Three guys talking about comic books, sports, movies, TV shows and the numerous other pastimes that make us Gentlemen of Leisure.

Tuesday, January 12, 2016

THE MILCH STUDIES

Hello.  You might’ve read my work on Not Blog X, or the Guide to the Guide to Comics over at CBR's Comics Should Be Good! blog.



I was asked by Teebore a few months ago if I'd like to contribute anything to the Gentlemen site, a question that just so happened to arrive as I was undertaking an examination of the work of television writer David Milch -- just something for my own amusement; I wasn't sure if I wanted to commit any of my thoughts to writing.



After giving some thought into what format I might try, and examining why Milch's work has had an impact on me for so long, I decided to take Teebore up on his offer.  Milch has written an obscene amount of television, so the thought of doing an episode-by-episode analysis was far too intimidating.  Examining his work in seasons, however, and breaking down the character work into pieces did seem a bit more manageable, so that's what I'm going to attempt to do.




Another motivation for writing his series is to properly place David Milch's work in the context of television in general.  For all of the talk of TV's "Golden Age," I rarely hear Milch's name appear.  I don't personally value name-recognition from internet commentators, nor do I think I'm going to write anything that reaches an audience large enough to shape general opinion, but it does feel like a noticeable omission.  Milch was bringing a level of depth, subtlety, and sheer humanity to television work back when the medium was still widely viewed as means of selling dish detergent and denture cream.



Milch himself is a fascinating figure.  You can learn about his past from the novel he co-wrote about the history of NYPD Blue, the unfortunately named True Blue








 Don't let the corny title fool you, it's a fascinating read.  You can also search Milch's name on Youtube and watch hours of his talks with students and writers.  Milch is a Hollywood millionaire who, I'm assuming, has undergone an excessive amount of therapy.  He's far more open than the average person would be on any subject, which creates lectures that are occasionally uncomfortable to watch, but are always engaging.

Some quick information on Milch...



He comes from a privileged background.  His father was a well-respected New York surgeon who's considered a pioneer in the field of pediatric surgery.  He was also, as Milch reveals in his book, the son and grandson of bootleggers.  Milch's father was a sharp kid that his family identified as the "good son" who could make a legitimate life for himself.  (Milch tells a story in one of his speeches about his uncle literally throwing someone out of a window for even attempting to teach his father how to play pool.)



Milch loves the track.  He has a love of horse racing that goes back to childhood.  He’s described ditching school at the age of nine to hitchhike into Canada and watch the horses. His love of the track inspired the creation of his HBO series Luck, which appears to be the last thing he got on television.



Milch came of age in the '60s, attending Yale and joining Delta Kappa Epsilon with his classmate, George W. Bush.  Milch would later attend law school with Clarence Thomas, Bill Clinton, and Hillary Clinton.  Milch  maintains he discovered later these were his classmates -- he was already deep into alcoholism and not attending classes.



This leads to another point -- Milch is an addict.  This is a recurring theme throughout his work.  Not only is Milch an admitted alcoholic, but he became hooked on heroin at some point early on in his TV days.  (In the True Blue book, released in 1995, Milch describes himself as a sober ten-year heroin addict.  In a talk with a group of writing students circa 2007, he described himself as a thirty-year heroin addict.)



I first became aware of Milch's writing on NYPD Blue, and watching the first season now, it seems as if every other episode has the detectives dealing with heroin addicts.  Looking at the timeline he's laid out in his book and his speeches, Milch wrote those early NYPD Blues during an early attempt to get sober, and it would seem, after undergoing some reevaluation on the subject of spiritual beliefs.  Watching those episodes now with that knowledge adds a level of poignancy to the work...work that's already brilliant just taken on its own terms.



Another thing to know about Milch is that he has a fascination, and I would argue, a deep respect for law enforcement.  This is one of the inherent contradictions that doesn't make any obvious sense, but seems to drive his work.  Milch's writing, as one critic wrote years ago, is simultaneously highbrow and low-brow.  He's the grandson of a bootlegger and son of a surgeon.  He's a Yale literature professor who took a job writing for TV back when TV was considered a joke medium.  He's a drunk, a heroin addict, and he's enamored with a cop's view of the world.  (The cop who consulted on NYPD Blue, Bill Clark, refers to Milch as his "brother" in the True Blue book.)  He's a man who says he prays before he writes, and he's written some of the most profane television in history.





In discussing Milch's writing, there are a few areas I'm going to have to skimp over and some I'll have so skip completely.  Milch began writing for TV with a Hill Street Blues episode in 1982, following the recommendation of a former college roommate.  (Apparently, a writer's strike helped him make his TV debut with the season premiere of a network drama.)  Writing about Hill Street Blues is a little tough for me, since I'm not overly familiar with the show.  I do know that Milch eventually became the showrunner, and he's somewhat notorious for altering the sergeant's famous "Be careful out there" line to "Do unto them before they do it to you."  I'll try to watch as many Hill Streets as I can online, and get back to them later.



After Hill Street Blues, Milch created a spinoff series -- the extremely short-lived Beverly Hills Buntz.  





This is the show remembered as a misguided attempt to spin off Hill Street Blues into a comedy...and for its parody "Chief Wiggum, P.I." as a part of the "The Simpsons Spin-Off Showcase" episode.  Milch then created a few other shows that have been lost to time (one of them sounds like precursor to Aaron Sorkin's The Newsroom...another one Milch acknowledges he developed while trying to kick heroin for the first time; he didn't even seem able to remember the name of it.)



Finally, Milch and Hill Street's co-creator Steven Bocho, developed NYPD Blue.  Blue ran for twelve seasons, which is far too long for an episode-by-episode analysis, but I think I could cover each season with three posts.  (If you’d like to read episode-by-episode reviews written as the show was originally airing, check out Alan Sepinwall’s NYPD Blue tribute page: http://www.stwing.upenn.edu/~sepinwal/summaries/summary.txt.html)  



That's my plan for the immediate future -- to cover the early seasons of NYPD Blue, before moving on to Milch's two short-lived CBS dramas.  Then, I'd like to examine what many consider to be his greatest work, Deadwood.  Somewhere in the middle, I’ll hopefully get to Hill Street.

In my next post, I'll look at the history behind
NYPD Blue, which is filled with as much drama as any episode of the series.  I hope you enjoy it.  Also, I don't pretend to have any insider knowledge of television production -- my understanding of these shows comes from Milch's writing and various interviews I've watched online.  If you have any corrections or information I might've missed, please leave a comment below.



In the meantime, find me at CSBG, or on Twitter.  My novel, yeah shut up., is also on Amazon, if you'll forgive the plug.

5 comments:

  1. he's somewhat notorious for altering the sergeant's famous "Be careful out there" line to "Do unto them before they do it to you."

    I did watch the show an amount and I'm pretty certain that change happened along with a character change, when the actor of the original warmhearted fatherly sergeant of the first phrase died during the run of the show, and the roll call duries went to the other sergeant who was more of the older conservative guy variety who used the second phrase.

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  2. Well, I already know a lot more about David Milch than I knew yesterday, so you're off to a great start! Look forward to reading this, as I've only ever really watched DEADWOOD out of all the shows you mentioned.

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  3. NYPD Blue hooked me from the first episode. I was roughly just out of college, working a day job while trying to make a go of freelancing with nights spent in front of the TV, exhausted, sometimes beer in hand, often nodding off during baseball or the new Late Show with David Letterman — so much the textbook case of a freshly minted grown-up it bordered on parody. Maybe that narrative is better saved for commentary on your next post, but I’ll say right now that Andy Sipowicz is one of the all-time great characters in television if not in modern fiction period. There was a fair bit about the show and Bochco and Milch in the newspaper and TV Guide and the nascent Entertainment Weekly at the time, sparking my first real awareness of how television is made from pitch to creation to showrunning, in part down to my focus at the time but I think also due to a growing cultural transparency of that stuff thanks to the still-aborning Internet. Other shows that premiered around the same time, from the long-lasting X-Files to the short-lived Adventures of Brisco County Jr., prompted the question of whether a new Golden Age of Television had dawned, which in retrospect happens about once a decade.

    Man, I can’t believe that was almost half my life ago…

    I only saw the very occasional episode of Hill Street Blues, given my age when it was on. And given my lack of HBO when it was on, I never watched Deadwood; I should get ahold of the DVDs to rectify that one day, but it won’t happen before you examine it here, so I might stay away from those posts for now depending on how spoilers detract from the experience.

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  4. This is the show remembered as a misguided attempt to spin off Hill Street Blues into a comedy...and for its parody "Chief Wiggum, P.I." as a part of the "The Simpsons Spin-Off Showcase" episode

    I had no idea "Chief Wiggum, P.I" was parodying something specific - I always just assumed it was a generic parody of cop-based spinoffs. Learn something new every day!

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  5. Yeah, I think 15 years or so passed before I learned Chief Wiggum, PI was a parody of a specific show.
    I don't think even half of the episodes of Beverly Hills Buntz they shot were even aired.

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