David Mills, an extraordinarily talented television writer and producer who worked some of the most critically acclaimed shows of the past two decades, died of a brain aneurysm Tuesday night. He was in New Orleans, where he was co-producing Treme, an HBO drama about recovery from Hurricane Trina. The 48-year-old Mills had a shelf full of awards for his writing on NYPD Blue, Picket Fences, ER, Homicide: Life on the Street, The wire and the HBO miniseries The Corner.
But his work may have been on the notoriously neglected Kingpin, a brilliant 2003 series about a family of Mexican-American narcotraffickers that NBC loved but canceled after six episodes. The official cause of death was Nielsen failure, but a full autopsy would have showed complications from an extreme case of political incorrectness.
Though Kingpin was the first Latin-theme broadcast dramatic series since a handful of Westerns in the early days of TV, Hispanic groups complained bitterly that it reinforced ethnic stereotypes. The criticism made Mills crazy.
"I hate that argument, " he snapped to me. "What would you rather I had done? Write a show about more white gangsters? And explore the anguish and divided soul of a white guy, an Irish gangster or a Jewish gangster or an Italian gangster? And then there's just a whole bunch of Latino actors who are out of work who don't get to play these parts.
"I think it's a triumph that you see the show and you are invited into the soul of this man in a way you never are for nonwhite characters. There's not a black character on TV where the show is about his moral life."
Mills, who was black, said it was racist and stupid that only minority-group characters are expected to be emblematic of their race. "I don't think of Miguel Cadena [the young narcotrafficking protagonist of Kingpin] as a Mexican, " he argued. "I didn't think of [NYPD Bluedetective] Andy Sipowicz as a Polish American. When you watch MacBeth, does the character of MacBeth represent the Scottish personality, the Scottish national identity?
"These characters are not intended to be representative of their race. They're intended to be representatives of the human race. Shame on anybody who would sit down and watch this show and view these characters not in their full humanness but as representatives of Latinos."
Of course, there was other criticism of Kingpinthat also perplexed Mills, particularly the breathless discussion of a moment early in the show when a tiger ate a DEA agent's leg. "I don't understand why everybody latches onto that, " Mills said, shaking his head in puzzlement. "I mean, it's not like the DEA guy is still alive."
Mills and I became friends while working together 25 years ago as reporters at the Washington Times. He also worked at the Wall Street Journal and the Washington Post, but he didn't stick around journalism long. When David Simon, a buddy from his college reporter who was working at the Baltimore Sun, sold a book to television, a boilerplate part of the deal entitled Simon to submit a script for the show. He invited Mills to help him write it, and when it sold (the show would eventually reach the screen as Homicide: Life On The Streets), you could practically see David's legs spinning like one of those cartoon characters as he bolted for Hollywood.
Though David had a fair amount of success in television, he never became self-important and certainly never lost his sense of humor, particularly on the often prickly subject of race. Though African American, David's complexion was so light that he was often mistaken for white. He even took to writing a blog called Undercover Black Man. And I never heard him laugh harder than when I showed him a letter from one of his former production assistants on The Corner, who had written to denounce me as an idiot for referring to him as black in a Miami Herald story. I'll miss him. So will anybody who likes smart television.