Boomtown, the one-season wonder

At least once a week something makes me think of Boomtown, one of my favorite TV shows of all time.

Not to be confused with the excellent book Boom Town (my favorite of 2018), Boomtown was a one-season wonder that aired on NBC from 2002-2003 when I was a freshman in high school.

(To be clear, there technically was a second season of six episodes before it was axed, but I’ve never seen it because of everything I heard about how bad it is, and I’d like to preserve the memory of its one beautiful, special season in my heart, thank you very much.)

The show was a Rashomon-esque crime drama set in Los Angeles that told the story of a crime each episode from multiple points of view—primarily the beat cops, detectives, the assistant district attorney, a reporter, and a paramedic. They all interact with the crime and with each other, and through each of their perspectives we learn more and more about the case.

I like how Christopher Orr described the show in The Atlantic:

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.

It was written and produced by Graham Yost (Band of Brothers, Speed), who talked about his inspiration for Boomtown coming from researching a battle for Band of Brothers:

Each veteran I talked to described a different battle because that’s all they knew. One of them told me, ‘All you know is the 12 feet around you in battle.’ That’s where the divergent narratives thing came from.

That inspiration also relates to one of the show’s key themes, which is the fungibility of memory. Very often we watch a scene play out the first time, then see it again through another character’s point of view but slightly different than the first time—whether with a modified line reading or a change to sepia or black-and-white. Each iteration cleverly reveals new information for the viewer, in the way that viewpoint’s character learns of it.

The result is that Boomtown is more like a prism than a puzzle. There’s only one way to put together a puzzle, but a prism refracts light into many different colors and directions, changing its appearance as you move it.

To illustrate how a show like this got on network TV at all and why it didn’t last, it helps to understand the television landscape at the time, which Yost talked about:

NBC was the only place that would put that on the air. They were coming from a position of great strength, so they were willing to take a chance. They had kind of put out to the community, “If you’re thinking of taking something to HBO, bring it here first.” Boomtown was perhaps, in retrospect, better suited for HBO or FX. But at that time, HBO had The Wire, and FX had The Shield. So NBC was really the only place for it, and they embraced the Rashomon structure and were excited by that.

But then when the ratings weren’t spectacular, what happens is everyone questions everything. “Maybe that’s the problem. Maybe it’s the music. Maybe it’s this. Maybe it’s that.” And the doubt becomes corrosive.

I’m not a Law & Order junkie or crime show connoisseur, so I can’t tell you how Boomtown compares to its counterparts. But I was blown away by the richness of the characters and smart plot development, both within each episode and stretched across the entire season. And unlike the many shows that take a few episodes (or even a full season) to really hit their stride, Boomtown metaphorically busts down the door right away and keeps up the quality throughout.

This is a credit to Yost and the creative team, for sure, but also to the ensemble. The seven main actors (on the poster at top) were perfectly cast and really hit the sweet spot of being seasoned pros while not being too famous and thus too distracting in their roles. Many shows have a character arc that drags or feels skippable, but the Boomtown gang (mostly) doesn’t let that happen.

Finding the show at the age I did surely made a difference in my admiration for it. As a budding cinephile I strongly responded to its combination of intelligent storytelling and humanist affection for its characters. The occasional action and frequent humor were appealing too, but it’s the small yet profound moments that have stuck with me. The father of an addict lamenting the joys and anguish of parenthood. A riverside eulogy. The reading of an coroner’s report. Even the theme song gives me a warm feeling.

Though it’s not officially available for streaming, the whole series is unofficially available on YouTube for free. (I have the DVD set, of course.) Give the first episode a try, and then all 18 if it strikes you as it did me.

Further Reading

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