Criticizing Criticism Peak TV: What Two Different Books On Peak TV Tells You Shows VERY Different Perspectives on It

David B Morris
10 min readFeb 18, 2024

Part 1: Brett Martin’s Difficult Men Misogyny Does A Disservice To The Era

As the ‘death knell’ for the era of Peak TV is sounded by basically everybody who should know better, there continues to be reflection on why it was go great and why it is now going to be doomed. I’ve already written multiple articles about why I believe this is something that is basically based in the critics’ rose-colored perspective view of the art of television rather than the fact that it’s always been a business and always will be. I don’t expect that’s going to change the hearts and minds of the critics themselves: in their ivory towers, art has always existed independent of commerce and trying to convince them otherwise is so often a fool’s errand.

So what I’m going to do in this entry — actually two different entries — is to look at two different books that both take a look at the era that is Part 1 of Peak TV, covering 1997 to 2012. I’ve discussed both of them before and you may very well be familiar with at least one if you are a scholar of the subject. The more famous one is Difficult Men by Brett Martin, and the slightly less well known is The Revolution Was Televised by Alan Sepinwall.

I own both volumes and have repeatedly used them as reference for my column dozens of times over the last eight years. That said, I am convinced Sepinwall’s book is superior to Martin’s in almost every way. I admit that Sepinwall is a TV critic who is still publishing for various magazines and online sites and I have read much of his work which may count for a personal bias. But that does not change the fact that Sepinwall’s volume has a far more objective perspective into the era, clearly has conversations with more sources that Martin does (though both men are using the same subject manner) and that Sepinwall pays more attention to detail than Martin.

To be fair Martin’s book is not the same thing as Sepinwall’s. Revolution is a critical review of several series that he considers among the greatest of all time and he relates many of his experiences watching these shows and tells the reader why he loves them and what they made them great. Difficult Men, by contrast, is essentially a behind the scenes volume of the making of many of these series, a brief history of the medium, and in-depth discussions with many of the writers. Perhaps part of the reason I prefer Sepinwall is that he explains what it was like to watch them and why it was so much fan. Martin, by contrast, rarely dwells on the shows themselves, focusing his energy on the behind the scenes action. His fandom is for the writers, and, with few exceptions, barely seems to even discuss the shows. You almost wonder if he even watches these shows regularly for all the excitement he says about them.

I think it’s easier in this case to start with Difficult Men which the more often I read it, the more clear it is how problematic it is. I discussed some of the larger issues in a profile I did on David Chase last month, but in reread it became clear that there’s a larger problem with the entire publication, one that shows not only Martin’s bias but does a disservice to the very subject he claims to want to reveal the secrets behind.

A major flaw in both volumes, I should say right now, is that neither of them see fit to cover comedy. However in Martin’s case, it’s part of a bigger problem with his entire volume: Difficult Men is about the brilliance of cable, and as he puts it network comedy is as good as cable in that regard.

Martin’s decision to look only at cable is just the start of many issues with the book, many of which seem to come down to an underlying sexism that becomes increasingly clear on multiple readings. Perhaps we should not be shocked: the book is titled Difficult Men, after all. But as I mentioned in my criticisms of Chase, Martin takes the view that these men are artists, and that as artist their horrible behavior should be excused in the creation of their art.

This is a horrible perspective to take for any writer and it’s very clear in Chase’s entry that there’s a clear misogyny in his behavior. Worse is the fact that throughout the book Martin consistently defends Chase’s behavior no matter how toxic it is. The worst example comes with the firing of Robin Green who was a friend of Chase’s for over a quarter of a century and of the original writers on The Sopranos lasted the longest. By Season 5 Green tells Martin that Chase had moved her chair around the writer’s conference table so he didn’t have to look at her. He refers to her arguments as ‘ truculent and obnoxious’. Green tells Martin there was a physical feeling of discomfort around him. Eventually Chase fires Green when her husband comes into the room. He gives a list of infractions, dating back 20 years. This is the definition of toxic masculinity — and Martin bends over backward to say that Chase was in the right.

But this is to be expected of Martin’s entire approach to Difficult Men in which he argues that the only reason any of the great series of the era becomes a smash is solely the original creator. As far as Martin is concerned, the directors, the actors, even the other writers, are merely satellites in orbit around the great showrunners. Chase is the worst example of this behavior by far but only because Martin has decided to make him the center of Difficult Men. As far as Martin is concerned, Chase is the Revolution.

And this does a disservice to basically everyone else. It’s not just that Chase decides to focus entirely on the men behind the series, it’s that all of his shows are male centric. This is a mistake, for the record, Sepinwall doesn’t make. Even though he admits it does not fit the normal parameters of his book, he devoted fifteen pages to Buffy the Vampire Slayer, the only series that is center not just around a female heroine but is dominated by female characters. As he acknowledges, it debuted six full months before OZ and nearly two years before The Sopranos, but as far as he’s concerned you can’t talk about the revolution and not include it. (Slayer is actually part of the subtitle of his book.)

By contrast Martin barely talks about any of the female characters in the series he covers. That’s not much of a slight; he’s not interested in the shows rather then the creators. But there’s a bigger flaw that few might notice. I’ve mentioned multiple times how Todd Kessler after being fired from The Sopranos may have created Damages as an act of creative revenge. What I left out is that in his description of the series Martin leaves out the fact that both the lead characters were female (Glenn Close and Rose Byrne).

He gets to it eventually when he reveals Close took the role in Damages but not before he mentions her taking a guest role in the fourth season of The Shield. He devotes an entire chapter to The Shield; Damages gets a total of two pages. He acknowledges that Patty Hewes is the sole female character in the Third Golden Age to fight as an equal to her male protagonist but does not think the show is worthy of its own chapter, despite the fact that Todd Kessler was a Sopranos alum and he devotes the very next chapter to Mad Men, which was written by Matthew Weiner who is also one. There are countless reasons why Martin could have chosen this approach — he gives an explanation in the opening that seems to cover it — but I can’t help but think it is in part because this is the only female centric show among them.

Indeed, part of me wonders if the reason that Martin chose to exclude both network dramas and comedies was in large part for this very reason. Anyone who knows the history of Peak TV knows all too well that while drama may have involved difficult men, comedies on cable and network TV frequently involved difficult women. From Weeds to Nurse Jackie, from Enlightened to Girls, many of the most well-reviewed and watched cable comedy series featured incredible female roles and in many cases had female showrunners. The case was just as true on network TV, from Gilmore Girls to 30 Rock and Parks and Rec. And as much as I have little use for any of the shows she has made over the past twenty years to not even mention Shonda Rhimes once in this book can only be seen as a sign of sexism writ large.

And even for someone who puts all his focus on HBO, there’s a clear sexism there. Carolyn Strauss was an essential part of the revolution. She was one of the first come up with the idea of the antihero and approached Alan Ball with the idea that became the foundation of Six Feet Under. She was one of the biggest defenders of The Wire far more than Chris Albrecht, who barely could tolerate David Simon. But when Albrecht is removed after an assault charge, he quickly finds work again and Martin just nods and says of course. He is far more offensive when it comes to Strauss, who he has writers comment on as being weird and uncomfortable. When she gets pushed out, there’s a sexism in it seen as ‘the prom queen lose her crown.” The fact that she might have been more responsible for the success of HBO than Albrecht means nothing.

And even in a comment of support Martin lets slide one of the most blatant errors in the entire book. According to them, the reason so many people wanted to push out Strauss was because they were tired of HBO winning the Emmy every year which just wasn’t true. In fact during the era in which Martin devotes his energy to HBO, the network won a Best Comedy trophy (Sex in the City in 2000) a full three years before an HBO series took Best Drama (The Sopranos). Indeed, while HBO has regularly led all services in Emmy wins and nominations since 2000, during the period under Martin’s era, the lion’s share of those Emmys were either technical awards or far more often for the Mini Series and TV Movies that had been among its dominant productions well before it even got to original series.

In fact, HBO’s track record with the Emmys during this period is a very mixed bag. The Wire was famously unrecognized during its run, Deadwood only received a single nomination for Best Drama (critically in a year when The Sopranos was ineligible) and while Six Feet Under was nominated for Best Drama during four seasons, not only did it never win it never won a single award for any of its lead actors or any of its writers. This was not because of the presence of The Sopranos, by the way, two of the years it was nominated The Sopranos wasn’t eligible. The awards both shows won were entirely in the Creative Arts categories.

The Sopranos had a better track record but it only won Best Drama twice, in 2004 and for its final season in 2007. Much of this had to do with the conventional nature of the Emmys at that period; the fact that The Sopranos lost Best Drama to The Practice in 1999 seems like a spectacular error in hindsight. But it also has to do with the fact that, during this same period the networks were willing to fight alongside HBO to try to beat them at their own game. (I’ve written about this an earlier article.) The fact that Martin chose to ignore this showed that he was doing a huge disservice for the era he was covering at the time. If Aaron Sorkin doesn’t meet the definition of a difficult man during this period (he had a drug problem and was forced to resign from The West Wing in 2003) then who is? I can’t help but think that Martin’s bias towards Chase, who famously loathed not only Sorkin but men like David Milch is at least partially responsible for this.

There’s something very selective even among the Difficult Men Martin chooses to focus on, something that shows his own bias in so many ways. David E. Kelley was the head writer of six different shows during this period and he isn’t mentioned at all. No mention of Howard Gordon, even though he was a critical force behind 24 and while this book was being written was the major force on Homeland. The fact that he worked alongside Vince Gilligan who Martin is happy to write on is vexing, as is the fact that while Martin focuses on how Shawn Ryan worked for Nash Bridges before coming to The Shield, he leaves out mention that Carlton Cuse worked there too — and therefore doesn’t have to bother with Lost.

It’s a curious jumble Difficult Men. It was always going to be difficult to try and live up to the subtitle — Behind The Scenes of A Creative Revolution — but even the rest of that amounts to false advertising. If you want to know about The Sopranos and The Wire, you’ll get more than you ever wanted to know. Mad Men and Breaking Bad, which is the second part of the surtitle get forty pages combined near the end of the book. If you want to learn how much Shawn Ryan and David Simon hated each other’s work or how much of a bastard Matthew Weiner could be to Jon Hamm, then I suppose this is your book. If you actually cared about why any of these series led to some of the greatest television in history — such as say why the first episode of The Shield was so revolutionary or what was so remarkable about the fourth season of The Wire — then you will come away decidedly empty handed.

At the end of the day Difficult Men does deliver the title because you definitely come away thinking that many of these people are just that, in their own way. You will also get the feeling that many of these geniuses are horrible bosses who love harassing their employees and treat everybody with toxic behavior. I suppose that’s what some people might want to know one way or the other, but as someone who has never given a damn about how the sausage is made for his entertainment, it’s a huge mess that looks through a vague lens at the business it promises to uncover.

In the next part, I will deal with The Revolution Was Televised and explain why that is the book you should reach if you want to know about what makes great television — as well as not losing sight as to why these shows were allowed to thrive in the first place.

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David B Morris

After years of laboring for love in my blog on TV, I have decided to expand my horizons by blogging about my great love to a new and hopefully wider field.