By David Zurawik
The Baltimore Sun
6:01 PM EST, December 7, 2012
When Henry Bromell won the Writers' Guild Award this year for scripting “The Good Soldier” episode of “Homeland,” he thanked Barry Levinson and Tom Fontana.
Why, you might wonder, would this California screenwriter be thanking these two producers closely identified with Baltimore and New York, respectively, as he accepted an award for work on a series with which they had absolutely no connection?
The answer goes to the heart of what's known in the television industry as “The Family Tree,” a group of a couple of dozen writers and producers who can trace their screenwriting roots or training back to a pair of seminal TV shows from the early 1980s, “St. Elsewhere” and “Hill Street Blues,” both of which were made at the legendary MTM Hollywood production company.
Much has been written in recent years about the role of cable, technology and shifting audience tastes in creating what some critics have hailed as a new golden age of TV drama marked by such series as “The Wire,” “The Sopranos,” “Mad Men” and now “Homeland.” But this is only the latest evolutionary stage of an era that began 30 years ago with this singular group of baby-boomer men.
It's one of the more fascinating stories in American culture the last three decades — how a generation of young artists came to an intellectually reviled medium widely referred to as the boob tube and, in imagining a better future for TV, elevated it to the status it now enjoys as the principal storyteller of American life.
“This is all coming from a group of people who have been doing this their entire adult lives — aiming, aiming for this kind of literary drama,” says the 65-year-old Bromell, who wrote last week's episode of “Homeland,” which garnered the highest ratings ever for the series that ends its second season Dec. 16. “You go back to someone like Fontana at ‘St. Elsewhere,' and you can follow the branches straight out to today.”
Fontana's history illustrates how the dots of quality TV have connected over the past 30 years. The 61-year-old writer-producer was part of the original writing team of the NBC medical drama “St. Elsewhere” when it launched in 1982, and he went on to become an executive producer. Indicative of his status by the end of the series in 1988 is the snow globe from its celebrated finale that now rests in his home library.
Teaming with Baltimore's Barry Levinson, Fontana went on to make “Homicide: Life on the Street” for NBC, starting in 1993. Fontana and Levinson hired Bromell to be a writer and showrunner, the executive producer on the ground in Baltimore.
One of the younger people they hired and helped train to be a writer and producer was journalist and author David Simon, who had written the nonfiction book on which the series was based. He went on to create “The Corner,” “The Wire” and “Treme” for HBO. “The Wire” is considered by some to be the best drama in the history of the medium.
“I'm not old enough to be authoritative on the family tree of television show runners, but I am aware that an inordinate number of people came out of ‘Hill Street Blues' and ‘St. Elsewhere,' “ Simon wrote in an email. “And yes, I'm certainly an upper branch on that tree, given that Tom Fontana was my mentor and, along with Jim Finnerty [a producer on the show], gave me the opportunity to write teleplays and taught me how to produce television drama. And those two guys are out of the MTM camp.”
Simon was nothing if not a fast study under Fontana's guidance. While still working as a reporter at The Baltimore Sun, he was invited to write a script for the series. With a little help from Fontana and producer James Yoshimura, Simon and David Mills, a fellow journalist and college friend, won the Writers' Guild Award in 1994 for their first screenplay. The episode, “Bop Gun,” starred Robin Williams as the husband of a tourist killed in Baltimore.
“By then, Tom Fontana was the showrunner, and Mills and I were guided by him through the process,” Simon, 52, said. “About half the script, maybe 60 percent, remained of what Mills and I wrote. I thought that a failure, being a newspaperman who isn't used to that much rewriting, but in truth we had done well. And a lot of the new scenes were necessitated by the need to service Williams once he was cast.”
The Fontana-Simon relationship represents what happened — and continues to happen — among members of this elite club of culture-changing writers and producers, according to Fontana. Along with Levinson, he's now working on the second season of “Copper” for BBC America, the highest-rated drama in the channel's history.
“I think the roots of the family tree really start at MTM with Bruce Paltrow, Steve Bochco and Grant Tinker – the generation before the [David] Milch-Fontana generation,” Fontana says. “Grant started a company where the ‘talent' was the writer. … It was a writer's studio.” (The MTM refers to actress Mary Tyler Moore, who at the time was married to Tinker.)
Fontana says it was Paltrow, a film and TV producer (and the father of actress Gwyneth Paltrow), who mentored him.
“Paltrow was so about not just training people how to be great television writers and producers, but also insisting that we always try to take a step beyond the obvious choice,” Fontana says. “He pushed all of us to always go further than we thought we had the talent to do. That was the gift that he gave me — that empowerment and encouragement.”
Fontana remembers asking Paltrow shortly before his death in 2002 how he could repay him.
“And he said, ‘You can't. All you can do is pass it on.' And that has been my mantra.” Fontana says there is joy in seeing where writers like Simon and Bromell have taken what they learned working with him.
“If everybody did a version of a show that they did with me, then I would have failed,” he says. “But there's a joy in seeing Simon jump off a cliff with ‘The Corner' and ‘Treme' and ‘The Wire,' where he said, ‘I'm not going to do another version of “Homicide.” [Expletive] that. I'm going to take it into whole other realm.' I love when I see Henry doing ‘Homeland' and David doing ‘The Wire.' It's thrilling to see.”
The tree, of course, has other branches. The system that starts with Bochco, the creator of such dramas as “Hill Street Blues,” “L.A. Law” and “NYPD Blue,” includes writers and producers like David Milch, David E. Kelley and Meredith Stiehm. Stiehm, like Bromell, is now an executive producer and writer on “Homeland.”
But the Fontana line, besides running through Baltimore, offers such a rich and true snapshot of the history of quality drama on television, with so many intertwining histories — like that of playwright Eric Overmyer, who worked on “Northern Exposure,” “Homicide,” “The Wire” and co-created “Treme” with Simon.
After “Homicide,” Fontana created the landmark prison drama “Oz” for HBO in 1997. While some cultural historians credit “The Sopranos” with forging the path to cable that would allow dramatic storytelling to truly blossom in terms of subject matter, themes and complexity, “Oz” was first the first one through the door. “The Sopranos” debuted in 1999.
“Whenever people say, ‘Oh, HBO originated all this great drama — that's where it all started,' I say, ‘You're crazy,'“ says Robert J. Thompson, author of the “Television's Second Golden Age,” a 1996 book that was the first to identify MTM as the incubator, if not the birthplace, of a new kind of literary drama for television.
“When MTM and NBC were teaching us how to do serious, novelistic, literary, sophisticated television with shows like ‘Hill Street Blues' and ‘St. Elsewhere,' what was HBO giving us? ‘First and 10' starring Delta Burke and O.J. Simpson. You know that had to be good,” he says sarcastically.
Thompson, who charted the lower branches of The Family Tree before most critics even knew there was one, says the move to cable started with the HBO series “Oz” and “Tanner '88,” a brilliant, 11-episode political mockumentary written by Garry Trudeau and directed by Robert Altman.
“It wasn't until ‘Tanner '88' and ‘Oz' that they finally began to think at HBO, ‘We can take the model that MTM and NBC started in the early 1980s and we can trump it, because we have a completely different business model,'“ says Thompson. “And that's when they started tapping people from that MTM world: Tom Fontana, David Chase, Henry Bromell and on and on and on, right up to today with your ‘Mad Men' on AMC and your ‘Homeland' on Showtime."
Whether or not you think “Homeland,” which swept the best-drama Emmys for its first season, really is the best drama on television, Thompson says serious and thoughtful pop culture fans will be debating that issue this week and next with a passion they won't likely have for any feature film, novel or play this year.
“Television is now the most significant storytelling medium in the country. I think it's trumped the novel. I think it's trumped poetry, which didn't take much. And I think it's better than the movies,” Thompson says.
“It used to be, a guy got his first job in television and couldn't wait to get out of TV and get to the movies. But today, that mode has totally been changed. If I'm a young person and I've got a job directing a feature film and somebody says, ‘What do you really want to do?' I'd say, ‘Well, feature film directing is fine for now, but what I really want to do is create a series for Showtime or HBO. That's one way The Family Tree has changed popular culture.”
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