Behind today's Golden Age of television

Book readers who long have been disdainful of television are being drawn in by sophisticated shows such as "Boardwalk Empire," "Mad Men" and "Breaking Bad."

And it's no wonder.

A new breed of television writers is creating characters with novel-like depth who inhabit worlds that are given a heightened sense of reality through the techniques of journalism.

In "Difficult Men: Behind the Scenes of a Creative Revolution: From 'The Sopranos' and 'The Wire' to 'Mad Men' and 'Breaking Bad,' " author Brett Martin reveals the technological changes that helped usher in the new Golden Age of television, as well as the personal stories of the writers who are keeping us up late watching TV instead of reading books.

A proliferation of channels, a splintering of the audience, a need for more content, high-definition widescreen televisions and services such as Netflix — which allow viewers to binge on episodes and watch whenever they wish — helped birth a new type of show, according to Martin.

HBO was the pioneer in the revolution, launching programs such as the prison series "Oz," the women-centered show "Sex and the City" and the Italian-American mob series "The Sopranos" in the late 1990s.

No longer stooping to the lowest common denominator, the shows became more ambiguous and complicated. Main characters could die, and while the shows often featured strong, complex women, they often dealt with violent men struggling against societal rules, Martin notes.

Among many other writers, Martin introduces readers to David Chase, who came of age despising television and idolized filmmakers Francis Ford Coppola and Martin Scorsese.

Chase, who grew up in an Italian-American family, eventually became the creator and main writer for "The Sopranos." The series aired on HBO only after being rejected by NBC, CBS and ABC.

With complex plots and myriad characters, the new breed of shows requires a writers' room, with underling writers under the control of the main writer — often called a showrunner. While tapping into their imaginations and personal experiences, the writers also rely on research.

For "The Sopranos," the writers read a package of material on the Mob, had a prosecutor as a consultant and were visited by a man from the witness protection program.

Writers for "Mad Men" — which follows men and women who work in advertising in the 1960s — were required to read "The Feminine Mystique" and "Confessions of an Advertising Man." Their writers' room features large calendars crammed with month-by-month details of events in that decade, according to Martin.

Many of the writers have extensive experience as authors, including Dave Simon, creator of the gritty HBO show "The Wire." Simon spent a year accompanying homicide detectives — which eventually led him to pen the nonfiction book "Homicide: A Year on the Killing Streets" before he created the critically acclaimed television show.

Martin's book is so engrossing that I found myself skipping my regular Sunday night rendezvous with the ruthless crime ring leader Nucky Thompson on HBO's "Boardwalk Empire."

Please don't tell Nucky. I promise it will never, ever happen again.

"Difficult Men" is available through the Ashland library and local bookstores.

Reach reporter Vickie Aldous at 541-479-8199 or

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