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James Gandolfini’s Tony Soprano was seductive to both men and women viewers. THE SOPRANOS: James Gandolfini. photo: Craig Blankenhorn / HBO

HBO

As this excerpt from Difficult Men reveals, characters like Tony Soprano are often as dark as the souls who create them

And so came the antiheroes. Long before David Simon proposed that The Wire would document "an America at every level at war with itself" or The Shield spent an entire season playing out an L.A. allegory of the Iraq War, it was clear that the cultural climate of the 2000s would be propitious for such characters. America, as The Sopranos debuted, was well on its way to becoming a bitterly divided country. Just how divided would become vividly clear in the 2000 presidential election. After it, Americans on the losing side were left groping to come to terms with the Beast lurking in their own body politic and – as the decade rolled on with two wars, secret prisons, torture scandals, and more – with what things it might be doing in their name.

That side happened to track very closely with the viewership of networks like AMC, FX and HBO: coastal, liberal, educated, "blue state." And what the Third Golden Age brought them was a humanized red state: cops, firemen, Mormons, even Nixon-supporting Don Draper and, crime of all crimes, non-voting Jimmy McNulty. This was different from previous " working-class" shows, such as Roseanne, pitched at attracting a large audience who related to its financially struggling characters, or even All in the Family, which invited each side to laugh equally at the other. This was the ascendant Right being presented to the disempowered Left – as if to reassure it that those in charge were still recognizably human.

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"A show like The Sopranos has a soothing quality because ultimately there's an unspoken assumption behind it that even the most monstrous people are haunted by the same concerns we're haunted by," said Craig Wright, a playwright who wrote for Six Feet Under and others. Such, he went on, has always been the case during conservative pendulum swings: the Left articulates a critique through the arts. "But the funny part is that masked by, or nested within, that critique is a kind of helpless eroticization of the power of the Right. They're still in love with Big Daddy, even though they hate him."

That was certainly true for the women who made Tony Soprano an unlikely sex symbol – and for the men who found him no less seductive. Wish fulfillment has always been at the queasy heart of the mobster genre, the longing for a life outside the bounds of convention, mingled with the conflicted desire to see the perpetrator punished for the same transgression. So it was for the fictional men of the straight world on The Sopranos, who were drawn to Tony's flame with consistently disastrous results. (Davey Scatino loses his sporting goods store after joining the gang's poker game; Artie Bucco, the longest-standing member of the outside-looking-in crowd, suffers a never-ending series of painful humiliations.) Likewise for viewers, for whom a life of taking, killing, and sleeping with whomever and whatever one wants had an undeniable, if conflict-laden, appeal.

And likewise, most importantly, for TV's creators themselves. It should come as no surprise that the job of showrunner – with its power to summon worlds to life, move characters around the universe, commit unspeakable acts, at least by proxy – attracts men not totally unfamiliar with the most primitive impulses of the characters they create.

Certainly David Chase understood. "When I watch Mob movies, part of me is like, 'Yeah! Yeah! Kick out the jams, motherfuckers!'" he said, quoting the proto-punk band MC5.

Or, more to the point, there was the day the writer Todd Kessler found himself alone with Chase in the Silvercup writers' offices. The showrunner had been late for a meeting to stitch together the two men's halves of the final episode of the second season, Funhouse. Now, he distractedly sat down across from Kessler and announced that he'd had an epiphany.

" 'Is it something you want to talk about?' I asked. We were sitting across a table that was probably 2 1/2 feet wide," Kessler said. "He said, 'Well . . . I realized . . . that I'll never be truly happy in life . . . until I kill a man.' And then he leaned across the table and said, 'Not just kill a man'– and he raised his hands right on either side of my head–'but with my bare hands.'"

The two sat there silently for a long moment. And then Chase broke the spell. "I'm going to get a coffee," he said, getting up from the table. "You want a coffee?"

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From DIFFICULT MEN by Brett Martin. Published by arrangement with The Penguin Press, a member of Penguin Group (USA). Copyright (c) Brett Martin, 2013.

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