David Milch sweet-talks the media

The recent talk about showrunners and TV producers being fired sent me back to the archives to look for information on one of the biggest firings of them all: Steven Bochco’s dismissal from Hill Street Blues in 1985. Bochco was fired by the studio, MTM, over budget issues and other money issues, and he went very successfully to 20th Century-Fox. Hill Street Blues didn’t really suffer a whole lot, so Bochco’s removal from the show he co-created was more of interest as a symbolic moment for MTM, and maybe for independent TV production in the U.S.: it seemed to signal the end of MTM (already having trouble attracting new talent after Grant Tinker left) as the studio that could be counted on to protect writer-producers. It wouldn’t seem like a key moment if MTM had ever produced a successful new show again, but they never did, so that was basically the end of an era.

But here’s the big difference between today’s culture of TV criticism and fandom and the culture of 27 years ago: I could find hardly anything in the press about the fact that Bochco was fired from his own show. Of course, I may have simply been looking in the wrong place – the archives available are of general-interest newspapers, and even today, stories of TV producer comings-and-goings are more popular in trade publications than general-interest publications. But I don’t think there’s much doubt that if a studio fired the creator of one of TV’s most important dramas today, it would at least be covered a little bit more than it was in 1985.

One of the few articles I did find was this one from the Chicago Tribune, which talked about what Hill Street would do under the new showrunners (they weren’t called that at the time), Jeffrey Lewis and David Milch. Much of it consists of a phone interview with Milch, who is more media-friendly and diplomatic than we now expect of him, but who does get in a few Milch-isms, including the description of the new character he and Lewis created for Dennis Franz (and whom they later spun off into a short-lived series): “a wonderful character, a phenomenon of amorality, a man who is not evil, not good, but just is.”

In that case, as with most such situations, the transition was fairly smooth: Lewis and Milch were already writing most of the episodes. (One of the things that made the Community situation so messy for Sony is that there was no one to promote from within: most of the senior writers had already left, so they wound up installing writers who hadn’t been there before. That’s not unprecedented either, but it makes it more likely that people will notice the difference.) Still, even with the lower public awareness of who does what behind the scenes, there was a sense that no one could replace Bochco: the book Prime Time, Prime Movers, one of the first attempts to declare a “golden age” of TV drama (the ’80s, in this case) declares that under Milch and Lewis “the series became listless” and that “no better case can be made for the power of producer authorship in American television than a consideration of the consequences suffered by Hill Street Blues after Steven Bochco departed.” I don’t remember the last two seasons well enough to know how much I agree or disagree with this; the point is just that even the very best possible replacements are going to get treated with extreme suspicion by fans.

One other thing that struck me in that article: it quotes Brandon Tartikoff at the TV critics’ upfronts talking about why the novelty of Hill Street had worn off:

The only fault I found with `Hill Street` this past season is that they were extremely faithful to all the things that were new and different about the show, that got everybody excited in Year One.“Now, `St. Elsewhere` is in the same ensemble form. `Miami Vice` has updated the cop genre. But `Hill Street` is still wedded to some of its original concepts. The roll call. Every show lasts a day. The same number of stories every episode.

These are perfectly legitimate notes for a TV network executive to give, but it just seems like today they would be notes that the head of the network would give in private, not on the record to the press. I’m sure it still happens sometimes, but I wouldn’t mind hearing more executives talk specifically about what they think needs fixing in a show – if the show fixes it, they get credit for being a genius, and if it doesn’t, at least they get credit for their honesty. Anything’s better than bland talking points about how they trust the producers to make this the best season ever, when we all know that in private they’re telling the producers exactly what they want changed.