The TV Review: 'Boomtown'

I don't like to think of myself as the kind of person who would open a column with a reference to a Billy Joel song. But this week, while ruminating on the often-inverse relationship between quality and longevity, I fleetingly considered it. I don't mind saying it scared me a little.

The subject that brought me to the edge of this precipice was the late, insufficiently lamented NBC series "Boomtown," the first season of which was recently released on video and DVD. If the Paul Thomas Anderson of Magnolia, the David O. Russell of Three Kings, and the Doug Liman of Go had gotten together to produce a weekly cop show, it would have looked something like this. Out-of-sequence storylines, vertiginous plot twists, imaginative camera effects, clever dialogue--"Boomtown" had it all, and sometimes too much of it. The best episodes were brilliant television; even the worst usually failed in interesting ways. Its audacity was refreshing, the kind of envelope-pushing we've come to expect from cable but is still rare on network TV. And little wonder: After a season of mediocre ratings, NBC dialed back the show's innovative format and added a "name" to the cast (if Vanessa Williams qualifies as a name). Two episodes into the second season, the network pulled the plug altogether.

"Boomtown" announced its ambition with a whirling, bravura title sequence in which a skeletal L.A. skyline rises out of the barren desert--the kind of cinematic dazzle one just doesn't see on television, network or otherwise. The episode would then unfold in a series of overlapping segments, each told from the point of view of one character. NBC pushed this innovation as a kind of Rashomon storytelling, using the tagline "One Crime. Seen from every point of view." But the purpose of the format was not to offer alternative realities--in any given scene each character observed very much the same events--it was to offer alternative emotional realities, from cop to crook, perp to victim. In the pilot, for instance, a brief flashback to a young boy in a superhero costume recasts the entire episode in heartbreaking terms. The use of shifting perspectives also created tremendous narrative flexibility, enabling the writers to engage in Tarantinoesque chronological shifts and to withhold crucial information for maximum effect. (The show occasionally aped Tarantino's pop-culture fetish, too: One episode featured Joe Penny, onetime star of "Riptide" and "Jake and the Fatman," playing the washed-up star of an '80s P.I. show.)

But if "Boomtown" mimicked Tarantino's flair, it had a more generous heart. The series' creator, Graham Yost, was a writer for "Band of Brothers," and originally conceived of "Boomtown" as set in a U.S. Army unit in Bosnia. Though that plan was discarded, some of the military flavor survives, especially in the moments of tenderness that pass between the show's male characters, men who serve a dangerous enough duty that they don't need to advertise their machismo. Central among these is the sensitive detective played by Donnie Wahlberg, brother of Mark and easily the better actor. The Wahlberg boys bear a significant resemblance to one another, but Donnie is humanized by a few wrinkles and an unpromising hairline; one can imagine that a little life experience, perhaps even wisdom, has imprinted itself on his features. (To put it another way: One never has the feeling that the ridges on his abdomen are deeper than the ones on his cerebrum.) Wahlberg's smooth-talking partner "Fearless" is played by underrated actor Mykelti Williamson, presumably in penance for his stuttering turn as Bubba in Forrest Gump. And Neil McDonough (Minority Report, Walking Tall) makes great use of his Aryan intensity in the role of an ambitious, tormented deputy district attorney.

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Christopher Orr is a senior editor and the principal film critic at The Atlantic. He has written on movies for The New Republic, LA Weekly, Salon, and The New York Sun, and has worked as an editor for numerous publications.

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