[Blogged by Jeremy Grayson]
[A Yost Cause]
I like the fifth season of Justified.
I know plenty of people find it to be dull and disappointing. I know it’s considered by many to be the major sore spot in what is otherwise one of this decade’s most beloved dramas. But I like it.
Okay, let me clarify: When I say I like the fifth season of Justified, I mean that I like it roughly the same amount as most of the other seasons of Justified.
I think the season has its flaws – the villains aren’t particularly compelling, and several of the episodes stretch out far longer than they should. But the truth is, I was never fully in love with Justified to begin with. I viewed the series as an entertaining but generally straightforward modern-day Western, and the fifth season didn’t deviate especially far from that perspective.
Don’t get me wrong – Justified had its great moments, and some truly great episodes. I was just never quite as engaged by it as most television critics were. Why? I’m not quite sure. Maybe the supporting cast was never as fleshed out as I would like. Maybe I just spent too much time subconsciously comparing it to Deadwood.
In any case, I decided to open this article by quasi-praising a less-than-loved season of Justified so that I have leeway to quasi-criticize something else.
Although Raylan Givens, the central character of Justified, was created by the late novelist Elmore Leonard, the TV series in question was developed by Graham Yost. Yost has a credible screenwriting résumé dating back to the ’90s – he wrote the script for Speed (though it was heavily touched-up by Joss Whedon) and has worked on several acclaimed HBO miniseries, including From the Earth to the Moon, Band of Brothers, and The Pacific.
But we’re not here today to talk about any of those. We’re here to talk about a little-known show called Boomtown.
Created by Yost and premiering on NBC in the fall of 2002, Boomtown was a drama that generated a lot of critical praise at the time of its debut. How much, you ask? Well, during the Television Critics Association awards ceremony the following summer, the Outstanding Drama category featured nominees like The Sopranos, The Wire, and The Shield. Guess what? Boomtown beat them all.
Not content with just gaining the TCA’s approval, the series also picked up a Peabody Award that same year, and earned a spot as one of the AFI’s “Top 10 TV Programs” of 2002. This show was on fire for a little while, is what I’m saying.
Unfortunately, critical accolades don’t necessarily mean great ratings. NBC pulled the plug on Boomtown early in Season Two, after only 24 episodes had been produced.
By rights, Boomtown seems like just the kind of show that should be living on in “Cancelled Too Soon” heaven. And yet… most people I’ve talked to, including plenty of TV connoisseurs, have never even heard of it. We all bemoan the fates of Firefly and Freaks and Geeks, but when it comes to discussing beloved shows that were abruptly terminated, Boomtown rarely even enters people’s minds.
What exactly happened? The critics lauded this show when it premiered, yet it dropped almost entirely off the radar following its quick demise. Could it be that the series was a shooting star, destined to burn briefly and then fade from existence? Or could it be that – bear with me – Boomtown was never truly a great show, and the critics only tricked themselves into thinking it was great?
It may sound like I’m being cynical here. That’s not my intent. But I want to point out that critics, for all their knowledge of the medium they cover, can sometimes make poor judgments in predicting the legacy of a given TV series (or film, or book, etc). And nowhere is this more obvious than Boomtown.
[City of Angles]
A gritty police drama set in Los Angeles, Boomtown focused on several different individuals in varying positions in the LAPD and its affiliates. The cast included detectives, police officers, paramedics, a reporter, and the Assistant DA. The series had a uniquely hazy visual style, courtesy of director Jon Avnet (the man behind Fried Green Tomatoes) and a talented cast, which featured the likes of Donnie Wahlberg, Neal McDonough, and Mykelti Williamson (the latter two of whom would later recur on Justified).
But the most distinctive aspect of Boomtown was the way it structured its episodes. Rather than telling each story in a typical linear fashion, the show focused on one set of characters at a time, telling each of their stories from start to finish before moving on to the next one. For example, an episode could start by focusing on the police officers, then moving to the detectives, before switching to the paramedics, and finally settling on the ADA. As the episode progressed, and viewers saw the same case unfold from more and more angles, they gained a greater sense of the mystery as a whole, and accumulated clues to see how the various moving parts fit cohesively together.
As stated before, critics at the time adored Boomtown. Many compared it to Rashomon, the famous 1950 Japanese film that constructed a mystery around varying witness perspectives. The Washington Post called it “the best and least compromised new network drama series since ER.” The Miami Herald branded it “the most startlingly original program on television in years.” And Diane Werts of Newsday declared that “it single-handedly restores your faith in broadcast networks.”
So, again I ask… what happened? Why has Boomtown been resigned to the critical dustbin?
Well, there are a few factors to consider. The first is the time period in which the show premiered. During the 1990s, the banner of great police dramas had been proudly waved by Homicide and NYPD Blue. By the turn of the millennium, though, the former series had disappeared from the airwaves, while the latter had become a slick, unimpressive shell of its former self.
By 2002, cable networks had become the shiny new kids on the quality TV block. HBO had led the way with shows like The Sopranos and Sex and the City, and others began following suit. Pretty soon, the police drama – a staple of TV since its earliest days – began taking on darker and edgier forms. FX released The Shield, a gritty drama centering on police corruption and some truly twisted criminals. Mere weeks later, HBO premiered The Wire, a hyper-realistic look at a Baltimore police unit and how it fit into the larger picture of citywide corruption. Meanwhile, cop dramas on broadcast networks were quickly devolving into a string of CSI clones, each trying to ape the commercial success of the hit CBS procedural.
So imagine you’re a television critic in September 2002. Chances are you love The Shield and The Wire, and you’ve already grown weary of the new onslaught of sterile procedurals on the broadcast networks. Suddenly, along comes an NBC cop drama that feels radically different from anything else on broadcast TV. This is fresh – this is exciting. This is the kind of cop drama that can stand up to the cable networks. The fact that it’s from the producer of Band of Brothers only ices the cake.
That should give you a general idea of why Boomtown was so quickly embraced at the time of its premiere. But it brings up another question: If the show was doing something new and distinctive, weren’t the accolades justified?
[But That’s Another Story]
Let’s return to the hook of the series: Boomtown, as stated, was compared by many critics to Rashomon for its non-linear, alternate-perspective storytelling. But just how justified was this comparison?
Non-linear storytelling is not easy to pull off, and it certainly has its fans – films like Pulp Fiction and Memento have garnered strong followings for the ways they play with our perceptions of time. And Rashomon has influenced plenty of other films as well, with tones varying from Vantage Point to Hoodwinked. The concept of alternate-perspective storytelling has occasionally found its way to television as well – shows like The Simpsons, Alias, and ER have all shown differing sides of the same episodic story. Heck, the latest season of Arrested Development took this concept and ran with it for 15 episodes.
But here’s the thing: There’s a difference between telling a Rashomon-style story and telling a story from several different points-of-view. The point of Rashomon was not to demonstrate the sheer breadth of differing perspectives in a single story, but to prove that different people can view the same set of events differently, depending on context. It wasn’t meant to challenge the audience into putting all the puzzle pieces together – if anything, it was meant to show how confusing it can be when you start to consider so many different subjective perspectives.
And this is why the comparison between Rashomon and Boomtown ultimately doesn’t work. There’s no legitimate subjectivity to any single perspective in Boomtown – we the viewers see everything that happens precisely as it happens, and in true procedural fashion, there is always a definitive answer at the end. Additionally, the various stories rarely intertwine, so there’s little in the way of actual alternate-POV storytelling. (This may be a good time to mention that Yost had never seen Rashomon before creating the series.) The standard episode just feels like a straightforward case-of-the-week with the scenes rearranged.
Playing with storytelling linearity can be fun, of course. But doing it week after week, as Boomtown did, made the weaknesses of the formula more apparent. It also greatly limited the amount of serialization the show could utilize, since so much emphasis was placed on the case-of-the-week.
One question remains: how, exactly, did Boomtown get knocked off its critical pedestal?
[A Boom and a Whimper]
Well, as with many critically-acclaimed yet low-rated dramas, the network decided that in order to draw more viewers, it would need to get rid of the show’s more unique aspects. When Boomtown returned for a second season in the fall of 2003, the non-linear storytelling device had been dropped, and all events were now displayed in the proper chronology. In short, the series had become little more than a straightforward police procedural. Abruptly, this singular change in the format of the series turned plenty of critics against the show they had so recently admired – suddenly, the emperor’s new wardrobe didn’t look that impressive. Not that audiences cared either way – six episodes were produced for the second season, but NBC only aired two of them before pulling the show’s plug.
In the years since, Boomtown has rarely been invoked in any major critical capacity. The show’s brief success remains an anomaly, a peculiar event in the prestige-cable revolution of the early 2000s.
Now, it might sound like the entire purpose of this article is to mock a bunch of critics for enjoying what was in actuality a bad show. But that’s not my intent. Because… well, for starters, Boomtown isn’t a bad show.
Sure, it may not have earned the legacy the critics initially gave it. But pound for pound, Boomtown was a solidly entertaining series. The characters may not have been especially original, but they were generally given more emphasis than the weekly mysteries. And the casting and visual style, as already stated, were top-notch.
No, if we’re to learn anything from Boomtown, it is this: Sometimes, looks can deceive us. Sometimes a new TV series (or film, or book, etc.) that looks like it should be immediately celebrated as prestigious and revolutionary may just turn out to be a variation on “good.” In the end, it’s important to consider all aspects of a work before deciding its legacy. Is it truly brilliant… or does it just want to fool us into thinking it is?
Look, I don’t mean to dissuade anyone who loves Boomtown – and I have no doubt there are people who do love it. Just as I have no doubt that there are people who can’t stand the fifth season of Justified. We all have our own opinions, different feelings towards different shows that reflect who we are.
But always remember to remain fully honest with yourself about those feelings – be you a devoted fan, a casual viewer, or a professional critic. Take each new piece of entertainment as it comes, and judge it based on how it reflects on you.
Because sometimes, our desire to recognize quality in art can play with our interpretation of what “quality” genuinely is.
Jeremy Grayson is a writer for Critically Touched. If you’ll excuse him, he needs to get back to his schoolwork.