You don’t have to work on ER to know that creating a successful TV drama can be a bloody hell. Even when you go out of your way to glam up the process — as CBS’ new U.S. attorney drama Michael Hayes tried to do, by recruiting such accomplished staffers as critically lauded actor David Caruso and feature-film writer Nicholas Pileggi (GoodFellas) — you can still end up with a messy little pilot that, despite sporting both a car bomb and a suicide, packs less punch than an unplugged defibrillator.
”The pilot was very promising,” contends CBS VP of drama development Anita Addison, one of the execs responsible for ushering Hayes into prime time. ”But it could easily, in series, have become pedestrian.”
To help make sure the show had legs — Michael Hayes is, after all, the vehicle Caruso is using to pump new life into his post-NYPD Blue career — Addison and her boss, CBS Television president Leslie Moonves, needed — stat! — an emergency specialist; someone who could take its basic black-and-white, good-versus-evil premise and inject it with a healthy dose of gray. And as far as CBS was concerned, there was only one man for the job: Paul Haggis, 44, the writer-producer-visionary of last season’s most acclaimed (though least viewed) drama, the enticingly obtuse EZ Streets, and — Bochco beware — TV’s fastest-rising urban storyteller. ”We felt Paul could bring a sensibility to [Hayes] that could help it become unique,” says Addison, who first came to appreciate Haggis’ deeply skewed outlook while working with him on Streets. ”It’s often said that a cynic is a burned romantic, and I think that Paul, while he has cynicism in his writing, also knows how to find the heart.”
But Haggis — still smarting over the cancellation of Streets — was starting to feel cynical about TV. He’d spent a year doing painstaking research on Streets’ tarnished-cops-battle-heroic-mobsters saga, only to have it get bumped off the schedule after two airings (it returned later in the season before being unceremoniously yanked). Prior to that, he’d created 1994’s oddball Canadian Mountie-in-a-strange-land detective show Due South, which, despite being a cult fave, was also canceled by CBS after two years. With so traumatic a track record, who would blame Haggis if he were skittish about toiling on another Eye network project?
Fortunately for CBS, he was eager to work with Caruso. ”They showed me the pilot, and I said, ‘Ooh, cool. I like David,”’ recalls Haggis, a Canadian whose writing credits include everything from The Facts of Life to an Emmy-winning episode of thirtysomething. ”I’d heard he had a rep, but I [wanted] to investigate.” After a positive getting-to-know-you confab with the star, Haggis signed on as exec producer — only to quickly butt heads with a prickly Caruso on set.
”We’ve had our set-tos,” is all Haggis will divulge, adding ”It’s hard being dropped into a show [already in production]. I’d say parachuted, but the landing was a little harder. There were a couple of rocky weeks there. But once [Caruso] saw where I was taking the show, he jumped on board.”