Newsroom meets Deadwood and Vincent & Theo
At the start of the Civil War, a novice government functionary / political aspirant was sent out to Nevada to transition the lawless territory into a state. His name was Orion Clemens. He brought his twenty-four-year-old punk little brother with him. The little brother was named Sam. Sam had deserted from a confederate regiment and hoped to strike it rich in the silver mines of Nevada’s big bonanza. Sam didn’t find a fortune, but thankfully for American letters, he did settle for a job as a newspaperman in the mining region’s major boom town writing under the alias Mark Twain.
Everything in the show is true. It is narrated by young Mark Twain. The mining region, called The Comstock, was boozy, bawdy, well-stocked with luxury goods, and pasted onto a desiccated mountainside – a Babylon of the Great American Desert. A proto-Vegas. It quickstepped through the phases of western American history: A chaotic rush; a war with Native Americans; a period of bubble / boom and high living; a merciless takeover by banksters who imposed a series of interlocking monopolies; a recession, high crime, and finally a bust.
It was an extraordinary five years for the Clemens boys. But when boom turned to bust, Mark Twain fled Nevada under a cloud of controversy. Orion, who tried to fight the monopolies, left too – a ruined, bankrupt, shell of a man; his political career was crushed by the banksters.
Mark Twain and his fellow reporters’ newspaper offices comprise the main location of the series. If Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip was a behind-the-scenes look at the creation of a TV show, and Deadwood dealt with the old west on the edge of modernity, then Boom Town is the show about a new community of creative-types forging a society from dust. Boom Town is a story as only Mark Twain could narrate it: a society rife with lawlessness and violence, humor, corruption, booze, crazy pranks, prostitution, and unregulated cutthroat capitalism.
Twain came to understand that there is a fear which haunts the atmosphere of boom towns. There is always the possibility that the mines could dry up, and no one is ever sure how long the boom will last. A sense of recklessness results; a bold and cheeky fearlessness pervades all endeavors in boom towns like ours. In these heightened conditions, two main thrusts emerge: get-rich-quick schemes and self-entertainment.
With the growth in population and wealth came a thirst for entertainment: musicals and theatre were the hottest ticket in America. Residents could attend theaters ranging from comedy clubs to opera houses: they could select from diverse minstrelsy, burlesque, hippodrome, vaudeville, cabarets, and opera. Intrepid souls ventured into Chinatown for exotic medicines, foods, or for its opium dens.
A red-light district swelled with over two-hundred prostitutes working from dozens of brothels. There were over one hundred saloons offering food, target practice, billiards, gambling, and luxurious sitting rooms. Bohemian cafes offered “green hour” absinthe specials that were popular with artists and writers. There were casinos, billiard halls, and arcades. For years though, there was only one school and no hospital. Despite the best efforts of Orion and his embryonic government, the region was slow to accept any “nanny state.” The characters of Boom Town – the showmen, entertainers, writers and east coast society’s castoffs who find themselves in silver-strike-era Nevada, are utterly free to reinvent themselves and the world around them with no thought for the future.
Mischievous and bored newspapermen like Mark Twain invented “news” stories and even went so far as to literally script pranks for local townspeople to enact for tourists. This leads us to one ongoing narrative arc in Boom Town: the adventures of the Palisade Players, the true story of ordinary citizens in an afterthought of a suburb, a dead mine hamlet clearly devolving into a ghost town. Here, townsfolk staged one-thousand different public shows, fake gunfights, fake bank robberies, Shoshone Indian raids, all the while inventing stunt choreography and techniques, all for tourists and travellers passing through.
Boom Town is really a show about theatre life and the writers’ life, staged against the backdrop of a historically accurate mining city. Although the series’ plot lines are based on the historical record, Boom Town is populated with both real residents from the past — including nationally famous figures like Mark Twain and mining magnate George Hearst, as well as local legends like bohemian newspaper editor Dan DeQuille, theater impresario David Belasco, and the “Sagebrush Falstaff” Governor James Nye — as well as many composite non-fictional characters.
When big-city newspapers picked up Twain’s breathless accounts of the scripted shootouts, he and his gang of bohemian writers, actors, artists, and others in on the prank – would roar with laughter. It’s only the people living in a boom town who understand: it’s all a joke. otherwise, it’s too damn depressing.
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Structurally, each season of Boom Town — be it nine or thirteen episodes — exists as a stand alone journey. Some characters may progress to the following seasons for continuity, a design that allows for latitude in casting and some degree of historical accuracy. Each story arc ultimately gravitates toward one truth: how moving from lawlessless to civilization requires acts of creation. Whether the narrative features the monopolists versus the miners, the libertarians versus taxes, the railroads, the telegraph, the theatres, elaborate pranks, or our reporters versus their boredom – all creation is a risk rooted in the courage of being free.
One of the origin myths of the classic Western is that progress, civilization, and, by extension, the creation of America, was only possible through the establishment of government and the elimination of anarchy. This syntax is necessary in order to justify the American myth of origins and to rationalize development of capitalist monopolies. While we demand, on the one hand, the establishment of law, order and regulation in order to build a stable society, we also chafe against these restrictions and long for the anarchy, independence, and freedom associated with America’s frontier days. This existential conflict has never been more true than now in America when a large portion of the population actively votes to dissolve the social contract – longing for the anarchy of a libertarian ideal; the myth of the true west.
Boom Town will also turn the western motif on its head: how should we react to boom towns as they devolve into ghost towns? What comes when the incorporation of the territory is followed by an economic depression? If taxes are the membership dues citizens must pay to enjoy the comforts of a civilized society, what should we do when “civilized society” is in retreat? Several options are explored: one could leave Nevada to stake a claim in the next unincorporated territory, one could retreat back east, or one could stay and watch the tumbleweeds take over the town. Boom Town features a different path forward, one that was unique to some corners of Nevada – stay and make believe.
This period of time in American history was when our culture of celebrity-worship really took root. Celebrity tabloids had never existed before. A few of the nation’s biggest performers performed in Virginia City while on tour and gave local hot-shot Sam Clemens advice that the writer took to heart: The country is built for two kinds of people; The bankers to own, and the celebrities to play in. When Sam finally left the West, it was to appear on stage in New York City playing a caricature of himself, a persona we watch him invent, a prophet for his age – and ours – a figure named Mark Twain.