James Yoshimura was a struggling playwright in 1988 when his theater buddy Eric Overmyer invited him to a party, a housewarming at the shiny new apartment Overmyer had bought with television money he’d made in Los Angeles. As Yoshimura remembers the incident, “The door flew open, and a guy stands there with a ponytail, drunk as a skunk. And me and my friend, we weren’t too sober, either. And I don’t know who this guy is, and he comes up to me and goes, ‘You’re one of these snobby theater types. You look down your noses at TV, don’t you?’ ”
Yoshimura went on the defensive: He liked television just fine. “And I’m thinking, He’s a little bit weird, and if he keeps this up, I’m going to hit him. And then he starts going, ‘Oh, you slanty-eyed bastard.’ And I’m thinking, This isn’t my party, this is Eric’s. I shouldn’t make a scene, I should walk away.”
Yoshimura retreated to the balcony to smoke. “And here comes the drunk boy with this little goddamn Parodi—at that time he wasn’t smoking Cubans, he didn’t have that kind of money—he had these stinky little things,” Yoshimura says, laughing, “and he sees me there and he gets into this thing again like, ‘You theater people, you always make fun of TV. I love TV, that’s my life.’ I don’t know who the fuck this guy is. And I think, If he keeps this up, I’m going to push him over the balcony and say, ‘Hey, whoever he is, he just slipped!’ ”
The next morning, Yoshimura sobered up. He called Overmyer and asked him who “that asshole” was. “And he says, ‘Funny you should ask, because that asshole just called me a few minutes ago and said, “Who is that asshole?” ’ He says, ‘That’s Tom Fontana’ ”—a writer famous for his work on St. Elsewhere. Fontana had called to ask for a copy of Yoshimura’s plays. Over the next few years, Fontana ended up getting Yoshimura job after job, mentoring him in the art of television writing and getting him paid. “He sat me down and broke it down for me: Your eyes need to be like a camera; you need to see these people.”
Yoshimura is just one of the many playwrights and theater people who’ve found their career in Fontana’s generous, pugnacious wake. In an often cutthroat industry, Fontana’s famous for his loyalty to old friends, repurposing talent time after time with a mobster’s sense of family. His series have gained a reputation for a visceral theatricality unusual for TV—especially the smartly subversive cop show Homicide: Life on the Street and HBO’s prison drama Oz. He’s also unafraid of controversy: Witness his most recent TV movie for HBO, Strip Search, an alarmingly prescient polemic about military abuse, starring Maggie Gyllenhaal and Glenn Close, that interweaves an interrogation in China with one here—each using the same Kafkaesque script. Fontana started writing it after 9/11 as his response to the Patriot Act, but though HBO initially supported the production, directed by Sidney Lumet, Strip Search premiered in April without fanfare—and, curiously, the network removed the link to it from its Website. Within a month, after Fontana had reconciled himself to the movie’s having disappeared, and the revelations of U.S. military abuse in Iraq had emerged, HBO hastily revived Strip Search three times in one weekend.
But even as Strip Search was going through such difficult birth pangs, Fontana was busy midwifing a different take on the criminal-justice system: his first major foray into network television since Homicide. The new series, created by Fontana and his creative partner, director Barry Levinson, is The Jury, a legal whodunit with a smart theatrical center. Premiering on Fox on June 8—the network’s sweetheart show for its innovative summer season, which worked beautifully last year for The O.C.—The Jury may well be the great hope of TV this year; a show more commercial than Fontana’s previous network outings, and therefore more likely to survive. A sort of Trojan horse for his gritty moral dialogues.
God knows, television could use it. While the late nineties witnessed a renaissance in TV writing—from The Sopranos and Buffy the Vampire Slayer to one-season wonders like Freaks and Geeks—that golden era appears to be on the wane. Low-budget reality shows, a cheap gamble for networks, have colonized the best prime-time slots. The rest of the network grid is dominated by “procedurals,” those wonderfully addictive, but by nature formulaic, iterations of Law & Order and CSI. Series with rougher, more asymmetrical shapes are tougher to place than ever, a fact Fontana knows well from his struggles with Homicide, a critics’ darling that never quite broke through in the ratings. And Fox in particular has become notorious for producing groundbreaking programs, then smothering them in the cradle: Wonderfalls, Action, Andy Richter Controls the Universe, The Tick, and Firefly are all recent casualties.
Yet The Jury seems poised to break through this stranglehold. It features a gimmick that’s at once cunning and obvious: a focus on the civilians instead of the lawyers and cops. Like a police interrogation, a jury room is a playwright’s dream setting, notes Fontana: “Every week, twelve different points of view.” The series opens with the attorneys’ summations; then viewers watch the jury argue their way toward a verdict. Interwoven with these deliberations are flashbacks to the trial, lawyerly negotiations and blips of the crime, each webbed back to the jury’s perspective. After the credits, viewers get a witty O. Henry twist: the chance to see the crime itself and find out whether the jury got the verdict right.
The series has a natural appeal for Fox. As with Law & Order, The Jury is an anthology program: Each episode is a separate entity, and thus easy to syndicate. In contrast to Homicide (which Fontana jokes had “the ugliest cast on television”), The Jury features a set of glossy, Fox-friendly faces as the lawyers, including Shalom Harlow, Billy Burke, and Anna Friel. But by next season, the new series will be bumping up against a decidedly similar concept: Law & Order: Trial by Jury, the latest spinoff from Dick Wolf’s empire, produced by none other than Fontana’s old friend Eric Overmyer. To longtime viewers, it might presage a replay of the battle Fontana faced with Homicide, which throughout its run played artsy underdog to the buzzy NYPD Blue. And Fontana is already talking in ways that might give a network executive pause: “Conventional wisdom is, make the same show every week. And that’s not the kind of television that Barry and I want to do.”
But right now, Fontana isn’t worried about the future: He’s arm-deep in the problem-solving stage, egging on his writers, tweaking the opening credits. As he’s done for 30 years, he wakes at 5:30 a.m. to write. “I love to write,” he says. “I’m one of the few writers I know who doesn’t complain about it. I complain about everything else.”
“Okay, I’m not going to say that Yosh embroiders the truth. But I will say that he has a very vivid imagination!” Fontana says, when I relate Yoshimura’s story of how they met. “Basically, I had gone off to do St. Elsewhere and I came back and Eric had a party and Yosh was there. Now, Yosh was kind of on the skids. He was drinking a lot. And tended to become very emotional. And we were having a relatively calm conversation about this or that, and he suddenly went off on this rant about television! Here’s the only defense that I have that my version of the truth is closer to reality than his. He says I was screaming and calling him names and stuff. But the very next morning, I called Eric Overmyer up and said, ‘Could you get me a copy of this guy’s writing?’ . . . And I called him up and gave him a job!”