It’s a fascinating insight into the creative and development processes that have brought us these ridiculously good dramas, from The Sopranos to Breaking Bad, via Mad Men, The Wire, Six Feet Under, Deadwood and several others.
There were so many aspects of them that seemed interesting, or applicable to other areas of creativity, that i thought I’d look at each angle in turn until I ran out of them.
The first is a question that I’ve asked and discussed many times and in many different contexts over the years: do you have to be something of an arsehole to be a great creative?
The entire theme of Difficult Men suggests that you do, as many of the showrunners (the people in control of the artistic vision and central idea of these series) are indeed ‘difficult’: arrogant, manipulative, ruthless and perfectly happy to sacrifice niceties to protect what they perceive to be necessary parts of the creative process.
But (sadly inconsistent with the title of the book), two of the showrunners, Vince Gilligan of Breaking Bad and Alan Ball of Six Feet Under and True Blood, are very nice people indeed. Their writers rooms are places of happiness and harmony, but in no way has that compromised the quality of the output.
Ball says: ‘I understand being passionate about your work but I’m not a person who wants to control every element. Nothing makes me happier than watching a show come together in a way that surprises me. Or getting a script where I don’t have to do anything to it. I want this to be fun. Maybe I’m just lazier than most people.’
(The hard grip vs loose rein is another point worth exploring in greater detail.)
So the evidence is there: you don’t have to be an arsehole to create greatness. But having said that, some people do have to be arseholes to do their best. For whatever reason, be it insecurity, fear, daddy issues or a megalomaniacal streak, some people can’t do what Alan and Vince do and still be sure that they will produce classically brilliant work unless they exert the kind of control that pisses off those around them. Then again, they might not be intrinsically mean people, but the wide variety of skills the job demands could lead to discrepancies that create problems: they might have filled their writers room with the wrong people, they could be under a different kind of pressure from the station suits, they may just be great writers but not inspirational leaders. But whatever it is, their attempts to weave a thousand disparate threads into a perfect quilt may not be perfect in both output and method.
From the outside these achievements are so immense that I suppose the arsehole-ness is a price worth paying for such a great result (and anyway, I didn’t have to suffer the bullshit, so whatevs). They got into a situation that most of us can’t even begin to comprehend and made the best of it; who are we to judge that?
There isn’t a finishing school in being a showrunner, so there are as many styles as there are people who do the job, and the people who work with them have the choice to do so or quit (as many of them eventually do). They may suffer but they could also look back and see that they contributed to a lasting piece of art that many people enjoyed, loved and admired. Was that worth it? I’m sure there are many answers to that, but I think many of us would wade though a few turds to be part of something that incredible.
So it’d be great to live in a world without arseholes, but like foie gras, we just have to accept that sometimes wonderful things are the result of misery.