Ask any TV critic who has been paying attention and he or she will tell you: All those past complaints about television being a vast wasteland are as outdated as Betamax tapes and Sony Walkmans.
We are now in an era some critics have described as the Third Golden Age of Television, anchored by a great deluge of ambitious TV series that followed the debut of HBO's The Sopranos, ushering in series more complex, ambiguous, well-produced and demanding of audiences than ever.
And there are two great books out there ready to explain how all this came to pass: Brett Martin's Difficult Men: Behind the Scenes of a Creative Revolution and Alan Sepinwall's The Revolution Was Televised: The Cops, Crooks, Slingers and Slayers Who Changed TV Drama Forever.
Both books essentially make the same point, hammered home in a thousand obituaries for Sopranos star James Gandolfini last month: that the rise of HBO's complicated Mob drama, paired with the explosion of cable television as an industry, has birthed a long list of high-quality series starring dysfunctional antiheroes who have raised the bar creatively for TV.
But each makes its point in slightly different ways, rooted in detailed reporting and extraordinary access, making both books worth reading for media nerds who would love a detailed portrait of why so much on TV today is so good.
Martin, a magazine writer whose work has appeared in GQ and Vanity Fair, spent three years writing his tome, focused on the guys behind his title: the difficult creators and difficult stars who spun the beleaguered state of the modern, middle-aged male into landmark characters such as Tony Soprano, Breaking Bad's Walter White, Mad Men's Don Draper and The Shield's Vic Mackey, among many others.
"This story is in many respects one of writers asked to act in very unwriterly ways: to become collaborators, managers, businessmen, celebrities in their own right, all in exchange for the opportunity to take advantage of a unique historical moment," Martin writes. "If that occasionally led to behavior that was imperious, idiosyncratic, domineering or just plain strange, it could be understood."
"This isn't like publishing some lunatic's novel or letting him direct a movie," one unnamed TV executive is quoted as saying. "This is handing a lunatic a division of General Motors."
So Martin details the stories of a tortured Gandolfini disappearing at times when the stress of living in Tony Soprano's skin got to be too much, once turning up at a beauty salon in Brooklyn with no money after being missing for three days.
Deadwood creator and NYPD Blue writer David Milch could be lovingly paternal or brutally abusive to his writers, gathering them in a circle while he dictated edits to a script; on NYPD Blue, he didn't even write scripts, instead acting out scenes while actors frantically jotted down dialogue.
The Wire's David Simon, a passionate ex-journalist, was given to delivering long memos to HBO about why his often low rated, yet groundbreaking crime drama should continue. And Mad Men's creator Matt Weiner, a former Sopranos writer who rarely hesitates to note HBO blew off its chance to buy the pilot script for what would become AMC's defining hit, is detailed as a charming guy who could be a bit of bully.
But these shows don't just succeed by the grit of their wigged-out creators. They become defining moments for upstart channels such as FX (The Shield) and AMC; they provide new challenges for actors and writers who might otherwise gravitate toward movies; they offer new showcases for high definition TV systems and online streaming sites.
Sepinwall's Revolution covered similar material last year and was recently released in paperback. A former TV critic for the Newark Star-Ledger newspaper now writing for HitFix.com, he had a front-row seat for the quality TV revolution, first in writing a detailed Usenet newsgroup (remember those?) about NYPD Blue, later as one of the most authoritative critics and writers on the evolution of The Sopranos. He eventually conducted the only interview creator David Chase gave the day after the show's controversial ending.
At times, Sepinwall sets up his book as a conversation of sorts, sprinkling parenthetical observations throughout chapters in italics, taking the flow of the story down a brief side street before returning to the core narrative. In the midst of a chapter about The Sopranos' ending, for instance, he can digress for a few paragraphs on fans' obsession with Members Only Guy, a character from the last scene some viewers insist killed Tony.
As you would expect from a TV critic, his book is more about the shows rather than the psychology of their creators. The effect is a little like watching an authoritative media nerd converse with himself, tracing the rise of high quality TV through shows Martin doesn't detail, including Lost, Battlestar Galactica, Friday Night Lights and Buffy the Vampire Slayer.
"When there's a new frontier and you're breaking things in, a lot of crazy, wild and criminal things are allowed to happen," Sepinwall quotes David Eick, executive producer of Sci Fi Channel's Battlestar Galactica reboot, as saying. "When the culture becomes established and the rules become set, and people become comfortable, a lot of the experimentation goes away."