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Criminal Network

The crime show that was too good for NBC.

I don't like to think of myself as the kind of person who would open a column with a reference to a Billy Joel song. But this week, while ruminating on the often-inverse relationship between quality and longevity, I fleetingly considered it. I don't mind saying it scared me a little.

The subject that brought me to the edge of this precipice was the late, insufficiently lamented NBC series "Boomtown," the first season of which was recently released on video and DVD. If the Paul Thomas Anderson of Magnolia, the David O. Russell of Three Kings, and the Doug Liman of Go had gotten together to produce a weekly cop show, it would have looked something like this. Out-of-sequence storylines, vertiginous plot twists, imaginative camera effects, clever dialogue--"Boomtown" had it all, and sometimes too much of it. The best episodes were brilliant television; even the worst usually failed in interesting ways. Its audacity was refreshing, the kind of envelope-pushing we've come to expect from cable but is still rare on network TV. And little wonder: After a season of mediocre ratings, NBC dialed back the show's innovative format and added a "name" to the cast (if Vanessa Williams qualifies as a name). Two episodes into the second season, the network pulled the plug altogether.

"Boomtown" announced its ambition with a whirling, bravura title sequence in which a skeletal L.A. skyline rises out of the barren desert--the kind of cinematic dazzle one just doesn't see on television, network or otherwise. The episode would then unfold in a series of overlapping segments, each told from the point of view of one character. NBC pushed this innovation as a kind of Rashomon storytelling, using the tagline "One Crime. Seen from every point of view." But the purpose of the format was not to offer alternative realities--in any given scene each character observed very much the same events--it was to offer alternative emotional realities, from cop to crook, perp to victim. In the pilot, for instance, a brief flashback to a young boy in a superhero costume recasts the entire episode in heartbreaking terms. The use of shifting perspectives also created tremendous narrative flexibility, enabling the writers to engage in Tarantinoesque chronological shifts and to withhold crucial information for maximum effect. (The show occasionally aped Tarantino's pop-culture fetish, too: One episode featured Joe Penny, onetime star of "Riptide" and "Jake and the Fatman," playing the washed-up star of an '80s P.I. show.)

But if "Boomtown" mimicked Tarantino's flair, it had a more generous heart. The series' creator, Graham Yost, was a writer for "Band of Brothers," and originally conceived of "Boomtown" as set in a U.S. Army unit in Bosnia. Though that plan was discarded, some of the military flavor survives, especially in the moments of tenderness that pass between the show's male characters, men who serve a dangerous enough duty that they don't need to advertise their machismo. Central among these is the sensitive detective played by Donnie Wahlberg, brother of Mark and easily the better actor. The Wahlberg boys bear a significant resemblance to one another, but Donnie is humanized by a few wrinkles and an unpromising hairline; one can imagine that a little life experience, perhaps even wisdom, has imprinted itself on his features. (To put it another way: One never has the feeling that the ridges on his abdomen are deeper than the ones on his cerebrum.) Wahlberg's smooth-talking partner "Fearless" is played by underrated actor Mykelti Williamson, presumably in penance for his stuttering turn as Bubba in Forrest Gump. And Neil McDonough (Minority Report, Walking Tall) makes great use of his Aryan intensity in the role of an ambitious, tormented deputy district attorney.

There is, of course, no dearth of quality police shows on the networks. Indeed, given the hegemonic expansion of the two top franchises, a typical weeknight may soon require choosing between "CSI: Sioux Falls" and "Law and Order: Parking Violations Unit." But "Boomtown" was different from these grittily formulaic enterprises. Though it never quite settled into a comfortable groove--an episode full of narrative trickery might be followed by a straightforward one, a tragic show by a silly one--it consistently took risks. Which is more than you can say for NBC.

The Home Movies List:
Five recent signs that Donnie Wahlberg is a better actor than his brother

The Sixth Sense (1999). Donnie, a former New Kid on the Block, began what will be a lifetime of making amends by playing Vincent Grey, the former patient who shoots Bruce Willis at the beginning of the movie. (Note for those who haven't seen it: Don't worry, it's not like he kills him or anything.)

Planet of the Apes (2001). Still flush with momentum from his persuasive portrayals of adolescent cluelessness in Boogie Nights and Three Kings, Mark aims for something more heroic. Instead, he makes gorillas, orangutangs, and chimpanzees seem human by comparison. (His model-costar, Estella Warren, did her part too.) An elaborate setup by director Tim Burton?

The Truth About Charlie (2002). Another poor turn for Mark. Those contemplating a trip to see the remake of The Manchurian Candidate, be forewarned: The Truth About Charlie was director Jonathan Demme's last Hollywood feature, and it is possibly the worst film ever made by a quality director. Another remake of a classic (the 1963 Cary Grant-Audrey Hepburn film Charade, whose title it at least had the decency not to share), it replaced the original's light, romanto-comedic appeal with an idiotic attempt at edginess, accomplished in large part by camera work so jittery it's unwatchable.

The Italian Job (2003). Mark is again upstaged, this time by subcompacts. After starring in three remakes in three years, what has he shown us? That he utterly lacks the physical charisma of Charleton Heston, the charm of Cary Grant, and the wit of Michael Caine. Please join me in praying that he calls the experiment off now, before attempting the roles of Charles Foster Kane, George Bailey, or Atticus Finch.

"Entourage" (2004). It ain't based on Donnie.