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How David Milch reinvented TV drama

The memoir of the American creator of NYPD Blue and Deadwood is a rich story of drink, drugs and creative obsession.

By Erica Wagner

“When I was eight years old, I stole my first booze,” David Milch confides. This is that kind of story. Milch was born in 1945 into a Jewish family in upstate New York; his father was a surgeon, but one who drank and gambled, and soon enough David was trailing his father to the racetrack. Eventually Milch would lose millions of dollars at the track, nearly all the money he’d earned as one of television’s most important and original creators.

Life’s Work is a marvellous book by any standard. A reader might pick it up because they’ve admired Milch’s work: on Hill Street Blues, as co-creator of NYPD Blue, as the visionary behind Deadwood. Despite a predilection for drink and drugs he got into Yale – where one of his fraternity brothers was George W Bush – and then the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, though he only did a year of the two-year programme at Iowa because he got involved, as he puts it, with an acid-manufacturing project in Mexico – as you do. Despite such diversions, once he discovered his metier, he found success immediately: the first script he wrote for the police procedural Hill Street Blues, “Trial by Fury”, broadcast in 1982, won a $15,000 prize that he promptly spent on a racehorse.

Television as we know it – as a serious form, with long narrative arcs and sophisticated storylines – owes an enormous debt to Milch’s influence, though he is rightly generous throughout to his co-creators and those who influenced him, most notably Steven Bochco, who first brought him on to Hill Street Blues and with whom he developed NYPD Blue. Other early, powerful influences may surprise; he was taken under the wing of the Pulitzer Prize-winning American writer Robert Penn Warren (referred to respectfully throughout as “Mr Warren”) and longed to make a television series about Henry, William, and Alice James.

Outside the literary sphere, a keystone for Milch was the police detective Bill Clark, who became a close friend and who influenced much more than the creation of NYPD Blue. “Bill took it personally,” Milch writes, of the detective’s attitude to policing. There’s the truth of all Milch’s characters, from NYPD Blue’s Andy Sipowicz to Deadwood’s Al Swearengen. They take it personally – which means we do, too. “Let me say from my heart: Don’t give up on mass culture,” Milch writes. “Contribute to it. Break your heart trying to make it better.”

This is a book full of riches. The beauty of Milch’s generosity – artistically, financially – to those he worked with, particularly when he was on a winning streak, is honestly contrasted with his own soul-searching, his recognition that his motives were never pure. But then, whose are? There are the striking revelations for fans of his work. He originally pitched Deadwood as a series set in ancient Rome, for instance; the tale of his pivot to the Black Hills of the 19th century is a remarkable one. And in a manner which reminded me of Philip Glass’s extraordinary memoir, Words Without Music, it is a book to fuel the reader’s creativity, full of insight into the way real art can be made, even in the most trying circumstances.  

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Yet this is, movingly, as much an account of failure as it is one of success, and all the more valuable and affecting for it. In later years Milch’s projects (Big Apple, Luck, The Money) rarely caught any traction. And it is also a story of a very particular and awful struggle. In 2015, following a period in which he found it more and more difficult to write, Milch was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s at the age of just 70. “I’m losing my faculties,” he says, simply, on the book’s first page. His life as he experiences it is “a continuous taking away”. Fortunately, as a writer for television he is accustomed to collaboration, and so the book was put together with help from his wife, Rita – who is a steadying and graceful presence throughout these pages – and his children, and thanks to the fact that, for decades, he recorded his writing process, and those recordings could be transcribed.

It’s possible to forget his affliction throughout most of this memoir, which is written with the straight-talking verve that distinguishes his television work. Towards the end, however, there is a diminishment, a way in which his beautiful sentences become just slightly random, a little disjointed. But in this too there is a profound truth, a willingness to face whatever comes next. “Every day takes figuring out all over again how to fucking live,” says Deadwood’s Calamity Jane. David Milch is still doing that work, despite the longest odds he ever faced.

Life’s Work
by David Milch
Picador, 281pp, £14.99

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This article appears in the 07 Dec 2022 issue of the New Statesman, Christmas Special