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On the Tube: Quirky format puts 'Boomtown' ahead of the network pack

Friday, September 27, 2002

By Rob Owen, Post-Gazette TV Editor

For fans of quality dramas, whether it's a story-driven show like "Law & Order" or a series like "The West Wing" that concentrates on its characters, now would be a good time to give up on ABC's "The Practice" and switch over to NBC's "Boomtown" (10 p.m. Sunday).

Actually, Sunday night's "Practice" is decent and introduces a new lawyer (Jessica Capshaw) who joins the firm, but its best days are long in the past. HBO shows aside, visceral "Boomtown" is the new exemplar of quality TV dramas on Sunday night.

Using the storytelling technique pioneered by Akira Kurosawa in "Rashomon," "Boomtown" follows a single criminal case each week from various points of view: the deputy district attorney (Neal McDonough), patrol officers (Gary Basaraba and Jason Gedrick), a paramedic (Lana Parrilla) and a pair of detectives (Mykelti Williamson and Donnie Wahlberg).

There's also a well-dressed newspaper reporter (Nina Garbiras) with an apartment few print journalists could afford. It seems like a false note, but a future episode makes clear that the woman comes from money.

Created and written by Graham Yost ("Band of Brothers," "From the Earth to the Moon") and directed by Jon Avnet ("Fried Green Tomatoes"), "Boomtown" engrosses. It's the season's strongest new drama, not just because it takes a chance on a novel format, but because it manages to tell stand-alone stories even as it develops the characters in its large ensemble.

Sunday's premiere follows a murder investigation while revealing character traits about most of the main players, especially Wahlberg's sympathetic Joel Stevens. Even the suspected shooter gets his turn, showing events from his point of view that differ from what the police suspect.

A second episode sent for review was just as good, although the format can cause momentary confusion in some scenes. Just stick around, everything is explained by the end of the hour as the pieces of the puzzle come together in unpredictable, sometimes shocking, ways.

'Robbery Homicide Division'

(10 tonight, CBS)

With all the new cop shows this fall, this stylistic drama from director Michael Mann is the TV equivalent of an edgy indie film that's all style, no substance. "Robbery" is all mood, music and atmosphere, with little attention paid to the characters.

Tonight's premiere is a snooze, but a second episode sent for review shows more promise.

Tom Sizemore stars as Sherlock Holmes-like detective Sam Cole, who can figure out what happened at a crime scene lickety-split. The rest of the cast is made up of some talented actors (Klea Scott from "Millennium," David Cubitt from "Turks"), but their characters get little definition in early episodes. They're essentially Cop No. 2 and Cop No. 3.

This isn't a show about characters. Instead, "Robbery Homicide Division" relies on a slick look and sound that's downbeat, murky and darkly artistic. It's just not all that entertaining in its debut hour.

'Hack'

(9 tonight, CBS)

David Morse is an excellent actor. Andre Braugher is an excellent actor. What they're doing in this musty drama straight out of the '70s is anyone's guess.

Morse plays Mike Olshansky, a disgraced cop-turned-cab driver who was kicked off the force after taking money from a crime scene. Braugher plays Marcellus Washington, who did the same, but wasn't caught and remains a police officer.

Braugher is barely in tonight's premiere but presumably he'll have more to do in future episodes, feeding Olshansky police information as the cabbie atones for his sins by doing good.

The show begins with a ludicrous scene of a fare who psychoanalyzes Olshansky for no apparent, believable reason. After the guy leaves the cab, he's attacked by a gang until Olshansky shows up with a bat, asking, "Somebody call a cab?"

It's such a false, forced TV moment, the producers seem to encourage the laughs they'll no doubt get before viewers switch to another channel.

'That Was Then'

(9 tonight, ABC)

The season's second and inferior time travel show, this one sends almost 30-year-old Travis Glass (James Bulliard) back to 1988.

Unlike The WB's funny, wistful, pop culture-filled "Do Over," the one-hour "That Was Then" goes for pathos instead of laughs and it mostly misses.

Another difference: On "Do Over" the characters remain in the past, but "That Was Then" jumps from past to present and back again as Travis tries to fix his life, but each week his meddling seems to further disrupt the timeline. Somehow, The Kinks song "Do It Again" triggers his journeys through time.

In the past, Travis has a dysfunctional family, including a bookie father (Jeffrey Tambor) and a mother (Bess Armstrong) who's having an affair. His brother (Brad Raider) is dating the girl of Travis' dreams.

They're a pretty unlikable lot and Travis isn't much better. Normally you cheer for an underdog, but in tonight's premiere, Travis inspires more of a cringe.

The same actors play the characters in both eras, which is more laughable in some instances than others. More frustrating is the look of Travis' teacher (Tricia O'Kelley), whose hair goes from blond to red from the first to second episodes with no explanation even though the second episode picks up on the same day as the first. For a show about time travel, that doesn't inspire much confidence in the producers' interest in continuity.

'Alias'

(9 p.m.

Sunday, ABC)

The spy drama begins its second season Sunday with an episode that tries to spell out the story for new viewers and at the same time wrap up May's cliffhanger.

When viewers last saw grad student/double agent Sydney Bristow (Jennifer Garner), she'd been captured by the evil Khasinau (Derrick O'Connor) and her own mother (Lena Olin), who emerges from the shadows and demands Syd tell her who sent her.

"Or what? I'm grounded?" Syd replies. She soon pays for her flippancy.

Series creator J.J. Abrams penned the episode, which includes creative resolutions to the season finale, which painted characters into seemingly inescapable corners.

My problem with "Alias" from the start was that it's too derivative of other series with mythological story arcs; that its supposed surprises were actually pretty predictable.

Sunday's premiere ends with a twist I didn't see coming, and that, at least, is a move in the right direction.


Rob Owen can be reached at rowen@post-gazette.com or 412-263-2582. Post questions or comments to www.post-gazette.com/tv under TV Forum.

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