True Detective Season 3: Can David Milch Fix This?

Deadwood creator David Milch's involvement in True Detective season 3 is news that we don’t know how to process.

HBO loves Davids.

And not David as in the concept of an underdog but literal Davids.

Davids have been behind some of the most successful series in the network’s history. Each show in HBO’s unofficial Holy Trinity was produced by a David. There’s David Chase, who created and ran The Sopranos; David Simon, who created and ran The Wire, and David Milch, who created and ran Deadwood. That’s not even to mention Larry David and Curb Your Enthusiasm.

Each show and each David is an inextricable part of both HBO and TV history. Since the completion of each show, however, each David has had a different level of involvement with the network that helped put them on the map.

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Chase still seems a little baffled that his whole “good television” thing actually took off and has spent his time either relaxing or trying to make movies. Simon has reteamed with the network multiple times in service of his own creative visions like Generation Kill, Show Me a Hero, and the upcoming ‘70s porn drama The Deuce.

It’s Milch, however, who has the most interesting relationship with his former and now current employer. When his Western masterpiece Deadwood was prematurely canceled by HBO in 2006, he tried his hand at getting other series off the ground at different networks. In the end though none of them panned out and he resumed working with HBO.

The network hosted the one and only season of Milch’s bizarre, mystical surfer drama John from Cincinnati. Then some years later they gave another crack at a Milch show in horse racing drama Luck. Luck was well received but was canceled early due to safety concerns for the horses.

Technically no HBO show that Milch has produced has ended its run of its own accord, which is relatively uncommon for the pay cable network. And to go along with his shows’ volatile history, Milch is known to be a volatile, interesting personality as well. Stories from the Deadwood set sound more like C.I.A. experiments to test what actors will tolerate rather than production of a TV show.

Just take in some of this batshittery from a 2006 Slate article about the set of Deadwood.

“‘Apes beat their chests so they don’t have to fight 24 hours a day,’ Milch says, before veering into a discussion of the place of hyperbole in the oracular tradition of the American frontier and the role of language in ‘muscling up’ for the rugged work of mining—as well as how profanity helps create a sense of vagabond community among those with a threadbare, uneducated grasp of the language.”

“It adds up to a sly and historically accurate end-run around those who would complain that a fuck is still a fuck. Keith Carradine (Wild Bill Hickok) reveals that Milch even composed an FCC-worthy treatise on the subject should HBO executives have needed it in a legal defense. The lesson to any would-be TV provocateur: Do the research.”

Or check out this AV Club interview with legendary character actor Stephen Tobolowsky about his time on Deadwood:

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“And he said, ‘Just so you know, we’re not shooting what we just rehearsed.’ And I said, ‘We’re not?’ And he said, ‘No. In fact, you’re not gonna shoot today at all.’ And I said, ‘Okay,’ and they sent me home. And I ended up doing, like, nine shows that season. And three shows the third season. And you never knew what you were doing. You had to go out at dawn to rehearse, because David liked to shoot with natural light. So you rehearsed in the dark at 5 a.m. in pitch black,” Tobolowsky said. 

“You rehearsed with the director of the show, and then David would come in and see the rehearsal. And then he would throw something to the director like, ‘Maybe instead of doing the scene this way, we could do it during a cattle stampede.’ Or, ‘Stephen? Why don’t you do that scene, but instead, do it as if you were a bird.’”

“And I said, ‘What?’ ‘You know, a bird. With wings.’ And I said, I know what a bird is, David, but I don’t know exactly what you mean.’ He said, ‘Just when you do it, pretend you have wings and could fly and squawk. Do whatever you want to be a bird.’ And he would throw these little things at you. We never knew what we were doing.”

Tobolowsky goes on to say that he broke down crying on the set of Deadwood twice because he was so happy and overwhelmed with the beauty of the art they were making.

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Milch is the platonic ideal of a tortured genius for television. He’s strange off-putting, difficult yet undeniably brilliant and in complete creative control. He’s like if Ernest Hemingway was raised on Perry Mason, Star Trek and The Twilight Zone.

In short, he’s everything that True Detective‘s Nic Pizzolatto wants to be.

The first season of True Detective is undeniably cool. Even those who didn’t like it (misguided as they may be) can’t deny that it had an intriguingly creepy aesthetic all its own.

In that sense, it perfectly mirrored the personality and temperament of its showrunner. HBO put a lot of trust in Nic Pizzolatto and for one season at least were rewarded. The short story and novel writer with little TV experience was shockingly up for the task of writing and producing 8 hours of prestige television.

Pizzolatto is clearly a guy who believes in the mystic power of writing. He’s highly educated in many forms and mediums of the craft and seems to be under the (possibly mistaken) belief that it’s the coolest profession in the world. I mean look at this guy.

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He dresses like an assassin who kills people through sheer dirty looks while zooming by them on a motorcycle. Writing is fucking cool in Pizzolatto’s world and his sheer infectious joy for the art form made all the grad school level psychobabble in True Detective season 1 exhilarating. It also made True Detective season 2 one of the most frustrating and at times laughable seasons of TV in recent memory.

I can’t confidently say what went wrong in season 2 of True Detective. On its surface it has many of the same features as the first season. It’s a dark noir mystery with some cultish and mystical overtones and strong, let’s say masculine acting from big stars.

But it sucks. 

read more: True Detective Season 3 and the West Memphis Three

The difference between brilliance and downright sucking must be thinner than we all realize. And Pizzolatto comes across as such a passionate, confident writer that maybe a little overconfidence coming off of season one was the small amount of sand in the machinery to completely throw off the whole operation. How else does one explain lines like “never do anything out of hunger, not even eating” as anything other than overconfidence.

Now HBO is going to try to rescue Pizzolatto’s tenure at the network by bringing in the only other writer on Earth as equally confident, bull-headed, brilliant, headstrong and downright “writerly” as Pizzolatto: David Milch.

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David Milch and Nic Pizzolatto is a match made in heaven, hell, and seedy earthbound heroin den. Moreso than any two showrunners I can recall in recent history: Pizzolatto and Milch are true believers. They’re believers of the written word, art and above all the creative superiority of their own minds. They’re remarkably similar in approach but remarkably different in the ways they’ve succeeded and failed.

Milch is one of HBO’s aforementioned mythical Davids. And he’s never produced a show for the network that was outright bad. Each of his three biggest achievements (Deadwood, John from Cincinnati and Luck), however ended before their time. This is due to a combination of little popular appeal from viewers and undoubtedly also Milch’s occasional overzealous artistic behavior. There’s a reason why Brett Martin’s excellent modern TV retrospective book Difficult Men is called Difficult Men.

Pizzolatto on the other hand has known both highs and lows that Milch never experienced. The first season of True Detective was HBO’s most-watched freshman series at the time. It captured the collective unconsciousness more than anything Milch, or almost anyone else for that matter, ever achieved. Season two, of course, was crap – another experience Milch knows nothing about.

read more: True Detective Season 3 Timelines Explained

Pizzolatto knows the extreme highs and extreme lows while Milch just knows boring old semi-anonymous sustained excellence. Each, however, knows obsessive, controlling, all-consuming creativity.

That’s why the introduction of Milch into Pizzolatto’s True Detective universe is going to be one of the more fascinating TV experiments of our time. Do the two cancel out each other’s weaknesses or highlight them? Does their shared passion for creative excellence produce an excellent season of TV or burn out everyone involved so hard that we get another season two?

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