Cancelled Too Soon: Boomtown

The cover of the Boomtown boxset features the cast

Boomtown premiered in late September 2002. I remember some of the run-up: “One crime. Seen from every point of view.” That’s what it says on the front of my DVD box set, at least; maybe the ads at the time were a little different. But they were fundamentally along the same lines, and I recall seeing ads and being unsure about the idea of the show.

There’s something misleading about that tagline, and it could lead you to think that Boomtown was engaged in some kitschy premise where you would run through the perspectives of the investigators only to land on that of the criminal in a way that wraps everything up with a neat bow, as if it were your standard procedural crime drama, but with a gimmick.

But Boomtown is not that at all. It was never that. I understand why NBC plugged it that way, but they also fundamentally misrepresented the show if they made us feel like the way the show would play with perspective was just a schtick.

Instead, it was intrinsic, and not at all the kind of thing I was worried about when I saw those ads however many years ago. In the first episode, for example, we run through various perspectives on a drive-by shooting, and the event itself is terrible, as one young girl gets killed and another is injured. And through this event we meet our central characters: Ray Hechler and Tom Turcotte (the beat cops), Joel Stevens and Bobby “Fearless” Smith (the detectives), David McNorris (Deputy District Attorney), Teresa Ortiz (EMT), and Andrea Little (reporter).

It is true that each episode tends to run through their various perspectives, but the show pulls off this move with nuance. When the same scene is shown from a second point of view, for example, the show tends to pull on different shots, or at least different edits. In at least a couple of instances, the dialogue even varies ever so slightly. It is as though we are getting each character’s memory of the event, rather than a neutral, objective point of view. But that’s not the point; it’s the frame. And neither is the point the case-of-the-week so much as it ultimately about exploring these characters.

All of them are so well fleshed out, and deepened by the show’s perspectival structure, that I feel that I could write a character profile on each. Although this is a case-of-the-week type show, there is at least a through-line with regard to the characters. There is a serial aspect with regard to their personal stories that cuts far deeper than a character on Law and Order revealing out of nowhere that she is a lesbian.

Ray points as Joel writes something down, with Fearless and Tom in background

When we first meet Ray (Gary Basaraba), for example, he seems a bit bumbling, and maybe a bit dirty. In one of the early episodes, he is willing to frame the wife of a murder suspect for shoplifting by planting a dress in her trunk, but only with the background knowledge—or confidence—that she is, in fact, a shoplifter, and her husband is, in fact, a murderer. The issue is proving it, and the story raises questions about due process and so on. But later we learn how smart Ray actually is, and how committed to justice in his own particular sense, when he figures out that the guy who used to be in a cop show he liked (which maybe even inspired him to be a cop) was in on the attempted robbery he helped to thwart.

His partner, Tom (Jason Gedrick), is placed in a similar kind of conflict when he volunteers to give a ride home to an alleged cop-killer who has been exonerated, much to the dismay of his father (a former cop who was also the partner of the killed cop in question). He butts head with Joel, but is ultimately on his side. Much smarter than some might take him to be at first pass, Tom believes in justice, and has a heart of gold.

Teresa (Lana Parrilla) does, too. Her stories are often somewhat to the side of the main action—with the exception of the episode that centered on her life being put in peril—but her commitment to humanity is always clear. She doesn’t care if you’re a criminal; her job is to help, without judgment. And when a young boy ends up in a coma after an “accident,” she sits by his bedside because she doesn’t want him to wake up alone.

Joel (Donnie Wahlberg) relates to that, as he has a young boy of his own, but the details of his family situation are rolled out very slowly. We know that something happened pretty early on, but don’t learn what that was until far later (although maybe you could guess). His story deepens as more and more is revealed about his life at home, and I’m led to think Donnie might be the better actor of the Wahlbergs. Regardless, Joel is presented as a consummate professional, who is committed to the rule of law and so on. When Ray plants that dress I mentioned earlier; Joel goes to grab it—he’s going to catch the perp the right way, or not at all.

His partner, Fearless (Mykelti Williamson), is maybe even more of a badass, but with a complicated history of his own. He served in the Gulf War, had a friend there who died tragically, and is apparently the only guy anyone knows who still smokes. There is maybe some cheesiness to all of those aspects of his character, or the way they are presented, but the fact is Mykleti Williamson pulls it off. He is also the center of one of the most powerful episodes of the series, “Fearless,” which grapples with the fact that he was abused as a child.

Andrea (Nina Garbiras) always struck me as one of the strongest characters on the show. She bucks against the values of her privileged background in pursuit of the truth, having no truck with the country club ideals of her family. She recognizes that these notions about “status” are bullshit, and even if she hasn’t managed to escape the way it informs her psychology entirely, she is trying. She has empathy and compassion for those who are struggling, be it a falsely convicted man on death row or a former classmate who has gone off the deep end of mental illness. One might criticize her for sleeping with a married man, but it becomes clear that she truly cares for David; she seeks help from Al-Anon because of him, after all.

And, for what it’s worth, David McNorris is my favorite character in the series. Besides the fact that I just love Neal McDonough in everything he has ever done, we get such a rich character here; committed to justice (maybe), living in the shadow of his father as a (sometimes recovering) alcoholic—David touches a chord with me. He is terribly imperfect—what with the cheating on his wife and so on—and, yet I cannot help but root for him.

“The David McNorris Show” highlights the central tension of the character, while also displaying his charm, but it is “Blackout” that continues to stand out to me as an exceptional hour of television. Here, instead of the central mystery being a murder or something like that, it is what David did when he was blackout drunk. Of course, he finds blood on his car when he wakes up, so we’re not out of the domain of the criminal entirely, but this episode perhaps uses the perspectival structure of the show better than any other, while at the same time delivering a storyline about a character that the viewer is well-invested in by that point.

McNorris rubs his eye

That being said, the nature of Boomtown is already on full display in the Pilot. We run through the perspectives of the cops—with Tom trying to chase down Cantrel before failing to jump the L.A. River, and Joel and Fearless tracking him to an apartment where they encounter his sweet old grandpa, before young Cantrel jumps from the window to his death—and we run through the perspectives of others, such as our journalist friend Andrea and our D.A. buddy David, as each grapples with the horrific event of the drive-by.

We (probably) believe that Cantrel did it, and that his death by pavement, while sad in its own right, is maybe not that sad because he was a killer.

Except he wasn’t.

Boomtown hits peak form as it gives us Cantrel’s point of view, showing us that he wanted nothing to do with what was happening; his white, rich, privileged friend instead being the cause of the action. He is the one who had the grudge against the girl, and who killed her; even if he said he only wanted to scare her. And we never get his perspective.

Instead, we get Cantrel’s, who doesn’t want the thing to happen in the first place, but then succumbs to peer pressure to take the gun and run away. And it would seem it was that fear—the fear of a young black man (or boy, really in this case)—that further led him to flee when the detectives came knocking, and to fall to his death.

That’s a sad story. That is something that should strike all of us as a sad story.

Cantrel's grandfather stands before the LA river

There is an element of social critique to Boomtown, as further episodes show Ray trying to frame a (guilty) suspect’s wife from a place that really does feel like one of good faith, and that same suspect trying to use his clout as a distinguished defense attorney and privileged white “pillar of the community” to escape the consequences of murdering a young woman who rejected him. There isn’t some central point the show tries to make about our society, so much as it resembles a show like The Wire; exploring various problematic aspects of the world in which we live.

Of course, there are times when Boomtown seems a bit too on the nose, or cheesy—as when Fearless sees visions of his old war buddy Freaktown—but I am ultimately willing to forgive those if for no other reason than their emotional payoff. These moments, which might strike one now as terribly dated to their time—such as the way Teresa’s prayer is presented in “Reelin’ in the Years” with a style that maybe felt innovative in 2002, but which is terribly clichéd now—still get their merit from what the show does with them.

Yet, despite being nominated for multiple awards and winning several (including a Peabody and an American Film Institute Award for “TV Program of the Year”), the show suffered from low ratings. In the early aughts streaming services weren’t even a twinkle in the eye of TV distributors, and it would seem the show failed to find its audience.

Perhaps due to the critical acclaim, a second season was granted, but only on the condition that basically everything that led to that acclaim be removed. The perspectival structure of the show was more or less abandoned. Graham Yost was apparently told they could not do another episode like “Fearless”—cutting off it would seem any further exploration of the darker aspects of the human condition. In service of a tighter focus on the police procedural aspect of the show, Teresa would move to become a cop (something that made no sense given her character), and Andrea would be sent to Mandyville.

Imagine if they made a sequel to Pulp Fiction that featured the same actors/characters but was totally linear, and Uma Thurman wasn’t in it, with no explanation given as to what happened to Mia Wallace, and you can get an approximation of how jarring it is to begin season 2 of Boomtown.

Andrea is bombarded by the press

The second season is so bad that I have written up my recommendation of the show pretending that it doesn’t exist, just like the U.S. DVD box set does. Because there’s a reason for that: the dialogue gets stilted and cheesy, the tone overly broad, and the music is terrible; reminiscent of pre-programmed electro-beats on a child’s toy synthesizer. I like to think that Graham Yost et al made it this bad on purpose to give something of a middle finger to the network that forced them to compromise the fundamental nature of their show, while still taking a paycheck and keeping actors employed—you want us to be another broad procedural cop drama? Here ya go, buddy!—but there is nothing in Yost’s own comments to suggest this, though it remains the case that the rest of his work has been pretty consistently top-notch. Perhaps if Boomtown hadn’t been cancelled, we never would have gotten Justified? I struggle to take any comfort in thoughts like that.

Boomtown only truly lasted for one season, but was kept on life support for six more episodes until the network mercifully pulled the plug. The show deserved better, and it still does. The DVDs are out of print, and it’s not available on any of the major streaming services (unless you count YouTube).

But that first season is great, and holds up over multiple viewings. If only we could have gotten more along those lines, I could have seen the show running indefinitely; exploring its complex characters while also offering cases of the week. It’s one of the smartest cop dramas to have ever existed—I would put only The Wire above it, and The Shield a notch below—but it fell victim to the vagaries of the time. If you haven’t seen it, put it towards the top of your list.

Written by Caemeron Crain

Caemeron Crain is Executive Editor of TV Obsessive. He struggles with authority, including his own.

Caesar non est supra grammaticos

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *