Top Ten Best "Difficult Men" Drama Series on Television


Many critics have proclaimed the current age of television as the “Third Golden Age.” Critics like Brett Martin and Alan Sepinwall have pointed to the coming of the new millennium as the rough start of this new Golden Age. Cable had expanded the number of channels to the point where there's no longer just “The Big Three” of CBS, NBC and ABC. Now there's Fox, FX, HBO and Showtime. This expansion of television created a wild west in which content creators were allowed room for freedom. Content became the currency. Early shows in the 90’s like NYPD Blue and Homicide: Life in the Streets were precursors to trends to come.

A key part of this expansion of influential television series is the trope of the “Difficult Man.” No longer are television characters the upstanding citizens of Andy Griffith or the people of Law and Order. Now men are allowed to be morally grey and deeply troubled. More importantly, these men become more human, warts and all. They have become representations of all our struggles in a grand, television way. These men--from computer hackers to mob bosses--have expanded what television can be culturally. No longer do creative people look at being on a television series as the red headed step-child to movies.

So, to celebrate the continuation of the Golden Age of television, Man of the Hour will use the “Difficult Man” trope and count down the top 10 Best Dramas about Difficult Men.

If you agree or disagree, please comment below

10. House: No it was not lupus, but House was a change of pace for the traditional doctor procedural. For shows like ER or St. Elsewhere the show was about the hospital. House is about its lead cantankerous doctor who looks at medical procedure like Sherlock Holmes or Hercule Poirot would at murder. As the show got bigger and the cast grew, House became a bit diluted just pointing to the importance of the central crux of the show; the misery of Dr. Gregory House. It doesn’t hurt that the show had the quiet comic genius of Hugh Laurie to make pathos so funny.

9. Mr. Robot: In 2011, the Occupy Wall Street movement asked for change after the economic crash of 2008. Changes did not happen and the movement dissipated but that collective PTSD has permeated throughout many people. Mr. Robot is Sam Esmil’s reaction to trauma. This show is low on this list because it is still ongoing, so who knows where the show will eventually end up. But in the short two seasons, Esmil has already created an indelible character that is backed up with an Emmy-winning performance by Rami Malek. His soulful, manic-paranoid performance brings the series to life.

8. Justified: Harlan, Kentucky is America. It is an America that is never mentioned but through ballads in songs. It is the brand of Americana that gives the country its soul. This is where Barbara Koppel’s famous documentary about the plight of coal miners was set, and this is where Elmore Leonard, America’s premier author in American grit, set his short story “Fire in the Hole.” That series was the basis for the neo-western crime thriller Justified. The show features Timothy Olyphant as U.S. Marshall Raylan Givens, who is like the sheriff of the Old West. He is John Wayne in The Searchers delivering his brand of justice in a place where justice is not always available. But that does not mean the show isn't funny. The characters and dialogue pops with glee with wonderful supporting performances from Margo Martindale and Walter Goggins. This brand of Americana and gallows humor would earn the show a Peabody.

7. True Detective (Season 1): To be perfectly clear, this only goes towards the show’s season one. The difference in quality just shows how important a clear and concise cinematic vision for this new age of television is. True Detective combined the craziness of writer Nic Pizzolatto with the grounded nature of the great young director, Cary Joji Fokunaga. The show is a grounded detective show, a brutal human melodrama and an ode to H.P. Lovecraft.

6. Hannibal: If life was fair, Hannibal would still be going today and continuing its reign as the most underrated show on television. Adapted from the Thomas Harris novel Red Dragon and Hannibal about Hannibal Lector, David Slade adapted the show by having each episode taken from small aspect of the novels. One episode could be taken from just a few lines. The central crux of the show comes between the interaction from the law as represented by Will Graham, played by Hugh Dancy, and the monstrosity of Hannibal Lector, played by Mads Mikkelson. Graham is haunted by the murders he tries to solve by picturing himself as the one who commits the crimes. This wrecks his psyche and all human interactions he comes into contact with. On the other hand, Hannibal Lector, the sociopath, is the pinnacle of a gentleman. He is suave, sophisticated and most scarily, charismatic. This relationship of ying fighting yang makes Hannibal one of the best dramas on television.

5. Deadwood: To this day, ten years after the cancellation of Deadwood after three seasons, people are still asking for a Deadwood movie. In fact, from all the updates, it seems to be perpetually in negotiations to be made. What David Milch did with Deadwood was create an allegory for how civilization came into being using the classic American trope of the Old West. From this nothingness and desert came this little form of civilization still ripe with political struggle. Milch talks about how he used Rome as his jumping off point from this little community, then town, then city of Deadwood, South Dakota. That allegory continues to be illuminating today.

4. The Wire: For the Wire I am going to let the biggest Wire fan I know, Sam Catalano talk about what makes the show so great:

“While white people gushing about The Wire is not a particularly nuanced conversation, I can't help but join the echo chamber. On a simple level, Simon gives full complexity and powerful character arcs to those we would normally be labeled as "smaller drug dealer" or "cop #4." On a larger level, Simon details with sixty minute episodes to make season long paintings depicting what is wrong with bureaucratic establishments and leadership, and their interactions with their communities. I would argue he "shows it how it is" with these institutions due to his experience as a Baltimore Sun reporter (combined with the po-lice experience of Ed Burns) which actually allows for a stronger critique by the viewer than simply regurgitating Simon's commentary (I would say sans-Season 5 but with this current election cycle, satire is truly becoming reality so I wouldn't be surprised).  Most importantly, The Wire gave us The Bunk, who is strictly a suit and tie motherf...”

3. The Sopranos: The Sopranos is the godfather of all the television series to come. It was a show that acknowledged all its influences to the mafia genre that had come before it--especially The Godfather and Goodfellas--and it was not afraid to subvert it. Tony Soprano is a mob boss, a job that along with it brings infallibility. He is supposed to be calm and cool like Marlon Brando as Don Corleone. He is supposed to be a coldhearted killer like Robert De Niro in Goodfellas. But Tony goes to a therapist. He drives his daughter to college. Tony Soprano is great because he is all those things that you expect from a Mafioso while also being so grounded in being human. This new age of television shows has shifted morality from black and white to a gradient. Morality is now grey because life is grey. The Sopranos changed that dynamic for what television can be and every series to follow it is indebted to it.

2. Mad Men: While The Sopranos broke ground just by having the patriarch Tony Soprano attend therapy sessions, Mad Men showed how hard it was to be a symbol in the 60’s. Don Draper is part of the Greatest Generation. He is a symbol of the 50’s and 60’s man. He is the bread winner, a model of suave sophistication, and a dad. But underneath all that is fear. He was not allowed to show vulnerability because that was not allowed for a man of his stature. That was admitting some kind of failure. Soon, the show shows that time has left Don Draper behind and he had to catch up. Matthew Weiner, the creator of the show, was a writer on The Sopranos. With Mad Men he created a primer for what people felt about the time. For some, Mad Men became a cool, nostalgia look of the people of our recent past. But Weiner wanted to subvert that very notion. The tinted glass that we use to see the past may be darker and more complicated than it actually appears.  

1.  Breaking Bad: Vince Gilligan had a radical idea for a television series in 2009. He wanted to use the form of television, which in its serialized nature is able to show growth. But television does not do that often enough. Usually, characters are kept at a stasis so that viewers can come in and out every week and still catch up. That is why Law and Order is so durable in syndication: the lawyers on that show all fill the same mold. But with Breaking Bad, Gilligan wanted to get rid of that unspoken rule of character stasis. He wanted to make a morally good man, a father and teacher, and slowly turn him into a morally corrupt, despicable person. In doing so, he created one of the most engaging and complex shows in television history. It’s hard to talk about Breaking Bad in a way that seems new. But it is incredible how this show slowly caught on with people. The premiere episode of its first season only garnered 1.41 million viewers. The premiere of the second half of its last season had 5.92 million viewers. The finale had over 10 million. Maybe it’s because viewers love watching bad people do bad. Maybe it’s because we can see ourselves in these difficult men. Maybe, it’s because Breaking Bad and Walter White’s arc into evil is something that we can see in ourselves. Or it could just be because Breaking Bad is the best “Difficult Man” series ever on television.