For years, I thought David Milch had only one series in him.
We met when he hired me for the final season of “Hill Street Blues,” which he was then running with Jeffrey Lewis. After “Hill Street” folded, Milch tried a series of shows – a Washington, DC drama; a spin-off with Dennis Franz’s “Hill Street” character, Buntz, among others – none of which got any traction, either artistically or in the ratings.
Eventually, Milch and “Hill Street” creator Stephen Bochco teamed up for “NYPD Blue,” a series that was essentially “Hill Street” without the humor (but with Franz, whose character bore more than a faint resemblance to his former role).
There is, I should hasten to add, nothing dishonorable in this. The great hard-boiled detective novelist Ross Macdonald wrote the same story in many guises over and over and over again, each novel a brilliant variant on a single theme. There are writers like Macdonald and writers (to take someone who worked the same genre) like Donald Westlake, who could change genres and fictions effortlessly. Milch seemed to fall into the former category.
Then came “Deadwood,” the first post-“Sopranos” HBO series to play in the same league. Legions of writers who show the scars from working under Milch simply had to put personal feelings aside. It wasn’t (as some claimed) that “Deadwood” re-invented the western – indeed, it owed a great debt to “The Wild Bunch” (co-written by “Hill Street”’s Walon Green) and “McCabe and Mrs. Miller” – as that it was an unabashedly literary series with no apologies for its genre trappings.
“Deadwood” dealt in big issues. Milch had failed to get HBO to commit to a series based in ancient Rome and transferred that series’ focus – the evolution of a lawless society to one of governance – to the American west.
“Deadwood” also traded on history. The pilot was structured to make it seem that Will Bill Hickock was the series’ protagonist, but Hickock died by episode four, with no fictional reprieve to extend his life. The series’ antagonist, Al Swearengen, survived as he did in life, as did its latent protagonist Seth Bollock.
But neither its seriousness of purpose nor its historical roots were what made “Deadwood” thrilling. The violence, the sexuality, the depth of character, and the moral complexity all took second place to “Deadwood”’s incredibly dexterous language.
“Deadwood” was a joyously and openly literary venture. Much has been written about its vulgarity, but that was not the point. Whether or not the west was as vulgar as “Deadwood,” the fact remains that the language of the show was a pure invention. Its cadences, its consonants, and its dexterity were pure invention. “Deadwood” reveled in language as language; it is the only show I know that was Joycean in nature.
Milch had been here before. “Hill Street” was subject to strict network censorship, which meant that no cop on it could use four-letter words for rhythmic inflection. As a way around this, the show used an invented language (“scuzwad” for “scumbag”) to maintain a simulacrum of veracity. It is not a language that has survived the test of time (unlike Tom Fontana’s less inventive, but far more persuasive, language in “Homicide”), but it did provide a model for how to use sound and rhythm to achieve meaning.
What Milch did with “Deadwood” was simply to turn the invented language of “Hill Street” on its head. Rather than eschew vulgarity, he reveled in it. And this time, the result was glorious.
Then HBO made what must be the greatest gaffe in its history: rather than allow “Deadwood” to continue its journey, they pulled the show mid-narrative in order to have Milch concentrate on “John From Cincinnati,” a show created with the fine novelist Kem Nunn.
That show was an unmitigated disaster.
Now Milch is back with “Luck.” And the big question is whether he has a third show in him. That’s a very tall order, even for a writer who has won big and lost just as large. Coverage will begin as soon as the pilot ends next Sunday.