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'Difficult Men's Author on the Drawbacks of Auteur-Driven TV

Photo of Sam Adams By Sam Adams | Criticwire August 7, 2014 at 12:28PM

Brett Martin lionized David Chase and Matthew Weiner, but he says the cult of the showrunner may have gone too far.
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Matthew McConaughey in 'True Detective'
Matthew McConaughey in 'True Detective'

On the occasion of its paperback publication, the New Orleans Times-Picayune catches up with Brett Martin, the author of "Difficult Men: Behind the Scenes of a Creative Revolution: From 'The Sopranos' and 'The Wire' to 'Mad Men' and 'Breaking Bad,'" and asks if there's anything he'd like to add. Given that Martin's book has been criticized in some corners for its focus on male showrunners of the troubled-genius variety — the title is truth in advertising — it might come as a surprise that he's skeptical of the trend towards projects like "True Detective" and "Fargo," where every episode is written by (or at least credited to) the same person.

Martin has only seen the first episode of "Fargo" and none of the just-launched "The Honorable Woman...." He did watch "True Detective," which he said was a good example of "the perils and rewards" of having one writer do all the heavy scripting on a series.

"It was of a piece both stylistically and thematically and clearly had a coherent vision," Martin said. "At the same time, some of its downfalls — some of its pretentiousness, some of its lack of humor, some of its claustrophobia — might've been relieved by other voices.

"I like 'True Detective,' but for that to become the rule I don't think necessarily would be a good thing."

Although "Difficult Men" dabbles in the cult of the showrunner, Martin is frequently concerned with the process of conflict and collaboration that made (and makes) the shows in his subtitle work: There's no question that "The Sopranos" was David Chase's vision, or "Mad Men" Matthew Weiner's, but a substantial part of their wisdom lay in allowing the show to broaden beyond the scope of their particular imaginations. The downside of the rise of auteurist TV is that it encourages creators to mistake indulgence for distinctiveness; for me, at least, "Fargo" would have been substantially stronger had Noah Hawley been encouraged to tame his fondness for digression and not been allowed to run long almost every single week — a practice that probably has as much to do with FX building its brand as a place where creators can run wild as a faith in Hawley's abilities. One of the most promising aspects of "The Knick" is that Steven Soderbergh, in his pseudonymous guise of Mary Ann Bernard, cuts every episode to the bone, some running barely over 40 minutes. Creative freedom ought to include the option to tighten things up as well as let them hang loose.

This article is related to: Breaking Bad, The Sopranos, Mad Men, The Knick, Steven Soderbergh

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