August 11, 2007

David Milch Saves Television

Television is an affliction of sorts. Channel after channel of empty escapism, beckoning us away from whatever superficial woes we'd rather not deal with. And what do we find ourselves watching? Washed up comedians hosting game shows. Reruns of sitcoms that were never really that great to begin with. Endless loops of sports highlights mixed with the sub par eloquence of a retired athlete's commentary. It really adds up to horseshit, when you think about it. Even the news is thrown at us with glitzy celebrity tidbits swirled into the latest five car pile-up or murder. What are we really pumping into our brains?

Whatever we're absorbing cultures the way we think. Our conversations reflect our short, jerky attention spans. Seldom are we willing to push our brains into creative thought or process, or truly dialogue about what lurks beneath our shiny exteriors. And it's not just television that is to blame, of course. But it is one hell of a large contributor, and I'm not here saying we shouldn't watch it. For me, the question becomes, can we somehow incorporate creative process and intellectual stimulation into the shows that come on? Is it possible for television to move past brainless sitcoms about cohabiting friends, or dramas about attempted presidential assassinations? Can we find something more entertaining than grown men chasing leather spheres on grass or pavement? You bet your ass we can. Six Feet Under, Dexter, Rome, The Sopranos, all offer serious attention to the process of writing good television. But one creator stands alone at the top.

Enter David Milch, creator, screenwriter, producer. Just read the man's brief bio and right away you'll understand here is a man who is just as passionate about the process as he is about the end product. Yale grad in English Literature, MFA in Writing, award winning writer. Hard to believe this guy is working in television after nine years of teaching. And yet he co-created NYPD Blue, wrote for Hill Street Blues, and served as a consultant for numerous other projects. But what really warrants high praise, and I mean this in the fullest sense, is his creation and work with the HBO projects Deadwood and John From Cincinnati.

Deadwood is one of television's greatest offerings. The outlaw camp setting, the complicated characters, the multiple story lines, all make the show a feast for the senses. And the dialogue is completely remarkable, a vicious but poetic mix of the fading British formalities and rough western vernacular. Even when the language is at its most vile, the dialogue rolls from the characters' tongues like Shakespearean dialect. You can get all three seasons on DVD these days, since no new episodes have aired in quite some time. Well worth checking out.

John From Cincinnati is Milch's latest creation. Set amongst the surfing community in Imperial Beach, California Milch decided to take on some theological concepts by introducing the "what if" premise of God trying to communicate with humanity. At first glance, you would want to roll your eyes, perhaps thinking oh shit here comes the Billy Graham crusade or Dr. James Dobson is at it again. Nothing could be further from the truth. Milch plays with religious archetypes to be sure, but without the nauseating evangelism. The story unfolds more with each episode and I have never been so enthralled with a television show in my life. There is art to this writing, there is creativity and thought and an unabashed attempt to make the viewer consider what he or she is watching. It's not always comfortable, soothing viewing, but it is so worthwhile. It bespeaks of the human condition, and what more could you want?

There is worthwhile television out there folks. You've been told.