Cops, docs and dancers round out season's critical hits
Among last season’s new dramas, “American Dreams,” “Boomtown,” “CSI: Miami,” “Everwood” and “Without a Trace” resonated with critics. Emmy tradition dictates, however, than rookie series often have a hard time gaining traction with voters. These might change that thinking.
“American Dreams” exec producer and creator Jonathan Prince didn’t just want to make a show about the ’60s, he wanted viewers to watch it like it was the ’60s.
“Remember when families would gather around the TV to watch that one show?” he asks. “I wanted to find a compelling reason for two generations to watch this show together.”
To do that, Prince and his staff juggled the stories of two families (one white, one black) in the iconic era — all the while making sure the series has the look and feel of the era.
They also had the daunting task of re-creating memorable “American Bandstand” moments, since the show’s principal character (Brittany Snow) is obsessed with the program. In a creative twist, the show enlists modern pop and R&B stars to re-create “Bandstand” performances.
“We tell stories that reflect history, but at the same time aren’t trapped by it,” notes Prince.
The family show doesn’t look to break taboos, instead focusing on humanizing the stories. “We had the only episode of television where the lead’s first kiss is a sweeps episode,” says Prince. “We got a great response about that.”
The audience balance between different generations seems to be working. Adults tune in to remember the past and teens watch to follow the younger characters (and see what Usher looks like as Marvin Gaye).
“I want people to watch this show and say to their kids, ‘That’s exactly what it was like for me and aunt so-and-so growing up,’ ” says Prince. “Or when a kid tells their parents that’s how it feels to have your first kiss. That’s when it works best.”
It’s probably the only time in television history that an actor had sympathy for a network exec.
Thesp Donnie Wahlberg recalls the waiting game he played concerning the future of his NBC series, “Boomtown,” as recent upfronts were approaching and no word coming out of the Peacock’s headquarters on a second season.
Wahlberg, like NBC’s programming execs, knew that “Boomtown” — on which he plays Det. Joel Stevens — was critically beloved but not embraced by enough viewers to guarantee an automatic renewal.
Sometimes, though, quality wins out. And it certainly couldn’t have hurt that just before a decision was made the series took home the prestigious Peabody Award for excellence in television.
“I just think NBC stepped up to the plate,” says Wahlberg. “In the end, I think (NBC entertainment topper) Jeff Zucker made a choice from his heart. I wouldn’t have wanted to be him.”
Created and exec produced by Graham Yost (“Band of Brothers”) and Jon Avnet (“Fried Green Tomatoes”), “Boomtown” examines different viewpoints of a crime: the LAPD’s and the crooks’.
The skein, which was just nominated by the Television Critics Assn. as one of the best dramas on TV, will move to Fridays nights next season from its 10 p.m. Sunday slot.
Maybe that will draw new fans but to Wahlberg, ratings aren’t what drive the cast and crew.
“The motivation wasn’t to get on a hit show and cash in once you hit 100 episodes (when syndication begins),” he explains. “It’s about being on something that’s great and special.”
When “CSI: Miami” launched in the fall, the “CSI” tag was seen as its biggest asset — and biggest challenge.
“The words ‘CSI’ get the TV turned on to your network,” says Ann Donahue, exec producer and co-creator of “CSI: Crime Scene Investigation” and its Miami-based spinoff. “It’s the quality of the specific show that’s going to keep your viewer … or not.”
Anchored by David Caruso, CBS’ sexy crime drama is the highest-rated new drama of the year. Donahue attributes the show’s success to the cast and crew being able to understand the show’s differences from its progenitor.
“You let the city and its pulse talk to you. This sounds like voodoo, but it’s the real thing,” she explains. “Las Vegas is nighttime, and neon and very secretive. Miami is daytime, in your face and not Middle America. It’s where South America meets the beach.”
But there were snags along the way. Actress Kim Delaney left the series after just 10 episodes, and various plotlines — like one focusing on a sniper and another about a nightclub fire — struck too close to current events and either had to be postponed or didn’t air in some parts of the country.
“You don’t have time to worry in TV,” Donahue says. “You only have time to be concerned. It’s a train going 100 mph. Decisions are made, certain realities are accepted, and then you move on.”
If the show is nominated for Emmys, it might face off against big brother “CSI.” But Donahue is ready to roll with it. “It’s like if your sibling makes the all-star team,” she says, “you’re just really happy and glad for them.”
WITHOUT A TRACE
It’s exhausting hunting down the missing.
So learned “Without a Trace” creator-showrunner Hank Steinberg, who understands firsthand the rigors of what it takes to put together a weekly drama series.
Before “Trace,” Steinberg — who like Billy Crystal shares a love for the Yankees — penned HBO’s “61*” and last year wrote the telepic “RFK.” “I feel relieved, exhausted and accomplished all at once,” he says. “People had warned me about how stressful and exhausting it might be.”
Well, if it’s any consolation, the hard work paid off. “Without a Trace” not only resonated with critics but is one of the few series that was able take on NBC’s medical juggernaut “ER” and hold its own. The skein attracted over 15 million viewers per week, the most any show has done in that timeslot on any network vs. “ER.”
A pair of Aussies, Anthony LaPaglia and Poppy Montgomery, turned off their Oz accents for a more New Yawk tone. LaPaglia plays the head of the Gotham FBI unit in charge of finding missing persons.
Montgomery’s Samantha Spade, who auds late in the season found out was romantically involved with LaPaglia’s character, and Marianne Jean-Baptiste use their female intuition in search of those who’ve disappeared.
“Trace” doesn’t look like it’s about to disappear from CBS’ schedule any time soon. “It was a very gratifying year and I feel good about the show as it continues to evolve,” says Steinberg.
If you were wondering what to get Greg Berlanti for his birthday, get him a medical book. He has plenty of use for it.
“I didn’t think that I was creating a medical show,” says the exec producer of the WB drama “Everwood.” “When the show started I had a couple of medical books and now I have two bookshelves full of them. I’ve learned more about medicine and science than I ever thought I would.”
“Everwood” launched as a heart-tugging teen drama that focused on the life of New York brain surgeon Andrew Brown (Treat Williams) and his two children (Gregory Smith and Vivien Cardone) who move to the Rockies after the sudden death of his wife.
Set in the titular mountainous town, Berlanti (who had exec produced “Dawson’s Creek”) kept his writing smart by patterning his teens in a style to “My So-Called Life,” and added quirky townsfolk for light touches of humor. But “Everwood” hit its stride, and opened up for a wider audience, once it incorporated medical topics.
“It wasn’t until the sixth episode that we realized that we could incorporate the medical element. Then it was another seven episodes before we realized how to do it without overdoing it,” explains Berlanti. “Now it’s almost the m.o. for our show, taking these larger topics and bringing them down to size through the characters.”
The show has covered young athletes taking growth-hormone injections, teen abortion and medicinal marijuana. While still creating some of the most cry-worthy character stories on the tube, Berlanti says you’ll see more medical-driven plots next season.
“This year was about struggling through grief and getting through the first phases of that,” says Berlanti. “Next year, it will be about moving on and seeing where the characters go.”