Thursday, February 24, 2011

LA's Rashomon: Graham Yost's Boomtown

Growing up in small-town Ontario north of Toronto, I didn't have much to do when it came to the arts. In the 1960s and 1970s, except for some regional theatre, the only way to gain exposure to the arts was through movies or television. In my early years, most of my 'education' came from the movies because in Parry Sound in the 1960s we received only one television station (the CBC affiliate in Barrie, now part of CTV). That education was rather slight: Disney flicks, James Bond double-bills, the latest Don Knotts comedy, plus the occasional interesting picture, such as Patton (1970) and Woody Allen's Take the Money and Run (1969). By the time my family moved to the nearby town of Bracebridge I had yet to see any of Hollywood's great films from the so-called Golden Era. When we finally got cable in Bracebridge (about six months after we moved there), I began to discover the history of Hollywood films. My education really began thanks to TV Ontario (aka, TVO, a Canadian version of the US's PBS) and the shows Magic Shadows and Saturday Night At the Movies. Hosted by Elwy Yost, Magic Shadows was a Monday through Friday show that presented classic movies, uncut, broken into thirty minute chunks. In this pre-video/PVR era you either made sure you were in front of the set by 7:30 or you would miss a segment.

Orson Welles in Citizen Kane
On Saturday nights, Elwy returned with a two-complete-movies theme night. Again showing the films uncut, Yost would offer two movies connected by theme or director or actor. Between each film, he would offer interviews he'd conducted about these films with the stars or directors or critics. To say that Yost was an enthusiast was an understatement. His questions were often simple, never probing, but I didn't care. I was filling my head, finally, with some of the great films of Hollywood and seeing interviews with the people who had made them. I know that thanks to Elwy Yost my appreciation of films developed. At first, I reacted like he did: a fan grooving on Hollywood. It was only later that I understood movies were an art form and I began to develop a critical voice. Yost turned his son, Graham, into a film fanatic too. Elwy told the story on more than one occasion that he let his son stay up late to watch Citizen Kane (1941) for the first time. Elwy even let Graham skip school. The day after, Graham showed up at school with a note explaining that Graham had missed school because Elwy kept him up way past his bedtime watching what many still consider the greatest film ever made.

Graham Yost
Later at the University of Toronto, I once met Graham who was also attending at that time. I told him how much I had enjoyed what his father had done. The conversation didn't last much longer than that, but watching Graham Yost's work in Hollywood since it is pretty clear that I wasn't the only one influenced by his father.

Graham Yost's big break came when he wrote the screenplay for the Keanu Reeves/Sandra Bullock movie, Speed (1994). influenced by every chase film you could ever think of, it didn't take much to see the inspiration for that film. Afterwards, he had couple of misses such as John Woo's Broken Arrow (1996) and Hard Rain (1998) before he hit gold again writing and directing episodes for Tom Hanks/Steven Spielberg's mini-series From the Earth to the Moon (1998), and later the Hanks/Spielberg Band of Brothers (2001). These works allowed him the freedom to develop, pitch and get to air one of the best TV series of the first decade of the 21st century: Boomtown.

Boomtown tells the story of LA-based cops, paramedics, lawyers and the bad guys they try to corral. The innovation in the show was clearly inspired by Akira Kurosawa's Rashomon (1950). Rashomon has been the inspiration for several films because of its then-unique device of telling the same story from several different characters' points of view. In the film, a samurai is killed and his wife is raped. At a trial for the suspected killer, the account is told from three entirely different perspectives. All differ or add layers to the story until the 'truth' is revealed. Yost borrowed this structure for his fine, underrated show. Every episode contained a killing that needed to be investigated. At the start of an episode, perhaps Detectives Joel Stevens (Donnie Wahlberg) and Bobby “Fearless” Smith (Mykelti Williamson) would investigate. We might get only part way into their investigation then we may be pulled back and see angles and ideas from the point of view of paramedic Teresa Ortiz (Lana Parrilla) or maybe reporter Andrea Little (Nina Garbiras) or perhaps Assistant District Attorney/consummate politician David McNorris (Neal McDonough). We might even see portions of the story from the killer or even the victim's POV. As each episode progressed, this layering and rolling back expertly filled in everything we needed to know about what may have happened in each case.

This technique also allowed us to examine the personal lives of the characters, such as Stevens' worrying about his suicidal wife; McNorris's fears about either his career or being caught by his wife for having an affair with Little; or Fearless coming to terms with his survivor guilt as a first Iraq War veteran. As with every TV show, there were some bum episodes, such as one called “The Freak” where Fearless tried to protect a Russian woman and her young daughter from mobsters who wanted them dead. The idiotic Rambo-like action was almost laughable. Yet, so many other episodes absolutely sang. The first episode, called simply “Pilot”, featured a scene at the start with an old African-American man telling us (he looks directly into the camera) about the great rivers in cities around the world and how LA had only a ditch. It wasn't until the very end of the episode that we understand he was not addressing us, but rather two characters as he carried out a sad act. In “The David McNorris Show” we got to see how fluid McNorris's ethics were. The episode dealt with the issue of whether McNorris would be willing to protect a murderer because the killer might be the son of a rich film producer. With “Home Invasion” the terror of, well, home invasion, was examined. The group of villains here were seriously disturbing because they were completely willing to sexually abuse everybody in a home and then leave no witnesses. In “Fearless” we learned the painful details of Fearless's childhood. “Execution” put the spotlight on a manipulative death-row inmate who made McNorris a troubling offer. And finally, the sublime “Blackout”, that looked at McNorris's unravelling psyche. The top-line narrative was that after a drinking binge McNorris believed he may have killed someone with his car. All these episodes were beautifully acted, written and directed.

Alas, it couldn't last. Even after Season One won the prestigious Peabody Award for the best TV series, the ratings were just barely good enough to get the show a second season. It was clear that the suits at NBC had no faith in the show for I never saw any of the six completed episodes for the season. Unfortunately, the network kept bouncing the show around the schedule. In fact, by the time I realized it was back on the air, it was cancelled. I was also told by someone who saw Season Two that much of its innovative structure had been jettisoned, thus destroying its uniqueness.  

Elwy Yost
Yost has gone on to other things, including writing episodes of the Hanks/Spielberg HBO mini-series The Pacific (reviewed here and here) and is now involved in Justified (reviewed here by Mark Clamen), but there was a missed opportunity with the death of Boomtown. Much of what Graham Yost learned while watching great films with his Dad was put into this show. It was a drag that he wasn't able to carry it out to whatever end he had in mind.

David Churchill is a film critic and author of the novel The Empire of Death. You can read an excerpt here. Or go to for more information.

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