Frequently over the past year it has seemed that Joshua Brand and John Falsey are not merely the best writer-producers working in hour-long TV — they’ve also taken on the aura of the format’s Last Good Men, the only guys slugging it out on all three major networks to make TV a safer place for risky shows. Their hat trick — CBS’ Northern Exposure, NBC’s I’ll Fly Away, and ABC’s Going to Extremes — is unruly, uneven, unpredictable. Rigorously written to seem as messy as life itself, they are series that many weeks cannot be strictly categorized as drama or comedy, as upbeat or down.
What makes Falsey, 40, and Brand, 41, most intriguing is that at this stage in their careers, they are simultaneously top dogs and underdogs. I’ll Fly Away, with its artful tangle of civil rights-era race relations and tender family drama, is nothing less than exquisite and always less than low-rated: Television has never had a more beautiful bomb.
By contrast, Northern Exposure was frequently in the Nielsen top 10 this year, nurturing a massive cult following and pulling out of an early-fall creative slump with the introduction of an intriguing oddball: Anthony Edwards’ ”bubble man,” the hyperallergic health nut who has pulled Janine Turner’s Maggie into his germ-free lair to flirt with over tofu. ”We wanted to deal with environmental issues without getting on a soapbox,” says Brand, ”and the bubble man is a way to do that.”
Going to Extremes is somewhere in the middle. Neither ratings flop nor artistic masterpiece, its doctors-in-training premise provides a comforting reminder of Brand and Falsey’s first big success, St. Elsewhere, while its Caribbean setting and unstereotyped exotica provide unusual dramatic rhythms and unexpected plot twists. Aging baby boomers who know there’s a huge audience out there just as fed up with TV fodder as they are, Brand and Falsey are interested in seeing how complicated — how layered and ambivalent — cultural clashes and generational gaps can get and still be entertaining over the course of 60 minutes, week after week.
”We certainly like to get big ratings,” says Falsey, ”but we also like to do shows that almost make ratings irrelevant, that you want to watch even if you think no one else is watching.” With these guys, television becomes just a little bit more intimate: Tuning in a Brand-Falsey show, millions of people can feel they’re enjoying their own little secret pleasure.
What’s next? Maybe Little America, the creation of I’ll Fly Away writer Henry Bromell, a new hour-long show that the team hopes to sell to CBS.
”It’s about an American family — a dad, a mom, and two young teens — that lives in Hong Kong,” says Falsey. ”The father works for the State Department, but he’s really a spy.” The Falsey-Brand elements all seem to be there. Can’t wait.