Test Pilot: File #43, Boomtown

Test Pilot #43: Boomtown

Debut date: September 29, 2002

Series legacy: A well-respected but barely-watched entry into the police procedural genre

Good afternoon! Hey there, party people. Welcome back to the internet’s most popular discussion of television pilots, Test Pilot. We’re still chugging our way through an exploration of the contemporary police procedural. Before you groan or immediately think of David Caruso-delivered puns, I think it’s important to point out that not all “cop shows” are generic, lowest-common-denominator fare. The police procedural is one of, if not the, most dominant scripted format in the television industry. We like to think of the “cop show” with very specific terminology and iconography in mind, but countless series have attempted to mix up the general framework of the police drama. My hope is that this theme will explore five series that personify the innovative and complex ways to approach a cop show, especially in the contemporary era of television that is so-defined by basic procedurals (mostly on CBS).

Today, my guest and I take on a less successful attempt to innovate what was at the time (and basically still is) a fairly boiler-plate formula. The other four series covered in this theme ran for at least 85-plus episodes. Today’s focus aired a glorious 20 (and had four left unaired). I speak of course of NBC’s 2002 effort, Boomtown. Graham Yost’s purposefully screwy riff on the typical rhythms of the police procedural charmed critics in its debut, but failed to capture the attention of a substantial audience (shocker). My guest and I hope to explore what made Boomtown different, but also why it did not succeed.

Joining me today (for the second time) is Paul Rodriguez. Paul is a longtime consumer of all manner of entertainment & information. He’s blogged about pop culture since 2005 at ThePopView.com and briefly wrote a regular column at Spot-On.com. He also blogs professionally at CableTechTalk.com as part of his regular job as Senior Director of Social Media at the National Cable & Telecommunications Association. You can follow Paul on Twitter. Paul, take it away:

Nowadays, if you mention Graham Yost, savvy TV viewers can immediately identify him as the creator of FX’s Justified. And a decade ago, he was primarily known as That Dude Who Wrote the Movie Speed (even though the script was largely re-written by Joss Whedon).

But before the success of Justified, I always thought of him as the creator of one of my favorite failed TV series, Boomtown. I was a huge fan of the 2002 series when it originally aired on NBC. I found it inventive and sharp and was saddened by its poor ratings. However, re-watching it later on DVD, it became clear why the series probably never had a chance.

Since this run of Test Pilot is focusing on cop series that took an innovative approach, I’ll let you know right up front what made Boomtown different: It was the police procedural that took its cues from Rashomon and the sprawling films of Robert Altman.

Specifically, almost all episodes of Boomtown featured two elements: fractured timelines, sometimes looping back around on themselves, and multiple points-of-view. We see that in the pilot, which begins at the end of a crime investigation, then jumps back towards the beginning of things and then goes all over the place (including back in time to the childhood of a dead character). We often see events more than once, but from different perspectives.

The intention of this structure is to show the interconnectedness of human beings and the ways in which we deceive others. We see that characters are linked in ways that we don’t initially realize, so that what seems like a background character in a scene actually turns out to be someone who plays an important role when we revisit events. We also often see characters express something and then we jump back in time to see what really happened or we learn about how they got to that emotional place.

Graham Yost has said that he had two possible ideas to construct in this complex back-and-forth manner: one series about the American military in Bosnia and one about fighting crime in Los Angeles. The title comes from the 1986 album Boomtown by David + David, a harsh look at life in Los Angeles (You can see the music video for their successful single “Welcome to the Boomtown” here.)

If the series had been more successful, it could have been a precursor to The Wire, displaying the different centers of power in an urban environment. Ultimately, it stuck much closer to being a cop show.

There are seven main characters: two detectives, two patrol officers, a deputy District Attorney, a paramedic, and a journalist. The two weakest characters were unfortunately the two female ones, the reporter and the paramedic. Those two parts were often underwritten and the actors weren’t strong enough to bridge the gap, In addition, not being part of the crime side of the equation, they often seemed forced into stories. In the aborted second season, they dropped the reporter entirely and the paramedic joined the police academy.

But all of these issues were to arise in the future. The pilot itself remains incredibly strong. The male cast is particularly effective. Donnie Wahlberg is earnest and brooding, Gary Basaraba is goofy and possibly corrupt. Jason Gedrick seethes with feelings of inadequacy. Neal McDonough and Mykelti Williamson, who both played prominent roles in this past season of Justified, are two big standouts, with McDonough playing a self-destructive seducer and Williamson a true philosopher.

Just in the first few minutes, Yost’s script gives us two terrific monologues, starting with a wonderful meditation on the Los Angeles River by a minor character:

Not quite the Ganges, is it. Not really a river anymore…  London’s got the Thames. Paris got the Seine. Vienna’s got the Blue Danube. L.A. has got a concrete drainage ditch. It’s all we got. It’ll have to do.

The story wanders into corners, such as a phone call between Gerick’s Officer Tom Turcotte and his father or a moment when paramedic Teresa Ortiz (played by Lana Parrilla) watches Detective Joel Stevens (played by Donnie Wahlberg) hose blood off a sidewalk. The characters often refer to events we haven’t learned about yet (such as why Joel’s wife is having mental problems) and some we never do really fully know (such as Officer Ray Hechler’s possible involvement in the Vista Heights corruption case).

In one brilliant sequence, lasting only slightly longer than two minutes, we learn the truth behind a drive-by shooting, as we watch the life of a dead kid roll backwards in time, with brief flashes that explain how he ended up falling off a building, including a freeze frame on the exact moment when he made the choice that set him on the path to his doom.

For purposes of the first episode, Yost’s conceit works well. But the series didn’t seem to get a handle on managing all of those characters properly. The fractured structure seemed too difficult for TV audiences to watch, as opposed to focusing for the two hours of a theatrical film like Memento.

But Boomtown might have fixed those problems if they had been given a proper chance (or if they had ever been able to attract an audience). The reason it remains worth watching is that the acting and writing were generally quite good overall. The series does a great job of exploring Los Angeles, a city usually poorly served by Hollywood (irony of ironies). The opening credits give some sense of that exploration of the town.

The staging of events was generally very naturalistic and the cinematography often resembled that of a documentary. The first episode of the retooled second season, which featured a pair of female super thieves, personified the difference the low-key approach made, something you can also see in comparing early episodes of Law & Order to later ones, which become highly showy and unrealistic.

I would prefer to see police procedurals that are down-to-earth and humanistic. There’s nothing wrong with the mystery approach, such as Law & Order: Criminal Intent, or something dramatic like The Shield, based on the real Rampart Division police scandal, but it’s nice to see something grounded.

The complex structure ultimately came across as more of a gimmick, but when it worked, it rounded out characters, even minor ones, and allowed us to see them as complete people. And that’s something I like to see from police procedurals as well.

–PR

And now, my thoughts on the opening episode of Boomtown:

The tension between convention and invention powers all media genres, across mediums, platforms and time. As a viewer, it can oftentimes feel like that media producers only give us convention – familiarity, comfort, ease. We think that we want something new or innovative. Maybe we do, maybe we do not. And from a producer perspective, being the first to that new or innovative thing certainly has its advantages.

Of course, for both viewers and producers, invention/innovation/the new comes with one big caveat: risk. Not all innovations are good, and they certainly do not come about quickly and easily. Watching Boomtown nearly 10 years after its debut date reminds me of these risks.

Let me be the first to admit (as I always do) that my place as a “new” viewer of a series after the fact is colored heavily by time and the changes, expectations, etc. caused by it. By that I mean I can totally understand why someone watching Boomtown in 2002 might find the pilot episode’s toying with timelines and perspective engaging and especially inventive. The series’ approach was (and honestly, still sort of is) those things. In the 2002 television landscape, I could see why critics would have latched onto this one, especially with Yost’s involvement (he was coming off of Band of Brothers).

Yet, by the end of this initial episode, I was already chilling on the structural and temporal tactics used to prop up the narrative. I certainly appreciate and respect the attempt that Yost and his very game cast (more on them momentarily) make here, but there is something very off-putting to how the concluding minutes of Boomtown’s pilot flashes back to the teenage boy’s childhood. Paul mentioned that Yost used the narrative devices as a way to show how people are all connected, which, again, is a fair goal. Nevertheless, scenes like the rewinding journey through the victim’s childhood played exactly how so many scenes and stories in “interconnected” narratives play out: substantially manipulative.

I have no problem with narrative gimmicks (let’s be honest, that is what these are, and that is okay); in fact, I love them. For a good chunk of Boomtown’s pilot running time, the shifting perspectives and loopy time tricks hooked me in. However, these approaches worked because they informed plot and character without dipping into saccharine or hacky thematic territory. I can enjoy a narrative powered by skewed perspective of a police case that makes me question who is guilty, who is innocent and who might just be inherently nefarious (sup, David McNorris, played with typical aplomb by Neal McDonough). I can enjoy that narrative when it reveals intimate details of characters’ lives that they would prefer not to share with a larger cohort of colleagues, or in the case of Mykelti Williamson’s Fearless, details they have no problem sharing with everyone.

But I get frustrated with these narrative tactics when they are used to evoke large emotional responses that are not earned or attempt to make wide-reaching, generalized thematic points. The final moments of Boomtown’s pilot dips its toes too far into this territory for my liking, in such a way that makes me question the validity or usefulness of the devices in the first place. Yost is a really tremendous writer/showrunner, but the conclusion of this pilot immediately reminded me of a lesser-respected peer of his: Tim Kring. I know. I feel bad about it too.

I feel especially troubled by the way that the conclusion affected me because as I hinted at, so much of this pilot is quite great. The narrative devices do mix in an additional layer of complexity to the procedural elements and help separate the personal lives from the professional lives in useful ways. Each of the “personal life” sequences for Fearless, Donnie Wahlberg’s Stevens and Jason Gedrick’s Turcotte are muted and moving, with each actor delivering really strong performances in them. These scenes allow us to get to know the characters in private spaces without them having to deliver annoying, wordy monologues about who they are and what they represent (which is typically what we see in lesser pilot scripts).

And as I have referenced a few times, the performances here are really, really strong. Williamson and McDonough are, as expected, very adept at making long-winded characters sharp and compelling. Gedrick is typically Gedrick-y: understated, but just soulful enough. For better or for worse, I have seen enough of Blue Bloods to know that Wahlberg can actually act (dare I say he might be better than his brother?), but I really enjoy his work here because it is quiet and still fairly moving. Paul mentioned that Lana Parrilla ended up not getting much to do as the series progressed and that is most certainly a shame. Her character is a bit of an odd fit (again, part of the series’ attempt to provide a wide-ranging perspective on crimes and crime scenes), but Parrilla is good.

I finished my Boomtown viewing experience wishing that the perspective and temporal gimmicks were less prominent, especially if it meant that any subsequent episodes had the same sort of manipulative thematic bow on them. I wanted more of the characters, both interacting with each other on the clock and dealing with problems at home (even if that home is a hotel). But at the same time, I realize that those gimmicks brought me the most evocative character moments and conversations. Obviously, this is a pilot and perhaps the things that annoyed me about the narrative tactics were downplayed or figured out over time. Thus, my feelings on Boomtown are a bit muddled.

But this is often what happens when invention tries to share space with convention. Some things work, some things do not. I would argue that for the most part, things work in the Boomtown pilot, but the things that do not are particularly annoying.

Expanding the focus to the police procedural as a whole, it makes some sense to me why Boomtown did not catch on with audiences: It was probably too different. Last time, we discussed CSI:, a series that had (and is still having) this great impact on the genre and television as a whole. But if you think about it, CSI: did not innovate that much. That pilot and subsequent first season added forensic science and to a lesser, but still important extent, the prominence of the team framework. Nevertheless, the beats and rhythms of CSI: was pretty familiar to early-aught audiences. Meaning, CSI: found the right mix of convention and invention. Just enough “new” to seem different, but a whole lot of comfort to keep audiences safe. And really, we could say the same thing about the other two series we covered in this theme thus far, NYPD Blue and Homicide. The former mixed in some salty language and perceived vulgarity; the latter reveled in the glory of procedure. But I cannot imagine many television viewers complaining that the three series were that different.

Certain genres are so established that most of the conventions are immovable. Elements can be added or removed over time, but the basic structural, visual and thematic formulas mostly remain. The cop show is definitely one of these genres. Boomtown likely stepped too far outside the boundaries of the formula (and most definitely struggled to do so, at least in the pilot) and paid the price for it. Boomtown definitely is not the only series to try to put a square peg into the round hole of the cop drama – NBC’s Awake immediately comes to mind – and it will not be the last. Those future series, like Boomtown and like Awake, will almost definitely fail commercially. But maybe audiences will learn a little bit or grow a little more comfortable with something more overtly different in their cop shows.*

*I want to make it clear that I am not making any value judgment about “viewers” (as a general) group wanting the comfort or familiarity of a typical police procedural. Sure, other series are better, but I see the appeal, and I watch many of these series myself. Generic convention and the overall appeal of genres exist for a reason.

–CB

Conclusions on legacy: A flawed, but compelling attempt to innovate a fairly static genre

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