By playing safe, they might just as easily be playing dead.
BoomtownAirtime: Sundays, 10 pm EST
Cast: Gary Basaraba, Nina Garbiras, Jason Gedrick, Neal McDonough, Lana Parilla, Donnie Wahlberg, Mykelti Williamson
Creator: Graham Yost
Boomtown, NBC's Sunday night post Law & Order: Criminal Intent programming, hit the TV screens recently as the latest contender in the "innovative drama" stakes.
Its particular stab at originality twists the ensemble crime drama into a multi-perspective view of a single crime. It draws in not only traditional crime-solvers like detectives, beat cops and DAs but also a journalist, a paramedic, the victims, and assorted ancillary characters with a part in the crime or its aftermath. Each episode cuts rapidly from one character's point-of-view to another's, creating a pace collage of multiple, interlocking viewpoints. a tactic uses to bring the audience more fully into the solving of every crime. On the series' website, creator Graham Yost, fresh from a highly successful stint on the writing team for Band of Brothers, claims, "Sometimes the best way to tell the whole story about something is not to try to tell the whole story, but to tell all the little stories and let the viewers put it together themselves." This might have been an inspiring creative statement, if only he and his collaborator, Jon Avnet, had managed to stick to it.
Yes, Boomtown does show the same crime from multiple points of view. And yes, this is a novelty. But, as with so many new dramas this season, one is tempted to murmur, "great cast, good characters, shame about the show," and rent a video from Blockbuster. On the up side, Yost and Avnet reunite Donnie Wahlberg (as Detective Joel Stevens) and Neal McDonough (as Deputy DA David Manors) from Band of Brothers. Both are stripped-down, physical actors, who use their somewhat similar bodies to convey the emotions their blankly attractive faces do not. For both, the dominant emotion in their characters' lives is control -- of political ambitions (McDonough), of private lives (both), of the investigations (Stevens) -- every new encounter silently faced with a pugilist's wariness and readiness to attack.
Thoughtful casting and fine acting also revive two cop show staples: the rookie and the worldly veteran sharing a patrol car, and the interracial detective team. Jason Gedrick (best known on TV as the amoral, stoned, unredeemable Neal Avalon in Murder One) brings a macho brittleness to patrolman Tom Trotter: he's chafing at working with the older man, but not yet ready to face the streets alone. Gary Basaraba turns in a pitch-perfect reiteration of the fatherly 20-year patrolman Ray Heckler, with a gripe against the brass. Mykelti Williamson brings such a loose-limbed joie de vivre to Detective Bobby Smith's partnership with Wahlberg that, like the cross-racial pairings of Bobby Hill and Renko, and La Rue and Washington on Hill Street Blues, it seems based not on a writer's desire for diversity but on a human empathy between characters.
That Yost and Avnet could convey this in the season opener's slightly less than fifty minutes suggests some of the creative energy that might have galvanized this show. Bobby Smith (nicknamed Fearless), for example, is an enchanting character. As the cops exchange tidbits of backstory, Smith at first seems too laid back, too easygoing ever to be interesting. But suddenly he's dressing in a motel room, with a beautiful woman still naked on the bed. Yost withholds who she is, without seeming to do so, while the two chat, primarily about whether or not he's a list man, the kind of guy who makes a list of all the exotic things he wants to do before he dies. So amiable is the conversation, that when she asks him if she'll see him again, his "No," really shocks. He says he couldn't afford it. She names her price: $600. Then he pays her, walks out into the motel forecourt, meets his partner and crosses "spend a night with a hooker" off his crumpled list.
It should have been corny, but because the writer and director took time to build nuance and ambiguity, we see an ordinary man fulfill an ordinary dream and share his extraordinary pleasure at his success. Though none of the other male characters yet shows Smith's potential, Yost captures the laconic, disjointed intimacy of male society well, perhaps because he has just left a writing team who encountered no female characters in ten episodes.
He fails utterly, however, to realize a single female protagonist. First of all, they're not part of the story: as a journalist and a paramedic, they attend the action without influencing it. Reporter Andrea Little (Nina Garbiras) is stock feisty glamour and little else: long dark hair, long legs, and great figure. We never see her byline. We never see her pounding a keyboard or meeting a deadline. But we do see her sparring with her lover, McDonough, and we do see him treating her with contempt. Paramedic Teresa Ortiz (Lana Parilla) is even sketchier. Her key part in the pilot is facilitating the revelation that Joel Stevens' wife had tried to commit suicide a few days earlier while in the second episode, she appears only momentarily as foil to a minor character who interferes in the chase.
Yet, while the fragility of female presence is a flaw in Boomtown, its potential for growth is far more stunted by the time-wasting mechanics of its much-heralded multiple points-of-view. The device for integrating these perspectives involves repeating key sequences at least twice, once through the eyes of the original character to view them, and once again, bleached out, slowed down, or otherwise tweaked, to indicate that the story has shifted back in time to be seen through another pair of eyes. And then sometimes all over again through another pair of eyes. As a visual signal, it's marginally appealing, once. As a plot device, it's cringe-inducing right from the start. As a story-buster, it's supreme. And it adds up to a lot of TV minutes stripped from storytelling and wasted on meaningless artifice.
This was particularly striking in the series' second episode, where a clever, fast-moving tale of fantasy, love, and fatal jealousy ran aground on multiple displays of the murder and a gratuitous achronological juggling of the storyline. Whatever happened to trusting an audience to know that a different camera angle means a different point of view?
Ironically, the use of a simple shift in camera angle achieved in Band of Brothers exactly what Yost claims to achieve in Boomtown. That company's eye view of the Allied invasion of Europe created from a jumble of fragmented, individual stories a moving history of the contribution of America's young men to the defeat of Hitler. There the action moved so quickly, and the characters looked so alike in their uniforms and helmets that the audience had no option but to construct its own narrative, much as the soldiers themselves did, as they trucked erratically from town to town across France and Germany.
Boomtown might have achieved the same by dropping the audience into the muddled heart of a murder investigation and leaving it there, especially as the show stands to inherit the viewers Vincent D'Onofrio's practiced malevolence has attracted to Law & Order: Criminal Intent. Instead, Yost, Avnet, and the network fell back on crime-solving-by-numbers and lowest-common-denominator narration. By playing safe, they might just as easily be playing dead.