The splendid TV writer, who worked on the upcoming "Treme," has died. Obit is here. David's always entertaining and provocative blog is here. My friend Alan Sepinwall, who knew David well, has a tribute here which made me tear up.
I did not know David well, but we had met, and traded notes now and then online. I much admired "Kingpin," a series David created and NBC aired, which should have had a longer run. I have posted my 2003 column about it, which included an interview with Mills, after the jump. I also want to make note of a letter I received from David in 2002, after I wrote a column on TV show characters using porn*. The letter shows David's passionate approach to issues and his unwillingness to fall for conventional wisdom. From the letter:
"While I salute your sharp observation that today's 'porn humor' is similar to the 'drug humor' of the '70s, I gotta say: Why bash pornography? The consumption of porn has been a big part of the American pop-culture landscape for the past 30 years (from the days of Deep Throat and Debbie Does Dallas to the rise of 'amateur' sex videos in the '80s and, more recently, the mainstreaming of fetish porn via newsstand staples such as Leg Show magazine, not to mention the explosion of Internet pornography).
"Given that reality, what has bugged me, going back to my days as a journalist in the '80s and early '90s, was how the mainstream media - newspapers, TV shows and movies - IGNORED the very existence of porn. . . . One of my proudest moments as a screenwriter was, on NYPD Blue, writing a role for Vanessa Del Rio AS HERSELF, a porno legend being harassed by a phone caller. I was proud because we dared to simply TAKE FOR GRANTED that pornography exists as a part of the American culture, and that Det. Martinez was a fan of hers. Hell, a lot of people are, including myself.
. . .
"I see nothing wrong with TV characters acknowledging that they consume porn. The flaw in your piece was that you failed to make the case that pornography is bad for society, let alone as dangerous as illicit drugs. Porn, after all, is legal to produce and legal to own. It's not as if these TV characters are bolstering the criminal economy. Too many normal people partake of porn for you simply to associate porn with personal debasement and societal corrosion. I view the issue, vis-a-vis TV characters, as similar to fart jokes, which have also been mainstreamed in recent years . . . (T)he humor is in the acknowledgement of a previously unmentionable fact of life."
Here's the column on "Kingpin":
A little bit of Macbeth, a little bit of The Godfather, intriguing characters, some sex and violence and overall very good television. That's Kingpin.
It's an unusual piece for network television, and it's getting unusual treatment by NBC.
The drama focusing on a Mexican drug lord will air almost as a miniseries, with the six episodes airing at 10 p.m. Sundays and Tuesdays beginning this week and concluding on Feb. 18.
NBC will use its cable properties to give Kingpin additional plays. A Spanish-language version will be on Telemundo in March (and the NBC premiere on Sunday will offer all-Spanish dialogue on the Second Audio Program track where available). Also in March, Bravo -- recently acquired by NBC -- will run a "director's cut" version of Kingpin.
"You could also think of it as a cable version, or a DVD version," Kingpin creator David Mills said of the Bravo telecasts. "NBC let us ... pick a couple of times every episode to shoot some rougher language, some more nudity."
But the four episodes I have seen are compelling enough without any extra content. Unlike many TV dramas, Kingpin can surprise even jaded viewers.
"I hope all of you who have seen it were genuinely surprised at least four times," Mills told reporters who had seen the first episode. I'll concede at least three.
So what's all this about? Simply, that college-educated drug dealer Miguel Cadena (played smoothly by Yancey Arias) has problems. Lots of them. He is trying not only to keep a drug cartel together but move it from its more overtly violent and dangerous roots.
He has help from his wife Marlene (Sheryl Lee), but her motives are different from Miguel's; she is mainly interested in consolidating his power. Then there's Miguel's brother Chato (Bobby Cannavale), whose tactics are not always as subtle as Miguel's -- but whose own ambitions and skills should not be underestimated.
Beyond Miguel's family circle lie extravagant bad guys -- "Batman villains," in Mills' phrase -- who endanger Miguel even when they appear to be helping him. Then there's Heywood Klein (Brian Benben), a plastic surgeon with complicated ties to the drug cartel, and federal agent Delia Flores (Angela Alvarado Rosa), who gets more and more reasons to take Miguel down.
The series spins out from there, into character sketches and intriguing actors, among them Pepe Serna, Miguel Sandoval, Cleveland's Sean Young and the captivating Shay Roundtree as a deceptively bland-looking enforcer for another drug dealer.
The show can be grim, then turn wildly comic. Concerned about Miguel's family, then looking at the sweeping effect of drugs. Highly stylized -- Mills has cited Miami Vice as another influence -- and grittily realistic.
Mills promises that the sixth episode has an ending that will work should there never be another Kingpin. But "you get the hint of further adventures," Mills said, and he's more than ready to keep the series going if ratings and NBC permit.
I want to see more. I like this a lot. And I like it even as some critics have questioned whether the show is a proper venue for Latino characters.
It's not the first time that I've worried about how TV portrays ethnic minorities. In fact, Mills and I had some spirited exchanges about The Corner, the HBO drama that Mills wrote based on the book by David Simon and Edward Burns.
When the portrait of drug addicts in Baltimore aired in 2000, I wondered if "the drama runs the risk of encouraging the perception that the most compelling drama about black people has to deal with the cumulative despair of drug abuse, poverty, teen pregnancy and gang life." **
I still worry about that. And I worry that some viewers will see Kingpin as perpetuating some Latino stereotypes.
But I don't blame Mills. It is not his problem that networks often provide a limited presentation of people of color, when they bother to present them at all. His job is to make dramas that move him, and in turn move viewers. Cosmic issues notwithstanding, The Corner was a good drama. So is Kingpin.
Or, as Mills more simply put it, "A good story trumps everything."
Not that a good story has made things easy for Kingpin.
February is very competitive because local stations around the country get detailed ratings in the month and networks want to help their affiliates. Mills was happier with an earlier plan to air in March, when the competition was less intense -- and when he would have more time to finish the show.
Sunday's premiere is also up against a new version of police drama Dragnet on ABC. Dick Wolf, the man behind Dragnet as well as the Law & Order shows, has called it a choice between "the most iconic cop in the history of American television or a warm family drama about the drug dealers killing your children."
Mills shrugged off Wolf's comments. "I believe that part of what he is upset about is that he is finding himself in competition with a show, Kingpin, which is benefiting from the lead-in of Criminal Intent," Mills said. "One of his shows is being used to defeat his other show."
On the broader point, Mills said Kingpin "is a show about human beings, not a celebration of drug dealers."
And his human beings are well worth watching.
*Here's the porn column:
When Friends marked Valentine's Day last month, it had Monica getting her husband, Chandler, a very special gift.
Not erotica, mind you. Not an "adult" video.
Friends rarely minces words when addressing its characters' fascination with sexual material. A 1998 episode was called "The One With the Free Porn."
Now, reasonable people can argue about what exactly constitutes pornography.
Frederick S. Lane III, author of Obscene Profits: The Entrepreneurs of Pornography in the Cyber Age, matter-of-factly refers to Playboy founder - and mainstream celebrity - Hugh Hefner as "a pornographer." But The New Joy of Sex argues that pornography is the "name given to any sexual literature somebody is trying to suppress."
But it's not semantic points that are at issue when Chandler watches what is obviously the most explicit kind of porn available.
Or when Grace on Will & Grace checks out her friends' gay porn, declaring, "I want to see some men squirm."
The women of HBO's Sex and the City have gathered to watch gay porn, too. A character on that network's Curb Your Enthusiasm had a porn connection, a hobby that also popped up on The WB's Off Centre and Showtime's Queer as Folk.
If you tuned into The Mind of the Married Man on HBO, you'd know that the main character watched porn on the Internet. If you caught this week's premiere of UPN's As If, you heard a woman-ogling character warned that "it's life, not porn."
What we're getting is a drumbeat that porn is good. And I'm not convinced that either the idea, or the drumbeat, is valid.
In many respects, television's current fascination with porn resembles the rise in drug-related humor in the '70s. Saturday Night Live, the hip hit of that era, was notorious for slipping in references to drug use.
Annie Hall, a multiple Oscar winner in the '70s, got one of its biggest laughs when Alvy Singer (played by Woody Allen) sneezed away a small fortune in cocaine before his friends could use it. No one suggested coke was bad; in fact, the scene was meant to underscore Alvy's inability to be happy while others avidly pursued pleasure.
It took a while for the public to realize that a chic drug like cocaine was a fatal attraction - one that should no more be a part of mainstream recreation than porn.
Still, that drumbeat for porn is loud. Even if you watch none of those shows I've mentioned, keep in mind that these references are appearing in series that audiences - and the TV industry - treat as royalty.
Friends is the most watched series on television this season, tops as well with the 18- to 49-year-olds that advertisers prize. (It is also nominated for four of Nickelodeon's Kids' Choice awards, suggesting a lot of underage fans are hearing all that porn talk.)
Sex and the City holds the Emmy for best comedy series, and the winner before it was Will & Grace.
And yes, pornography has become ever more a part of mainstream life.
Radio star Howard Stern regularly interviews porn stars. MTV did a documentary on porn actors in 1998 - the same year that porn legend Ron Jeremy helped promote its movie awards show.
American Porn, a recent Frontline documentary, noted what Lane had in his book in 2000 - that pornography was becoming a money-maker even for major corporations.
"U.S. phone companies such as AT&T, MCI, Sprint, New York Telephone, and Bell Atlantic . . . benefit from this country's aural fixation" - in other words, phone sex, Lane said.
Trying to seem fresh to their audiences, many TV series push old limits in the medium, although not always successfully. The New York Post recently reported that Off Centre - a series from the people who pushed movie limits with American Pie - ran afoul of WB censors with an episode that included the word "penis" at least 11 times, not counting some colorful euphemisms.
On the other hand, the audience for porn may not be as vast - or as advertiser-friendly - as the prime-time characters using it.
When Frontline was preparing American Porn, it asked the National Opinion Research Center at the University of Chicago to compare the porn audience in 1973 - when films like Deep Throat were drawing new adult-movie goers - to the audience at the beginning of the 21st century.
The survey asked people if they had seen an X-rated movie in the past year. You could reasonably expect an increase in "yes" answers given that porn has moved out of the movie houses and into home-video formats in the last quarter century.
But in every age group younger than 50, survey respondents answered "yes" by smaller percentages in 2000 than they had in 1973. (Those 50-59 and 60-69 actually showed increases.)
The percentage of men saying yes was about the same as in 1973, while the percentage of women declined. And when education was a factor, only people with less than a high school education showed an increase in "yes" answers from 1973 to 2000.
On the other hand, a separate analysis by Forrester Research Inc. of users of "adult content" Internet sites found an audience that networks would like: mostly male, average age 41, average income of $60,000.
Which does not mean porn users are smart, no matter how many likable TV characters share their habit.
You can be a First Amendment absolutist, not to mention a lover of sex in its infinite variety, and still feel ambivalent at best when it comes to the sexual artifice inhabiting porn.
The New Joy of Sex reflects that ambivalence. While acknowledging the benefits of porn to some couples, the book says "commercial porno stories tend to be dull, repetitive and a strain on credulity."
And much the same thing can be said about the prime-time references to porn.
**Here is the complete "Corner" column I cited (and later regretted as being too hard on the program):
Despite some excellent acting and heart-wrenching moments, The Corner is a bleak dramatic exercise that might have been better left undone.
In devoting six one-hour episodes to African-American drug addicts and their struggling family and friends in a ruined Baltimore neighborhood, the drama runs the risk of encouraging the perception that the most compelling drama about black people has to deal with the cumulative despair of drug abuse, poverty, teen pregnancy and gang life.
Khandi Alexander, the former NewsRadio co-star who is one of the stars of The Corner, understands the problem.
"I was really sick of black people being portrayed as drug addicts and gangsters," she says on HBO's CyberSoulCity Web site. "Every time you turn around, you just see black people in these dire circumstances."
Alexander says she had to be in the drama because the script "was so good. . . . I loved it so much."
Not that she may be the best judge of a story about substance abuse. Asked how she'd unwind from the movie's harrowing scenes, including her own character's drug addiction, Alexander said, "Alcohol, honey."
To be sure, The Corner -- which premieres at 10 p.m. tomorrow on HBO -- is meant to be a true story. It dramatizes lives of real people from the book The Corner: A Year in the Life of an Inner-City Neighborhood by David Simon and Edward Burns. (Simon also wrote the book Homicide, on which the NBC series was based.) Some of the real people also have small roles in the drama.
But this is not the only true story out there. In 1993, HBO spent six episodes totaling three hours on Laurel Avenue, a complex, moving drama about middle-class African-Americans whose lives dealt with many issues other than how to get the next fix. Laurel Avenue was so rich in character and storytelling, it could have run for years. But there were no more episodes after the first six -- and TV was the poorer for it.
Instead, we have The Corner, unquestionably an important project for actor-director-producer Charles S. Dutton, himself a Baltimore native. In addition to directing The Corner, Dutton can be heard off-camera talking to some of the characters, as well as some of their real-life counterparts at the series' end.
But his love for the material does not transcend its exhausting journey into the lives of people who in most cases are at a dead end.
The central ones are Gary McCullough (T.K. Carter), who once labored to get out of the neighborhood but has fallen because of heroin addiction; Fran Boyd (Alexander), another addict who squandered her opportunity as well, and their son DeAndre McCullough (Sean Nelson), who is already dealing drugs and seems constantly at risk of falling into his parents' habits.
Everyone is just getting by. Gary is a petty thief and swindler, scavenging copper pipe from decaying houses so he can sell it for scrap and making occasional attempts at a real job. Fran is cynical and angry but with a vague hope of cleaning up someday. DeAndre is still a kid inside, with accompanying dreams, but he has neither the patience nor the will to make those dreams come true. And almost no one around him is showing him how.
Those three people, as well as many other characters around them, go through ups and downs over the series' weekly episodes. But the overriding saga is clear: A community has been destroyed by drugs, and the drug-driven society created in its place is a perversion of normal life.
Yes, Carter and Alexander give fine performances. And there are strong moments throughout the series. But The Corner could have told its story and made its points in about half the actual length. And the remaining three hours could have been used for other stories -- or at least a replay of Laurel Avenue.
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