The pilot for NBC's Boomtoom would deserve a full-blown critical rave if for no other reason than the brilliant way creator Graham Yost advances the craft of storytelling in the genre of network cop drama.
While there is no shortage of narrative theorists who talk about detective fiction as being most successful when it is like a puzzle, no one on network television has ever managed to create a series that could make viewers feel as if they were actually putting together a puzzle piece by piece as they watched. Perhaps the nearest anyone came was the writing team of Richard Levinson and William Link with their pilot for Peter Falk's Columbo, but Boomtown is light years beyond what Levinson and Link were doing in the 1970s.
Like most great concepts, this one is essentially simple. Yost, screenwriter for HBO's epic miniseries Band of Brothers, chooses to begin Boomtown by telling tonight's story from constantly shifting points of view.
While many network dramas over the years have done at least one episode that played with narrative techniques associated with the feature film Rashomon, Boomtown is different. Yost dares to literally stop the tape, back it up and start over - repeating scenes that viewers have just seen. Except each time he shows it from the point of view of a different character in the scene.
I say "dares" because the one thing network cop dramas want us to believe in is their realism. After all, hasn't "gritty realism" become a synonym for "quality drama" in the language of television criticism?
But not Yost. He keeps reminding us of the constructed-ness of the drama - that it is only a story being made up by a storyteller - in the way that he keeps stopping and restarting the narrative.
The question, of course, is how viewers will react. It only brought me deeper into the violent and melancholy world of Los Angeles cops, politicians, emergency workers, newspaper reporters, criminals and victims that Yost has created. I think that's also going to happen for a lot of viewers.
And Yost has assembled a cast of characters as complicated, nuanced and believable as any on network television this side of The West Wing. This is an ensemble with seven strong characters. Take your pick.
Detective Joel Stevens (Donnie Wahlberg) and his partner, Detective Bobby Smith (Mykelti Williamson), are at the heart of the pilot as they are called to investigate a drive-by shooting at a community center that wounds one girl and leaves another dead. Before the pilot ends, their investigation will have intersected in meaningful and very human ways with the lives of: two uniformed police officers (Jason Gedrick and Gary Basaraba), a savvy district attorney who seems to be without a moral compass (Neal McDonough), a hard-charging and self-serving reporter with whom the DA is sleeping (Nina Garbiras), and a paramedic (Teresa Ortiz).
There is not a one-dimensional, stereotyped portrayal among the lot. Detective Stevens seems a bit of a boy wonder to some of the others, but he is incredibly insecure, drives himself mercilessly to excel and has a home life profoundly complicated by a wife with serious health problems. Just as you're set to judge him, you see the world through his eyes, and you understand how wrong you were about to be.
And Yost gets every little psychological detail correct - right down to the way this confident, sure-handed detective fumbles socially each time someone asks him about his wife, and he isn't sure how to respond. If you saw Band of Brothers, you know there's more to Wahlberg as an actor than many people might have thought. But I don't think anyone knew there was this much.
I didn't know there was this much to Yost either. As much as I admired the storytelling in Band of Brothers, I am absolutely dazzled by the narrative mastery he shows in Boomtown.
In fact, my only concern is that Yost might get carried away with his powers of television storytelling and wind up getting too "literary" at the expense of first engaging and entertaining the audience. The opening and closing monologue of the pilot, in which the grandfather of a dead teen-ager compares the Los Angeles River with India's Ganges, starts to tip in that direction.
But, given most of the rest of what is laughingly being called a new network season, I'm more than happy for now to suffer a little literary pretension as the price of admission to Boomtown.
The series premieres at 10 tomorrow night on WBAL (Channel 11).
'Dreams' might work
As a card-carrying, baby boomer television critic, I am supposed to categorically denounce any attempt by network television to tell me what my generation's life and times were all about.
Furthermore, as someone who would like to be taken seriously, I know the dangers of saying anything nice about anything produced by Dick Clark.
In spite of all that, I have to admit I kind of like American Dreams, a new NBC family drama set in 1963 that includes Clark among its executive producers. Clark is important because his library of American Bandstand tapes from the era is used to give the series a musical verisimilitude unprecedented in television depictions of the era. And music is crucial to this story, even if it is music from the most commercial end of the '60s spectrum.
The series tells the story of a Irish-Catholic family of five in Philadelphia, the Pryors. The energy and spark in the first hour comes from the urgency with which teen-age daughter Meg (Brittany Snow) wants to dance on Bandstand. Meg's desire highlights tensions between her strict father (Tom Verica) and more open-minded mom (Gail O'Grady).
The women's stories are the ones that resonate in the pilot. Let's hope the producers stick with them.
American Dreams premieres at 8 tomorrow night on WBAL (Channel 11).