Miles Drentell, R.I.P.

ABC is trying to resuscitate Once and Again, the TV drama series about fortysomething divorced parents created by the makers of thirtysomething, by moving it to a Friday evening time slot. Unfortunately, the move appears to have come too late for Miles Drentell, the elusive and conniving New Age adman-turned-real-estate-mogul who was the best character on both programs. Indeed, in Chatterbox’s estimation, Miles Drentell (as played by actor David Clennon) is one of the great TV archetypes, up there with Eddie Haskell, J.R. Ewing, Bart Simpson, and Livia Soprano. But Miles is in the hospital dying of pancreatic cancer, and any attempt to rescue him for the new season would surely violate the exacting standard of verisimilitude that producers Edward Zwick and Marshall Herskovitz have imposed on him. It’s time to say goodbye.

The TV dramas of Zwick and Herskovitz have been faulted for promoting yuppie narcissism. While there’s some truth to this accusation, Chatterbox would argue that the Zwick-Herskovitz oeuvre is also, to some extent, about narcissism. This is less true of the main characters (Hope and Michael on thirtysomething, Lily and Rick on Once and Again), who seem meant to be taken more or less at face value, than it is of the secondary characters (Michael’s advertising partner Elliot, Lily’s daughter Grace), who are allowed to be much less TV-pretty and much more openly dysfunctional. The most comically narcissistic character of all, though, is Miles, who, defying the formula, is the very opposite of dysfunctional. He’s the boss! On thirtysomething, he ran Drentell Ashley & Arthur, the biggest and hippest ad agency in Philadelphia. On Once and Again, he is architect Rick’s most important client, the builder of a gigantic project in Chicago. (If they explained how an adman came to build a neomodernist office park, it happened while Chatterbox wandered off to get pretzels.) But Miles is a new kind of TV capitalist bad guy, one steeped in a New Age mysticism with a vaguely eastern cast. He is sometimes seen with a ponytail. He quotes Sun Tzu (and was doing so well before Tony Soprano dipped into The Art of War). Here, from an essay by Lynn Wilhite called “Devil With a Blue Suit On” that’s been posted on a thirtysomething fan site, is a typical Miles soliloquy:

Two days ago I was inOsaka, at a foundry where they make these huge temple bells. Fascinating. The Buddhist monks come and throw prayers etched on pieces of metal into the molten steel before they pour the bell. When it cools and comes out of the mold, the master of the foundry strikes it once and only once before it is delivered to the temple. I was there when they struck one of those bells. It’s the deepest sound you’ve ever heard. You feel it here, in the sternum, more than you hear it.

Miles is a warning to baby boomers that those who most fully embrace their generation’s quest for spiritual purity are most likely to subvert their generation’s collective sense of decency. Within such people, boomer exceptionalism blends seamlessly into Nietzchean megalomania. Which is what has happened to Miles. He cares for no one else, he has no regard for ethics, and he is entirely focused on worldly success. Yet everything he says in this vein (“Revenge is a middle-class pursuit,” “This building seizes the ground on which it stands”) sounds like a Zen koan. He’s utterly irresistible.

When thirtysomething was on the air, the question, “Who is Miles Drentell based on?” became a topic of mild interest in the media and especially within the advertising profession. It was adman Jay Chiat, who designed the Energizer Bunny campaign and operated out of a Frank Gehry building in Venice, Calif., that was outfitted with Pop Art and cardboard furniture. No, it was Bob Kuperman, who worked for Chiat. No, it was superagent Mike Ovitz. No, it was William Drenttel, an old friend of Zwick’s and partner in a design firm whose Web page begins with the Zenlike riddle, “We love design. We hate design.” To Chatterbox, Miles bears an intriguing resemblance to Jerry Brown when he was governor of California. Of course, Miles is really none of these people. He is Miles Drentell.

In A Dance to the Music of Time, Anthony Powell’s multivolume fictional narrative of life within England’s politico-literary-social elite from the ‘20s  to the ‘70s, there is a shallow and ambitious character named Kenneth Widmerpool who rises from public-school outcast to indispensable financier’s aide to military-political liaison to member of parliament, and, very nearly, prime minister, before sexual scandal turns him into a bizarre spiritual penitent in a Druidlike youth cult of the 1960s. Drentell is a sort of Widmerpool in reverse–an odd fellow who pops up here and there, always in slightly different form, in the Zwick-Herkovitz version of the generational narrative that begins in the ‘60s and will end in a decade or two. Where Widmerpool’s journey takes him from arriviste to desperate seeker of the transcendent truth, Drentell’s begins with and maintains a dedication to the spiritual throughout his various ethical misadventures, which end in actual crime. Zwick and Herkovitz are talented filmmakers–they produced this year’s Traffic, and each has directed as well–but Miles Drentell may be their monument. He will be missed.

[Correction, May 18: Miles is wasting away in a hotel room done up as a hospice, not in a hospital. Also, Chatterbox belatedly realizes that he managed to write an entire item praising the character Miles Drentell without discussing David Clennon, the actor who plays him. Clennon (who, interestingly enough, is a lefty given to getting himself arrested at demonstrations about Vietnam, El Salvador, etc., which is about as far from Miles as you can be) has done a brilliant job realizing this complex-yet-familiar character. Miles Drentell is his monument, too.]

Still by Dana Tynan/Touchstone TV Productions.