Midway through the pilot for NBC’s midseason epic “Kingpin,” a Mexican drug lord cheerfully feeds a DEA agent’s leg to his pet tiger. “It’s really not that big a deal,” says show creator David Mills.
To anyone who hasn’t gotten a look at “Kingpin,” these might sound like the words of a producer trying to defuse a potential controversy about the escalation of graphic violence on network television. But for the fortunate few who have seen it, the sentiment makes sense.
Not only is the tiger scene circumspect in its depiction of the act, it’s just one small piece of a vibrant dramatic tapestry that is one of the most ambitious and involving pilots in recent years.
Mills, who has written for “Homicide: Life on the Street,” “NYPD Blue” and “ER” and won two Emmys as a writer-producer on “The Corner,” wishes that more showrunners could be so ambitious.
“Most television, most network television particularly, wants to stay in the comfort zone,” he says,”a procedural show or a show with traditional good guys, a show with pretty actors, glib dialogue and that comfort zone of how the stories are told at the cost of ambition.”
Part of the problem, he says, is that network skeins feature 22 episodes a year, a brutal schedule that hinders creativity. “Kingpin” will roll out like a cable drama. NBC has ordered six episodes and six additional scripts, which will be produced if the first few hours perform well in the ratings.
“Kingpin” stars Yancey Arias as Miguel Cadena, a Stanford-educated lawyer who puts his degree to use as the head of his family’s drug business in Mexico while struggling to maintain some semblance of humanity.
The success of “The Sopranos” and the public’s embrace of its mobster protagonist played an obvious role in getting a greenlight from NBC, but the series owes as much, or more, to “The Godfather,” “Scarface” and even Shakespeare.
Combination of classic culture
“I’m looking at everything and stealing the best of everything,” says Mills. “I’m looking at what I can take from ‘The Godfather,’ ‘Miami Vice,’ ‘Traffic’ and ‘Macbeth’ and then mix in all these elements to come up with something unique.”
“David makes it look easy, but his antenna is always up to popular culture and to the way people behave,” says David Simon, creator of HBO’s “The Wire,” who teamed with Mills on “Homicide” and “The Corner.” “When he puts a character’s line up there and does his dialogue, he never says, ‘Oh, this is the bad guy or this is the hero or this is the gangster or the comic foil or the slut.’ He’s always approaching that person as a complete individual.”
During his days as a staff writer, Mills prided himself on exploring characters and situations with as much candor as possible. One of his earliest “NYPD Blue” scripts dealt with the fallout from Sipowicz using the n-word in front of a black activist and a reporter.
“Whatever story you’re doing,” Mills says, “it’s just a matter of turning it like a Rubik’s cube and turning it and turning it until you get the biggest bang, the highest impact.”
While Mills has been given total creative latitude by NBC on “Kingpin,” he views the experience as an anomaly in the TV business.
“As much as it’s true that there’s ’24,’ ‘Alias’ and ‘Sopranos’ that seem so different, I think the networks on the whole are getting so reactionary,” he says. “You can’t get more basic than ‘Law & Order’ in terms of storytelling, and ‘CSI,’ too. There are high production values and great acting, but those are throwbacks to old-fashioned, straight, linear storytelling. I think the networks want more of that. Shows like mine are these oddball things that slip in between the cracks of an otherwise reactionary landscape.”