“Kill your darlings, kill your darlings, even when it breaks your egocentric little scribbler’s heart, kill your darlings.” —Stephen King, On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft
Working as a Chicago cop sure as hell ain't no picture show, especially for an old gumshoe like me. In my 30 years as a detective, I've combed over crime scenes that would make The Texas Chainsaw Massacre look like The Apple Dumpling Gang, stuff that keeps an old man up at night and then forces him to pour a little bourbon in his coffee the next morning. But the one case that still haunts me, the one case that no amount of hooch and hard living can clean out of my weathered skull: that writer who killed their darling in that comedy pilot.
The pilot itself seemed like the kind of thing you see every day: an episodic single-cam comedy that pairs an anxious white guy who likes things to be organized with a confident white guy who likes things to be messy. I didn't think much of it when we got a tip that the script was sitting in the bottom of a wastebasket in a Starbucks bathroom on Milwaukee Ave.
But nothing in my years on the force could have prepared me for what came next.
I picked up the script, leafed through the pages, and discovered that the white guys weren't just your normal saps. No, this anxious white guy and the confident white guy could both talk to dogs. What kind of sick puppy would kill a darling like that? Who was this monster and where had they come from? You don't go around killing darlings like that and if you do, you sure as hell don't leave the evidence in the john of a popular coffee chain.
I should have left that thread where it was, because the more I pulled on it, the more I unraveled. Oh dear God did it all unravel.
This wasn't your average everyday comedy pilot. In the A story, you had the anxious white guy helping a golden retriever learn to get the mail for the anxious white guy's blind neighbor. You'd think that all the references to blindness would have been really offensive, but trust me, it was done really tastefully. And the B story? I'd never seen anything like it. The confident white guy enlisted the help of the beautiful neighbor's Chihuahua in order to learn how to romantically pursue the beautiful neighbor.
Now, I've seen a lot of messed-up stuff. On the mean streets, the flophouses, the backs of meat wagons, I saw the kind of stuff that could make a grown man bawl his eyes out. Reading these scenes in the dimly lit bathroom, I couldn't get past the fact that “In the Dog House,” as the script was titled, would have almost certainly been one of if not the most brilliant works of network television ever aired had it not been killed by some sadistic scribe.
But it's what I saw next that has kept me up every night of this God-forsaken life.
In the third act, after the anxious white guy delivered a ton of exposition to the confident white guy, tying all the plotlines together and clearly setting up the narrative potential of the series, I found something: scratch marks in blood-red ink. What could be under here? Did I want to know? It was my job to know, but sometimes, when I lay awake at night, drinking myself to the grave and wondering if I should give my estranged daughter a call, I think that maybe things would have turned out differently if I had just left good enough alone, but I couldn't. When I looked closer, I could barely parse the words. Squinting my eyes, I felt the air go out of my lungs. My body shook. I couldn't make sense of what kind of god would allow something like this to happen. The writer had scratched out a line where a Great Dane said, “It's doggy time,” and all the neighborhood dogs came out to do the Macarena. Under the lacerations of the red pen, I saw, through my tears, a description of the Great Danes putting on a pair of sunglasses and skateboarding away.
What did that darling do to deserve this? What did any of us do? It was at that moment that I stopped believing in God, the pearly gates, and my own marriage. What did any of it matter? If a darling like that can't make it. Who the hell can?
The worst part is we never caught the person who did it. They're still out there. Every time I see a writer post on twitter about their comedy script, I wonder, could that have been the killer? I scroll through their tweets. I look at their pictures. I look deeply into their eyes for the unimaginable evil that could have taken out a red pen, crossed out “It's doggy time,” and thrown “In the Dog House,” into the trash like it was just some collection of short stories.
And sometimes, through my blinking computer screen and through the fog of age and alcohol, I think I see the devil.