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LINDA WERTHEIMER, HOST:

A new book by magazine writer Brett Martin is called "Difficult Men: Behind the Scenes of Creative Revolution from 'The Sopranos' and 'The Wire' to 'Mad Men' and 'Breaking Bad'." Martin says we are in a third golden age of TV. The first being since Sid Caesar in TV's earliest days; the second, the "Hill Street Blues" of the years of the '80s; the third golden age now is high-quality, well-written often terrifying drama, launched by "The Sopranos." Brett Martin's book is about the showrunners, the writers and creators of the programs, and, of course, the actors. Martin's book was written before James Gandolfini died, but it begins with a salute to him and the difficulty of playing difficult men.

BRETT MARTIN: (Reading) One cold winter's evening in January 2002, Tony Soprano went missing and a small portion of the universe ground to a halt. It did not come completely out of the blue. The role was a punishing one, requiring not only vast amounts of nightly memorization and long days under hot lights but also a daily descendant to Tony's psyche, at the best of times, a worrisome place to dwell, at the worst, ugly, violent and sociopathic.

WERTHEIMER: Which could describe a lot of the television that you say was produced in this third golden age.

MARTIN: Yes. I mean, my title, "Difficult Men," really refers to this new kind of hero, or antihero. What Gandolfini brought to Tony Soprano in making him not just sort of a monster, which he is in many ways, but a person that we rooted for and cared for despite his monstrosity, that became the model for the next 10 years of television and beyond, right to where we are now, so that we started to have Tony Sopranos all across the dial, whether it was narcissistic adulterer on "Mad Men," a serial killer on "Dexter" and so on.

WERTHEIMER: I'm going to take you to another program, which aired on HBO. It was called "Deadwood." It was a program that was flat-out scary. Ian McShane was terrifying in his role as Al Swearengen. We have a clip of him to play now.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "DEADWOOD")

IAN MCSHANE: (as Al Swearengen) I'll strangle you and throw you off the balcony if you don't hurry to tell me where and what's left of that (bleep) dope that you and that other (bleep) weasel have been slamming into your dope-fiend veins, during your (bleep) convalescence.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (as character). God, Mr. Swearengen.

MCSHANE: (as Al Swearengen) Go ahead. Throw yourself off the balcony.

WERTHEIMER: Now, I thought this was a program which was just over the top. Like it started with "The Sopranos" and just went past it and then went some more.

MARTIN: Yeah. It's hard to believe how quickly we went from Tony to Al, who is one of the most unreconstructed, cretinous, you know, monsters to crawl out of the mud that we've ever seen. You know, originally, the common wisdom had been that Americans might appreciate, or viewers might be able to accept difficult characters, complicated characters when they went out to the movies. But that there was some magical thing that happened when you came home, that you didn't want these men in your living room; that it was too intimate. And that turned out to not be true because, you know, we invited Al in every day. We invited Tony in every day.

WERTHEIMER: You point out in the book that after some time passed, the so-called free cable channels, which do have sponsors and do have commercials, began to think that they were missing the boat and they needed to get into the act. And they did, notably with "Breaking Bad." The leading character in "Breaking Bad" is a man played by Bryan Cranston. He starts out as a high school chemistry teacher who's been run down by his life and then he becomes a meth dealer and he's capable of terrible things. And one of the most famous things in the program is his relationship with his wife because she keeps trying to believe he's a good person. Now here's a clip that illustrates that. His wife is played by Anna Gunn.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "BREAKING BAD")

ANNA GUNN: (as Skyler) You are not some hardened criminal, Walt. Please, let's stop trying to justify this whole thing and admit you're in danger.

BRYAN CRANSTON: (as Walt) Who are you talking to right now? Who is it you think you see? You clearly don't know who you're talking to. So, let me clue you in. I am not in danger, Skyler. I am the danger. A guy opens his door and gets shot and you think that of me? No. I am the one who knocks.

WERTHEIMER: Now, there's a scary person.

MARTIN: Absolutely. By the time we get to "Breaking Bad," the stated project of that show is to take, at every stage, Walter White down this rabbit hole and making him worse and worse and taking away every possible justification that the audience would have for continuing to root for him, and then, by implication, asking the audience, well, why are you still rooting for him?

WERTHEIMER: I always thought that perhaps the reason he is so especially scary is that he started out like a suburban guy, a regular guy, and then he just went totally to the dark side.

MARTIN: Right. Because the implication there is that it could be any of us that, you know, given the proper set of circumstances, we could all become a murderous meth dealer.

WERTHEIMER: Now, you sort of end the book where you began with "The Sopranos," only instead of with the actor Gandolfini, you end with the showrunner.

MARTIN: Right. In many ways, the drama of this book is whether David Chase, the signature creator of "The Sopranos," is ever capable of appreciating the magnitude of what he was able to do on television. David Chase was a child who grew up worshipping film, worshipping the auteurs of the French new wave and then the Scorseses and Altmans of the early '70s. And he believed that being in television was a sell-out, was hack work, that he had compromised himself fatally somehow. And he continued to feel that way, even while creating perhaps one of the great works of art of the first part of the 21st century. And that's sort of where we end the book. I would not ever attempt to speak for a David Chase. But my sense is that after all that handwringing at this stage with "The Sopranos" sort of far removed, he has come to appreciate, to some extent, what he did.

WERTHEIMER: Brett Martin, thank you very much.

MARTIN: Thank you.

WERTHEIMER: Brett Martin's book is called "Difficult Men: Behind the Scenes of Creative Revolution from 'The Sopranos' and 'The Wire' to 'Mad Men' and 'Breaking Bad'."

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

WERTHEIMER: This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Linda Wertheimer.

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