By Peter Hummers on August 7, 2019
In the 1970’s, a Yale Law undergraduate who had enrolled for a draft deferment had a difference of opinion with the local police over said undergraduate’s blowing the lights from a cruiser with a shotgun. He later recalled, “There were guns. There were police. There were street lights. I got arrested. I had become involved in quite a protracted pharmaceutical-research project involving hallucinogens. It all seemed to come together.”
Thus, David Milch left Yale and decamped to Mexico for a time. After he returned and completed a master’s degree in writing at the University of Iowa, he taught for a while in New Haven. In 1982 he signed on as a writer with the television series Hill Street Blues, winning an Emmy in 1983.
With Milch, character is everything in storytelling. He has said he tries to subsume his own ego and see what each character might do in the continuing situation. And apart from a story premise, these characters create and drive the plot. This resulted in a landmark TV series, a police procedural which had few puzzles in the cases, but memorable characters from police to perpetrators. Or “skells” in Milch-speak.
The actors, who often had their careers made by working with Milch, included David Caruso, Kim Delaney, Jimmy Smits, Nicholas Turturro, Sharon Lawrence, Rick Schroder, and notably Dennis Franz, an unlikely protagonist who started out a secondary character and became the star of the show and a cultural icon of the times.
Each episode continued the characters’ stories, a new notion in 1993, which were interrupted or advanced by their involvement in individual cases. These could be over and done in an episode, or continue or reverberate over several seasons. NYPD Blue is available on Hulu and Amazon Prime.
Such character development became the hallmark of The Shield (2002-2008), which dealt with a corrupt L.A.P.D. task force led by Detective Vick Mackey (Michael Chiklis), an antihero similar to Tony Soprano, but on the other side of the badge. Mackey could kill in cold blood if he needed to, but his exposure to family, friends and even enemies enhanced his humanity over the course of the show.
Secondary characters ran the gamut from saintly to irredeemable, who were sometimes changed and often educated by their tribulations in inner-city Los Angeles. The tagline for the series was “Conscience is a killer.” The Shield is available on VUDU and Hulu.
Two of the stars of Deadwood and The Shield, Timothy Olyphant and Walton Goggins, teamed up in a series based on a story from another great writer, Elmore Leonard, Justified (2010-2015). Another character-driven show, Justified deals with Raylan Givens (Olyphant), an old-school federal marshal banished to his hometown in rural Kentucky after killing a drug-dealer in an upscale Miami restaurant. And it includes his childhood friend Boyd Crowder, who stayed home and became a backwoods crime kingpin.
What’s especially notable in Justified is that the two leads, Raylan and Boyd, switch back and forth over the series as protagonist and antagonist during their adventures, which involve methamphetamines, moonshine, stolen money long ago parachuted from Cessna airplanes, rogue mercenaries and the murders attendant on such goings-on.
One definite antagonist is the marshal’s own father, something of a petty criminal himself. Justified is available on Amazon Prime.