In another era, the TV writer David Mills, who died suddenly yesterday as a result of a brain aneurysm, would have been another good writer for a number of good television shows, known and respected in the business and little-known outside it. But one of the striking, and perhaps surprising, things we’ve seen in the wake of Mills’s untimely death is that people knew who he was — and how good he was at his job — far beyond the insiders who worked with him. Mo Ryan at the Chicago Tribune rounds up some of the tributes to Mills, including this memorable tribute by Mills’ friend, critic Alan Sepinwall.
As I said, in another era, a television writer who didn’t create a successful show of his own (and even many who did) would not have been known to the general public. Yet Mills, whose own shows were not picked up — except Kingpin — and who spent most of his career writing for the Davids Milch and Simon, established something resembling a fan following, and had a style that fans felt they could identify. He was known, in part, because he used the internet to introduce himself to the public and share his own personal style of writing; as Sepinwall says, Mills started his blog at a time when he didn’t have a lot of other creative outlets. The blog was not a work of brilliance or anything; most TV writer blogs (or, in a previous era, TV writer contributions to usenet) aren’t. But by reading his own undiluted writing, fans could get a feel for his personality and see it in the heavily-rewritten world of other people’s shows.
There are other factors that give fans a better sense of who TV writers are, particularly the fact that writers are usually exclusive to one show at a time (rather than bouncing from show to show; even staff writers, not too long ago, might write scripts for three shows at the company that had them under contract). As fans follow a show, they notice certain names popping up after “written by” and form attachments to the writers of their favourite episodes. Sometimes the following is based on a misreading of what “written by” means — writers who get loved or hated by fans based on episodes that were largely written in the room. But sometimes it’s based on a sense that the writer has a unique sensibility, brings something individual to the table the way Mills broughts something different to NYPD Blue. And sometimes it’s based on the presence of the writer in the online community. TV writers aren’t exactly rock stars now, but they’re no longer anonymous; people know who they are and what they do.