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A Love Letter to Boomtown and Six Feet Under

It's very hard to write a review of something good. Whether it's a film, book, television show, car, or screwdriver, if something is really that good, all you can really say is, "Hie thee hence and see for yourself how good this is."

When something's really bad, you can tear it apart gleefully, as loyal TeeVee readers already know. You can say entertainingly mean things about it. You can design tortured metaphors to describe how bad it was. You can invent strange new words for calling into question the ancestry of the thing's creators. You can, in short, have a fun time pounding out 1,000 words of vitriol on your keyboard.

But when something's good, really good, maybe even the best, what can you say? You can simply gesture at the thing, and maybe bow.

Thus, here is my gesture and my bow: Boomtown is not only the best show currently on television. It is quite possibly the best television show of all time.

I do not say this lightly. The only hiccup in this is that I have been saying the same thing about Six Feet Under for a couple of years now, so now there's this wrestling match in my head going on between Michael C. Hall and Gary Basaraba.

So okay: NBC's multiple-perspective crime drama Boomtown and HBO's dark family drama Six Feet Under are not only the best shows currently on television. They are quite possibly the best television shows of all time.

This breaking of TeeVee's virtual silence on these two shows is occasioned by, first, the airing on Bravo of the first eleven episodes of Boomtown; and second, by the beginning of the third season of Six Feet Under. They both start Sunday, March 2, but -- and don't tell HBO we said this -- Six Feet Under is repeated enough during the week that you can skip Sunday and pick it up on Monday on HBO2 or Tuesday on HBO again.

Make sure you watch them. Hie thee hence!

And now, to fill space: Boomtown and Six Feet Under are absolutely fantastic. Either one on its own, or together, they finally show us what TV can be. They are the promised art long awaited in this most plebian of media.

Why is TV plebian? Television and film have a lot in common. They are both essentially moving pictures with sound. Yet film is almost universally considered art (if often a very bad one) while TV has a much harder time being taken so seriously. There are a lot of factors at work here, but I think we can say this is mostly the fault of the people working in TV -- of the people who have worked in TV since its inception. They have kept TV in the position of film's awkward younger sister, mostly for commercial reasons.

TV creators have particularly overlooked the format's greatest strength, the one thing which sets it apart from film or any other art form for that matter: TV's episodic nature. Unlike a movie or a play, which can realistically only be of relatively short length, across the many hours and years of a television show's run, a group of artists can give us the ability to watch as great changes occur, to see how time passes and affects us all -- through TV, we can gain deeper and more profound insights about what it means to be a creature of time.

Sadly, most of the history of TV consists of entertainments designed with the exact opposite purpose in mind. Television shows have almost always been written such that the characters undergo no changes; their situations remain the same and the world they inhabit is static. Sitcoms especially are built such that the episodes can be watched in essentially any order. The characters never grow, except in Very Special Episodes near the end of the series when the writers are grasping for a departing audience.

The reasons for this are entirely commercial, of course. Selling shows into syndication is the dream of any producer, because that's where all the real money is. Sure, TV shows may make money during their original run. But if you get enough episodes in the can to go into syndication after it goes off the air, the series can still generate income without costing anything at all -- it becomes a money machine. And a powerful money machine it is.

Powerful enough to warp the very medium which allows it to exist. Powerful enough to prevent the artistic growth television deserves.

But the balance is shifting. Syndication is still powerful, but the crazed competition of the 500-channels-and-nothing-on cable/satellite system has encouraged and rewarded experimentation on the part of series creators. And, more recently, the DVD market has only begun to change the way we watch television. It has the potential to alter TV the way VHS altered film: Allowing us to go back and review things which were once considered lost, worthless items on the junk heap of culture. Once upon a time films like "Invaders from Mars" and "THEM" and "All That Heaven Allows" were thought to be one-time entertainments, thrown out to theaters for a few months and then crumpled up and chucked away. Maybe they'd be cut up and sold for late-night TV, maybe they'd be shown in shoddy 16mm prints by film collectors. VHS changed all that -- DVD is still changing all that, changing the economics of film distribution so entirely that even obscure, virtually unseen titles merit release on the cheap plastic discs.

DVDs are so cheap, in fact, that even TV shows which never racked up enough screen time to qualify for syndication are being put out. And the good news about that is that finally, at last, TV is free: Free from the shackles of least-common-denominator economics. Finally creators can bring us shows based, not on their chances of failing to offend enough people for long enough to crank out six year's worth of mediocre entertainment; but based on being actually good. Finally we can see shows which tell us something, which enrich us, which uplift us and ennoble us.

Finally, we have Boomtown and Six Feet Under.

These are shows in which even the credit sequences are worth watching. Don't skip past the credits for Boomtown, I urge you: Because they are beautiful and haunting and the music is really, really great. And Six Feet Under -- well, the very first time I watched the show, I knew within three notes that this would be my favorite TV show of all time.

Beyond those credits, too, is some great television. On Boomtown, the approximate centers of the show are police detective Joel Stevens and assistant district attorney David McNorris, played by Donnie Wahlberg and Neal McDonough. In the course of eleven episodes we've watched McNorris go from powerful, confident, glib D.A. to alcoholic, depressed, and possibly suicidal. We've watched his character unfold in a compelling arc as we learned about his father, his mistress, his wife. Joel Stevens, meanwhile, has remained outwardly stable as we find out more and more of how truly unstable his life really is, what with his wife's recent suicide attempt coming on the heels of their baby's death. Both Stevens and McNorris have been opened to us gradually, with subtlety and feeling, not as good guys and bad guys, but simply as human beings we can understand and sympathize with.

All the characters on Boomtown are seen sharply and in great detail, but, I think, none more than these two. It's hard to tell where to place the credit for this more: Is it the writing or the acting? I think it's a lot of both. Wahlberg just exudes stoicism and steadfastness; McDonough is on fire, dangerous, electric. And I cannot say enough good things about the writing (led by the show's executive producer, Hollywood screenwriter Graham Yost). Fresh, realistic -- how it manages to seem so real without there being any cuss words is nothing short of astonishing. It makes anyone who uses the word fuck look short on imagination.

I haven't mentioned the rest of the cast and their characters; I love them all so much, it's hard not to say something about each of them in turn, but I'll stop here. Boomtown is that rare thing, a true ensemble drama.

Six Feet Under, by way of contrast, is smaller than Boomtown, but less formulaic; a show about a family of morticians simply allows a lot more originality than a cop 'n' lawyer show. Also, being on HBO, everyone says fuck a lot more. Six Feet Under is more serious, though; this is a show which tackles very weighty topics -- death, life, love, the essential flawed nature of humans -- while eschewing many of the off-the-shelf situations that drive even a great network show like Boomtown.

What it shares, though, is careful attention to character. It's hard to choose the center of this series, although it might seem easy to just pick Peter Krause's Nate Fisher. But on closer inspection I think just as much screen time is spent on David Fisher, played by Michael C. Hall; probably only slightly more than their mother and younger sister, played by Frances Conroy and Lauren Ambrose respectively.

Certainly when the show debuted 26 episodes ago, its focus was on Nate, returning to and eventually taking over his dead father's business. What began as a chronicle of Nate's finally coming to terms with his life and his choices grew into a deeper meditation on family and friendship. We got to know more about David and his life as an only-partially closeted gay man; Ruth's examination of her life and what she would do with it now that her husband is gone; and Claire's confusion and conflicted feelings as a young woman only just entering adulthood.

The true beauty of Six Feet Under is its unwillingness to turn anyone into anything less than a full human being. Characters commit acts which in lesser shows doom a character to being the Bad Guy, or at least end in some kind of comeuppance; but on this show, each character is seen with such love and kindness, they're forgiven. They are only people, after all. David watches gay porn, has sex with a street hustler. Ruth had an affair before her husband died. Nate fathers an illegitimate child.

The stuff of soap opera? Maybe. But no soap opera has followed the repercussions of such actions with such realism, such understanding. Watching Six Feet Under, we get glimpses of ourselves, and the questions we have, and the mistakes we've made. There's an illumination aspect to the show, as it opens up dusty corners inside us viewers and lets us look into them. The show achieves true poignancy when it shows us the Fisher father while he was alive and how each member of the Fisher family has dealt with his loss. Inside each adult is a child, and inside each child is an adult, and this show lets us feel that for a moment.

Really, what Boomtown and Six Feet Under have most in common is that they embrace the series nature of television and give the characters room to breathe. Where a film is like a short story, a TV series is like a novel. Instead of quick impressions and perhaps sketchy character transformations, we can watch something more akin to life. We can take it slowly, examine the details, absorb the sights and sounds. We can get to know the people of these TV worlds and feel the connections between the lives they've been given and the lives we're leading. And we can see something of ourselves.

And that right there is art. A rare thing indeed, but even rarer on TV. Catch it while you can.


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