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Why We Can’t Look Away: David Milch on L.A.’s Heart of Darkness

Hard bodies. Dead bodies. Sunny L.A. is known for both—and for our ongoing fascination with what lurks in the shadows.

Though the tourism department won’t soon be putting it in brochures, crime in Los Angeles has always held a certain dark allure. Maybe it’s the long shadow of noir that makes our bad guys seem glamorous; maybe it’s that so often the perp in the mug shot is familiar for his decadent TV smile. Could be that in L.A. we’ll take our mysteries unsolved, keeping the threat loose, turning crime into legend: the Black Dahlia, Nicole Brown Simpson. Crime reminds us that Tinseltown can be a hard, messy place where dreams get carved up and gutter out, providing some satisfying contrast to the paradise promised in ads; under all those gentle palm fronds, this is a city of devils.

Sometimes the devil is us. Beneath that California nice, a little killer lives in our chests who would knock our neighbor’s teeth in for the noise of his mower. We’re just animals in sunglasses, still subject to the jungle’s fear and anger and desire as well as worse motives that separate us from simpler beasts—envy, bitterness, regret.

Most of us have a measure of self-control that reins in that little killer, stops us from looting RadioShacks and crushing our enemies in a bloody spree. But that little killer still demands a workout.

Cop and courtroom shows get us only so far. There’s a puzzler’s diversion in watching the mystery unpacked. But in stories and in natural life, what often engages us on a more cathartic level than the gory details of how one person manages to kill another are his reasons why.

We all know that the laws governing our little killer’s choices are only nominally related to laws on the books. The real forces that control our urges owe far more to our moral code, the individual disambiguation of right from wrong that we excavate over a lifetime.

Our favorite criminals are the ones working not purely from animal urge, but operating from that personal code—outlaws doing bad for their own good reasons: Michael Corleone, Tony Soprano, Omar from The Wire. We know that a man’s specific sense of justice is often more complex and thoughtful than rules applied to the masses could ever manage, and watching someone live in subtle negotiation with broad laws excites our understanding that life is always more complicated than governance would allow. When the criminal acts in defense of what he believes, he becomes someone we can understand, even root for.

In real life, even in real Los Angeles, we might cheer to see the criminal wind up in chains—safer that way. But in our imaginations we’re untouchable and thereby free to let guilt and innocence grow as thorny and complex as they truly are. Having the dimmest sense of our own capacity for bad behavior, we ought to not be comfortable with cartoon notions of white hats and black. Secretly we wonder whether guilt is just a matter of perspective, that if we knew the whole story, breaking the law would seem like justice.

David Milch, a TV writer and producer, created Deadwood and Luck and was a co-creator of NYPD Blue