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'Boomtown' returns with high hopes

Sunday, March 02, 2003

By Rob Owen, Post-Gazette TV Editor

HOLLYWOOD - NBC's "Boomtown" got off to a strong start in the fall, both in ratings and critical acclaim, but now the series finds itself struggling.

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When: 10 tonight on NBC..
Starring: Donnie Wahlberg, Mykelti Williamson.

Ratings tapered off and then the crime drama got replaced by "Kingpin" in February sweeps. But network executives and the show's creators and cast remain upbeat.

Each "Boomtown" episode tells the story of a criminal case from multiple people's points of view, including cops, detectives, a paramedic, a newspaper reporter and an assistant district attorney. With a regular cast of seven, that's a lot to juggle each week while introducing crime victims. And telling the story "Rashomon"-style adds further complications.

"The other writers called me 'Rainman' for a while," said series creator/executive producer Graham Yost. "They said I was sort of a savant to be able to figure out how to break these stories down. Now we all know how to do it."

Still, it's been a year of experimentation. "Boomtown" premiered at a time that serialized dramas, long a mainstay in prime time, had lost their luster. Procedural dramas ("Law & Order," "CSI") with close-ended stories have gained in popularity. "Boomtown" tries to have it both ways.

"We don't want to be locked into 'to be continued' and 'previously on,'" Yost said after a press conference last month on the studio lot where "Boomtown" films. "We want episodes that stand by themselves, but are linked. We can still have strong stand-alone crime and can work that strong character stuff into it."

Star Donnie Wahlberg, who plays the empathetic detective Joel Stevens, acknowledged the first season of "Boomtown" has been about finding the right balance for the series.

"We did some heavy procedural episodes, some heavy personal episode, and I think now the scales are really even," Wahlberg said. "I think you get a good dose of both."

Tonight's episode, "Home Invasion," walks that line, telling the story of attempts to capture two psychos who break into homes and sexually abuse the families inside before killing them.

"That's why cops only hang around with other cops," Stevens says after leaving a crime scene. "Who the hell else are we going to talk to about what we see?"

His partner, Fearless (Mykelti Williamson), is equally horrified. "Knowing that this is being done to you by other human beings is a betrayal of everything that is human."

Scenes like this contribute to what Yost described as the creation of "an emotional experience and involvement in the characters' lives." That's also required the show's creator to rethink some of the rules he established with the pilot episode.

"I had these strictures, like, one character's point of view per episode, but after a while I said, 'I don't want this show held hostage to the dictatorial whims of a Canadian boy who is finally getting his chance to make up the rules,'" Yost said. "If something is suspense-driven, we've found if we go back and forward too much and jump around, you lose some of the propulsion of the suspense."

Another change: Some episodes will be told from one character's point of view.

"The rules are being moved to accommodate that exploration and to make the series as powerfully entertaining as it can be," said executive producer Jon Avnet. "[The actors] have allowed us to do this experimenting to try to find the form, to try to reveal the character, to not be driven by preconceived notions of arcs that have worked for other shows and at the same time to be mindful, obviously, of the audience. Is it clear? Is it too confusing? Part of where we are right now is looking at very strongly character-driven pieces."

Actor Gary Basaraba, who plays cop Ray Hechler, said the emotional procedure of the characters' lives is key to winning over viewers.

"What you come back for week after week is to see that emotional, human procedure take place between the endless combinations of people and the combinations that are possible in these particular professions," he said. "'Boomtown' is about the humanity that is in all of us and the way that people can become brutalized to various degrees and still shine through."

NBC Entertainment president Jeff Zucker praised "Boomtown" and pledged his support to the series, saying NBC ordered no cop show pilots for fall in the hope that ratings for "Boomtown" would be high enough to justify its renewal.

In addition, NBC-owned cable network Bravo will air the first 12 episodes of "Boomtown" today from 10 a.m. until 10 p.m. leading up to the broadcast of the new episode tonight on NBC.

"We wouldn't do something like that if we didn't fully believe in this show," Zucker said. "And we couldn't be prouder of this show as well."

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

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