Back to the Nineties With David Simon and David Milch
I have never been a fan of cop shows. At the time Homicide: Life on the Street and NYPD Blue were first aired on network television (NBC and ABC, respectively), I was busy watching Turner Classic Movies, which was launched in April 1994. I doubt that anyone back then could have convinced me to tune in to a couple of shows about detectives doing their job on the mean streets of Baltimore and New York. So why go back there now? Because those two programs were the antecedents of two of television’s greatest accomplishments, David Simon’s The Wire and David Milch’s Deadwood.
In Princeton this past September to deliver the Belknap lecture, David Simon, the dominant creative force behind The Wire, described his transition from journalism to television, a medium for which he’d had little respect (“It was a paycheck”). Even though he was writing for a highly acclaimed program based on his own book Homicide: A Year on the Killing Streets (1991), he felt constricted by the sponsor-mandated reality of network television. Then, in Simon’s words, “Something happened. Suddenly television changed.” The “something” was HBO and the emerging reality of pay-for-view cable channels. The “economic model” that had prevailed from the medium’s inception was transformed. No longer was everything subsidized by advertising. No longer was the programming “what they wrapped around the ads to keep you watching the ads.” No longer did a writer have to think of the objective in terms of devising “a teaser followed by four or five acts,” depending on whether the commercials came at 14 or 12 minute intervals.
Liberating the Writer
In his Princeton talk, which eventually addressed the larger issues suggested by the title (“The End of the American Century and What’s In It For You?”), Simon imagined the producers at HBO saying “What if we let the writers loose?” That, along with a relative indifference to the show’s audience share — “It’s a cute little number,” said Simon’s boss at HBO in reference to The Wire’s modest Sunday night rating — represented “a Magna Carta for writing on TV.” Simon was thrilled to find that he could say things about the war on Baltimore’s underclass he’d been unable to say as a journalist covering the crime beat for the Baltimore Sun.
The equivalent moment for David Milch came when HBO turned him loose on the muddy paths and alleys of Deadwood. He’d already been testing the limits of profanity, sex, and violence on NYPD Blue (1993-2005), which he created with Stephen Bochco. In a 2005 interview on Salon, Milch compares the limitations endemic to network television to those imposed on Hollywood by the sanitizing dictates of the production code: “You can spend your time … moaning about the strictures within which you’re forced to work, or you can try and find ways to neutralize the distorting effect of those strictures.” Milch’s way of doing this was to incorporate the conflict between authority and free will, repression and creative force into the program by developing characters who are struggling against adversaries comparable to the censors and the sponsors. In NYPD Blue, which was challenged by the American Family Association for its infusions of “soft-core porn,” Milch “tried to engage the theme that in order to administer the law, you have to break the law,” an idea he takes to the limit in Deadwood, where the Gem saloon’s foul-mouthed evil genius Al Swearengen (Ian McShane) is “indissolubly associated” with sheriff Seth Bullock (Timothy Olyphant), a “murderous personality who embraced the idea of law as the only way he could control himself.”
Fans of Deadwood will see a potent preview of Al Swearengen in NYPD Blue detective Andy Sipowicz (Dennis Franz), who also has qualities in common with Seth Bullock regarding the use of law enforcement as a way to control his own inner violence. Like McShane’s cut-throat rogue Swearengen, Franz’s Sipowicz is the life-force driving the show. He’s explosive, funny, repellent, impossible, lovable, and immensely human, and he shares Swearengen’s mastery of colorful invective. In the Salon interview, after proclaiming Swearengen a “lineal” descendent of Sipowicz, Milch offers an aside on his inventively profane art: “You know, as they say, the devil always gets the best lines.”
There are no giants like Sipowicz or Swearengen in Homicide or The Wire unless you count Omar (Michael K. Williams), the gay stick-up man I compared to a psychopathic Robin Hood in my September 10, 2010 column on The Wire and its main character “an African American immensity called Baltimore.” It should be noted that an early version of Omar appears in the one episode Simon contributed to NYPD Blue (“Hollie and the Blowfish), where the gay title character, like Omar, holds up drug dealers, cooperates with the police, and wins their respect.
Watching Homicide, with its divertingly varied ensemble of characters, you can see the prototype for the Baltimore police unit and municipal administration that will be more elaborately and provocatively developed in The Wire. The rapport or lack of it characterizing the different teams the unit is divided into is one of the most appealing aspects of Homicide, at least in the first three seasons, which are all that I’ve seen so far. Midway through the third season, the glow began to fade a bit after NBC’s concern about the ratings (the sort of thing Simon looks unfondly back on from the promised land of HBO) led the network to begin demanding action and sensation at the expense of character. Up to that point, the show had sustained a nice balance between the quirky relationships and the morbid, violent world the detectives work in without indulging in any of the strained sit-com clowning that sometimes mars Hill Street Blues, the landmark series that Milch began writing for in 1982.
Although Tom Fontana, Paul Attanasio, and Barry Levinson are generally credited with sharing the primary creative responsibility for Homicide, Fontana suggests in the audio commentary for the show’s first episode that “by the end of six years, we had pretty much sucked every comma and question mark out of the book.” In fact, Simon, who didn’t actually begin writing for the program until Season Four, found a disconnect between the real detectives in his book and the television counterparts, with their tendency to discuss moral, emotional, intellectual, personal, and spiritual issues in relation to their work, something the detectives Simon wrote about had never done.
Among the great saving graces of Homicide are its humanity and sense of humor, which come to life in the interplay between characters like the appealingly eccentric and relentlessly irritating John Munch (Richard Belzer) and the partner he calls “big man” (Stanley Bolander as played by Ned Beatty). Melissa Leo’s detective Kay Howard, with her lovely smile and charming movements (she elevates swaggering to a fine feminine art) is especially memorable (she surfaces 16 years later as a middle-aged lawyer in Simon’s Treme, another HBO wonder), and no less memorable is Andre Braugher as the show’s most complex and troubled character, Frank Pembleton.
As his Princeton talk suggests, Simon’s commitment to the depiction of the lives of poor blacks in Baltimore’s inner city was such that such that when HBO “set him loose,” he could create a program like The Wire, which actually thrives by taking itself seriously, although the intensity is offset by the quality that works so well in Homicide: the interplay between the detectives.
A key component of the addictive pleasure we’ve been finding in NYPD Blue is Mike Post’s Emmy-winning theme music, which sweeps you into the excitement of the show with rock em sock em kettle drum dynamics behind the imagery of the elevated train pounding right at you, the swift sharp flashes of city scenes, then the human theme, a sudden, tender, beautifully timed interlude as the main characters are introduced, the music slowing, expressing something quiet, poignant, and subtly emotional, before the drums and city imagery come pounding back again and drive you headlong down the track to the big NYPD shield. The way we actually look forward to this credit sequence, which may have influenced the “woke up this morning, got myself a gun” Tony-at-the-steering-wheel dynamics of the opening credits for The Sopranos, has me thinking about the way theme music became the emotional signature of the radio and television shows that were like old friends whose company you looked forward to every week, the media equivalent of comfort food.
Finally, it’s important to recognize that the viewing experience I’ve been describing was made possible by the absence of commercials. DVDs offer you a semblance of what you pay for on cable — in this case, decades after the fact. Between the Princeton Public Library, Netflix, and streaming online, no one needs to endure those “commercial interruptions” and the related constraints David Simon and David Milch had to put up with in the days before cable TV “turned the writers loose.”
If you want to read an in-depth study of these shows, I recommend Jason P. Vest’s The Wire, Deadwood, Homicide, and NYPD Blue: Violence is Power (Greenwood 2011); it can be sampled at length online. David Simon’s Sept. 20 Belknap lecture can also be viewed online. David Milch’s Salon interview is from March 5, 2005, and if you want to see him truly and fascinatingly holding forth, up close and personal, check out the MIT World interview (http://mitworld.mit.edu/video/383).