Look, of course I was going to read David Milch’s book. The guy made some of my favorite TV shows of all time! I figured Life’s Work would be rich with stories of David Caruso being haughty and Ian McShane swearing up a storm. So imagine how surprised I was to discover that this slender memoir offered so much more than writer room gossip: a deep investigation into creativity, a meditation on hope, and an earnest celebration of living. Milch assembled the book with the help of his children and wife as he lost the connection with his own past due to Alzheimer’s disease, which only made the whole thing more moving.
For fans of Milch’s shows—the beloved series NYPD Blue and Deadwood (as well as the less-beloved John From Cincinnatti and Luck)—yes, the book offers plenty of background on the development process and the general mayhem of TV-making. The behind-the-scenes stuff is great; fans of Deadwood may be surprised, as I was, that the show evolved from a Milch pitch made to HBO for a show about Rome, not a South Dakota mining town. But the trivia takes a back seat over the book’s 276 pages, as Milch ruminates on the creative process, his irrepressible need to make things. “My tendency to become suicidally depressed when I’m not working, that alone gives some urgency to getting back to work after a disappointment,” he writes. He is not exaggerating about his depression. He is not an easy person. By the time this son of a precarious middle-class upbringing in Buffalo got his big break on Hill Street Blues—escaping an abusive father for the halls of Yale and then the Iowa Writers Workshop—he was already a vagabond, a drug addict, and a gambler.
Despite his success in Hollywood, Milch lost nearly all his money—either by giving it away (he is constantly giving people money, jobs, and houses) or gambling on his, or other people’s, horses. There are moments in this book that brought me back to Kay Redfield Jamison’s An Unquiet Mind, and the author’s detailed description of how, for her, mania and creativity were inextricably linked. Milch’s erratic life snaps into place, finally making sense, when he’s diagnosed with bipolar disorder solidly in middle age. Milch got sober. (It wasn’t the addictions, it was the addictions that were compensating for a deeper issue.) Reading that scene, I sobbed with relief and a different kind of grief. It was an answer, but not an end to all the challenges.
I grew up with NYPD Blue and loved Deadwood as much as anyone else, but I (alone, it felt like) adored the weird, almost Dadaist John From Cincinnati. It’s a show about a very damaged family of surfers in California, in which abuse and smothering love are passed around in equal measure. It’s a really unusual series; a guy named John shows up in this beach town and spouts odd aphorisms as he seems to help people acknowledge their sins and heal. It’s extremely dark even if it’s taking place in the California sun, even if Luke Perry and Mark-Paul Gosselar are in the cast. Everyone is sad. And yet always there is a feeling of potential, for things changing, for things to be better.
By David Milch. Random House.
Slate receives a commission when you purchase items using the links on this page. Thank you for your support.
Life’s Work helped me understand why it felt that way. Well, first, Milch told me that I wasn’t supposed to get John From Cincinnati. “I wanted the fundamental challenge of these materials to be the audience thinking ‘what the fuck is this supposed to be?’” he writes. “I wanted the scenes themselves to be so radiantly specific that as you’re watching them, you’re so caught in the confusion that you don’t give a fuck, but afterward you’re saying, ‘This is the last episode that I watch without knowing what the fuck this is supposed to be.’ Which is in fact the way we live our lives.”
That was my experience: deeply immersed in each scene, so disoriented, but waiting for the next one, hoping for something to go better. What I mean is, the show, for me, was about hope, which also made it feel religious in a way (aided of course by the character of John basically being a strange, attractive stand-in for Jesus). Watching the show took faith, and it was also about faith, and now I understand that better.
By the end of the book, Milch’s Alzheimer’s has progressed to the point that he is no longer living at home, and he’s very aware that the memories and ideas in his big, colorful mind are becoming inaccessible to him. His writing changes and becomes more urgent. He implores: “Let me say it from my heart: Don’t give up on mass culture. Contribute to it. Break your heart in trying to make it better.” I loved the book’s end, even though it felt like a very big end, like a goodbye. Because when I closed Life’s Work, I not only had gratitude for his life and his work, but I wanted to live a life, and I wanted to do the work. I wanted to go make something. I know David Milch would approve.