One year to the week since NBC canceled "Homicide: Life on the Street," Baltimore is officially back in the network television series business.
"Young Americans," a new teen ensemble drama for the WB (Warner Brothers) network, started production yesterday in a huge warehouse-turned-sound stage down in Locust Point where Hull Street runs into the harbor. Once again, Hollywood producers are making a million-dollar-an-episode series here, and this one promises to make the city that bleeds look affluent and pretty.
"Once we came and saw Baltimore and understood how absolutely, breathtakingly beautiful it is here, that was it. We decided we were going to do the series here," Steven Antin, the creator and co-executive producer of the series, said during an interview Saturday at his production headquarters.
Absolutely, breathtakingly beautiful? Gritty Baltimore, home of HBO's "The Corner"?
"Yes," Antin says without hesitation. "In Los Angeles, I think, gritty is definitely the perception of Baltimore based on what people see on television and, I guess, we hear in the news or whatever. But the side of Baltimore that we're showing is the sort of bucolic, wholesome, wonderful side of Baltimore that's also there."
No, "Young Americans" is not a promotional film from the Baltimore Chamber of Commerce. It's a teen drama set at a boarding school in New England, with Baltimore standing in for Maine the way Wilmington, N.C., serves as Capeside, Mass., in "Dawson's Creek," one of WB's most successful teen dramas.
In fact, this Wednesday and next, one of the leading characters of "Young Americans," Will Krudski (Rodney Scott), appears on "Dawson's Creek," as WB uses the established show to promote its new drama. Krudski's three-episode story arc ends with him saying goodbye to Dawson's world and leaving for Rawley Academy, the fictional private school at the heart of "Young Americans." The new series will premiere in early July.
Last year, Antin produced a 38-minute presentation film of "Young Americans," which WB made available to critics. Presentation films are shortened versions of pilots. With the pilot for an hour-long drama costing from $1 million to $1.5 million to make, filming only 38 rather than the 51 or so minutes (an hour of network TV minus commercials) of each script amounts to considerable savings when spread across dozens of proposed series each year. This is part of the new way of doing business in vertically integrated, economies-of-scale Hollywood.
Based on the presentation, which was filmed near Atlanta, this is a series that not only looks good -- the WB's stock in trade with all those young models in leading roles -- but is also one with some dramatic meat on its bones.
Krudski is a working-class kid from a household headed by a physically abusive father. That's two topics right there rarely explored in network dramas, teen or otherwise: social class and abusive parents. Krudski gets into Rawley on a scholarship based on his achieving one of the highest scores ever on the entrance exam. But there's a problem with the way he got those scores.
His roommate, Scott Calhoun (Mark Famiglietti), is from a background of great privilege. Think Kennedys. By the end of the first hour, Calhoun is deeply involved with a beautiful townie, Bella Banks (Kate Bosworth).
Antin takes the clash of townies and preppies -- one of the few narratives in our popular culture that allows for an exploration of social class inequities -- and gives it several smart twists. The first meeting of Bella and Calhoun takes place at the pumps of her father's filling station just off a small town square near Rawley. She's filling a car with gas, when Calhoun and Krudski approach wearing only their undershorts, the result of a hazing ritual.
The ensuing conversation between Bella and Calhoun crackles with social class animosity, as well as a mounting sexual attraction as the rich boy stands there in his shorts and the blue-collar girl with the sweet-sweet smile takes him apart with her eyes and her words.
The series has something to say about gender, too; one of the new students at the all-boys school is a girl in disguise, Jake Pratt (Katherine Moennig). Moennig makes Pratt believable and intriguing in the 38 minutes I saw, though it's hard to tell from the presentation film where Antin is going with this character. Antin says think Shakespeare's "Twelfth Night" or "Shakespeare in Love."
Not that "Young Americans" is all sociology and Shakespeare. Believe me, it isn't. This is the WB, after all, and Antin himself seems perfectly happy describing the series as "high school without your parents."
"I mean, our show is relationship oriented, and it's thematically about star-crossed lovers," Antin says. "And it's inherently melodramatic, because teen-agers, I think, are inherently melodramatic."
Offering a tour through the huge sound stage area as carpenters and construction workers sawed and pounded away on sets that will serve as dorm rooms, classrooms, hallways and commons areas at Rawley, Antin sounded like someone settling in for a long run. These are not cheap sets. The commons area alone -- with its paneled walls, built-in bookcases, cornices and parquet floor -- looks to have cost more than some entire East Coast sets I've been on.
If nothing else, there is little doubt that "Young Americans" will have the look of quality. It will be shot on film with Robert Prince -- who created the rich, textured, visual atmosphere of the WB drama "Felicity" -- as director of photography. The camera operator is Aaron Pazanti of the visually exhilarating, Oscar-winning "American Beauty."
Furthermore, the production design, which determines what the camera will "see," is being done by Baltimore's Vince Peranio, who did all of John Waters' films, as well as "Homicide," "The Corner" and "Blair Witch II."
Antin says local talent such as Peranio is one of the reasons Baltimore was chosen over Wilmington, N.C., Toronto and Vancouver. Antin said that Atlanta was chosen for the presentation because they needed a mild climate for their winter shoot. But it lacked the kind of talent needed to produce a weekly series.
"In terms of setting, what we needed was water, and Baltimore's got water. No problem there. We also needed a building for the exterior of Rawley, and Baltimore has all these venerable old buildings that could be perfect prep schools. And, then, we needed a small town, and there are all these charming little towns like Havre de Grace surrounding the greater Baltimore.
"But, most of all, what we needed was a professional crew, and Baltimore has such an incredible crew base," Antin continued. "When I came here the first time and met Vince, I left saying, 'If we can get Vince Peranio to do this, I want to be in Baltimore.' I had seen everything he had ever done, and had such respect for him, and just always thought he was brilliant."
While the production offices and sound stages are in Locust Point, just a water taxi's ride across the harbor from the old "Homicide" set at Recreation Pier, the show will use several area locations to "create its own geography," in the words of Antin.
Tyrconnnell, a Georgian-style estate overlooking Lake Roland, will be the exterior of the Rawley Academy, Loch Raven Reservoir will serve as the lake that is supposed to be just behind the school, and Havre de Grave will be the small town nearest the school.
"Havre de Grace just seemed like it could be Anytown, USA. It just felt so American. We all drove in the first time and went, 'Wow! This is it.' You have the water right there, and the beautiful bridge with the trestle, all those quaint shops and sweet little houses -- so Americana."
In addition to a fleet of white Haddad rental trucks -- which became a familiar sight to locals during the "Homicide" days -- three behemoth semi-tractor trailer trucks were brought out from Los Angeles to facilitate the location work among the sites.
If it sounds expensive, that's because it is. Antin said that the $1 million per episode yardstick used with "Homicide" is comparable to what "Young Americans" will be spending to make the series here.
So far, the WB has ordered eight episodes, which will be showcased as the Coca-Cola Summer Theatre starting in July. "Young Americans" is the centerpiece of an initiative by the network to provide fresh programming in the summer rather than reruns in an effort to hold and win teen and college-age viewers who are more available during the summer months.
It's a savvy strategy by the WB that, if it works, will have ramifications on programming strategies and cycles throughout the network TV industry.
Eight episodes is not a full order; "Young Americans" is still on tryout. But remember, the first season of "Homicide" consisted of only nine episodes, while the second season totaled four. The third season of the cop drama started with an order of 13 from NBC.
Antin says he and executive producer Joe Voci are hoping the next order they get from the WB will be for 13 episodes, with the third order for a full year's run of 22. That would put them well ahead of the "Homicide" pace.
"It's a great opportunity. Columbia [the production company making the series] loves the show," Antin says. "The WB has been just fabulous in its support, and so far, Baltimore couldn't be better.
"Look around at the quality of these sets we're building, the kind of top people involved in this production. This is not something you put in place to tear down after eight episodes. We plan to be here for a very long time. I'm hoping for a seven-year run. At a million dollars an episode, you do the math."