Reaching out: Milch’s teaching, voice, genius.

Curator's Note

Listen to the painstaking patient care with which David Milch walks his audience through his teaching materials in this lecture that theorises the themes and characters of the opening episode of NYPD Blue which aired in September 1997. It is the spectacle of a charismatic teacher offering a dense pedagogical act of exegesis that holds in front of us the multi-layered associations of meaning in play, ever attentive to the moment-by-moment responses, allegiances, and moods of its audience, in a deep voice that seems to populate the sparse room and white rectangle of the screen behind him with the voices, forms, and moods of the characters he creates.

Milch taught as he was completing his MFA at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop in the 1960s and at Yale while he was a research assistant for his mentors Robert Penn Warren, Cleanth Brooks and R. W. B. Lewis. Mark McGurl in The Program Era: Postwar Fiction and the Rise of Creative Writing reminds us of the tension between individual voice and the rituals of the small group workshop that certainly has resonances with the way Milch would later run his writers’ room. Textbooks such as Warren and Brooks’ Understanding Fiction (which Milch helped revise) also encouraged the microscopic close readings we see exemplified here. Like the New Criticism approach they founded, he is adept at finding artistic unity in the apparent fragments, tensions, and discordances of his art. Milch continued to teach writers after he left academia in 1982: as a contributor to Humanitas-organised seminars, at universities in Europe and America, and during the 2007 writer’s strike. In addition, for over a decade Milch has nurtured interns at his production company in Santa Monica, where their induction lecture is a spectacular mix of literary and philosophical knowledge. As David Thorburn has pointed out, Milch’s voice contains strong traces of his characters, and it is instructive to remember how many of them excelled at teaching – think of Andy Sipowicz teaching his son how to be a cop, or Al Swearengen taking Adams, Merrick and Trixie under his wing. 

Is this the voice of genius or, as Kant tells us, is the genius unable to teach his art because its source is obscure to the artist?


Thanks for kicking off this week with such an intriguing post, Jason. I had never thought of Milch's training in academia as so influential in his layered, dense production style. You raise an interesting point about Milch writing himself as he writes teachers. Do you think that a New Criticism inflected approach opposes in some ways the "genius" of Milch's authorial voice that you describe? How might Milch-the-author stand against Milch-the-scholar?

 Thanks for this post, Jason.  In addition to those major teacher-disciple-like bonds you mention, your observations about the ways in which Milch’s very personal (and highly theorized) attitude toward teaching manifests itself in his characters brings to mind an almost countless number of relationships that form (or almost form, or totally fail to form) in his shows.  In the clip, I was struck by the intimate terms with which he describes the relationship he seeks to establish with the audience—his use of elliptical dialogue as an act of involving people, enlisting their attention, forming a personal bond, offering credibility but expecting allegiance in return.  In the light of these remarks and yours, I wonder what to make of all those many minor, incipient, ill-formed, doomed or otherwise fleeting teacher roles that persistently appear in Milch’s work.  I’m reminded, for instance, of the schoolteacher who arrives in Deadwood early on, is given a giddy tour of the place by Merrick, but is promptly frightened off by what she sees there (I think this occurs before Merrick is taken under Swearengen’s wing). Or, in John from Cincinnati, there is the almost-forgettable fact that Butchie’s pretext for taking John around with him and using his infinite credit card is that he (Butchie) will offer surfing instruction—a pretext that immediately collapses when we learn that John needs no teacher, and that their student-teacher roles are more or less reversed.  I wonder if it’s possible to actually pinpoint qualities of a good teacher (or at least qualities of one who will persist to be a teacher), or do Milch's characters suggest that a successful teacher is merely someone who shows up in the right place at the right time before the right audience and obliquely insinuates an air of credibility?


I could listen to Milch talk all day.  Many things resonate in this illuminating clip, but I'll cite two in particular--plus an aside.  First, Milch's twin instructions for writers--to sacrifice clarity if necessary and to represent the accuracy of a character's voice--serve to champion the values of observational realism; and that commitment to realism offers a potentially useful tension with what we sometimes think of as the arch-constructedness of Milch's dialogue, which can produce parallels of diction and syntax across characters as various as E. B. Farnum, Jane Cannary, and Cy Tolliver.  Second, the gestures toward the "attentive viewer" and the audience's "bonding process" helpfully show just how creators think--or at least how this creator thinks--about the ways in which teleplays orient the cognitive mechanics and emotional connections of the spectators.  (The "bonding process" also makes me think, in a more cynical vein, of Don Draper and the "bond" of nostalgia that he sells along with the Kodak Carousel.)  And an afterthought: Sipowicz's dropped-pronoun speech here--"wants more Three Bears"--reminds me of the final words of Deadwood: Al Swearengen's "wants me to tell him something pretty."  Want, as both desire and lack, is a hallmark of so much of Milch's televisual fiction.

Thank you Charlotte, Martin and Sean for your comments and apologies for my delay in responding to them. I think that the New Criticism practised by Warren and Brooks (as distinct from Wimsatt and Beardsley) would have been fairly relaxed with the notion of genius, but it was already under some pressure at Yale in the 1960s and today the concept seems merely rhetorical - a bit like God - so I am interested in what happens when we are confronted with the fact of genius in an industry that relies on collective creativity. Martin's points resonate strongly with my sense of Milch's ambivalence about the authority of teaching - that the good teaching is an entity that is internalised by the student so that the authority figure can vanish; and yet we crave the charisma of that figure in dramatic fiction. Sean is right to detect the whiff of cognitive pragmatism to Milch's thinking about audience behavior, but this too is in tension (as his New Critical mentors would love to put it!) with his mystical assertion of the fundamental connectedness and unity of all under the eyes of God (it would be a grave error to discount the amount of God-talk in Milch's commentary on his work). That unity is found in art, which is where we can "hear God"; it also allows us relief from our self-absorbtion and self-loathing, which are the central destructive driving forces for many of these characters.

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