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Three things you would have learned at Saturday morning’s “Outside the Box” TV panel at the New Yorker Festival:
1. Premium cable is better than a network, at least if you’re a TV creator.
Three out of the five panelists (Weeds’ Jenji Kohan, The Wire’s David Simon, and Battlestar Galactica’s Ronald D. Moore) all agreed, not surprisingly, that being on cable gives them greater freedom, while David Shore (creator of House, and the lone current network employee) and David Milch (NYPD Blue, Deadwood) dissented. Shore argued that although House can’t show as much nudity (though, as he explained, during a successful battle over a bare bottom, an executive said to him, “When you get a nineteen share, you can show a little more ass”), the show’s never been asked to avoid controversial subjects. As for Milch, well — we’ll get to that.
2. This truly is a Golden Age of television.
At least, that’s how you felt after watching the clips from these five excellent shows. Sure, Weeds has gone off the rails this year, and Milch’s John From Cincinnati was a wipeout, but there was an exceptionally well-curated panel. And unlike at many New Yorker Fest events, the moderator here, Tad Friend, both knew his stuff and knew when to stay out of the way. Such as when David Milch started — well, we’ll get to that.
3. David Milch is either the best dinner-party guest in the world or the worst. Or both.
The fun started about twenty minutes in when Milch, with his nasal midwestern accent and his stubborn back support (the dang thing kept falling off the chair), leaned forward and said, “It’s about to become real uncomfortable, real fast.” He then held forth on the fallacy of the dichotomy between cable and network (basically, everyone’s selling something: on network, it’s soap in the commercials, on HBO, it’s upper-middle class values, “the same bullshit The New Yorker’s selling”); the reason Jews are overrepresented in Hollywood (he asked the panel who there was Jewish; four out of five — including Milch — raised their hands, with Moore the odd man out) and how the “seeming doubleness” of Jewish life makes Jews perfect for the entertainment biz; the inadequacies of HBO in general, including a classic jerk-off hand motion — which is weird, since the channel aired (and, yes, killed) Deadwood and the indecipherable John From Cincinnati; and the David Milch mystique. “When they buy me, they know what they’re buying,” he said. “‘Oh, David Milch, he’s nuts.’ And that’s what I’m selling.” He also slagged the clip they’d shown from Weeds, basically dismissed House, and slammed the petit bourgeois sensibilities of, yes, The New Yorker.
All of which was made more interesting by the fact that most everything he said was (a) willfully ignorant (to paraphrase Deadwood, there’s an obvious difference between network and cable, cocksucker) and (b) more or less true. Still, you come to see the guy who made Battlestar Galactica, you don’t expect a lecture on the seeming doubleness of Jews. So perhaps we should add a corollary:
3a. If you invite David Milch to a panel, make sure you also invite Jenji Kohan.
Sure, her name sounds like a Jedi Knight, but the good-natured, cat’s-eye-glasses-wearing Kohan, with her crazed mop of hair and sitcom pedigree (she started on The Fresh Prince of Bel Air) was quick to defuse each Milch bombshell with a well-timed quip. The highlight: After a long tirade about The New Yorker, Tad Friend added drily, “Thanks for helping us out, David,” and Milch cracked back, “Hey, I didn’t see you fly the 3,000 miles to get here. For $500.” And Kohan said, “You got $500?” —Adam Sternbergh