Created by Graham Yost
Produced by Nemo Films, Dreamworks Television, NBC Studios
Aired on NBC for 2 season (24 episodes) from September 29, 2002 – December 28, 2003
Donnie Wahlberg as Detective Joel Stevens
Neal McDonough as David McNorris
Mykelti Williamson as Detective Bobby ‘Fearless’ Smith
Gary Basaraba as Officer Ray Hechler
Nina Gabiras as Andrea Little
Lana Parrilla as Teresa Ortiz
Jason Gedrick as Officer Tom Turcotte
A crime procedural drama set in Los Angeles (sometimes called Boomtown) that is unlike any other show in it’s genre, in that within each episode a crime is investigated and told through the unique perspective of the individuals surrounding the felony, i.e. the criminals, the victims, the policemen, the detectives, the lawyers, the media etc. The story unravels as vignettes, with character title card chapters revealing that character’s side of the investigation. At best, the individual chapters serve as self contained and complete narratives that feed into the main narrative. At worst, a character chapter would break the momentum of the episode.
The main perspectives that are often the focus of these crime investigations are that of Detectives Joel Stevens, a driven family man who is overworking himself in order to escape a troubled home life; his partner, Detective Bobby Smith, a former Gulf War veteran who is given the nickname ‘Fearless’, due to his new lease on life; and Officers Ray Hechler and Tom Turcotte, two beat cops who always need to prove themselves to the higher ranked detectives. There’s also District Attorney David McNorris, who is struggling to balance his dignity and drive to succeed, all while having an affair with reporter Andrea Little, who herself is also trying to come to terms with how muddled their personal relationship and their business relationship have become. Another common perspective visited is that of Paramedic Teresa Ortiz, who develops a slow-moving relationship with Detective Joel Stevens.
After having worked on prestige cable TV mini series such as From Earth to the Moon and Band of Brothers, writer Graham Yost was given the opportunity to develop the pilot for Boomtown for network television, which was a project he had percolating for years. In this project, he would utilize a multiple point of view structure to tell a crime story, a narrative device that had been more commonly seen in novels and in some films. The format of the series would be made into character chapters that would vary in length, depending on how significant the character’s role in the story would be. Yost decided to set the crime drama in Los Angeles to draw from the rich culture and history. The pilot script was picked up by NBC, and they teamed Yost with director Jon Avnet, who had just come off filming the TV movie Uprising, and together they established the format and tone for the series. The show had both a narrative and visual style that would creatively transition perspective by saturating scenes of different character perspectives. It also instilled a unique and intimate flow of plot and perspective with handheld camera blocking and panning shots. The show would be one of the most innovative and unique takes on the crime drama procedural that would premiere that year, and there has not been a show that has been as distinctly creative to come since.
Despite garnering praise from critics, the show was unable to find an audience, which prompted the network to cut back their season order by four episodes and place the series on hiatus. The network attempted to raise awareness by airing the show on their cable affiliated networks TNT and Bravo, with a marathon of episodes airing the day of a new episode premiere. Unfortunately, the network’s attempt fell short, and viewership continued to dwindle. The network gave the series a hail Mary pass second season renewal as long as the creative team would make significant changes to the show to better appeal to mass audiences. The changes made were to downplay the multiple point of view format with more straightforward linear narratives, and to shift focus more towards the police angle. The reporter Andrea Little, portrayed by Nina Garbiras, had to be excised from the show, as her role became more difficult to incorporate into the new direction, while Lana Parrilla’s character Teresa Ortiz, who formerly worked as a paramedic, was poised to become a police officer. Vanessa L. Williams also became a regular fixture on the second season, as the detectives’ new boss. The changes enforced by the network also failed to build up audiences, so the series was canceled after airing two episodes, with the final four airing in late December with little fanfare.
Each episode seemed like an experience sampler that, when presented together, revealed a truth about the story that no other crime procedural could do by simply telling the story in a straightforward fashion. The show would give interesting depth to even the criminals, as the audience would be privy to their POV and gain insight to their motivations, which shows different sides of a character and can bring out a prism of emotions from the audience. In one POV, viewers would recognize the criminal for the villain that they are, but then when their perspective is revealed. and viewers are made to understand what drives them, it would turn their downfall into a tragedy. Each episode did this to varying degrees, and the quality of what was possible on network television had been raised with this program. It’s enough to make one wonder how far the writers could’ve gone with the unique brand of storytelling as the series went on, had they been given the chance.
Aside from the state of the art writing from an excellent writing team, including Masters of Sex showrunner Michelle Ashford and The Middleman creator Javier Grillo-Marxuach, the show also had an incredible ensemble cast that brought to life these relatable characters. Yost had said that he wrote the detective character Joel with Donnie Wahlberg in mind, as he worked with him on Band of Brothers and saw leading man potential in him. Joel is a very sad character, with family issues that are slowly revealed throughout the season, and Wahlberg does more than well in the role, showing the different shades of the character at work and at home. Wahlberg is joined by Mykelti Williamson, who plays his partner, nicknamed ‘Fearless’ due to his renewed perspective on life after having his life spared during the Gulf War. Williamson is amazing in the role, and has a number of episodes where he is predominantly featured, as he is a standout character. One of the only episodes to be told purely from one perspective is given to Williamson’s character and is entitled “Fearless”, delving into the character’s issues that he had carried over from childhood. It’s one of the darkest, yet most hopeful, episodes of the series, and is oddly one that does not follow the show’s regular format. An interesting note to the “Fearless” episode is that Williamson conceived of the idea for the episode with the writers, which goes to show how creatively collaborative the show was.
One of the more notable characters on the series was that of David McNorris, portrayed by the intoxicatingly charismatic Neal McDonough. McNorris is the seemingly sleazy district attorney, who is revealed to the audience to have more moral dignity and struggle than one is initially made to believe. He has an arrangement with reporter Andrea Little that appears to be mutually beneficially sordid in both business and pleasure, but is much more than that, and it gives the characters a very interesting arc in their relationship. There are also some complex Daddy issues that plague McNorris, which manifested in some of the better episodes. Another character that had some paternal problems was police officer Tom, played by Jason Gedrick. Tom’s father dilemma came from never getting his father’s approval and living under his shadow, as well as a confrontational incident from when he was a kid that had him traumatized and changed his relationship with his father forever. All these stories and characters played out throughout the season and were explored thematically with the crime of the week. It’s a very impressive feat. Not to mention the implementing of dream sequences as fake outs, and having visions and different accounts of events that colored each individual vignette with their own reality that both surprises and intrigues unlike any other television show of its time.
This series had so much potential, but was already a great show within its 18 episode first season. The writers were consistently playing with the format and visual style and breaking new ground, and if the series had gone on, there is no telling how in-depth the show could have delved with these rich and compelling characters. Boomtown had only scratched the surface on the world building, and not being able to develop that was a missed opportunity. There are a few instances of returning side characters who appear again, but none that became significant enough in the series. Perhaps if the series had been successful, the creative team could’ve better explored the fascinating world of Boomtown. There are some that would say that the quality decreased after the season two retooling, and there is some truth to that in the early episodes, but the final four episodes are true to form and impressive in their own right. This show is one that was ahead of its time, and certainly is one that would have fared better if released now, as viewers are much more open to complexity in their TV series.
Unfortunately the audiences of the time were not prepared for the complex narrative that this series had to offer. The network was aware that to marathon this type of show was perhaps a necessity, but not even that was preparation enough for what viewers expected from television at the time. The show was episodic and focused on one crime, and although the serial elements were what made people want to see the next episode, each individual episode felt complete and resolute. Perhaps audiences were so revved up with the high octane serialization of a popular series such as FOX’s 24 that they were not open to watch a series that was so intricately episodic without that cliffhanger-pulling-you-into-the-next-episode type of energy. In the end, Boomtown remains one of the finest crime procedural television series and most wrongfully canceled footnotes in broadcast history.
Boomtown is one of those type of series that had such a unique style and storytelling format that one would wonder why there isn’t that much of a cult for it. There is certainly enough critical praise for the series, which should warrant some interest, but the general audience isn’t as aware of the series and its impact as they should be. There is a lot of rewatch value in a complex show like Boomtown, as each time one watches it, there are new things to appreciate in it, be it the story, the performances, or the visual storytelling.
Although there is a DVD for season one, this is one of those shows that should be put on Blu-ray, as it is so well made and visually alluring. There is also the lack of home video representation for the second season, which is highly disappointing, because those six episodes are actually quite strong. They also feature some great guest cast performers, such as LeVar Burton, Virginia Madsen, Rebecca DeMornay, and Stacy Keach. This is a series that should be watched, enjoyed, analyzed, and aspired to. Hopefully some day there will be another show that will take the tricks of the trade that this show presented and take the baton, raising the quality of television to a new degree to an audience that, in this new age of media, are able to appreciate it.
After Boomtown, Graham Yost went on to create the short lived series Raines, starring Jeff Goldblum, followed by developing to series FX’s Justified and HBO’s TV miniseries The Pacific, and is currently executive producing The Americans.
Donnie Wahlberg would go on to star in The Kill Point and Runaway, and is currently on Blue Bloods.
Neal McDonough continued his TV career, appearing on shows like Medical Investigation, Justified, Mob City, and most recently on Agent Carter as Dum Dum Dugan.
Mykelti Williamson reprised his role of Detective Bobby ‘Fearless’ Smith on the Raines pilot, followed by appearances on CSI:NY, 24, Nashville and on Justified as Ellstin Limehouse.
There is a DVD set that collects all 18 episodes of season one, with six audio commentaries and two making of features—“Building Boomtown”, an inside look at the creative challenges of making the series, and “Boomtown Shuffle”, an exploration of the unique storytelling style adopted by the show. There is also a Region 2 release called “Boomtown: the Complete series”, which also contains the six Season two episodes not available in the US release.
Most episodes are available to stream in SD quality here.
Season One DVD (US) is available to purchase here.