At the scene of 'Boomtown'
LOS ANGELES — This may be just the set for police drama "Boomtown," but it has all the grimness of a real L.A. police station: the institutional beige and pea color scheme and the dilapidated, unmatched furniture. The donut-packed Krispy Kreme boxes almost look out of place, they're so bright and cheerful.
Actor Gary Basaraba strolls the set as if it's his home. He says the downbeat mood helps him get into character as a beat cop. He's played policemen before. In fact, the blue-uniformed officer is a bit of a career specialty for him. But he says his role in "Boomtown" is more demanding and rewarding because it's written with an emotional depth that characters on traditional cops shows seem to lack.
Indeed, while shows that focus on the technical aspects of crime-solving, including the top-rated "CSI," are hot right now, "Boomtown" is taking the cop-show genre in a new direction, Mr. Basaraba says.
"There's another procedure to the lives of policemen ... and that's the emotional procedure that they go through to connect and disconnect with their jobs," he says. "That's really where the show is heading."
Billed as "Rashomon" meets "Pulp Fiction," the freshman show debuted last fall and received mixed critical reaction. Critics later warmed to the unconventional techniques of a single story retold several times through the eyes of different characters. But audiences have been thrown, because that approach can seem repetitive. The pilot was about the death of a young girl, and the crime was solved as several points of view were shown. One critic gave the show the backhanded compliment of being "the latest contender in the 'innovative drama' stakes."
Yet producers admit they're still finding their stride. Graham Yost shifts uncomfortably in a chair on the set (not even the coproducer gets good furniture), noting that the show is back after seven weeks with renewed commitment to the original vision.
"Our goal," Mr. Yost says, "is to create that emotional experience and the involvement in the characters' lives. We're trying things that haven't necessarily been tried before, at least not in television...." Yost adds, "We also want to create puzzles and mysteries that are really fun to solve for the audience. But it has been a process for everyone."
The show isn't filming on this set at the moment, but that doesn't stop the actors from slipping into character.
As the performers who play cops and detectives amble through the room where morning roll-call takes place, they'll grab a donut and look at the fictional crime statistics listed on the front board. The actors study them briefly, as if feeling pressure to solve real crimes.
This job gets under their skin, more than most roles, says Mykelti Williamson, who plays a detective nicknamed "Fearless."
"Sometimes after a scene," he says, "we'll grab each other and embrace and cry because we know that that actor just poured his heart out, or that director just came in here like they're a part of this show every single week and poured his or her heart out."
And that's part of the show's complexity that the producers face. How do you plumb the emotional depths of a great cast while also creating a complex crime puzzle?
"We've got some great characters," says executive producer, filmmaker Jon Avnet, "and the question is, how do you explore them in the best way possible?"
Everyone, particularly the actors, has tried to be flexible.
"They've allowed us to do this experimenting ... to try to reveal the character, to not be driven by preconceived notions of [story] arcs that have worked for other shows," Mr. Avnet says. At the same time, he says, producers have to be mindful of the audience, asking themselves: "Is it clear? Is it too confusing?"
"Boomtown" shows two very different episodes in its first weeks back on the air. This past Sunday, the officers solved a crime involving a team of home-invasion and torture criminals. The story unfolds in a fairly linear manner. Though there's an emotion element, the race to solve the crime and catch the criminals was front burner.
This Sunday's show about capital punishment is heavier, with a tragic plot at its heart.
On the set, Basaraba stops in front of the crime-stats board and seems to ponder the people and lives they represent. He reflects on the reasons why the crime procedural is so popular.
" 'Boomtown' is about the humanity that's in all of us," says the actor, "and the way people can become brutalized to various degrees and still shine through."
He adds, picking up a donut, "We look past the technicality of the procedure and try to really look into each [person's life.]"
And then there's just the stuff of everyday policing that still hooks audiences - as well as the actors.
Donnie Wahlberg, who plays the detective, Joel Stevens, looks affectionately at the crumbling ceiling tiles and cracked overhead lights. He says he likes shooting in these deliberately crummy digs.
"Being out in the streets is cool and it's wonderful doing it in L.A.," he says, "but I do enjoy being in the police station. It somehow makes me feel a little bit more like a cop, like doing interrogations and stuff."
He adds, "It's like our little playhouse."