Emdashes—Modern Times Between the Lines

The Basics:
About Emdashes | Email us

Before it moved to The New Yorker:
Ask the Librarians

Best of Emdashes: Hit Parade
A Web Comic: The Wavy Rule


Festival: Salty TV Writers Also Salty on Stage

Filed under: New Yorker Festival   Tagged: , , , , , , , ,

There was no better place to celebrate the current Golden Age of TV—anyone seriously doubt that one is under way?—than at the Festival’s early-morn “Outside the Box” panel, which included the creative forces behind House, M.D. (David Shore), The Wire and Homicide (David Simon), Deadwood and NYPD Blue (David Milch), Weeds (Jenji Kohan), and Battlestar Galactica (Ronald D. Moore).

The panel mostly agreed on the following givens: TV stations want to make money, and it’s good to tell your story and not the demographically dictated story that the higher-ups want you to tell. Halfway through, in full-on Crazy Uncle mode, Al Swearengen, er, Sipowicz, I mean Milch began calling spades spades (and I’ll allow the metaphoricity only if pressed), and it took the combined efforts of the rest of the panel to parry with the behemoth suddenly in their midst. A born thrower of bombs (and not only of the F kind), Milch goosed the audience with his story of a discussion years ago, when the prospect of a black man and a white woman holding hands on the air was still shocking to the network contemplating such a scene. Milch’s solution? Have the man place his penis on the woman’s shoulder, natch. The show duly fired him. The kicker? “That was the last note I ever took.” I bet!

Even more provocatively, Milch brought up the high ratio of Jews not only in show business but also on that very stage (four out of five, by a show of hands). Milch’s thesis being that Jews are well-positioned to be outsiders to the process while also passing for insiders, a tactic often denied African Americans or Asian Americans, for example. But his real point was that the bohemian/suit divide the rest of the panelists were selling was only so much pap. The suits are not looking for art, and they don’t pay for it; they’re looking for people who can give their audience the expected fare with perhaps a small edge or twist to it. For their part, so Milch, every move the so-called artists on the stage make is governed in part by commercial considerations. Better to be candid and abandon the artiste pose.


At times Milch’s positions seemed reductionist, as when he reminded David Simon that the only reason HBO is interested in The Wire is because it wants black viewers. That may be true—what’s wrong with that?—but does that mean that HBO’s frequent mention of the tidal wave of critical accolades directed Simon’s way does not also exist? It’s just as useful for HBO to be able to say it has “the best show in the history of television” (or whatever formulation however many critics have by now driven into the ground), no matter how tiny the actual audience is, a sad fact Simon mordantly referenced several times.

I’ve grown to admire Simon’s mature and ingrained modesty, groundedness, high standards. He’s famous for ripping network fare to shreds in interviews (as in this Fresh Air interview), so it wasn’t surprising that he defended HBO with vigor. It was inspiring to hear his reel off the only people whose criticisms Simon would take seriously: the cops, lawyers, city officials, judges, etc. of Baltimore and similar rust-belt cities. Those people are in a position to say: “You got it all wrong.” He doesn’t care what the rest of us think at all. I love that.

Ronald Moore spoke perceptively about the network’s preference for for one-offs over longer plot arcs, the latter a decided strength of Battlestar Galactica. BG touches on subjects like suicide bombings and therefore, albeit metaphorically, Iraq. Networks always seem to want shows to present and resolve a major social issue in 45 minutes. Since Moore himself doesn’t know how to solve Iraq, it’s more rewarding to present the complexity of the issues rather than pretending that the conventions of televised drama provide that answer.

Asked about product placement, Kohan and Simon were quick to point out that objections in the other direction often arise after the script is written. In Season 4 of the The Wire, gangs of drug-dealing teens realize that the powerful electric nail guns at Home Depot (or the show’s fictional facsimile) are far cheaper than automatic weapons and just as useful for puncturing cartilage. Similarly, in Weeds, one drug dealer purchases seven quiet Priuses—advantageous when sneaking up on “mothafuckas,” an advantage that had not yet occurred to the rest of us.


—Martin Schneider


David Simon talks about The Wire and Baltimore in this audio interview.

Post a comment

(If you haven't left a comment here before, it may need to be approved by the site owner before your comment will appear. Thanks for waiting.)

2008 Webby Awards Official Honoree