“the morally complex protagonists of their favorite shows are unsympathetic”

For all of HBO and AMC’s flawed protagonists, it is only reality TV, a genre Martin dismisses in a single paragraph, that consistently features protagonists that viewers actually don’t like. Walter White has never been the object of the kind of widespread social derision that is inevitably directed toward anyone who appears on reality TV, and yet the producers of The Hills and The Real Housewives of Beverly Hills are not followed around by journalists praising them for the audacity of their casting decisions. By taking producers’ claims for the difficulty of their protagonists at face value, Martin inadvertently repeats their most common error, which is to mistake the problems of a certain group of professional men for the problems of America as a whole. Breaking Bad is a compulsively entertaining dramatization of an American male’s mid-life crisis, but about the drug trade, morality, and the economic recession in general, it has much less to say.

Alongside the myth of the unlikeable protagonist, there is a second widely-repeated mantra about prestige television: that nothing like it has been previously seen on air. The idea is that this new television, this bettertelevision, does not come from earlier television—its true antecedents are highbrow art. David Simon has said that The Wire took no inspiration from earlier police procedurals, that his real influences came primarily from Greek tragedy. In Difficult Men, Martin pays close attention to the way that the men behind television’s most celebrated shows have modelled themselves on auteur American filmmakers, such as Martin Scorsese and William Friedkin. For his part, Christopher Bigsby sees television’s current situation as analogous to that of the theatre in mid-century America. His book mentions Arthur Miller more than 20 times.

Read More | “Myths of The Golden Age” | Richard Beck | Prospect