The old pineapple plantation 40 miles west of Honolulu looks like Jurassic Park with a touch of Tara. Khakied camera crews are lugging lighting equipment into an aging antebellum-style mansion, while mammoth flying insects dive-bomb out of prehistoric-size trees. All that’s missing from the scene is a velociraptor — although a creature called Steven Bochco is due on the island in a few days, and in some circles the controversial producer is considered just as scary.
This is one of the tropical sets of ABC’s new series The Byrds of Paradise, starring thirtysomething’s Timothy Busfield as a single dad who moves to Hawaii. Byrds is Bochco’s sixth series for ABC since 1989 (his multimillion-dollar deal with the network calls for 10), and it couldn’t be more different from his last — the groundbreaking hit NYPD Blue, which last fall had affiliates screaming over its rear-view nude scenes and crypto-dirty dialogue. This time around, Bochco is really going to shake up his critics: He’s producing a G-rated family drama, or at least as close as he’s come to one in years.
”You won’t be seeing Busfield’s bare ass, that I can promise you,” the producer says, sipping diet soda in his cushy Beverly Hills office, 2,500 miles from the set. ”We’re not pushing the envelope. We’re just doing a show about how families wire up to each other in the 1990s.”
Busfield plays Sam Byrd, a Yale ethics professor who drags his three children — 16-year-old Harry, 15-year-old Franny, and 11-year-old Zeke (Seth Green, Jennifer Love Hewitt, and Ryan O’Donohue) — to the islands after his wife is murdered by muggers at a cash machine in New Haven. Taking a new job as the headmaster at a private school, he deals with his loss, copes with his kids (and new students, including the world’s oldest high schooler, played by Ur-hippie Arlo Guthrie), and adjusts to the cultural challenges of living in the land of the mai tai and the hula skirt. ”It’s a side of Bochco that hasn’t been shown before,” offers Busfield. ”It’s like when the Beatles started doing ballads and songs with violins in them. Byrds is Bochco’s ballad.”
Actually, the idea of setting a family drama in the tropics belongs to Byrds co-executive producers Charles Eglee (Moonlighting) and Channing Gibson (St. Elsewhere), who pitched the concept to Bochco after working on his 1991-93 law-firm drama Civil Wars. ”The blue-water Hawaiian series has been a staple of TV for decades,” says Gibson. ”But most of the old shows just plugged a franchise into the place — a cop show or an adventure series — and used the pretty scenery for a backdrop. We want the setting to actually inform the stories. We want Hawaii to be part of the show.”
In other words, expect plenty of meaningful subplots about Hawaiian history, indigenous spiritual practices, and the stormy relations between natives and haoles (Hawaiian for honkies) — sort of a South Seas Northern Exposure. Also expect lots of local talent on display, including former Miss Hawaii Elizabeth Lindsey, who plays a dean at Sam’s school (and his possible love interest if the series lasts long enough). ”When I heard Bochco was doing a show in Hawaii, I wrote him a letter and asked him to have what we call pono (translation: to be a mensch). Usually when you see Hawaiians on TV, they’re servants in sarongs or big aunties in muumuus. I asked Bochco to have more respect for the land and the people.”