The high price of genius

Are true innovators always sociopaths? According to Difficult men, in the Cable TV business, they often are.

difficult men

It was the year 2000, and David Chase, the creator of The Sopranos and one of the most influential American artists of the past 50 years, had had an epiphany. He was alone with Todd Kessler, one of his writers, when it happened. “We were sitting across a table that was probably 2½ feet wide,” Kessler said. “He said, ‘Well…I realized…that I’ll never be truly happy in life…until I kill a man.’ And then he leaned across the table and said, ‘Not just kill a man’—and he raised his hands right on either side of my head—‘but with my bare hands.’”

Afterward, the two sat quietly for a moment. Then Chase rose. “I’m going to get a coffee,” he said. “You want a coffee?”

That story is not the worst told about Chase in Difficult Men, GQ writer Brett Martin’s chronicle of a television revolution launched by The Sopranos and which continues today in shows like Game of Thrones, Mad Men and Breaking Bad. It’s not even the darkest. In anecdote after anecdote in the book, Chase comes off as a dyspeptic if gifted freak. He bullies underlings. He overspends. He leaves behind a trail of collaborators quick to praise his talent but quicker to gab about his toxic quirks. After Chase fired him from The Sopranos, Kessler wrote the pilot for Damages, a show about a brilliant but sociopathic boss and her impressionable new hire. It was based, he told Martin, partly on his time working for Chase.

In the world of prestige cable drama, the birth and flowering of which Martin ably and enjoyably recounts here, Chase was no outlier. The book’s title has a double meaning. The “difficult men” are at once the characters who defined this current golden age of television—Tony Soprano, Don Draper, Walter White—and the obsessive, cantankerous men who thought them up, including Chase, but also Matt Weiner (Mad Men), David Milch (NYPD Blue and Deadwood) and others.

Together, those men flipped the traditional TV business on its head. By banking on quality drama, HBO became a must-have cable add-on for an affluent and loyal customer base. AMC went from a graveyard for old movies to a cultural force with Mad Men. FX was a half-forgotten Fox offshoot before The Shield. Showtime found new life in Justified. But all that transformative change came at a cost. As Martin makes clear, innovation meant getting in bed with the innovators. And as it turns out, in television, those innovators were a real bunch of pains in the ass.


The Tony Award

In June, the Writers Guild of America ranked The Sopranos the best-written television show of all time, ahead of Seinfeld and The Twilight Zone.


Milch in particular seems to have embodied the stereotype of auteur as enfant terrible. At NYPD Blue, he had petered out in a fog of addiction and bad behaviour. “He had a drawer full of money, and he liked to whip his dick out,” said one writer at the show. Though sober by the time Deadwood started, Milch was no less strange. He often delivered scripts one scene at a time, just as those scenes were about to be filmed. He cultivated obsessive and bipolar relationships with writers. He gambled enormous sums. Deadwood writer Regina Corrado recalled going to the track with him one day to pick up his winnings: $90,000 in a paper sack.

Mad Men’s Matt Weiner comes off as less volatile than Milch, but no easier to work with. As Martin tells it, Weiner ran (and still does run) his writer’s room with a kind of histrionic paternalism. He threw tantrums if he didn’t like the work others produced. “It was like a parent,” one writer said. “Like you had taken a shit on the rug and he was like, ‘What did you do? Bad! Bad!’” He also appears unaware or simply doesn’t care about his tendency to self-aggrandize. Once, Martin writes, Weiner ran into a successful network showrunner at a party. “See you at the Emmy’s,” Weiner said to him on his way out the door. “Actually, we’re not nominated,” the man replied. “That’s right,” Weiner said. “You’re not.”

If Weiner has an excuse for his bad behaviour, it’s this: he learned from the best. Before Mad Men, he spent years under David Chase as a writer and executive producer at The Sopranos. And it’s no exaggeration to say Chase invented the model of TV showrunner as erratic and all-powerful tyrant. In some ways, it’s remarkable HBO ever hired him. He spent decades sabotaging his own TV writing career before washing up on cable. Once, offered the opportunity to take over The Wonder Years, he submitted a sample script that had Kevin Arnold discover The Catcher in the Rye, take up smoking and talk with the ghost of Holden Caufield.

At HBO, Chase’s weird and sometimes paranoid behaviour grew. A former assistant told Martin that his antics and needs escalated as The Sopranos became more popular. “He couldn’t take a cab anywhere, not even a car service. It had to be his own driver, but not in a 15-passenger van, in his own van. And if he couldn’t get the driver he wanted…”

So why did people put up with it? For the same reason people put up with difficult but talented people in any industry: because of the very high quality of the work. For all his personal faults, Chase delivered to HBO an artistic and economic juggernaut. The outpouring of love following the recent death of James Gandolfini, who played Tony Soprano, is a testament to the cultural impact the show had. Financially, it was even more of a success. The Sopranos gave HBO a new, bankable, brand. It showed them how to make money at a time when the old models of television—cable and network—were breaking down. Without it, there would be no Six Feet Under, no Breaking Bad, no Game of Thrones, no Monday morning office talk dominated by what happened on cable the night before. One suspects there would also be a lot less patience in the C-suite for the creative but jerky generation of showrunners that followed in Chase’s wake, including Milch and Weiner, but also David Simon from The Wire and others.

Still, it would be wrong to think that the lesson here is you need difficult men to get great work. Vince Gilligan, who created Breaking Bad, comes off in Martin’s book as exacting, but otherwise a total mensch. It’s more that, if the work is good enough, people will put up with almost anything to get it. In other words, you don’t need a David Chase–style weirdo to get The Sopranos (or Apple or Oracle). But when something like The Sopranos is the reward, putting up with a David Chase is a small price to pay to get it.


Wipe it Away

And fill with desire

To rise to the top of your company

Sample lyric from ex-Groupon CEO Andrew Mason’s debut album Hardly Workin’.