“Some of these stories are closer to my own life than others are, but not one of them is as close as people seem to think.” Alice Murno, from the intro to Moons of Jupiter

"Talent hits a target no one else can hit; genius hits a target no one else can see." Arthur Schopenhauer

“Why does everything you know, and everything you’ve learned, confirm you in what you believed before? Whereas in my case, what I grew up with, and what I thought I believed, is chipped away a little and a little, a fragment then a piece and then a piece more. With every month that passes, the corners are knocked off the certainties of this world: and the next world too. Show me where it says, in the Bible, ‘Purgatory.’ Show me where it says ‘relics, monks, nuns.’ Show me where it says ‘Pope.’” –Thomas Cromwell imagines asking Thomas More—Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel

My favorite posts to get started: The Self-Righteousness Instinct, Sabbath Says, Encounters, Inc., and What Makes "Wolf Hall" so Great?.

Thursday, August 15, 2013

Nice Guys with Nothing to Say: Brett Martin’s Difficulty with “Difficult Men” and the Failure of Arts Scholarship

With his book Difficult Men: Behind the Scenes of a Creative Revolution: From “The Sopranos” and “The Wire” to “Mad Men” and “Breaking Bad”, Brett Martin shows that you can apply the whole repertoire of analytic tools furnished by contemporary scholarship in the arts to a cultural phenomenon without arriving at anything even remotely approaching an insight. Which isn’t to say the book isn’t worth reading: if you’re interested in the backstories of how cable TV series underwent their transformation to higher production quality, film-grade acting and directing, greater realism, and multiple, intricately interlocking plotlines, along with all the gossip surrounding the creators and stars, then you’ll be delighted to discover how good Martin is at delivering the dish. 

He had excellent access to some of the showrunners, seems to know everything about the ones he didn’t have access to anyway, and has a keen sense for the watershed moments in shows—as when Tony Soprano snuck away from scouting out a college with his daughter Meadow to murder a man, unceremoniously, with a smile on his face, despite the fears of HBO executives that audiences would turn against the lead character for doing so. And Difficult Men is in no way a difficult read. Martin’s prose is clever without calling too much attention to itself. His knowledge of history and pop culture rivals that of anyone in the current cohort of hipster sophisticates. And his enthusiasm for the topic radiates off the pages while not marring his objectivity with fanboyism. But if you’re more interested in the broader phenomenon of unforgivable male characters audiences can’t help loving you’ll have to look elsewhere for any substantive discussion of it.

Brett Martin
Difficult Men would have benefited from Martin being a more difficult man himself. Instead, he seems at several points to be apologizing on behalf of the show creators and their creations, simultaneously ecstatic at the unfettering of artistic freedom and skittish whenever bumping up against questions about what the resulting shows are reflecting about artists and audiences alike. He celebrates the shows’ shucking off of political correctness even as he goes out of his way to brandish his own PC bona fides. With regard to his book’s focus on men, for instance, he writes,

Though a handful of women play hugely influential roles in this narrative—as writers, actors, producers, and executives—there aren’t enough of them. Not only were the most important shows of the era run by men, they were also largely about manhood—in particular the contours of male power and the infinite varieties of male combat.
Why that was had something to do with a cultural landscape still awash in postfeminist dislocation and confusion about exactly what being a man meant. (13)

Martin throws multiple explanations at the centrality of “male combat” in high-end series, but the basic fact that he suggests accounts for the prevalence of this theme across so many shows in TV’s Third Golden Age is that most of the artists working on the shows are afflicted with the same preoccupations.

In other words, middle-aged men predominated because middle-aged men had the power to create them. And certainly the autocratic power of the showrunner-auteur scratches a peculiarly masculine itch. (13)

Never mind that women make up a substantial portion of the viewership. If it ever occurred to Martin that this alleged “masculine itch” may have something to do with why men outnumber women in high-stakes competitive fields like TV scriptwriting, he knew better than to put the suspicion in writing.

            The centrality of dominant and volatile male characters in America’s latest creative efflorescence is in many ways a repudiation of the premises underlying the scholarship of the decades leading up to it. With women moving into the workplace after the Second World War, and with the rise of feminism in the 1970s, the stage was set for an experiment in how malleable human culture really was with regard to gender roles. How much change did society’s tastes undergo in the latter half of the twentieth century? Despite his emphasis on “postfeminist dislocation” as a factor in the appeal of TV’s latest crop of bad boys, Martin is savvy enough to appreciate these characters’ long pedigree, up to a point. He writes of Tony Soprano, for instance,

In his self-absorption, his horniness, his alternating cruelty and regret, his gnawing unease, Tony was, give or take Prozac and one or two murders, a direct descendant of Updike’s Rabbit Angstrom. In other words, the American Everyman. (84)

According to the rules of modern criticism, it’s okay to trace creative influences along their historical lineages. And Martin is quite good at situating the Third Golden Age in its historical and technological context:

The ambition and achievement of these shows went beyond the simple notion of “television getting good.” The open-ended, twelve- or thirteen-episode serialized drama was maturing into its own, distinct art form. What’s more, it had become the signature American art form of the first decade of the twenty-first century, the equivalent of what the films of Scorsese, Altman, Coppola, and others had been to the 1970s or the novels of Updike, Roth, and Mailer had been to the 1960s. (11)

What you’re not allowed to do, however—and what Martin knows better than to try to get away with—is notice that all those male filmmakers and novelists of the 60s and 70s were dealing with the same themes as the male showrunners Martin is covering. Is this pre-feminist dislocation? Mad Men could’ve featured Don Draper reading Rabbit, Run right after it was published in 1960. In fact, Don bears nearly as much resemblance to the main character of what was arguably the first novel ever written, The Tale of Genji, by the eleventh-century Japanese noblewoman, Murasaki Shikibu, as Tony Soprano bears to Rabbit Angstrom.

            Missed connections, tautologies, and non sequiturs abound whenever Martin attempts to account for the resonance of a particular theme or show, and at points his groping after insight is downright embarrassing. Difficult Men, as good as it is on history and the politicking of TV executives, can serve as a case study in the utter banality and logical bankruptcy of scholarly approaches to discussing the arts. These politically and academically sanctioned approaches can be summed up concisely, without scanting any important nuances, in the space of paragraph. While any proposed theory about average gender differences with biological bases must be strenuously and vociferously criticized and dismissed (and its proponents demonized without concern for fairness), any posited connection between a popular theme and contemporary social or political issues is seen not just as acceptable but as automatically plausible, to the point where after drawing the connection the writer need provide no further evidence whatsoever.

One of several explanations Martin throws out for the appeal of characters like Tony Soprano and Don Draper, for instance, is that they helped liberal HBO and AMC subscribers cope with having a president like George W. Bush in office. “This was the ascendant Right being presented to the disempowered Left—as if to reassure it that those in charge were still recognizably human” (87). But most of Mad Men’s run, and Breaking Bad’s too, has been under a President Obama. This doesn’t present a problem for Martin’s analysis, though, because there’s always something going on in the world that can be said to resonate with a show’s central themes. Of Breaking Bad, he writes,

Like The Sopranos, too, it uncannily anticipated a national mood soon to be intensified by current events—in this case the great economic unsettlement of the late aughts, which would leave many previously secure middle-class Americans suddenly feeling like desperate outlaws in their own suburbs. (272)

If this strikes you as comically facile, I can assure you that were the discussion taking place in the context of an explanation proposed by a social scientist, writers like Martin would be falling all over themselves trying to be the first to explain the danger of conflating correlation with causation, whether the scientist actually made that mistake or not.

            But arts scholarship isn’t limited to this type of socio-historical loose association because at some point you simply can’t avoid bringing individual artists, characters, and behind-the-scenes players into the discussion. Even when it comes to a specific person or character’s motivation, though, it’s important to focus on upbringing in a given family and sociopolitical climate as opposed to any general trend in human psychology. This willful blindness becomes most problematic when Martin tries to identify commonalities shared by all the leading men in the shows he’s discussing. He writes, for example,

All of them strove, awkwardly at times, for connection, occasionally finding it in glimpses and fragments, but as often getting blocked by their own vanities, their fears, and their accumulated past crimes. (189-90)

This is the closest Martin comes to a valid insight into difficult men in the entire book. The problem is that the rule against recognizing trends in human nature has made him blind to the applicability of this observation to pretty much everyone in the world. You could use this passage as a cold read and convince people you’re a psychic.

            So far, our summation of contemporary arts scholarship includes a rule against referring to human nature and an injunction to focus instead on sociopolitical factors, no matter how implausible their putative influence. But the allowance for social forces playing a role in upbringing provides something of a backdoor for a certain understanding of human nature to enter the discussion. Although the academic versions of this minimalist psychology are byzantine to the point of incomprehensibility, most of the main precepts will be familiar to you from movie and book reviews and criticism: parents, whom we both love and hate, affect nearly every aspect of our adult personalities; every category of desire, interest, or relationship is a manifestation of the sex drive; and we all have subconscious desires—all sexual in one way or another—based largely on forgotten family dramas that we enjoy seeing played out and given expression in art. That’s it. 

            So, if we’re discussing Breaking Bad for instance, a critic might refer to Walt and Jesse’s relationship as either oedipal, meaning they’re playing the roles of father and son who love but want to kill each other, or homoerotic, meaning their partnership substitutes for the homosexual relationship they’d both really prefer. The special attention the show gives to the blue meth and all the machines and gadgets used to make it constitutes a fetish. And the appeal of the show is that all of us in the audience wish we could do everything Walt does. Since we must repress those desires, we come to the show because watching it effects a type of release.

            Not a single element of this theory has any scientific validity. If we were such horny devils, we could just as easily watch internet pornography as tune into Mad Men. Psychoanalysis is to modern scientific psychology what alchemy is to chemistry and what astrology is to astronomy. But the biggest weakness of Freud’s pseudo-theories from a scientific perspective is probably what has made them so attractive to scholars in the humanities over the past century: they don’t lend themselves to testable predictions, so they can easily be applied to a variety of outcomes. As explanations, they can never fail or be definitively refuted—but that’s because they don’t really explain anything. Quoting Craig Wright, a writer for Six Feet Under, Martin writes that

…the left always articulates a critique through the arts.  “But the funny part is that masked by, or nested within, that critique is a kind of helpless eroticization of the power of the Right. They’re still in love with Big Daddy, even though they hate him.”
That was certainly true for the women who made Tony Soprano an unlikely sex symbol—and for the men who found him no less seductive. Wish fulfillment has always been at the queasy heart of the mobster genre, the longing for a life outside the bounds of convention, mingled with the conflicted desire to see the perpetrator punished for the same transgression… Likewise for viewers, for whom a life of taking, killing, and sleeping with whomever and whatever one wants had an undeniable, if conflict-laden, appeal. (88)

So Tony reminds us of W. because they’re both powerful figures, and we’re interested in powerful figures because they remind us of our dads and because we eroticize power. Even if this were true, would it contribute anything to our understanding or enjoyment of the show? Are any of these characters really that much like your own dad? Tony smashes some poor guy’s head because he got in his way, and sometimes we wish we could do that. Don Draper sleeps with lots of attractive women, and all the men watching the show would like to do that too. Startling revelations, those.

What a scholar in search of substantive insights might focus on instead is the universality of the struggle to reconcile selfish desires—sex, status, money, comfort—with the needs and well-being of the groups to which we belong. Don Draper wants to sleep around, but he also genuinely wants Betty and their children to be happy. Tony Soprano wants to be feared and respected, but he doesn’t want his daughter to think he’s a murderous thug. Walter White wants to prove he can provide for his family, but he also wants Skyler and Walter Junior to be safe. These tradeoffs and dilemmas—not the difficult men themselves—are what most distinguish these shows from conventional TV dramas. In most movies and shows, the protagonist may have some selfish desires that compete with his or her more altruistic or communal instincts, but which side ultimately wins out is a foregone conclusion. “Heroes are much better suited for the movies,” Martin quotes Alan Ball saying. “I’m more interested in real people. And real people are fucked up” (106).

Ball is the showrunner behind the HBO series Six Feet Under and True Blood, and though Martin gives him quite a bit of space in Difficult Men he doesn’t seem to notice that Ball’s “feminine style” (102) of showrunning undermines his theory about domineering characters being direct reflections of their domineering creators. The handful of interesting observations about what makes for a good series in Martin’s book is pretty evenly divvied up between Ball and David Simon, the creator of The Wire. Recalling his response to the episode of The Sopranos in which Tony strangles a rat while visiting a college campus with Meadow, Ball says,

I felt like was watching a movie from the seventies. Where it was like, “You know those cartoon ideas of good and evil? Well, forget them. We’re going to address something that’s really real.” The performances were electric. The writing was spectacular. But it was the moral complexity, the complexity of the characters and their dilemmas, that made it incredibly exciting. (94-5)

Alan Ball with the actors playing his bad boy creations
The connection between us and the characters isn’t just that we have some of the same impulses and desires; it’s that we have to do similar balancing acts as we face similar dilemmas. No, we don’t have to figure out how to whack a guy without our daughters finding out, but a lot of us probably do want to shield our kids from some of the ugliness of our jobs. And most of us have to prioritize career advancement against family obligations in one way or another. What makes for compelling drama isn’t our rooting for a character who knows what’s right and does it—that’s not drama at all. What pulls us into these shows is the process the characters go through of deciding which of their competing desires or obligations they should act on. If we see them do the wrong thing once in a while, well, that just ups the ante for the scenes when doing the right thing really counts.

            On the one hand, parents and sponsors want a show that has a good message, a guy with the right ideas and virtuous motives confronted with people with bad ideas and villainous motives. The good guy wins and the lesson is conveyed to the comfortable audiences. On the other hand, writers, for the most part, want to dispense with this idea of lessons and focus on characters with murderous, adulterous, or self-aggrandizing impulses, allowing for the possibility that they’ll sometimes succumb to them. But sometimes writers face the dilemma of having something they really want to say with their stories. Martin describes David Simon’s struggle to square this circle.

 As late as 2012, he would complain in a New York Times interview that fans were still talking about their favorite characters rather than concentrating on the show’s political message… The real miracle of The Wire is that, with only a few late exceptions, it overcame the proud pedantry of its creators to become one of the greatest literary accomplishments of the early twenty-first century. (135)

But then it’s Simon himself who Martin quotes to explain how having a message to convey can get in the way of a good story.

Everybody, if they’re trying to say something, if they have a point to make, they can be a little dangerous if they’re left alone. Somebody has to be standing behind them saying, dramatically, “Can we do it this way?” When the guy is making the argument about what he’s trying to say, you need somebody else saying, “Yeah, but…” (207)

The exploration of this tension makes up the most substantive and compelling section of Difficult Men.

            Unfortunately, Martin fails to contribute anything to this discussion of drama and dilemmas beyond these short passages and quotes. And at several points he forgets his own observation about drama not being reducible to any underlying message. The most disappointing part of Difficult Men is the chapter devoted to Vince Gilligan and his show Breaking Bad. Gilligan is another counterexample to the theory that domineering and volatile men in the writer’s seat account for domineering and volatile characters in the shows; the writing room he runs gives the chapter its name, “The Happiest Room in Hollywood.” Martin writes that Breaking Bad is “arguably the best show on TV, in many ways the culmination of everything the Third Golden Age had made possible” (264). In trying to explain why the show is so good, he claims that
…whereas the antiheroes of those earlier series were at least arguably the victims of their circumstances—family, society, addiction, and so on—Walter White was insistently, unambiguously, an agent with free will. His journey became a grotesque magnification of the American ethos of self-actualization, Oprah Winfrey’s exhortation that all must find and “live your best life.” What if, Breaking Bad asked, one’s best life happened to be as a ruthless drug lord? (268)

This is Martin making the very mistake he warns against earlier in the book by finding some fundamental message at the core of the show. (Though he could simply believe that even though it’s a bad idea for writers to try to convey messages it’s okay for critics to read them into the shows.) But he’s doing the best he can with the tools of scholarship he’s allowed to marshal. This assessment is an extension of his point about post-feminist dislocation, turning the entire series into a slap in the face to Oprah, that great fount of male angst.

            To point out that Martin is perfectly wrong about Walter White isn’t merely to offer a rival interpretation. Until the end of season four, as any reasonable viewer who’s paid a modicum of attention to the development of his character will attest, Walter is far more at the mercy of circumstances than any of the other antiheroes in the Third Golden Age lineup. Here’s Walter explaining why he doesn’t want to undergo an expensive experimental cancer treatment in season one:

What I want—what I need—is a choice. Sometimes I feel like I never actually make any of my own. Choices, I mean. My entire life, it just seems I never, you know, had a real say about any of it. With this last one—cancer—all I have left is how I choose to approach this.

He’s secretly cooking meth to make money for his family already at this point, but that’s a lot more him making the most of a bad situation than being the captain of his own fate. Can you imagine Tony or Don saying anything like this? Even when Walt delivers his famous “I am the danger” speech in season four—which gets my vote for the best moment in TV history (or film history too for that matter)—the statement is purely aspirational; he’s still in all kinds of danger at that point. Did Martin neglect the first four seasons and pick up watching only after Walt finally killed Gus? Either way, it’s a big, embarrassing mistake.

           The dilemmas Walt faces are what make his story so compelling. He’s far more powerless than other bad boy characters at the start of the series, and he’s also far more altruistic in his motives. That’s precisely why it’s so disturbing—and riveting—to see those motives corrupted by his gradually accumulating power. It’s hard not to think of the cartel drug lords we always hear about in Mexico according to those “cartoon ideas of good and evil” Alan Ball was so delighted to see smashed by Tony Soprano. But Breaking Bad goes a long way toward bridging the divide between such villains and a type of life we have no trouble imagining. The show isn’t about free will or self-actualization at all; it’s about how even the nicest guy can be turned into one of the scariest villains by being placed in a not all that far-fetched set of circumstances. In much the same way, Martin, clearly a smart guy and a talented writer, can be made to look like a bit of an idiot by being forced to rely on a bunch of really bad ideas as he explores the inner workings some really great shows.

            If men’s selfish desires—sex, status, money, freedom—aren’t any more powerful than women’s, their approaches to satisfying them still tend to be more direct, less subtle. But what makes it harder for a woman’s struggles with her own desires to take on the same urgency as a man’s is probably not that far removed from the reasons women are seldom as physically imposing as men. Volatility in a large man can be really frightening. Men are more likely to have high-status careers like Don’s still today, but they’re also far more likely to end up in prison. These are pretty high stakes. And Don’s actions have ramifications for not just his own family’s well-being, but that of everyone at Sterling Cooper and their families, which is a consequence of that high-status. So status works as a proxy for size. Carmela Soprano’s volatility could be frightening too, but she isn’t the time-bomb Tony is. Speaking of bombs, Skyler White is an expert at bullying men, but going head-to-head with Walter she’s way overmatched. Men will always be scarier than women on average, so their struggles to rein in their scarier impulses will seem more urgent. Still, the Third Golden Age is a teenager now, and as anxious as I am to see what happens to Walter White and all his friends and family, I think the bad boy thing is getting a little stale. Anyone seen Damages




Oh yeah--can't forget: The Adaptive Appeal of Bad Boys