Coming: the ‘Difficult Men’ who made TV better than the movies

difficult3Faced with a choice this weekend of hitting the neighborhood multiplex to see “The Internship” or staying home to binge-watch some tasty HBO or Showtime or AMC series, who over the age of 25 would opt for the former?

It’s one of the central pop culture questions of the past 20 years — how has TV managed to become so much smarter and so much more important than mainstream Hollywood movies?

GQ writer Brett Martin lays out the whole story of TV’s new Golden Age — lucidly and backed by awesome reporting (and TV watching) — in a fantastic book I just read, “Difficult Men: Behind the Scenes of a Creative Revolution.”

The Penguin Press is releasing the book on July 3 and if you wonder how movies got so bad, and TV got so good, in the years since we dodged Y2K, you are in for a major reading experience.

The book comes with an apropos blurb from journalist/critic Mark Harris whose “Pictures at a Revolution” was in the same vein of superb arts reporting mixed with brilliant cultural difficultcommentary (Harris told the story of how “The Graduate” and “Bonnie & Clyde” ended the dominance of Old Hollywood in 1967).

Martin shows how the cable networks’ need to come up with more than sports and recycled movies to hold on to their subscribers led HBO to take a chance on an unlikely TV series called “The Sopranos.”

Created by the visionary writer/producer David Chase — a self-confessed arthouse movie snob — the show broke out of the gangster drama cliches to become one of the greatest family drama series in the history of the medium.

“The Sopranos” arrived along with HBO’s other envelope-pushing turn-of-the-Millennium hit “Sex and the City,” just as mainstream moviegoing was starting to feel stale because of bad rom-coms, kiddie spectaculars, and endless recyclings of old stories and themes.

Because HBO worked outside the restrictions of commercial television — where programming had to be scattered around advertisements and suitable for viewers of all ages — the cable giant was able to include adult elements of a sort that had traditionally been the domain of movies.

The success of “The Sopranos” spawned a whole series of HBO blockbusters including “The Wire” and “Six Feet Under” and it pushed the other cable networks to take similar chances. Within a few years, an array of series like “Mad Men,” “Breaking Bad” and “Homeland” were better than almost anything you would see in a mainstream movie house.

Martin makes a strong case that the excitement of Hollywood filmmaking in the 1970s — when mavericks like Robert Altman and Martin Scorsese were at their peak — has been replicated on TV because the cable networks don’t need the large audiences that the commercial networks’ business model rests on.

“Difficult Men” delivers the inside story of the creation of these landmark TV shows, along with Martin’s astute take on how these series fit into the larger pop cultural landscape of the early 21st century.

If I were you, I’d pre-order this terrific book on my Kindle or Nook. It should be among the most talked-about non-fiction titles of the summer.