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.)