all passed on the pilot, he took it to HBO, which was developing a slate of dramas. It was a perfect match: Liberated from the needs of advertisers, who demand a mass audience for their commercials, Chase was able to cast a non-actor like Bruce Springsteen's guitarist, Steven Van Zandt, in a key role, and a journeyman like hulking Jersey boy James Gandolfini as the leading man.

With no restrictions on profanity, no need to interrupt the action for commercial breaks and no worries that low ratings could lead to a show's premature cancellation, premium-cable drama was quickly populated by "characters whom, conventional wisdom had once insisted, Americans would never allow into their living rooms: unhappy, morally compromised, complicated, deeply human." In 2002, FX upped the degree of difficulty when it brought "The Shield," a story of corrupt and conflicted Los Angeles cops, to advertiser-supported television. AMC repeated, and perhaps perfected, the trick a few years later with its tales of adulterous, hard-drinking admen and a drug-dealing high-school chemistry teacher.

These cranky, middle-aged men were summoned into existence by a bunch of ornery midlife guys (Martin's subjects skew as male as a night at the dog track), who were themselves plagued with bad habits, terrible communication skills and oversized egos. Martin operates with an enviable fearlessness, painting warts-and-all portraits of autocratic showrunners such as David Milch ("Deadwood"), David Simon ("The Wire") and Matthew Weiner ("Mad Men").

The anecdotes Martin culls from writers' rooms and film sets are the book's greatest strength. Conscious of the physical and psychic toll these grim shows sometimes take on their creators and actors, he reports that several members of the cast of "The Sopranos" and "The Wire" sought treatment for substance abuse once their roles came to an end. He writes, "To be an actor on a TV show during the Third Golden Age was to live in a permanent state of anxiety, one's mortality (and unemployment) forever lurking around the next plot twist."

On a more lighthearted note, he also describes the off-duty lives of the cast of "The Wire," who decamped to Baltimore while the show was in production. Older actors gravitated to a house owned by Clarke Peters, who played veteran cop Lester Freamon -- where cast members shared group meals, piano jams and impromptu painting sessions. The younger crowd enjoyed clubbing and video-game tournaments that pitted cops against drug dealers -- or, at least, actors who played those roles.

"Difficult Men" begins with a spoiler alert: "In the following pages, I discuss a great many plot points of a great many TV shows." In our spoiler-phobic age, such a preface was necessary. But it's irrelevant. Anyone interested in television should read this book, no matter how much or how little they know about the shows it chronicles.

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