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August 25, 2004

  • Gone But Not Forgotten
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    As you might have gathered from my assorted mumblings over the past 10 months, I am somewhat fond of the medium of television, particularly in its dramatic mode. In fact, I think it's safe to say that I am just plain enamoured with television. I grew up on television and unlike the many who have been saying since I was a kid (and well before) that the medium was contributing to a cultural wasteland, I have always thought instead it was a benign cultural force. Good television, I feel, can contribute as much to the human condition as a good play, a good book, a good film, a good painting or even a good poem in iambic pentameter.

    In fact, for the past few years I've been a subscriber to the notion that there has never been a better time to be a fan of television than right now. Admittedly, there's still a lot of terrible television like The Swan, and a lot of mediocre television like The Apprentice (though I like it) and 8 Simple Rules (which is as banal as processed cheese, but eerily watchable since James Garner and David Spade came on board). Even so there's a pervasive notion that there's more good television now than ever before: The Sopranos, Six Feet Under, even The West Wing (though it's taken a hit since Aaron Sorkin left) are supposedly leading the vanguard of a new wave of writer-driven, intelligent, television that's popular, entertaining and even worth exercising a few brain cells.

    And yet, my belief in good television, however, has been shaken recently. It probably hasn't been shaken irrevocably—over the years I've weathered Hello Larry, Aaron Spelling, Glen A. Larson, the cancellation of WKRP in Cincinnati and The Simple Life. But I now certainly believe that the hype that we're in the middle of a televisual golden age is just hype.

    I blame my foul mood on the Boomtown DVD box set.

    Boomtown was, for those of you who didn't catch it the first time (and there were a fair number of you), ostensibly a crime drama. And yet (for most of the first season) that was more of a setup for stories about LA itself and the people who lived in it. The hook was that the each episode had its story unfold, Rashomon-like, from multiple points of view, with stories being told out of sequence but eventually connecting together like an intricate puzzle.

    The DVD box set is well worth picking up. The pilot, which aired in September 2002, is probably the best TV pilot I've seen in recent memory. The regular characters—including some cops, a Deputy District Attorney, a reporter and a paramedic—were smartly drawn and the performances of the actors playing them were pitch perfect. Plus, the writing was smart and crisp and witty and the direction was big screen quality. And the format of the show made it fun to watch. To my astonishment, though, the show's second episode is even better—creator Graham Yost uses the multiple POV format to create mini-movies about all the characters. The result transforms a plot that on paper seems like a second-rate NYPD Blue episode—dot-com rich guy stalks stripper he's obsessed with—into a tale of broken, incomplete people worthy of Mamet.

    Last night, I re-watched what I think is one of their best episodes, "The David McNorris Show". And while the Rashomon-ing in this story reaches its zenith, this isn't why it's so good. The story follows one of the leads, the DDA David McNorris (played to perfection by Neal McDonough) over the course of a night wherein he self-destructs his marriage, his relationships and his career. It's one of the most poignant and haunting depictions of a person entering spiritual death as I've ever seen on television.

    In spite of this, the series was greeted with indifferent ratings. NBC shelved it for a while before completing the first season with a reduced number of episodes. Last year's Emmy nominations—in a move that made the whole awards completely and utterly suspect— outright snubbed it, not even nominating Neal McDonough, who was far better than any of the ailing West Wing and 24 staples that choked the slate. (Not to mention Donnie Wahlberg and Mykelti Williamson, who were also amazing).

    NBC moved it to Law & Order: Special Victim's Unit timeslot on Fridays and cancelled after two episodes in. But it wasn't the river that got Boomtown, it was the fall that killed it. Between seasons, the suits at NBC—in concert with the producers, it seems— decided that the show was ‘too confusing' and the series' raison d'ętre was completely dismantled. Gone was the multiple POV format, gone was the ‘stories about the city' idea, gone was one of the best characters (Nina Gabrias' reporter Andrea Miller). The first two episodes were about stopping jewel thieves that killed some cops.

    In short, they made it just another cop show. And though it was, admittedly, a better than average cop show, the remnant who stayed from the last season was instantly alienated. Watching the remaining four or so episodes (NBC got them out around Christmas as filler), I saw that we were spared far worse as I watched Lana Parilla's paramedic character—who became a paramedic out of a spiritual desire to comfort and aid—inexplicably went to the police academy. The last episode started swinging more back to the ideas of the first season, but too little, too late.

    It's about the closest one can get to watching a TV show become emasculated.

    If it was just Boomtown then I might not worry about the state of TV today. But Boomtown is part of what is, for me, a trifecta of brilliant television which received its walking papers during the 2003-04 television season.

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    As if to rub salt in my wounds, Global has been rerunning The Guardian nightly at midnight lately. This show was mostly ignored for the three years it was on the air. Which is a shame, because The Guardian was the kind of quality drama that should have gotten more play in the press, more Emmy nominations, and frankly, more faith than CBS placed in it this season.

    It went against the grain for any TV series: the show was about Nick Fallin a self-centred, emotionally repressed ex-drug addict lawyer who was forced by court order to work in a Pittsburgh legal clinic, working with impoverished people somewhere in the midst of the grey areas of morality and the legal system. It was a series frequently without happy endings, and a lead character you wanted to slap hard sometimes. It was anything but Judging Amy.

    The writing was always amazing: it was never about courtroom histrionics, just honest stories about the people caught between the cracks of the legal system. It was unflinchingly unsentimental, and incredibly smart.

    It superb cast…which was never noticed by anyone. Dabney Coleman, as the father of the lead who also ran the family's blue chip law firm was never better—and that's saying something. And the star of the show, Simon Baker, gave the most amazing performances every week, playing a man too young to be haunted by so many demons. His performance broke just about every rule of TV acting: it was subtle; the fun and the power of Baker's performance was in watching the disconnect between what Nick felt was right and his own inhibitions from doing it. Coleman and Baker, and writer producer David Hollander deserved Emmy nominations and industry accolades, or at least a few column inches in Entertainment Weekly.

    They never got noticed.

    The producers must have seen it coming as it pretty much set up the end of the series in the finale, ending with Simon Baker's character taking over as director of the legal clinic, finally accepting his destiny and finding himself, though hesitantly, home in the place where he should have been all along. I wanted to see what happened next, but it was a sweet ending in any event.

    While Boomtown's cancellation was something of a relief, The Guardian's untimely end oddly hurt. It did decently, though perhaps unspectacularly, in the ratings (and CBS didn't help by yanking it off the schedule to give way to Century City which lasted all of ten minutes). The Guardian was was a good show, it was a smart show, it was the sort of show television should be doing more of, not less. Plus it was my Mom's favourite TV show, which speaks volumes to me about how broad-based its viewer base was.

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    Finally there was the cancellation of Ed. That this sweet, smart, comedy never got a single nomination while Emmys were veritably festooned upon Everybody Loves Raymond is a sign that the Academy of Television Arts and Sciences is a corrupt institution and its members will be going to purgatory for a very, very long time.

    Ed admittedly isn't to everyone's taste, but I count myself among its devoted fans. A sentimental romantic comedy about a lawyer who runs a bowling alley in a small town populated by his high school sweetheart and a cast of assorted eccentrics is probably the exact opposite of The Guardian. And yet, like the films of Frank Capra—filled to the brim with sentiment but also aware that the audience needed subtlety and intelligence to make the sentiment go down—Ed shared something in common with The Guardian and with Boomtown, in that it treated the audience as intelligent beings. If Ed and the love of his life Carol have to overcome obstacles, well they overcome them like adults often making decisions you don't think they'd make because, well, they don't make them in these sorts of show.

    One of my favourite episodes was the season finale last year where Mike, Ed's married best friend, finds himself hanging out with some nubile college students, one of whom makes a pass at him. The next morning, he tells his wife about it. Now tell me how many comedies would do that, and I'll then point out that it turns out the wife appreciates his honesty. They did something similar this season when Ed, after an episode-long build-up, was propositioned by an attractive woman…and he turned the propsition down. Simple as that. I realized then, as now, we were onto something, well, unique: relational comedy premised on intelligence and trust between human beings.

    The cast was on. And with all that rapid-fire self-aware dialogue like a Howard Hawks film written in the Internet age, they'd have to be. The town of Stuckeyville was populated with the greatest eccentrics on American television since Northern Exposure's Cicely Alaska. Tom Cavanaugh kicks Ray Romano's ass every day and twice on Sundays.  He's funny and heartfelt. Josh Randall as the best friend was a study in deadpan goofiness. And the double act of Michael Ian Black as the Bowling Alley employee with delusions of grandeur (or just plain delusions) and Daryl Mitchell as cocksure manager Eli Cartwright Goggins the third made television worth watching every week.

    But again we have the same story; indifferent scheduling, whittling down the episode order and wrongheaded marketing leading to cancellation (fortunately, like the producers of The Guardian, Ed's producers sensed the end was nigh and wrapped everything up). Now, admittedly, Ed survived longer than any of this trifecta—four seasons—but it had more in it, I'm convinced of it.

    All of these series, frankly, had more seasons in them. (As did Wonderfalls—the best freshman show of the year and it was cancelled after six episodes). I don't think it's down to low ratings for any of them either. Ten years ago, the network would have had more faith in these shows, acknowledging their value as niche programs or given them more space to gain an audience. Or, hell, given them much-deserved award nominations. But the days of keeping Hill Street Blues on for the hell of it is over. And I find it hard to believe that it's been better than ever for dramatic TV if shows like Boomtown, The Guardian and Ed are unnecessarily euthanized in the same year.

     

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