The Rise of Sunday Night TV

Understanding the new age of quality television.

Brett Martin, author of the forthcoming Difficult Men: Behind the Scenes of a Creative Revolution, From The Sopranos and The Wire to Mad Men and Breaking Bad (The Penguin Press, July), explains how cable drama became the defining narrative art form of our time and Sunday night became a national holiday.

Q: Is saying “Oh, I don’t watch TV” now as silly as saying “Oh, I don’t read novels”?

A: We’re a good ten years removed from that being valid cocktail-party chatter. The notion that TV is in any way inferior when it comes to storytelling and serious literary artistry has been completely blown out of the water. If anything, going to the big multiplexes has become more of a culturally shameful thing than staying home and watching HBO on a Sunday night.

Q: Or any night, right? Now that whole seasons are available on Netflix, we have to ask ourselves, To binge or not to binge?

A: Waiting for Sunday is a less-remarked-on pleasure of this kind of TV. Because, really, 50 hours is more than you spend with most people in your life. To me, the experience of living with characters over the course of a month or two rather than in one fevered night is more satisfying.

Q: What about these dramas distinguishes them from what came before?

A: I think they feel like life. In the best cases, that’s the goal. That’s what [show creator] Matthew Weiner says about Mad Men, and what I think he learned from David Chase on The Sopranos. Those two shows are the most committed to actually depicting what life is like in an open-ended way, where things come and go. That’s because there is no end necessarily in place—they’re free to take narrative risks and see what happens.

Q: Your title, Difficult Men, refers to both the protagonists of these shows and the men who created them. Do you think there could be a follow-up book about women in quality TV?

A: There are more interesting and complicated roles for women in this genre than ever before. They have not taken center stage, for the most part, because, for whatever reason, networks believe that shows centered on women need to be half an hour rather than an hour, like Nurse Jackie or Weeds or Girls. Despite the fact that there are women who play very large roles on every level in this world, it’s still a man’s world in some basic way. For reasons having to do with America in the early 2000s, this revolution in quality drama took place at a time when the social and political climate suited stories about conflicted masculinity—the dangers of it, and the fantasy of it. And I think that has a lot to do with what America was like in the Bush years, particularly post-9/11.