Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

When TV took over

Once considered a lesser medium, television has undergone a revolution led by demanding visionaries

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This timely American show business backgrounder is important in that it pinpoints the moment, about 15 years ago, when the cultural conversation started to change.

Film, books and theatre, ceased to be the starting point when discussing serious culture. Suddenly, television drama, specifically serial drama, became the event of the age.

In this wide-ranging book, Brett Martin, an American pop culture journalist and observer, charts with verve, intellectual rigour and cool reportorial style how that change came about.

As we are in the middle of it, or perhaps, with Mad Men ending next year, and Breaking Bad this summer, at the end of its first great creative outburst, this engrossing account is an already indispensable reference for the histories and academic studies to come.

The revolution was a meeting of explosive creativity with the technology-driven future of entertainment. The VCR, DVD and the Internet, along with the growth of basic cable and the premium cable network HBO, provided the ground on which the new programming flourished.

Clamour for content, a notion among fringe network executives that there was nothing to lose, and the idea of trusting an audience instead of stroking its comfort level, called forth a group of brilliant, diverse men.

Though, as Martin makes clear, numerous strong women are there as writers and producers, this story, born with the iconic figurative godfather of the phenomenon, The Sopranos (1999-2007), and its creator, David Chase, is about the flowering of male writers who have created the key anti-heroes of a restless age.

This group, Chase, David Simon (The Wire), Alan Ball (Six Feet Under), David Milch (Deadwood), Matthew Weiner (Mad Men) and Vince Gilligan (Breaking Bad) are the centre of the story.

"Showrunner" became the term for the creator/head writer/producer and powerful visionary of these series.

All of them, with the exception of Gilligan, Martin notes, are "difficult," however brilliant their work.

Chase is relentlessly brooding and dissatisfied; Simon, obsessed with the rot he sees at the heart of American life; Ball, imperious and dismissive; Milch, who gets points from Martin for hiring the most women writers, pontificating a kind of nutty mystical vision; and Weiner, a Sopranos alumnus, abrasive and bullying, much like some of his Mad Men characters.

Interestingly, Gilligan, who created Breaking Bad's Walter White, a Dostoevskian character darker than any other among the male protagonists of these shows, seems a nice guy to his staff.

Martin opens the book with an anecdote about The Sopranos' large-hearted star, James Gandolfini, who played New Jersey Mob boss Tony Soprano. With his death just two weeks ago, the show takes on a certain poignancy, since many felt it as a kind of a personal loss.

This is a credit to the actor, but also to Chase, who made his tortured New Jersey mobster creation someone to care about, however warily.

In the revolution's beginning, Chase met HBO, which by the late '90s was a jumble of failed ideas and reruns. The two clicked, and HBO knew it had arrived when the New York Times proclaimed The Sopranos the contemporary equivalent of the 19th-century serial novel, comparing it to Balzac, while others invoked Dickens and George Eliot.

Open-ended, yet with the conclusion nestled in the creator's mind, The Sopranos and the rest have had a great novel's page-turning narrative power. Luckily, these shows arrived with the explosion of websites and bloggers. Fans could instantly and intensely discuss each episode, while the media, catching up, created the "day after" recap.

Though Martin lauds The Sopranos, he pays as much attention to Simon, and sets his highest praise for The Wire. Its critical success is unmatched by any other show in the revolution, with Martin arguing that its fourth season may be the finest drama yet seen in the medium.

The pop-culture magazine Entertainment Weekly, in fact, ranks it as No. 1 on its TV list in its 100 All-Time Greatest issue, currently on newsstands

The Wire (2002-2008) is probably closest to the novel comparison so loved by critics. Each season takes an aspect, and its dramatic time, through Simon's hard realist, journalistic lens, of Baltimore life and dissects it with rage and compassion.

Martin, though he revels in telling us of Milch's radical makeover of the western with the extraordinary Deadwood, or Six Feet Under's romance with death, is right to concentrate on The Sopranos and The Wire.

Further, with Mad Men and Breaking Bad not concluded at the time of his writing, he gives us an understandably briefer view, concentrating on Weiner's tough manner and Gilligan's inclusive style.

His epilogue returns to The Sopranos' famously ambiguous ending of Tony looking directly into the camera, then darkness. The ending of this TV revolution is ambiguous as well, Martin concludes, but that is what makes it exciting.

What is clear is that no one from now on will look at television as a medium for failed writers. Now writers go there first. They could use Martin's incisive study of how to do it.

Rory Runnells is artistic director of the Manitoba Association of Playwrights.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition July 6, 2013 A1

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