Saturday, February 25, 2012

Idiot Boksen - The Showrunner As Cult Figure

Posted By on Sat, Feb 25, 2012 at 12:00 PM

Protestants don't have things like Bar Mitzvahs, so the concept of becoming a man for me was less a specific day than a nebulous array of benchmarks. There was the day I became a member of Mt. Tabor Presbyterian Church. There was the day I earned my driver's license. There was the day I joined the Army and moved away from home.

There was also my first adult television series. Some time during my seventh grade year, I sat down to watch an episode of Seinfeld with my dad and he didn't shoo me away. I didn't get a lot of it at first, but I knew it was funny because Dad laughed. (I distinctly recall assuming the female body part that rhymed with Dolores in "The Junior Mint" was "femoris".) As far as coming-of-age rituals go, it was no walkabout, but it was something. Thursday nights became a ritual that would last until my senior year of high school.

I was vaguely aware George Costanza was based on the show's co-creator, but it wasn't until I saw the first season of Curb Your Enthusiasm a few years later that I knew who Larry David was. I'm going to assume I wasn't the only one. After all, Seinfeld was named after, co-created by, and starred Jerry Seinfeld. I hate to tarnish his legacy in being the face of the most influential sitcom in history, but if there's one thing Larry and Jerry's subsequent careers have taught us, it's that the success of Seinfeld had more to do with Larry David than anyone knew.

Larry David's success, along with sprawling ensemble casts and DVD extras, have brought about one of the byproducts of television's golden era: the rise of the cult celebrity showrunner. Today's viewers are far more likely to give credit where credit is due, to the point where shows like The Sopranos and The West Wing are more closely associated with David Chase and Aaron Sorkin than James Gandolfini and Martin Sheen.

This is how it should be. For one, showrunners are often even more heavily involved in a show's creative march than film directors, who've always received top billing. For two, they're more fascinating representatives of their work than the actors onscreen. David Simon's terse response to Attorney General Eric Holder and his thoughts on the War On Drugs are more engrossing than learning how Dominic West approached his role as Jimmy McNulty. Aaron Sorkin may come off as a self-obsessed dickweed, but at least he's good for a controversial quote. And I'd rather read Wired's piece on Community creator Dan Harmon's mercurial creative process than see Alison Brie in her underpants. Okay, maybe I overreached with that last one.

The point is, behind-the-scenes looks at television's best shows can be as compelling as the shows themselves. Take Comedy Central's documentary 6 Days to Air, a fascinating record of the frenzied production of an episode of South Park which also serves as a history lesson on Matt and Trey's creative development. Or Grantland's "Doing Time in 'Pawnee'", which chronicled a day on the amiable set of Parks and Recreation.

My favorite, though, was a brief DVD extra on Deadwood's second season titled "Trusting the Process with David Milch". The brief documentary captures how Milch's obsession with every meticulous detail played out, and how his gorgeously ornate scripts evolved right up to the point of filming.

In an era of brilliant television, David Milch was the medium's first artistic genius. He graduated summa cum laude from Yale, a frat brother of George W. Bush. He was expelled from Yale Law School for heavy acid use and for shooting out the siren of a police car. He changed the entire genre of police procedurals with Hill Street Blues and NYPD Blue, all while addicted to heroin. He followed Deadwood, one of the greatest TV series of all time, with the utterly strange and engrossing John From Cincinnati, which was canceled after its first season, and which Nathan Rabin describes in his terrific re-examination of the show as the world's first "supernatural, metaphysical, spiritual surf comedy-drama-noir".

All of which brings me around to Luck, Milch's horse racing-based return to HBO which debuted a few weeks ago. Like Deadwood and John from Cincinnati, Luck contains Milch hallmarks like broad ensemble casts, glorious dialogue, and one or two characters prone to long soliloquies. Like Deadwood, there are horses. Like John From Cincinnati, I have no idea what's going on 90% of the time, but I'm 100% immersed in the experience. Maybe this sounds pretentious, but that's part of David Milch's genius. His storytelling can be like Mona Lisa's smile; there are things we aren't supposed to get. Trusting the process is part of the fun. Which, now that I think about it, is probably what Branch Davidians told themselves, too.

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