Boomtown, Season One Review
It is happening with an increasing regularity, not only in the US but also in the UK, that television shows are given only a series or a little over one in which to prove themselves before a decision is taken on their future. Occasionally, in the case of ITV or the BBC pushing failing television shows into late-night/early-morning slots in their schedules, their actions are fully understandable but in recent years, with Futurama and Family Guy cancelled after four and three series, respectively, networks crossed over into canceling shows that were still on form. In the case of Boomtown, the most inventive, daring and richly plotted television show of recent years, NBC dropped the show six episodes into the second series, these being six episodes that have yet to be shown in the UK. Give the public what they want, by all means, but late-night, after a night of reality television, surely there's a place for a show of this quality.
Set around a police precinct in Los Angeles, Boomtown sees the relationship between detectives Joel Stevens (Wahlberg) and Fearless Smith (Wiliamson) and beat cops Tom Turcotte (Gedrick) and Ray Hechler (Basaraba) hit a low point as each one struggles to keep on top of what's going on in their lives when their shifts end. Pressures from the ghosts of their past, their relationships at home and the friction between them, the cops investigate everything that goes down as just another crime in Los Angeles, even as life in the city keeps on moving.
Elsewhere, an ambitious deputy District Attorney, David McNorris (McDonough), pushes the police onto cases that will boost his profile and, if not to drop them, at least slow up on those that won't. McNorris, unknown to his wife, is having an affair with an equally ambitious local reporter whilst paramedic, Teresa Ortiz (Parrilla), although close to Joel Stevens, looks in on both the cops and tech DA's department on her occasional calls into Boomtown.
So far, so much like so many other cop shows, particularly The Shield, which also uses location shooting in Los Angeles and mixes the private life of the cops within its precinct building to give substance to their investigations. What separates Boomtown from this and other shows is in its cuts between different points of view to get to the truth in the investigation.
Take the pilot episode as an example - the opening minutes begin with a tale about Los Angeles and of a conversation that will be recalled before the end credits roll. Looking over a bridge in Los Angeles, an old man tells the viewers, with his back to the camera, that although London may have the Thames and Paris has the Seine, Los Angeles has nothing more than a concrete drainage ditch but, as he turns to camera, he says, "It's all we've got, so it'll have to do."
Having summarised Los Angeles in only a few words, the show cuts to the aftermath of a drive-by shooting when McNorris receives a call from his wife, who was a witness to the crime. With McNorris calling a press conference at the scene to highlight the crime to newspapers and television stations who've long stopped caring about shootings in poor, black areas of Los Angeles, Ray and Tom pursue the suspect's car into a park beside a shopping mall, letting one suspect get away whilst Tom chases the other on foot, dropping the gun used in the shooting as he fails to make a jump across the drainage ditch.
Back at the precinct, Joel and Fearless move to arrest the suspects, finding that one is rich, white and living at home with his father whilst the other is poor, black and staying with his grandfather. With the white kid disappearing behind the protection afforded by his father's lawyer, the cops head over the see the black kid, Cantrel LaFontaine but as the police arrive, the suspect climbs out of his bedroom window to escape but slips and falls onto the pavement, dying on impact. As McNorris arrests the white kid, the man in the opening scene is revealed to be Cantrel's grandfather, standing alongside Joel and Fearless and holding Cantrel's ashes in a cardboard box before he scatters them into the water running through the drainage ditch of Los Angeles.
The story in this pilot episode is revealed through cutting between different perspectives:
- McNorris receiving the call from his wife and arranging the press conference
- Andrea responding this call and failing to get a statement from the police
- Ray pursuing the suspect's car into a shopping mall
- Tom chasing after Cantrel LaFontaine on foot
- Fearless leaving his hotel room and arriving at the crime scene having ticked off one more entry on his 'Things to do before dying' list, this time it's to sleep with a hooker
- Joel having to arrange a carer for his wife following her attempted suicide
- A flashback with Cantrel LaFontaine remembering the shooting and, as the cops arrive, attempting an escape through his bedroom window
- Cantrel's grandfather leaving the hospital where his grandson was taken before scattering his ashes over Los Angeles
Whilst this could be considered a gimmick - and later in the series there are times when it can feel a little forced - the switch between perspectives not only keeps the story moving forward but also reveals a little more about each of the main characters, particularly those minutes before and after their involvement in the investigation. As Boomtown allows the outside lives of the cops and the other characters to stray into the story, the series opens up and, by the third or fourth episode in, you do care about these people. For example, rather than being a blue uniform in a squad car, Tom's character is slowly revealed over the series - his girlfriend smokes dope at home, his father is a well-respected and now retired cop who tries to stay involved through his son and, despite entering police training at the same time as Joel, Tom's jealousy of the detective bites at him throughout the series, something that's recognised by Internal Affairs as they push Tom to provide evidence to convict Joel and his wife of the murder of their baby daughter. Unlike, say, CSI: Crime Scene Investigation in which the case is all that matters, Boomtown is as much a story about the detectives as it is about their investigations, reports and convictions.
When these changes of perspective work in favour of the episode and not just to develop a character, Boomtown, although already great, becomes superb. In an episode like Reelin' In The Years, the story of the killing of a policeman is revealed both through flashback and the present-day reopening of a twenty-eight-year-old investigation. Despite the audience seeing the story from alternating points of view, it's only in the last seconds of the episode that the truth is revealed, meaning that much of the episode is not so much uncovering what happened but how the events of 1976 had an impact on the suspect, the man who was wrongfully imprisoned for the crime, Tom's father, Paul Turcotte, who was the dead cop's partner and, in a flashback to his childhood, how Tom saw his father break down at his guilt over doing nothing to save his partner. When the truth is finally revealed, there's a real sense of relief at seeing the drama of the last twenty-eight-years of this investigation finally being resolved, similar to Grissom finally catching up with the serial killer Paul Millander in CSI: Crime Scene Investigation, which had stretched over two seasons of the show, or Dutch validating his belief in interrogation after catching the serial killer he'd been after for most of season one of The Shield.
Pilot (42m21s): When the deputy District Attorney David McNorris gets a call from his wife about a drive-by shooting she was a witness to, the story of the murders rolls out from the point of view of the central cast - McNorris, Andrea, Joel, Fearless, Ray and Tom - as well as from one of the suspects, Cantrel LaFontaine, and his grandfather. As Fearless ticks off one more entry on his list of 'things to do' - this time, it's his sleeping with a hooker - Joel struggles to have his wife looked after as she recovers from her attempted suicide.
Possession (42m20s): When a telemarketer reports hearing a murderer kill one person and threaten to kill another before noon, the cops are called in to identify and pull in a suspect. As Ray and Tom set off on a high-speed pursuit across Los Angeles, Joel and Fearless call into a specialist sex club, which is at the heart of the case. Stonewalled by the owner, who had been forced to remain silent under threats from McNorris, Fearless and Joel struggle to locate the suspect in time, leaving the woman he had threatened to kill in danger.
The Squeeze (42m24s): When McNorris fails in his attempt to indict Robert Colson, an attorney whom the police are convinced murdered his ex-girlfriend, the cops pressure Colson, his brother and his family in the hope that one of them breaks and turns informer. As Ray and Tom go about planting evidence, Joel and Fearless turn on their colleagues, believing that only a legitimate case will allow Colson to be convicted of the crime.
Reelin' In The Years (42m22s): Twenty-eight years ago, Tom's father, Paul Turcotte, and his partner was called to a bank robbery but where Turcotte survived, his partner was murdered during the hold-up. As the investigation is reopened, Joel and Fearless are assigned to the case and arrest a woman believed to be Chimera, forcing Tom and his father to relive the events of 1976
All Hallow's Eve (41m45s): As Ray and Tom are assigned to go undercover to arrest a gang of three stoner kids using the cover of Hallowe'en to steal pumpkins, Joel and Fearless listen in on as Teresa as she leaves her ambulance radio channel open, hearing that it has been hijacked and she will be murdered unless she saves a man who was shot in the chest during a burglary. Elsewhere, McNorris attends a Hallowe'en party with his wife, also finding that Andrea has been invited. As she breaks off her relationship with McNorris, his wife tells him that she believes he has been having an affair. Despite an air of keeping it together, McNorris knows that although his life was slowly falling apart before that night, the pace with which it is doing so is now quickening.
The Freek (42m24s): Remembering a promise he made to an old friend - Freaktown, who was shot by a sniper whilst he and Fearless were on a tour of duty in Iraq during Desert Storm - Fearless takes the protection of a ten-year-old girl who is a key witness in the trial of a Russian mobster to heart and personally ensures her safety, risking his own life in a shoot out at a downtown motel. Elsewhere, Tom and Ray track down a corpse that was stolen, shot through a cannon and into a hot tub.
Insured by Smith & Wesson (42m22s): During an armed robbery at a sports store, in which the staff and customers have been taken as customers, Ray disguises himself as a medic to get into the store and size up the situation. After being recognised as a cop, Ray is beaten and threatened at gunpoint but realises the store manager was once an actor who, through starring in a long-running cop show on television, had inspired Ray to become a cop. As Ray convinces the manager to act to save lives, he also realises how far his idol might have fallen.
Crash (41m59s): Joel and Fearless are assigned to work alongside a claims investigator who is looking into a organised fraud ring in which a driver makes a claim for whiplash after causing a truck to collide with their car. In their first case, the insurance claim turns into a murder investigation as the jackknifed truck crashes into a passing car, killing the two adults in the front seat, thus orphaning the seven-year-old boy in the back.
The David McNorris Show (42m27s): When a boy is accused of viciously murdering a teenage girl by beating her with a poker, his father - a famous Hollywood producer - requests that McNorris obstructs the investigation. In return, the producer, who numbers influential politicians amongst his friends and hopes one day to be mayor, offers McNorris the opportunity to further his political career.
Coyote (40m38s): When the cops are called out to the mountains outside of Los Angeles to investigate the case of a teenage girl who was dragged from her home and attacked, Joel and Fearless discover that the only witness is a feral man living wild in the mountains, who knew Andrea in high school.
Monster's Brawl (42m24s): In an episode based on the Bumfights: A Cause for Concern VHS tapes that appeared during 2002, Joel and Fearless discover that a homeless man found murdered and with severe head trauma may have been attacked during the making of an amateur film. With one of the filmmakers studying law and denying that he bribed homeless men with alcohol to attack one another, McNorris battles through the legality of the issue whilst Joel and Fearless join up with Ray and Tom to find the evidence to convict the two students.
Sinaloa Cowboys (42m21s): Opening with the playing out of an explosion in a meth lab in reverse, Ray and Tom are called out to a domestic disturbance, which turns into a murder investigation as the husband is found with his throat cut, lying in front of the police station.
Home Invasion (41m47s): When a number of homes in Los Angeles are hit by a gang who terrorise and kill the occupants as well as rape any teenage girls within the families, Joel and Fearless stake out the house they believe will be next, fighting against time and Andrea's reporting of their investigation.
Execution (42m10s): Four hours before he is executed at a state prison, a convict asks to see McNorris, telling him that if he does not have his sentenced reduced to life then an LAPD cop will also be killed. Ray, Tom, Joel and Fearless work through their contacts to find where their fellow cop is being held.
Note that this episode is presented in 1.33:1 and not the 1.78:1 of the rest of the series.
Storm Watch (42m09s): During a call out to what he thought would be a routine burglary investigation, Ray finds the bodies of two fellow cops shot dead in an ambush. When the cops at the precinct learn that the murderers were informed by someone inside the precinct, the building is locked down and Joel is asked to co-operate in finding the mole.
Fearless (41m58s): In an episode that is told from a single point of view, that of Fearless, Detective Smith investigates the death of a small-time drug dealer at the same time as he faces up to his relationship with the victim during their childhood and the abuse the two of them suffered at the hands of a local coach.
Blackout (42m04s): After a drunken night out in Los Angeles, David McNorris wakes from a blackout to find blood on his clothes and on his car, reports of a hit-and-run on the radio and a panicked message on Andrea's voice mailbox that suggests he may have been involved. Understandably, Joel, Ray and Fearless are suspicious of McNorris urgently cleaning his car and avoiding talking to them. Elsewhere, Tom and Ray investigate a case of cruelty involving an Alzheimer's patient.
Lost Child (42m13s): During an investigation into the theft of babies born to recovering heroin addicts, Joel meets with McNorris who tells him that Internal Affairs is re-opening the investigation into the death of his baby daughter, Emma. Trumper, the IAB investigator assigned to the case, plans on using Tom to inform on Joel, knowing that he is jealous of Joel's position but when given the papers, Joel finally learns the truth about Emma's death.
Each episode is broken into enough chapter stops to cover each point of view in the story, some lasting ten minutes or so, others less than a minute.
In keeping with the DVD releases of many recent television shows, Boomtown has been transferred in 1.78:1, which was how Five broadcast it early last year.
The picture quality is superb with rich colours, an exceptionally clean transfer and an ability to effortlessly handle the contrast between the bright LA sunshine and the scenes set within both the police station or the nighttime streets.
This transfer offers the choice between either Dolby Digital 5.1 or 2.0. Given that it sounds natural and that the rear speakers are used for much more than just adding presence, one assumes that Boomtown was always intended to have a surround sound mix but both audio tracks are superb with no audible noise and clear dialogue.
Given the speed with which NBC dropped Boomtown during its second series, broadcasting the sixth and final episode before the release of this DVD, there is no surprise on finding Boomtown Season One has been released only the following extras:
Trailer (1m00s, 1.33:1, 2.0 Stereo): This is the television trailer and shows, through a series of clips, the structure of the show using multiple perspectives to tell a single story.
Launch Presentation (3m52s, 1.33:1, 2.0 Stereo): This is not much more than an extended version of the trailer but does so by expanding the role of each of the major characters.
When first watching Law & Order, I look back and see that I did lazily, without realising that one or two lines of dialogue can turn their entire investigation around. As a result, I used to get lost within Law & Order, finding that the an episode would jump wildly from crime to convictions but once you see that Law & Order requires your full attention throughout, it can often be great television, packing more into fifty minutes than many films manage in two hours.
Boomtown is much the same, with often no more than a minute or two of the show being used to show the audience the facts in the case whilst the perspectives of each character shows off their prejudices, their life outside the precinct building and their inability to cope with what they see in the job whilst being unable to open up to anyone but their partner, leaving the isolated characters like David McNorris sliding down into rehab over the eighteen episodes.
Over everything else, however, Boomtown scores so highly both because moments come back in ways that scenes from similar shows never do and that amongst the action and the crime investigations, there are real characters in the series, showing humour, sadness and frustration. Boomtown was one of the greatest television shows of recent years and despite NBC's lack of faith in it, at least this DVD release goes some way to ensuring Boomtown has not been written out of the archives completely.