Ask anybody on the set of “Big Apple” about producer David Milch, and the words “brilliant” and “genius” always find their way into the description. But has Milch made a show that’s too smart for its own good?
On the surface, it seems simple enough: just another New York City cop drama.
Co-created with partner Anthony Yerkovich, “Big Apple” is led by Ed O’Neill as gruff homicide detective Michael Mooney and his partner Vincent Trout (Jeffrey Pierce). The two stumble into a complex FBI undercover operation and are thrust into an unwilling alliance with federal agents and their less than savory informants, who have ties to organized crime.
The result is an intricate chess game in which homicide detectives, the Feds and the Russian mob plot dangerous moves that put lives at stake.
In some cases, it’s hard to tell the good guys from the bad. But at its core, “Big Apple” is more than a serial of crime and punishment: It’s rooted in a moral tug of war over how information becomes understanding.
“ ‘Big Apple’ is the fruit from the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil,” Milch says. He was in his second-floor office at the Silver Cup Studios in Long Island City, Queens, taking a break from shooting. “And the way I read the Bible, everyone’s taken a bite. We are in that condition of being informed, but we don’t yet understand,” he says, noting that each of the characters has, in some way, been corrupted by information and is attempting to deal with the consequences.
Milch compares Mooney to Andy Sipowicz, the brash, tough-talking cop he created for “NYPD Blue.” Sipowicz is the focal point of that groundbreaking series and the character who draws in the audience, Milch says; he sees the brash, tough-talking detective Mooney as the conduit for viewers. With Mooney’s help, the audience must unravel the complexities of this covert world of secrets and lies in order to really comprehend it.
“The theme of the show is ‘how does information become understanding?’ ” Milch says. “The way we construct this show, the emotional center is Mooney, and he does not understand everything. Arguably, he understands the least of anyone. He’s the character with whom, we hope, the audience will identify. He is their surrogate, their representative in the action.
“Our intention is that you start with Mooney and then gradually widen out and generate a human understanding of each of these characters. The audience has to identify with him and trust him. Until you do, you don’t understand,” Milch says.
“The true question is not: Can an audience understand? But rather: Does this strategy of storytelling depend upon too protracted a process of involvement on the audiences’ part? And the answer to that is: I don’t know.”
Of “Big Apple’s” murky landscape of character and stories, says Yerkovich: “I don’t think complexity and clarity are mutually exclusive. Our approach is to do justice to the characters and the story with a respectful eye to the audience, to make the material accessible without compromising any of the depth or complexity of the story. It’s a high-wire act that we have to maintain.”
It’s a Risky Way to Tell a Story
In its complexity, the series begins to sound like a debate that hangs around the set unresolved. “Big Apple’s” way of telling stories is a risk, to be sure, even with the lofty reputations of Milch, also a producer of “Hill Street Blues” and the equally gritty but less successful “Brooklyn South,” and Yerkovich, creator of fast-moving and flashy “Miami Vice.”
Despite being hyped by critics as CBS’ latest weapon to dismantle NBC’s Thursday night “Must-See TV” lineup, which had already been chipped away by “Survivor: The Australian Outback” and “CSI: Crime Scene Investigation,” “Big Apple” did little to distract viewers from TV’s most popular drama, “ER,” with the medics in white coats mercilessly trampling the men and women in blue.
In its second outing, against a repeat episode of the medical drama, “Big Apple” was squashed again, losing 19% of its viewers in the second half-hour.
“I don’t think we ever expected to beat ‘ER,’ ” says Nancy Tellem, president of CBS Entertainment. “Once ‘Survivor’ and ‘CSI’ [took] hold, we felt that this would be an opportunity to introduce a new show,” she says, noting the show’s two-week move to Wednesday during the NCAA basketball tournament, tonight and next week, will be heavily promoted to make sure those who tune in will know when to watch it in later weeks. “Once the viewers give it time, they won’t tune it out. We have a lot of expectations for it to grow.”
Adds Milch, “If people give us a chance, I think that the same audience that enjoys ‘ER’ will enjoy us.”
O’Neill, who had been looking for a dramatic change of pace after 11 years on the raucous Fox comedy “Married . . . With Children,” likens the ambiguities in “Big Apple” to the kind of multilayered storytelling typically found in theatrical work. And he admits that centering a show on such a high-concept theme might leave viewers confused “if you’re not clever about it,” he says, taking a break on the set with Pierce, Titus Welliver and David Straithairn, who play G-men Jimmy Flynn and Will Preecher. “But if you just sneak it in, people may not notice.”
Then again, says Welliver, some viewers will catch on, appreciating something more than the mind-numbing brain candy viewers have come to expect with the plethora of staged, unscripted prime-time series (even those island campers who precede them at 8 p.m.)
“With a lot of the reality-based TV [and] an overabundance of half-hour situation comedies,” he says, “I think that intelligent audiences are looking for something of the ilk of another ‘Gideon’s Crossing’ or another ‘ER’ or another ‘NYPD Blue,’ something that is for people who want to engage in what they’re watching rather than having it all spelled out for them. That’s not to say that those who want to have it spelled out are wrong; it’s just this may not be their cup of tea.”
At the moment there are no plans to feature weekly story arcs devoted to one character, as other large ensemble dramas like NBC’s “Third Watch” have done to grab audiences. There will be personal dilemmas for the characters as the series progresses, however, such as Mooney’s emotional struggles to deal with his sister’s battle with Lou Gehrig’s disease.
“If the history of television audiences holds true,” offers Michael Madsen, who plays duplicitous informant Terry Maddock, “people will stay with a show if they’re following the characters. This is just getting started, and there are a few characters here that are worth following.”
For better or worse, Milch says, he intends to tell the stories that move him. And he’s crossing his fingers, hoping that audiences will want to come along for the ride.
“I have no apologies to make for the way the story is being told. Different stories need to be told in different ways,” he says. “This is an ambitious, complicated idea. In order not to be distorted, it requires it to be told in a particular way. It may not work. I’ve been involved in plenty of series that haven’t.”
* “Big Apple” can been seen on CBS tonight and next Wednesday at 9 p.m. and thereafter at 10 p.m. Thursdays. The network has rated it TV-PG-DL (may be unsuitable for young children, with special advisories for suggestive dialogue and coarse language).